For James Watts, going to work everyday isn’t a chore.
The lead concierge at Baystate Medical Center, Watts said he arrives each morning and settles comfortably into his duties, as he has for the last 17 years. That’s not to say his job is simple – Watts serves as the hub of a wheel with many spokes at the hospital, offering assistance and support to patients, visitors, and staff alike, always with an air of affability and professionalism.
In his own words, “it’s a joy to help others during stressful moments.”
And in essence, translating that to hundreds of people each day has become Watts’ greatest responsibility, and his greatest strength.
Today, the man who began parking cars at Baystate one summer in 1988 directs a staff of 13, plus volunteers, within the hospital’s Concierge Program, and his work has garnered some acclaim. Not only has Watts been nominated locally for a Howdy award – an annual honor given by the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau to people working in all aspects of the hospitality industry – on four separate occasions, he also recently received the prestigious state-wide Governor’s Hospitality Award at a ceremony in Boston.
According to the Mass. Office of Travel and Tourism, the award honors a ‘front-line’ or ‘behind the scenes’ employee or volunteer who has provided consistent, outstanding service within the travel and tourism industry over a significant period of time.
“I hear it’s unusual for someone who works at a hospital to win,” said Watts, who has been dubbed ‘Mr. Baystate’ by his co-workers. “So that’s a big honor for the hospital and I’m proud to have helped Baystate Medical Center achieve that.”
Career Ladder Initiative
Pausing frequently to greet visitors or to hand a sticker to a young patient, Watts told The Healthcare News that he began working at Baystate Medical in a part-time capacity, after relocating from Pittsburgh.
It was supposed to be a temporary post, but Watts found a niche for himself in the hospitality business, soon moving inside the hospital to serve as one of three guest-relations associates – newly created positions designed to enhance the overall hospital experience of both visitors and patients.
“The warm welcome was something that was missing at the hospital,” Watts explained, “And our job was to create that welcome.”
As the Patient and Guest Relations department grew at Baystate through the 1990s and into today, guest relations associates became known as concierges through the development of the hospital’s first-ever Concierge Program, and Watts was offered the lead position due to his years of experience. He said the division’s new distinction reflected both the expanded duties for those in that department, as well as the continuing effort to soften the clinical feel of the hospital.
But that’s not to say that the team has moved away from the necessary aspects of providing quality health care. Baystate’s concierge team greets patients and visitors, and also checks them into the hospital. It provides directions to various locales within the medical center and offers general support in waiting areas and lobbies, including within the emergency department. Team members also assist in ensuring healthy, safe environments at the hospital – Watts’ pet peeve is smokers outside lobby doors – and with the maintenance of hospital rules and regulations.
And concierges at Baystate work closely with hospital volunteers, many of whom, Watts said, are people who had a positive experience at the hospital and want to give back, if even for just a few hours a week. He said he understands the desire, adding that on tough days, it is the volunteer staff who work for the sake of helping rather than merely a paycheck that keep him motivated.
“A lot of people here work very hard, and each one is a small part of a whole. To see a new volunteer come in and work just as hard as everybody else really gives you a lift, and it reminds me why we’re here.”
Watts said he also considers himself lucky to have landed in a career that he truly loves.
“This is a life-long part of me,” he said. “To know that something as small as a ‘hello’ can make a difference in someone’s day is huge.”
Mum’s the Word
And a mastery of good manners is not a skill that goes unnoticed in the hospitality industry, as proven by Watts’ recent recognition and by some of the everyday occurrences that he cites as highlights of the job – interactions with others and the feeling of easing someone’s difficult time among them. He said he credits his mother with teaching him the right way to treat people, and with his subsequent success in his field of choice.
“My mother instilled in me a sense of how to treat others,” he said. “And showed me it’s important to remember to always treat people well, no matter what.”
Watts said his mother, a nine-year breast cancer survivor, also helped him to understand that, in the hospitality field, his job is unique; rather than checking guests into a hotel for a relaxing stay, Watts is often assisting patients and their families during their worst days.
“Coming to the hospital is a stressful thing,” he said. “When I visited my mother in the hospital, everything I knew about the hospital environment went away. No matter how long you have worked in this kind of environment, it’s an entirely different thing when you’re on the other side.
“Sometimes, people are upset, or rude,” he continued, “but over the years I’ve had more people than you would think come back to the hospital just to apologize and say ‘thank you.’”
Watts said that just as many people have returned to the hospital and taken the time to say they remembered a kind word or deed that he offered five or even 10 years earlier, a testament to the longevity of his career that began very much by accident.
He added that until entering the field, he never saw himself working in hospitality, let alone a hospital environment. In fact, Watts had long dreamed of a career in marketing. But slowly, he said he began to realize his affinity for the unique types of customer service he is called on to provide each day at Baystate, and for the role he plays in the overall delivery of care.
“I never saw myself working in a hospital,” he said, conceding that some aspects of the medical world still make him squeamish. “But I grew to like the business aspect of running a hospital – how it works and how all the moving parts have to move together to make it all happen all day, every day.”
Watts even has a hand in the recruitment of new staff and residents to the hospital.
“A lot of times I’m one of the first faces they see,” he said. “And when people come here, they see me every day. It’s my job to make them feel like this is a place they might want to work.”
The constant state of meeting and greeting that Watts was in as he spoke with The Healthcare News was proof that his presence is a strong one at Baystate. Several staff members called, ‘hi James!’ as they walked in and out. He joked congenially with a departing patient with a broken leg, and immediately afterward, quietly waved hello to a tired-looking family.
“Being friendly is one thing, but you have to be sensitive too,” he said. “People here can be stressed, angry, or scared. Gradually, you learn how to approach each and every person.”
For Watts, that skill is just part of life. But it’s also part of the job.
“What I can never forget is that a lot of times people are, in fact, dealing with life or death situations. Compassion is part of my job description.”