In the face of instability in the job market, local hospitality schools are facing an uphill battle to convince students that the field is a promising way to go.
As fewer people traveled due to government restrictions and public health concerns at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of hotels temporarily shuttered and laid off staff. More recently, as travel has rebounded hotels have scrambled to find staff.
As the industry changes, hospitality schools must adapt.
Since it started in fall 2020, the hospitality management program at Cal State University San Bernardino Palm Desert has struggled to grow beyond about 30 students, according to founding director Joseph Tormey. The program offers a concentration, minor and certificate in hospitality management under the umbrella of the school’s Department of Marketing.
The concentration includes coursework related to hotel, tourism and restaurant and human resources management, meeting and events planning and requires internship experience. The minor also requires internship experience and focuses on operations and marketing with options to take coursework on festival management and tribal gaming. Six students graduated from the program in May, and all are working full-time in the hospitality industry, including three as managers, Tormey said.
Meanwhile, enrollment in College of the Desert’s hospitality management classes fell from 203 students in 2019-20 to 142 students in 2020-21, according to college data. The data tracks the number of students taking hospitality classes regardless of their declared major. COD has not published 2021-22 data.
Generally, enrollment is down at community colleges across the state, but the drop in students taking COD’s hospitality management classes was more severe than the college’s overall 16% decline in credited enrollment between the fall 2019 and fall 2021 terms.
Virtual reality and other new approaches
To attract students into their program, both CSUSB Palm Desert and COD are looking to shake things up. CSUSB has begun to integrate virtual reality into its curriculum to give students an immersive experience of travel destinations and hotel facilities.
“Virtual reality brings a different, more of an entertainment factor, if you will, in this TikTok era that we currently live in,” Tormey said.
It also has the power to expose students to places they haven’t been able to see in person, but are crucial to understanding the hospitality industry, like an airport.
“What does an airport look like? Some of the students have never been on a plane before,” Tormey said. Virtual reality can show them, in a way, and help them better conceptualize assignments and maybe visualize where they’d like to work one day.
“It brings a little more excitement into the classroom in a passive lecture model that hasn’t really changed in a long time,” Tormey said.
Meanwhile, COD’s only full-time hospitality management faculty member, Yolanda Bender, introduced virtual case simulations in her classes to emulate challenging industry problems encountered by managers.
“The input I’ve received from the students is that this was the first time their eyes are open as to really what goes into when you’re running a restaurant, all the things you have to look at,” Bender said.
She also teaches cases about social media, marketing and accounting.
“(The case) will say, this is what social media is saying about you. Here’s all your guest reviews, and then you have to start adjusting. Here’s your bottom line, you’re losing money, what do you have to do?” Bender explained. “So it’s very interactive for them, and I think it’s made a big change.”
Students seemed to agree.
“Using the case simulations I was shown how all aspects of the industry come together and what type of cause and effect it has on the business,” one student wrote in a course review.
“I was able to show my manager on my break one afternoon how we do our simulator for the class and she was extremely impressed I was studying what she does every month,” wrote another.
Eventually, Bender said she would like to expand the program to offer students real hands-on experience in the industry.
“As we move forward, I think it’s going to be important to have some sort of really concrete program for internships or work experience,” she said.
‘Boots on the ground’ training is valued in industry
Dan Johnson, General Manager at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort and Spa echoed how important it is for students to gain industry experience.
“There’s no finer educational opportunity than being boots on the ground as part of our operation, and, we, as leaders, have a responsibility to develop and continue the education of our future leaders — individuals that are passionate about a hospitality career that have an interest in being in the industry for a career,” he said.
Some COD hospitality students concurrently work in the industry, but how much the school will invest in hospitality and culinary training facilities is unclear. Currently, the college’s administration is collecting regional employment data to review before deciding how to proceed with a planned $350 million Palm Springs campus slated to have a learning hotel and a major emphasis on hands-on hospitality and culinary programs.
For now, case studies must suffice.
Bender has also expanded course offerings to include a more robust food and beverage management curriculum, plus classes in hospitality law, supervision, sales and marketing, hotel and restaurant management and front office and housekeeping operations.
Plus, she said a discussion with a company that manages Airbnbs has piqued her interest in creating an elective or certificate program in revenue management.
She is also working on implementing a short-term study abroad program in Japan for hospitality students.
Bender emphasized that although a four-year degree would make it easier for recent graduates to get on a management career pathway in the hospitality industry, she says she is definitely training students for high-level jobs in the industry.
“I know that a lot of people in the industry are looking for housekeepers or front desk agents,” Bender said. “However, this program is not going to train my students to be housekeepers or front desk agents. It’s much more high level.”
Getting that message across to prospective students and their families remains a challenge, especially amid the industry’s pandemic volatility.
“I think that there is a misconception in the community that hospitality jobs are low-paying jobs, and they’re not,” Bender said. “If you move into a management position you have the potential to make really good money and bonuses and have benefits. So, it’s something we’re trying to overcome, as far as that (misconception) goes.”
Jonathan Horwitz covers education for The Desert Sun. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Writes_Jonathan.