50th anniversary of URI Alton Jones campus finds assistant director extending warm welcome

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Greenville native, Providence resident enjoys sharing ‘hospitable culture’

WEST GREENWICH, R.I. – June 14, 2012 – George Lewis caught the travel bug more than 30 years ago when he spent a year studying in Austria. Since then, he has taught school in Venezuela and visited such uncommon destinations as Croatia, Nepal and Turkey, among many others.

But he can’t stay away long from his job of 26 years sharing the uniqueness of one of Rhode Island’s best-kept secrets – the University of Rhode Island’s W. Alton Jones campus. As the campus celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Lewis, its assistant director in charge of conferences and weddings, is especially proud to have helped create an environment for events unlike any in New England.

“We aren’t trying to impress our guests with glitz and glamour,” he said, “but instead we take them back to memories of their grandmother’s country home or a camp they attended. We give them the familiarity that they recognize as home.”

It has taken a great deal of effort to create that environment. What was originally built as a summer estate in the 1930s and used as a hunting lodge in the 1950s by oil executive W. Alton Jones has been transformed into a conference and events center where visitors can attend to business without the distractions of busy urban facilities. Lewis even retrieved artifacts from earlier eras that had been stored in the attic, and he displayed them throughout the buildings.

“My culture is to be very hospitable, and I set that tone here so it has become the norm,” Lewis said. “We take that very seriously. I’m proud that we give visitors something they can’t find anywhere else – the ability to take a walk and talk business, or sit on the beach and talk business.”

Lewis is responsible for all the details for 350 conferences and 50 weddings each year.

“We’re getting more and more groups from around the world coming to visit,” he said. “We’ve got a group from Japan coming for a week this year, and several international corporations. These groups can go anywhere they want in the world, and they choose us because they’re looking for a place to bond and spend time with each other in a way that they can’t do at other facilities.”

When asked about the feedback he receives from these groups, Lewis said that the first comment is always about the food.

“I don’t go anywhere where I don’t hear people raving about the food here,” he said proudly, since Lewis not only plans events but also finds and tests new recipes. “The food is an important part of the experience. Wedding guests always tell us that we provided the best wedding food they’ve ever had.

“It’s a big responsibility to ensure these events happen without a hitch,” added Lewis, “so I’m often a nervous wreck. I’m confident in what we do, but I don’t take anything for granted. I treat every event like it’s my first, so everything is reviewed and choreographed down to the last detail.”

A native of Greenville who has lived in Providence for the last five years, Lewis was elected to the Democratic Ward Committee in his Elmhurst neighborhood, where he loves being involved in the community.

“I think it’s important to be a part of the community and contribute to its well-being,” he said.

“I love Rhode Island. I don’t have the negative feelings about the state that so many people do. I focus on what’s special about it. Having traveled a lot, I’m always happy to come home.”

URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Joe Giblin