Heather Heleloa, who is pursuing her online MS in Hospitality and Tourism, is using her program knowledge to make lasting changes at THE RANCH Restaurant & Saloon.
For sales and marketing director Heather Heleloa, her experience in the restaurant industry has been marked with multiple awards and recognition.
In 2020, Heleloa won the Woman to Watch honor from the national organization Connected Women of Influence, and 2021 marks the second year in a row that the Orange County Business Journal has nominated her for its Women in Business Award.
While Heleloa has already earned noteworthy success throughout her time in the hospitality field, she still had aspirations to further her career with higher education.
That ambition led her to enroll in the online Master of Science in Hospitality and Tourism (MSHT) program at USC Bovard College, where she has fully immersed herself in the Trojan Family.
“I am 100 percent on board with anything that I can do to be more involved in the USC community,” Heleloa told USC Online.
But then again, Heleloa gives 100 percent to everything she does.
Pursuing Heartfelt Hospitality
Heleloa became enamored with the hospitality industry while bartending and working at her first job, at Trader Joe’s.
“Both roles taught me the value of care and attention for guests and your fellow teammates,” she explained.
While a grocery chain, Trader Joe’s level of service influenced her greatly.
“Their focus is hospitality — for guests as well as for employees,” she noted. “It was driven into us that you never just point and say where a product is. You walk with the customer, and you ask why they’re looking for something. I love that style of service and that we could take care of people that way.”
These early experiences inspired her to earn a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis on entertainment and tourism from California State University, Fullerton. After graduation, Heleloa joined Real Mex Restaurants, owner of numerous chains across the nation.
“I got my first job as an assistant manager on the food and beverage side, and I haven’t stopped since,” she said.
She next gained experience as a field marketing manager for Johnny Rockets, where she worked with 40 franchise owners at more than 100 restaurants.
Since 2017, Heleloa has been director of sales and marketing at THE RANCH Restaurant & Saloon, an upscale fine dining and country music establishment in Anaheim, California, that includes an event center among its facilities. She is also entering her second term as vice president of the Orange County Chapter of the California Restaurant Association.
“I’ve dedicated my entire career to hospitality — and hope to continue doing that,” she said.
Satisfying Online Courses
Heleloa understands that continuous improvement is as important to continued success as service and integrity.
“That foundation continues to guide me in my fulfilling career in hospitality,” she said.
So as soon as Heleloa found out about the online MS in Hospitality and Tourism program, she wanted to join the inaugural class.
“USC has an unrivaled reputation and network of professionals,” Heleloa noted. With this master’s, she expects “to expand my opportunities in the industry to meet my future career goals.”
Although the program isn’t Heleloa’s first experience with online higher education, she calls it the most satisfying, highlighting USC’s extensive faculty support and engaging curriculum.
The proof, she added, is that “it’s opening our eyes to information and ideas that had never occurred to us — even though some of my fellow students, like me, have been in the industry for 15 or 20 years.”
Sustainable Futures in Hospitality and Tourism
In addition to sustaining careers and enterprises, the MSHT program addresses environmental sustainability to conserve resources — benefiting our planet as well as the bottom line. According to Heleloa, program options raised include becoming a Certified B Corporation, which signifies a company’s commitment to social and environmental accountability.
“We learn about sustainable initiatives, but we also explore how small changes can make a difference,” she explained. “Even if it’s just reviewing the linen company we use, stopping our use of logoed napkin rings or transitioning away from plastic straws, we can make all sorts of changes that might not necessarily be at a huge cost.”
That’s vital, she continued, because “I used to think that being ‘green’ would be so expensive and bring little return. But now I realize that we can increase sustainability without driving up our budget.”
Using this as an example, Heleloa expressed appreciation for the program’s comprehensiveness, which spans the industry’s history to global issues and solutions for keeping ahead of the times.
“Ethics and sustainability are interwoven in all our courses,” she said.
Overcoming COVID-19 Challenges
Over the past two years, the COVID-19 crisis overshadowed nearly every other issue as it devastated the economy. But Heleloa and her colleagues refused to give up.
“We closed down the saloon and event center,” she explained. “But we kept our restaurant open by doing to-go orders and offering lunches. We did our best to just make enough money to cover operating expenses and keep the business alive.”
Even so, the company had to make tough choices in cutting back and furloughing employees.
“We went from 160 staff members to 14,” Heleloa said with regret.
To take up the slack, she returned to bartending and added hosting to her daily duties.
“I went back to my beginnings of doing all the front-of-house work that got me into the industry in the first place,” she recalled.
The results, however, were worth the strain endured. The RANCH is now open at full capacity, and the business is doing “really well,” said Heleloa. She credits THE RANCH’s reputation for quality and service as a factor, but she noted another ingredient in the successful reopening of all three venues.
“People had fatigue” from the pandemic, she said. “They really wanted to be out. It’s nice to have people to serve again.”
Now that Heleloa and her co-workers have emerged from the pandemic, she looks forward to what’s next.
“Studying hospitality and tourism at USC is giving me the confidence that I can be successful in any part of the industry and in any location I might choose,” she said.
Such locations may ultimately include Hawaii, where her parents were born and raised. Of course, Heleloa wouldn’t be traveling alone, since she is also a wife and mother.
Heleloa expresses pride in her heritage — and her passion for commerce — by blogging and through her membership at the Mainland Council Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs.
“My website, Heleloa.com, is where I try to marry my culture with my industry,” she said. “It’s about native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander news, events, businesses and people.”
Whatever Heleloa achieves in the future, it is certain to be driven by a desire to connect with and serve others. In this way, she not only exemplifies the ideals of USC Bovard College, but also of the college’s namesake. Emma Bovard was one of USC’s first students and a dedicated advocate for equal educational access and the opportunities it opens.
As an award-winning professional who balances family life with professional success and a commitment to partnering with others, Heleloa proudly represents USC Bovard College in her coursework and beyond.
This article originally appeared on USC Online. Learn more about the online Master of Science in Hospitality and Tourism program today.