Several months into the start of his career, Ben Bumgarner still finds himself wondering at times “how it all happened.”
After growing up on a corn and soybean farm near Austin, Minn., he graduated in May with a Bachelor of Science in hotel, restaurant and tourism management from University of Wisconsin-Stout. Needing an internship to complete a degree requirement, he searched for openings one night in the student center and found a summer position in Washington, D.C.
That at-times-scary experience has turned into a full-time job: He is a business development and account representative at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, a couple of blocks from the White House and within the Federal Triangle, a historic district of major buildings in the heart of the city.
“It never really set in until I got here how big of a step it really was,” Bumgarner said.
The stylish, 20-year-old Reagan building is the second-largest government building in the U.S. — largest in the capital — with 3.1 million square feet on 11 acres. It’s the first and only federal building created for public and private use.
“The building still surprises me every day. It’s beautiful as a blank slate, but what our clients are able to turn it into is really special,” Bumgarner said.
His job is to bring in those people — clients who want to use the grand atrium, pavilion, amphitheater, Woodrow Wilson plaza, meeting spaces and more to hold trade shows, conferences, weddings, banquets and other events.’
Bumgarner is employed by Trade Center Management Associates, which manages the Ronald Reagan Building for the federal General Services Agency. It hosts 1,800 events and more than a million people a year.
The building’s open spaces are combined with offices for the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Trade Information Center and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, along with private sector tenants. It has retail and dining areas, art displays, entertainment and is open 24 hours a day.
Bumgarner arrived six days before his first day on the job needing a place to live and with little actual sales experience, although he focused on marketing and sales within his major. After role-play training with TCMA’s vice president of sales, he soon was cold-calling and networking to bring more business into the Reagan building.
“It’s hard to just pick up the phone and call people you don’t know, especially if you don’t know their business or the territory. Sometimes, you’re honestly just scared to just pick up the phone,” he said.
Plus, he said, “Finding new business for a 20-year-old building in a hyper-competitive area was challenging.”
He gradually began to have success, helping the building book more holiday parties than previous years and getting more potential clients to tour the building as a potential venue for their event, like a recent veterans summit held there.
By the end of the summer, he had acquitted himself well and was offered a full-time job. UW-Stout has a 98.2 percent employment and continuing education rate for recent graduates. He was allowed to help structure the position with additional responsibilities, including account management.
“I’m coordinating the site visits and managing those accounts. Now I get to partake in the customers’ event and aid in that whole process,” he said, noting that most special events are from government or corporate clients. About 25 percent of business is international.
Ready for a new challenge
Bumgarner could have had a career on the family farm in southern Minnesota but wanted a different kind of challenge, one that involved building relationships, such as in sales.
He enjoyed a summer as a teen working at his hometown country club, piquing his interest in hospitality. In 2017, he was a brand ambassador — SPAMbassador to be exact — for his hometown company, Hormel.
“For me it was always the relationships – I really like to build and maintain relationships with people,” he said.
His adviser in the School of Hospitality Leadership, Assistant Professor Betsy Pudliner, sees more success ahead for Bumgarner.
“Ben always struck me with his quiet confidence and intelligence. He has a humble intelligence. He can make connections of material that others might not be able to at his level. His maturity and confidence were readily apparent during our class sessions as well as in student advising meetings. I really do believe he will go far in our industry because of his drive and determination to succeed,” Pudliner said.
Bumgarner said the School of Hospitality Leadership, ranked eighth in the world by CEOWorld magazine, was a great fit for him. He is the first in his family to earn a four-year college degree.
“I had a great Stout experience. My random roommate became best friend. I loved my adviser — she helped me out a lot — and the program. Stout was the perfect size for me and a great place to be. School went well every year,” he said.
Bumgarner isn’t sure if he’ll continue his career on the East Coast or someday return to the Midwest, but he’s excited about the path he’s on and to see where it will take him. “I’m looking forward to what’s ahead,” he said.
UW-Stout is Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University, with a focus on applied learning, collaboration with business and industry, and career outcomes.
Ben Bumgarner, who graduated in May from UW-Stout, works in sales at the Ronald Reagan Building, the second-largest government building in the U.S.
A venue at the Ronald Reagan Building is set up for a special event.