by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | April 4, 2016

Starwood Youth Baseball teamIt's not often that hotel companies get a nod for their behind-the-scenes corporate- and social-responsibility programs. So, when I learned through the hospitality grapevine that Stamford, Conn.-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide had helped sponsor a very special VIP trip to the Chicago Cubs' spring training camp, Sloan Park, in Mesa, Ariz., for an inner-city youth baseball team, I had to get the details.

Here is what took place, just weeks ago. American Airlines, the Cubs and Starwood Preferred Guest (the chain's loyalty program) came together for the first time ever to host a group of disadvantaged youths from the South Side of Chicago -- ironically, the territory of the competing home-team White Sox. They whisked the Cubs' RBI Junior All-Stars, run by the city's Union League Boys and Girls Clubs RBI (for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) and their coaches off to Mesa, where they got to meet the team, enjoy some time on the field with them and get a behind-the-scenes tour of 15,000-seat Sloan Park. They even got to play their own game against an Arizona RBI team, with Cubs players on hand giving coaching advice. It was a pretty big deal for kids who had never been on a plane or stayed at a hotel before. In fact, most had never been outside of Chicago.

"This was unprecedented for us, but after having been a part of it, it changed all of us just seeing the happiness on their faces," says Mark Vondrasek, senior vice president of commercial services at Starwood, himself a Chicago native and lifelong Cubs fan, who coordinated the program. "These kids have lives most of us cannot even begin to imagine, like in and out of homelessness," he notes. "One child almost didn't make the trip because a few days before we were to leave, his 16-year-old cousin had been shot multiples times."

The 180-room Sheraton Mesa Hotel at Wrigleyville West, which hosted the boys and their coaches, pulled out all the stops to create an experience that would rival that of hosting visiting dignitaries. The property's general manager and executive staff, along with Cubs management and the team mascot, were at the hotel's entrance to greet the kids as they pulled up; they were then led to a dedicated meeting room, where they got some major swag -- customized new uniforms, balls and caps, and tons of Cubs sports memorabilia. Next, it was off to their gorgeous suites, some downtime in the hotel's expansive pool complex and an indulgent dining experience.

Vondrasek says he isn't sure who had the most fun, the boys or the staff. "The minute I mentioned the trip concept to the hotel, they were immediately on board and really got into planning every moment of their stay. They couldn't wait to host those boys, and I am so proud of them." The Cubs matched that generosity. Cubs' catcher Kyle Schwarber lent his glove to 15-year-old fellow backstop Jose Alvarado, who didn't want to let go of it. Schwarber was joined on the field by several teammates, where they handed out personally signed gear to the boys to take home with them. Truly the stuff of childhood dreams.

While Starwood has always had a strong commitment to CSR programs, "This was something new and different for us," says Vondrasek. "It's the type of thing that really helps folks feel pride in the place where they work, and for our guests, the hotel chains they are a member of. I hope it leads to more brainstorming in other ways we can get involved."

For video highlights of the RBI Junior All Stars' weekend, click here. And have tissues on hand.