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Reflections by Phil LaBelle

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October 01, 2010
In Memoriam
Phil LaBelle

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Editor’s note: Phil wrote this reflection piece on Aug. 14, 2010, upon Rich’s request just two weeks before his passing. He touched many lives in the many industries where he worked.

We are honored to share this story from Phil with you.

Mikhail Turovsky is credited with a great quote.  He said, “When your legs get weaker, time starts running faster.”1  How simple, but how true!  And I guess you don’t truly appreciate its deeper meaning until your legs actually start to weaken.  In 2008, I was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer and it has radically reshaped every aspect of my life.  At times like these, it is interesting to stop and take a look over your shoulder to reflect on the places you’ve been and to appreciate just how lucky you really are for having been able to experience some of life’s fondest memories firsthand.

With hair past my shoulders, I was the typical high school kid debating whether to go off to college and get a white collar career or to stick with the long hair and the rock band and chase the dream of making millions someday up on stage. I guess my high school chemistry teacher gets all the credit for helping me make that decision. On the very first day of class, I arrived to an overcrowded class with standing room only.  Luckily, I was there early enough to get one of the few remaining seats.  I thought I was happy, but the teacher didn’t share the same enthusiasm.  He began the class by announcing that there were far too many students in the class, and we would be having a test on the Periodic Table of the Elements every day until half the class either flunks out or drops out of his class.  Well, you don’t need to tell me twice.  I was in my guidance counselor’s office dropping the class before the bell had a chance to ring!  Fortunately, there was a new class being offered that year and it still had several open seats left since it was new and no one had ever really heard of it.  It was called computer science.  So, on the second day of classes, I reported to computer science instead of chemistry.  The teacher was teaching the class how to count in binary.  I couldn’t stop smiling.  The room had TRS-80 computers from Radio Shack that were networked to the teacher’s TRS-80.  That weekend I read the course book and did all the exercises for the year. I was soaking this computer stuff up like a sponge. I couldn’t get enough. I started visiting Radio Shack in the local mall and buying every book I could find on computer programming.  My first book was on graphics design and building your own video games for the TRS-80.  By the end of the class, I had taught the teacher how to program video games in BASIC and he was working on the curriculum to add to the next year’s courses.  Thanks to my chemistry teacher, I had now figured out that my calling was in the field of computers.  I quit the band.

I went to college for computer science, and since I had filled up my electives with electronic engineering courses instead of art courses, I was also able to pick up an EE degree.  Looking back, I had some hardcore teachers in college.  In addition to COBOL, FORTRAN, Pascal and C, I also took a couple years of assembly language. One teacher in particular was intense.  Before he allowed us to actually use assembly language (commands like PUT, GET, etc.) we first had to understand machine language (zeros and ones) so our first assignments were written without keyboards or screens.  A DEC-VAX PDP 11/05 with a front panel consisting of nothing but toggle switches and blinking lights.  Without a keyboard, you would “type in” your program by setting addresses and instructions with the toggle switches, and you would then “read” the output by interpreting the blinking lights and by interrogating memory address locations.  Crazy!  Once we got our keyboards and monitors back, we still weren’t allowed to use the READ or PRINT commands.  He felt they were too easy.  Instead, to read, we needed to continuously poll the keyboard buffer until we saw the ENTER key pressed.  Likewise, to print, we needed to manually fill the screen buffer or the printer buffer.  Looking back, he may have been a bit eccentric, but by the time we left his class we really had a solid understanding of how computers were made and how computers functioned on the inside.  I think this has helped me incredibly throughout my career.  In my opinion, the better you are able to understand how computers function at that level, the better you are able to troubleshoot problems and the better you are able to write programs that make more efficient use of the computer. 

I took a job as a computer operator in a mainframe data center for spending money during college. I can tell you from first-hand experience: punched cards are not a myth, they really existed. And I actually used punched cards and reel-to-reel tapes on a daily basis, not to mention printers that stood 6 feet tall by 10 feet wide and hard disk drives that looked more like washing machines than computer parts.  After working my way through the data center, I moved upstairs to join the programming staff and put my education to a test.
Then, after several years of COBOL and assembly fun as a programmer upstairs, I moved from central Massachusetts to just outside of Boston and went to work for McCormack & Dodge, one of the packaged software vendors we had been using at the time.  It was fun to see the differences in cultures moving from a consumer culture where we built almost everything as a custom application for in-house use to a software vendor culture where we also built everything from scratch, but designed everything to meet the needs of the widest customer base and to help minimize ongoing support efforts.  It was here that I experienced every aspect of what it was like to be on the software vendor’s side of the house.  Here, we needed to be a jack of all trades; we would roll up our sleeves on any number of different fronts. I spent time as a programmer, as a technical support representative on the help desk, as a consultant handling installs, as presales support, and even as a teacher where we underwent formal certification as instructors and then traveled cross-country to train customers on the use of our product in a traditional classroom setting.  This was also about the time when PCs were beginning to mature.  Windows 3.0 was released two years after I had joined M&D, and Windows 3.1 just two years after that.  M&D gave me the chance to master my PC-DOS knowledge and to really dive into Windows.  While M&D was famous for its mainframe solutions, most of the R&D efforts at that time centered on integrating distributed UNIX and PC-based solutions into the product line.  As a software house, we had the advantage of being able to get our hands on emerging technologies quicker than others. There was a strong push within the company to get everyone trained on UNIX and Windows. This was a fun time.  Technology was rolling forward so quickly on so many different fronts.  It was a great time to be in IT (or, as we had been called up until that point EDP or MIS).

As you can imagine, speaking at annual user conferences to audiences of 100 to 500, you’re bound to run into a few job offers over time.  One such offer particularly piqued my curiosity–Disney.  Having been a long-time user of M&D software, Disney had heard me speak and hoped to convince me to move from Boston to Orlando for some contract programming on its M&D systems.  I was interested, but with a one-year-old daughter, I needed more security.  I was hoping for full-time status not contract work.  I think it took a little over a year, maybe two, before we agreed on terms, but I finally received an offer that I chose to accept.  Ironically, I received the offer from Disney the same week that I won the employee of the year award from M&D, and the prize from M&D was-you guessed it-a one week all-expense paid vacation to Walt Disney World in Orlando.  How’s that for irony?  You can imagine their surprise when they gave me the award the same day I gave them my resignation letter, explaining that I would be relocating to none other than Walt Disney World in Orlando.  But that was only the beginning of the fun.  My wife was nine months pregnant with my second child when I accepted the offer.  So, the start-date was left somewhat open. All worked out well in the end.  My son was born and released from the hospital.  Two days later, he was strapped into a car seat and the four of us driving the length of the eastern seaboard from Boston to Orlando.  And so began my career in hospitality.

Just as M&D allowed me to learn so much in such a short time, so too was the case with Disney.  As a software house, everything M&D did was about technology.  Likewise, as a hospitality company, everything Disney did was about hospitality.  When I joined, IT was still heavily centralized, so our team in Florida ran all the systems not only for Walt Disney World in Florida, but also for Disneyland in California and for EuroDisney in France.  We also had an impressive portfolio of offerings, including hotels, resorts, vacation ownerships, theme parks, water parks, restaurants, merchandise outlets, golf courses and cruise lines.  And they were all there on a single campus.  So, if you wanted to, you were able to learn an incredibly broad section of the industry, and you were able to learn it up-close.  I can remember countless times where I grabbed a broom and was sweeping Main Street, or pouring Cokes at a corner shop, or making beds in one of the resorts.  Not because you work in those roles, but it’s all part of Disney’s management philosophy that the more you know about the Disney products, the better you would be able to serve the guests.  I even had the pleasurable memory of driving a Disney bus (employees only, no guests!) and even dressing up as a actual Disney character, climbing aboard the double-decker bus in Epcot and climbing down to sign autographs for a crowd of smiling kids screaming with excitement.  Mere words cannot describe how simply amazing it was. 

Even back in the office, as you moved through the hundreds of systems that make these experiences possible, you learn a different aspect of what it takes to run a place like Disney.  Whether it’s a reservation system, a property management system or a finance/HR system, there were unlimited opportunities to learn.  In that way, Disney was very similar to M&D.  As you work your way through M&D, you learn to master different aspects of the software development life cycle from a software vendor’s perspective.  Similarly, as you work your way through Disney, you learn to master different aspects of the hospitality industry.  It was an incredible experience.

A couple of years after Disney hired me, it decided to get into the cruise industry, and I jumped at the opportunity to get involved.  The timing was perfect.  There was virtually a clean sheet of paper within IT.  We needed to figure out which systems we could leverage from Disney’s existing portfolio, which to build ourselves, and which to rely on third parties to build for us, and then how to get them all to talk together.  Fortunately, the first ship was still under construction in Italy, so we had a little time to pull it all together, but not much.  Shoreside operations needed a call center up and running long before the ship arrived, to make sure that we had enough reservations to keep the ship full.  Likewise, shipboard systems needed to be ready before the ship set sail.  It was a fun time!  Words cannot describe the feeling of watching that first ship pull into port for the first time.  What an incredible sense of pride.

Once all the systems were in place and the ship was in service, I went back to Walt Disney World to lead the architecture team in building out Disney’s next generation reservation system platform. Not too long after that, I was contacted by a partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers who had just landed a deal at Royal Caribbean to completely redo the shipboard/shoreside processes. This was just too much fun to pass up, so I jumped at the chance and soon found myself in Miami. While that specific project itself was canceled, I continued working for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises for the next couple of years, followed by a project at Carnival Corp. (Carnival, Costa, Holland-America, Windstar, Cunard, and Seabourn) that kept me in Miami for yet another couple of years.  There’s something about the cruise industry that is just magical.  It’s very addicting.

Upon leaving Carnival, I went to Hyatt Hotels in Chicago to help develop its five-year IT Strategic Plan and Roadmap.  What made the project interesting was that it covered all technologies, all business areas, and all geographies not just its North American operations.  I learned a lot on this project as it involved some fairly extensive travel throughout North America, but especially throughout Asia.  While I had a fairly solid understanding of hospitality in the North American market, the exercises in Asia really helped me understand just how widely the hospitality business varies by region.  Guest expectations are different, and to meet those needs, hotel products and offerings are also different.  I worked with a great group of executives at Hyatt and understood the industry from their perspectives.

From there I was off to Bethesda at Marriott’s headquarters helping with the joint development efforts underway between IBM, Marriott and Siebel (now Oracle) to develop a next generation group sales system.  This gave me an entirely different perspective on the industry once again.  While I was already familiar with hotels, resorts and vacation ownership models, Marriott brings very different needs to the table when compared with Disney and Hyatt, both in terms of scale/size as well as ownership models.  Changing roles like this was a very humbling experience.  It teaches you that just when you think you have it all figured out, you realized that your knowledge only skims the surface and there is still so much more to learn.  

And just when I thought I had it all figured out once again, my next project was in gaming.  When Caesar’s and Harrah’s decided to merge, they opted to divest themselves of a few properties.  I came onboard to help Resorts International Casino and Hotel in Atlantic City with the onboarding of three new properties; one in Atlantic City and two more in Mississippi. It took time to figure out that while much of what goes on at a hotel operations level still applies in a casino hotel, it’s still radically different than traditional hotels.  In a traditional hotel, it’s all about the hotel.  You want to find that perfect balance between maximizing revenue (profit) for the owner and maximizing loyalty and positive guest experiences for the traveler, while maintaining a fun and exciting work environment for your staff.  In a gaming environment, it’s similar, but the gaming systems come first and the gambler (player) is king.  Meanwhile, the casino hotel is there first and foremost as an amenity to the players.  A good number of room nights are given away complimentary to those players that are contributing significantly to the revenue flow out on the gaming floor. So just as with the cruise industry, all of the same concepts apply, but you put the pieces together very differently.  But even that’s not cast in stone. There’s a difference between an east coast casino and a west coast casino.  The markets are different between Vegas and Atlantic City.  You market a casino differently in a destination market than a local market.  Then, add onto that the very tight controls and regulations to which casinos are held.  It is one of the most highly regulated industries I have ever worked in. 
Once again, gaming is yet another extremely fascinating aspect of the hospitality industry.  In fact, I liked it so much that I agreed to leave IBM (who had since acquired PriceWaterhouseCoopers) and sign on as CIO of the Seneca Gaming Corporation.   They were in a fun period, having just opened its first casino in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and a second smaller casino in the Allegany Mountains an hour south.  While with them, we successfully opened a 486-room, four-star hotel which adjoined the Niagara Falls casino, a 212-room hotel which adjoined the Allegany property, an expansion to both casinos, and were finalizing plans for opening a third casino, this one in Buffalo.

Shortly thereafter, an opportunity opened itself to work once again with the folks at Hyatt, this time in a full-time capacity.  As a testament that what goes around comes around, Hyatt had gone through a reorganization of IT and brought in a new IT leader tasked with re-inventing IT.  The new leader engaged a recruiter to fill my position, and as just one more ironic twist, it happened to be a recruiter who had worked with me in the past (and knew of my prior Hyatt engagement building the five-year strategic plan). When the new leader explained to the recruiter that a consultant had come in a few years back and had built out the plan and now they needed someone who could get up to speed quickly on Hyatt, the industry, and the plan and could begin implementing the plan, the recruiter smiled and the rest happened very quickly. My interview felt more like a homecoming or class reunion.

As I write this I’ve been in the IT field for 27 years and the last 17 years have been entirely devoted to the hospitality industry.  Has it really been that long? Amazing!  As I continue reflecting over these memories, the one theme that keeps recurring is the people.  Yes, I’ve had the chance to play far and wide with technology.  And yes, I’ve had the chance to experience the hospitality industry across a very wide spectrum-from hotels, cruise lines, casinos and everything in between.  But it is the people that make it all worthwhile.  I guess if you’re going to survive in the hospitality business you’ve got to have hospitality running through your blood. It’s amazing how similar people are in this industry, whether within the same company, across competing companies, or even across different segments of the industry.  There really is a team attitude that I’ve grown to love.  Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in this industry will agree.  It’s a very tight group of people.  Everyone in the cruise industry knows everyone else in cruise. Everyone in gaming knows everyone else in gaming. Everyone in lodging knows everyone else in lodging.  But what really surprised me was just how much cross-over there is between the segments.  And this team attitude prevails.

Some people spend their entire life swapping in and out of different jobs and different industries trying to find themselves. I am extremely thankful that my chemistry teacher decided not to have his morning cup of coffee the day I happened to walk into his classroom, as he convinced me to get into the computer science field.  I wasn’t looking to get into computers; it just happened as some strange twist of fate. I am also extremely thankful that Disney decided to attend my session at that particular user conference and convinced me to get into the hospitality industry. I wasn’t looking to work at Disney.  In fact, at that point in my life I had never even been to a Disney theme park.  I also had a nice moustache that had taken years to grow and I knew that I would have to shave it off to comply with Disney’s policy at the time of no facial hair.  I wasn’t looking to work at Disney; it just happened as some strange twist of fate.  But I’m glad for both, because I now find myself in my dream situation; doing the job I love in the industry I love.  As I said, some people spend their entire life searching for that goal.  Mine just fell into my lap, as some strange twist of fate.  And I couldn’t be happier.

But now, but some other strange twist of fate, I find myself counting down the time that I’ll be allowed to keep enjoying doing that which has given me so much pleasure.

In March 2008, I went to a walk-in clinic for what seemed like a pulled muscle on my left arm.  It felt like I just pitched nine straight innings and had thrown-out my arm.  I let it go for a week or two, but on the third week, it was no longer just pain.  Now it had started to swell.  At my wife’s pleading, I went to the clinic and they sent me to the emergency room for confirmation, but they felt that it was sarcoma, a rare form of cancer.  We raced to the ER and they confirmed–cancer.  The last time I had been in the hospital was to have my tonsils removed in grade school.  I don’t smoke, and no one in the family has a history of cancer. They must have made a mistake?  The ER doctor made an appointment for the first thing Monday morning with a surgeon who was recommending amputation at the shoulder.  Still in a fog, I made the rounds telling my brothers and sisters the news. Fortunately, one of my sisters is a nurse in Boston with affiliations to Dana Farber Cancer Institute.  I remember her explaining to me very clearly that if I wasn’t on the next plane to Boston getting a second opinion then she was going to fly to Chicago with the rest of the family to drag me to Boston.  Needless to say, my wife and I were on the very next plane to Boston.  We met with the head surgeon for a unit that specializes specifically in Sarcoma.  He said that it looked bad and could understand why they wanted to amputate, but he felt he could treat it with radiation and then remove it surgically.  He didn’t think I’d have much use of the arm, but at least it would physically still be there.  We spent the month of April in Boston while I underwent radiation on the tumor. Everything responded well to the radiation so we went forward with the surgery in June.  Surgery took many more hours than anticipated, but not only did the surgeon successfully remove the tumor, but I’ve had full use of my arm ever since. 

Unfortunately, while the arm was now free and clear of any cancer, new scans showed that the sarcoma had spread into my lungs. The medical opinion at the time was that since the lung tumors were still microscopic in size they were too small to be treated. I disagreed. My perspective was: Why wait until they’re big enough to fight back?  Let’s attack while they’re still defenseless. So, my wife and I returned to Chicago to begin chemotherapy treatments in August 2008.  Unlike other forms of cancer where there are known chemotherapy treatments with proven track records for those forms of cancer, my specific type of cancer (sarcoma) accounts for only 1 percent of all cancers.  Now break down the 1 percent even further, considering that there are 20 to 30 different subtypes of sarcoma. That means my subtype, Leiomyosarcoma, only accounts for somewhere between 0.03 percent and 0.99 percent of all cancers reported each year. Given those statistics, it’s now perfectly understandable why this disease is far more difficult to treat than other forms of cancer.  There just isn’t the same level of historical data available on what works and what doesn’t. 

Between August 2008 and August 2010 I went through a total of seven or eight different chemotherapy treatments including three clinical trials. My body responded better to some than to others, but it never responded well enough to any of them, even with the head start we had treating when they were microscopic in size.  Over the course of those two years, the tumors had spread from the lungs to the lymph nodes, to the liver, and then to my back.  I was really holding out for this most recent clinical trial.  The drug had already shown a promising track record with sarcoma patients and had already received approvals in Europe, but was still awaiting approval here in the U.S. pending further trials.  We were hoping this would be the one, but in my case, this one actually caused the disease to grow even faster. 
Oddly enough, until very recently, the disease has had minimal impact on my work.  I continued to work through all the chemo, although many more hours were spent working from home than from the office, especially lately.  Similarly, I also didn’t begin to cut back my travel hours until recently.  So I really can’t complain.  I’ve seen other cancer patients and what they were going through, and all in all I think I was dealt a fair hand. And if you take it out of the physical realm, then I definitely can’t complain. In fact, I have nothing but thanks and praises to so many.  And it goes right back to the earlier theme: the people. 

First, there’s work. My company, my boss, my peers, my team: I can’t say enough.  Everyone has been there through it all to lend a helping hand and help ease any burdens I might be carrying.  Then, there’s the industry.  I said it was a very close-knit industry and it is.  The outpouring of help from those whose paths I’ve crossed over the years has been incredible.  People I’ve worked with in the past, vendors both past and present. You name it. Everyone has been there for me.  And words can’t even begin to describe my family without whom I couldn’t have made it through even the first mile of this journey.  I’m thankful for my loving wife and her family.  I’m thankful for my kids and for my brothers and sisters. This is a battle that would be nearly impossible to fight alone, and thank goodness that is something I have never had to come close to thinking about. My family has been by my side every step of the way.

It’s been roughly two and a half years since I’ve been diagnosed. I don’t know how much longer I have to continue this fight, but I am comforted knowing that I have an incredibly strong support network here to help me take this battle to the very last mile. Revisiting Turovsky’s quote again puts it all in perspective.  “When your legs get weaker, time starts running faster.” 

Well, my legs are getting weaker.  And yes, time does seem to be running faster now. There are many things that I wish that I could have accomplished.  I would have loved to have visited France.  I would have loved to have picked up an older used Ferrari to play with on the weekends.  I would have loved to have picked up the guitars again and see how much I remember from the old days. But all of this pales in comparison to the things that really matter–friends and family. I am so happy to have found such a fun industry on my first try.  I am happy to have had the chance to spend so many years in this industry and to have met so many fascinating people that I can truly call friends. I am so happy to have the best family in the world. Thanks for giving me this opportunity to reminisce. I hope you all have a chance to enjoy this industry as much as I have. 

Good luck to you all.  

Philip E. LaBelle, 45, of Sleepy Hollow, Ill., died Sat., August 28, 2010 after battling a rare form of cancer for more than two years. He is survived by his loving wife Ann Cecille (Abordo) LaBelle, the proud father of Krystal and John LaBelle of Kissimmee Fla., his stepson Niel Dione (Abordo) Ocana of the Philippines, his beloved parents Francis and Lucille (LaFosse) LaBelle of Mass., his brother Paul (Angela) LaBelle of Pa., and two sisters Barbara (Joseph) (LaBelle) Danowski of Pa., and Cathy (LaBelle) Farraher of Mass.; Mr. LaBelle spent his life working in the computer software field for the hospitality industry. Currently the corporate Vice-President of IT for Hyatt Hotels, Mr. LaBelle has worked for numerous hotels, resorts, cruise lines, casinos, and theme parks over the past 20 years. – Source Chicago Tribune, Aug. 31, 2010

Phil’s family encouraged donations to the American Cancer Society; please use the following link to make a donation in his memory. - http://bit.ly/aJKSJv
Thanks for the memories Phil, you will be missed.

©2010 Hospitality Upgrade
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