By {{Article.AuthorName}} | {{Article.PublicationDate.slice(6, -2) | date:'EEEE, MMMM d, y'}}
{{TotalFavorites}} Favorite{{TotalFavorites>1? 's' : ''}}

Growing up, Dave Walsh always knew he liked working with his hands. One of his grandfathers was a steamfitter in Boston, another a pastry chef from Belgium, and many of his family members worked in the restaurant industry—a history that he credits with giving him a passion for creating. “I always enjoyed working with my hands,” Walsh says, and so he spent his high-school summers building decks and roofs with a construction company in his hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland.

His father, an accountant, urged him to go to college—because, although he was supportive of Walsh’s interest in the trades, “back in the ’80s, it was ‘if you don’t go to college’...you know, fill in the blank.” Walsh took his other passion—baseball—and used it as a jumping-off point for his education, going to play ball at a junior college in Georgia before transferring to the University of Maryland to finish his collegiate athletic career—and his degree in economics. 

Out of college, Walsh got to work as a construction project engineer with George Hyman Construction (known today as Clark Construction) and after eight years with the company was recruited by Marriott International’s architectural and construction division. He’s stayed with the hospitality giant for the last 25 years. Today, Walsh resides in Frederick, Maryland, with his wife, Lisa, with whom he shares four children: Kyle, 24; Madison, 22; Reagan, 20; and Logan, 16—and serves as senior director for Marriott Global Design, overseeing all project management activity for the company’s Classic and Distinctive hotel line in the United States and Canada. In an exclusive interview with CE, Walsh talks about the best parts of his job, the future he sees for the hospitality industry and why construction has been the career field of his dreams.

Tell me a little bit about what your day-to-day looks like.

I lead the project management team for our Classic and Distinctive brands U.S. and Canada teams. I have about 10 account-based project managers who work directly with owners, and our internal design professionals collectively take them from the day they’re approved all the way to the opening of the hotel. Obviously, they’re working with many stakeholders in between, from ownership to outside design consultants and construction teams.  Currently, I’m out on a jobsite probably two weeks out of the month, checking on project progress and managing owner relationships, while also spear heading Marriott’s modular initiative to foster modular viability in hospitality.

How did you come to work for Marriott?

I was actually dating my now-wife at the time, and she was working with Marriott as an IT manager. She let me know about a job opportunity in Marriott’s architecture and construction division, and the stars aligned. To be honest, before I started working for Marriott, my boss at Clark said, “Why would you only want to build hotels, that’s kind of boring.” But once I started and learned more about the industry and the people, I quickly came to love it, and I’ve stayed because of the relationships. The company’s culture is built on caring for its associates and guests, and that caring environment resonated, so I’ve been here ever since.

What kind of impact did the pandemic have on your business?

Pre-pandemic, we were averaging about 20 to 25 starts a month, with over 500 under construction and heading north of 300 openings just in U.S. and Canada for our Select Brands; and then COVID hit, which dramatically slowed progress. Construction workers were deemed “essential,” but even then, they were returning to work with skeleton crews and staggered shifts. We’ve seen all of the same challenges as the broader industry and economy with regard to market conditions, materials shortages and delays, and so on. Today, we are running with a pipeline of 1,500+ hotels and about 275 projects under construction. 

Fifteen hundred hotels in the pipeline seems like a lot, and this is just Marriott. Are some hotels being retired as new ones are built?

Yes. Hospitality is a very cyclical industry. We may take our flag off a 30-year asset, and then another brand would put their flag on it. But at any one point in time, in the U.S./Canada, when the hospitality industry is in a steady state, there’s probably 4,000 to 6,000 hotels in the pipeline, with an average of about 125 rooms per hotel.

What do you see coming in the hospitality market in the next five to seven years?

I think ESG [environmental, social and governance] is pretty heavy. We’ve made a commitment to be carbon-neutral by 2050 as a company, which will touch every aspect of our hotels. On the design and construction side of the equation, we’ve got a team of people diving into our guideline plans and specs to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to provide sustainable guidance in support of the commitment. 

Construction labor will continue to be a challenge in many markets, so viable alternative ways of designing and building hotels will be required versus the traditional. An average construction project is probably 8 to 10% waste, if not higher in some markets. A volumetric modular solution can deliver 50 to 60% of a construction project already assembled, hence, lowering the waste heading to a local landfill to 1 to 2%.

Will modular change the game?

I hope so. We are working with a group that is modeling the carbon footprint of a traditional-build, 120-room, wood-frame hotel against a manufactured solution. We hope that at the end of this exercise, it’ll show that if you build via modular within a certain radius from a jobsite, you could dramatically reduce the project’s carbon footprint to build. So far, we feel confident it’s going to be a substantial reduction.

The multifamily sector is equally eager for modular solutions, so finding investors to start opening factories that can rapidly model solutions for a hospitality product and a multifamily product on the same line would be a dream for us. There’s no reason why, if I’m building a box and they’re building a box, we couldn’t all agree that the box is pretty much the same. We could all then customize the interior and exterior to make it our own. This kind of collaboration and new way of thinking would drive cost efficiencies across multiple segments and reduce a typical project’s local impact at the same time.

What’s the holdup? Why isn’t modular a more widely used building solution right now?

We started our [modular] initiative in 2015, and people said, “Yeah, good luck. Your issue’s going to be capacity.” I personally went to 40 different factories over a three-year period, and what we found was a very small, segmented, niche industry. The shops we visited were all focused on things like trailers, low-income housing solutions, oil-field housing, etc. Then, suddenly, Marriott walks in the door and says, “Hey, why aren’t you thinking about hospitality?”

Since 2015, we’ve seen a lot of growth. There’s been a lot of conversation about it, a lot of quiet investment. Logistics and proximity to factories and sites play a huge role. I think some government incentives could also really drive that growth forward. There are some big players sitting on the sidelines just waiting to make a move but will likely need those larger-scale markets and developers to step into the modular space with them. 

Are any of your children interested in the construction industry?

Not construction specifically, but the trades. My 16-year-old has a mechanical mindset, and he’s very interested in automotive engineering. So, he’s leaning toward community college and an automotive tech school. We’re actually working on rebuilding a Jeep together. 

It sounds like you’re very much encouraging his interest in the trades. What would you say to other young people considering a skilled-trades career?
I would say that, if you have a passion for working with your hands and creating something, whether it’s art or building things or whatever else, don’t shy away from it. You can still go to college if you want. But don’t think it’s the only option. Go after what you’re passionate about. 

For years, we’ve been telling kids that college is the only path to success, and it’s just not true. Let me tell you, welders today are hard to find and they’re making good money. They have great work-life balance. We should be asking kids, “What do you want for your life? Do you want to have a family? Do you want to have kids?” So many blue-collar jobs are nine to five, or seven to three, and you’re coming home at the end of the day and picking up your kids and enjoying time with your family. And that’s really attractive to a lot of people.

Why do you think that’s such a hard conversation to have?

I ask myself that all the time, especially as I have these conversations with my son about going to auto-tech school. I’m really positive and supportive of what he wants to do, but I still sit back after these conversations and ask myself, “Why is this so hard?” And I think it’s just because, for years we’ve been told that it’s a degree or nothing. It’s hard to get past that, but I am seeing progress.

What was your construction career like before you joined Marriott?

My first job was with George Hyman Construction, which was the predecessor to Clark Construction. I started as a project engineer, and I had a really good first boss who became a great mentor over those first couple of years. Hyman had a rotational program where we rotated through all the different departments, from field engineering, foundations to estimating and so on. Clark continued that program, and it’s something to this day I highly recommend to anyone considering working for a general contractor.  

What’s the coolest project you’ve worked on?

[Oriole Park at] Camden Yards [in Baltimore]. When I was in that rotational program, my boss said, “Hey, you want to go build a stadium?” and I was like, “Excuse me?” It was really a full-circle moment for me, because I grew up an O’s fan and I played baseball in college. I was actually the first person ever to throw a pitch from the mound at Camden Yards, the first person ever to warm up in the bullpen and left a few time capsules lying around I hope to see again someday. I have two big volumes of photos because I didn’t want to miss a second of that project. 

What do you love about your job?

In my role I do a lot of coaching and mentoring; I really enjoy that piece, taking my experiences and sharing them with the next generation, trying to get them excited about the industry. It’s so dynamic, and there are so many relationships you’re juggling and different ways of solving problems. It’s just a constant evolution of growth and communication. 

What’s the biggest piece of advice you give to people just starting in the industry?

I would say, “You don’t know it all.” If you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to tell somebody you’ll get back to them. 

Another thing I try to impress upon them is to always know the “why” behind the decisions being made. Why are you asking me to do this? Why did you specify this? Why did you do it this way? If you can articulate the why, that resonates in a business environment, and that’s how you build relationships and trust. 

The last thing I would say is just to be a good listener. It sounds like a no-brainer, and it’s easy to say, but it’s a lot harder to do in practice.    


 Comments ({{Comments.length}})

  • {{comment.Name}}


    {{comment.DateCreated.slice(6, -2) | date: 'MMM d, y h:mm:ss a'}}

Leave a comment

Required! Not valid email!