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DCE Magazine

Alumni Spotlight: To Serve With Love

Summer 2017

Spa & Hospitality Management graduate uses new education to help change lives

Michael Samawi never listened to his parents. It's a good thing, too. When he told them he wanted to someday get into the family business — running a string of cafes in San Francisco — they advised him against it. Get a nice desk job, they said.

He tried that and was quite successful. But Samawi's dream of serving hospitality excellence never really went away. Inspired by fine cuisine and drawn to serving the needs of others, he decided to follow his passion. And when it led him 8,000 miles to Jordan, his family's homeland, his dream became a fully realized vision.

“I was working in automotive marketing communications and realized there was nothing left for me to accomplish creatively,” said Samawi, who in 2016 earned a Spa and Hospitality Management certificate from UCI Division of Continuing Education.

“I felt a need for change, so I packed my bags and moved to Jordan. I wanted to live like a local, live frugally, eat the same fresh, homemade food. You can learn so much about a country's culture by living there, and Jordanians are well-known for their hospitality.”

The experience was a revelation. Samawi was inspired by the culture, cuisine and rhythms of Jordan, the sense of care shown to others. He also met and married his wife, Lina. Together, their ultimate goal is to operate a hotel, spa and restaurant in an exotic, natural setting — not just any luxury property but something far more profound.

The Samawis want nothing less than to change people's lives and affect them on a deep level.

“You can serve hospitality and food, but we want to t give one ingredient you can't get elsewhere — love,” he said. “I would want the experience to be an epiphany, to envelop our guests with love and emotion.”

For now, Samawi is working as assistant general manager at Hilton Garden Inn in Irvine, a position that he attributes to his DCE certificate. And his dream, his calling, is well within reach.

Armed with a BA in graphic design from Cal State Long Beach, Samawi began his career path in 1997, designing ads and organizing trade shows. Two years later he landed at a large Volkswagen dealership in San Francisco, working as marketing communications manager. He was an Internet pioneer in the nascent world of e-commerce, designing multi-platform campaigns and websites.

Samawi gained a keen understanding of marketing, how to anticipate and serve the needs of customers. But he was increasingly restless — and he never lost his passion for running his own restaurant.

“Little did I know what was around the corner,” he said. “As you know, my birthplace of San Francisco is a culinary mecca. And my higher income bracket helped me discover a whole new world of food and level of guest service. It was great schooling for my future calling: to serve hospitality excellence.”

Samawi felt a change was imminent. So in 2006 he took an 11-month sabbatical to Jordan, immersing himself in regional culture and cuisine. He learned a great deal about the Jordanian people and their tradition of hospitality.

“Traveling around the world is essential to every human's existence and cultural understanding,” he said. “I took it one step further. I moved to the other side of the world to better understand those ‘immigrants’ that truly are our customers and guests back in the U.S.”

After marrying Lina, they returned to Orange County prepared for a new life — one that followed Samawi's philosophy of heartfelt hospitality and influenced by their strong Christian beliefs.

Soon they were running a small restaurant, Coffee, Tea and Tulips, a nontraditional tea house serving Mediterranean cuisine that reflected the ingredients and diet of the ancient Holy Land.

“The idea was to combine Jordanian hospitality with Christian principles to create a loving and caring environment for our customers,” he said. “I designed a menu that imagined Jesus as a foodie. What did he and his disciples eat 2,000 years ago? Mostly it was a diet rich with olives, nuts and fruits. They ate off the land, and we tried to stay as close to that as possible.”

Samawi eventually left the business to work for Living Stones, a tour service offering study-tour packages to Israel. Then came the big leap — enrolling in the DCE certificate program — a move that wasn't taken lightly.

Developed and taught by industry experts, the 15-unit Spa and Hospitality Management program covers all aspects of the business, from marketing and financials to management and HR, exactly what Samawi needed. He was drawn to the experienced faculty and hands-on projects that helped prepare him for the day-to-day details of managing a property.

“Once I started to look into it, I just had an epiphany,” said Samawi, recipient of a UCI DCE Student Achievement Award for his outstanding work. “It seemed to cover exactly what I knew I needed. They had the right people teaching it, and there's no question about the quality of UCI's brand and reputation. I had taken business classes and had worked in food. So what I needed was to learn the business of running and managing a property.”

It worked. Samawi said the online program was directly responsible for his position with Hilton Garden Inn. “Toward the end of the job interview I was able to reference some of the courses in the UCI program, and her response was ‘That's what I wanted to hear!’”

He sees his job as assistant GM as perfect preparation for running his own all-inclusive property within a few years, preferably located in a beautiful, natural setting in the Middle East, Europe or even Central Africa, “an emerging region,” Samawi said.

Regardless of the location, the level of comfort and hospitality will reflect not only the native culture but also the spiritual values of the Samawis.

“I want to reach people like they've never been reached before, change their lives,” he said. “It's not a place where people will just sleep in a bed and leave the next day. Every package would include the entire experience, with spa treatments and fresh, natural food.”

And everything, he said, will be served with love.

“That's the key. You can't do it for the money. If you give people that type of emotional, immersive experience, the money just comes naturally.”