By Karen K. Wollard, Ed. D., Research Manager, HSMAI Foundation
“The hospitality industry has always had quite a battle to fight from the perspective of prospective students and prospective parents,” [Perceptions of] the industry unfortunately are constrained to the frontline jobs, because that’s the perspective most consumers have of hospitality. What we have failed to share with the public is that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We need to bring the conversation beyond that.”
- Karthik Namasivayam, Ph.D., John and Becky Duffey Professor of Hospitality Business and Director, The School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University, quoted in Meetings Today, June 8, 2022
This past spring, HSMAI Foundation convened four academic forums and polled deans, directors, and faculty in sales, marketing, and revenue, across 30 unique university hospitality programs. While they agreed with Dr. Namasivayam, they had much more to say about the state of hospitality programs and students following the devastating effects of the pandemic.
What Academics Want Industry to Know
Enrollment, recruitment, and retention are the most pressing challenges for program leaders. The hospitality school pipeline has seen decreasing enrollments since 2016, but nothing comparable to 2022. Demographically, fewer students are available to be entering college, and the numbers are not projected to improve until 2025. Lack of enrollment was made worse during the pandemic when international students were prohibited from traveling to the United States. Schools have had to try new strategies to attract and retain students, including offering incentives and building career awareness in middle and high school programs.
Student and parental perceptions of the fragility of hospitality careers have caused many to become disillusioned. The perception of the industry as low paying, low skilled, and quick to downsize has made the future of a hospitality career seem fragile at best. One dean wrote, remember, most of the perceptions are now coming from their parents who felt betrayed and abandoned by the industry during COVID. I’ve had some who will not permit their students to study in our field: low pay, high hours, cyclical, low diversity. Parents also question whether the industry values this degree.
The students who weathered the past two years of turmoil in their educations should be seen as resilient and flexible. Many students are still motivated and committed to hospitality careers. The love of the industry still resonates, many see diverse opportunities and career pathways, and most choose and value the industry for its human element. Deans told us that students see a career that won’t be replaced by artificial intelligence, and they value the flexibility and availability of jobs. Faculty have also worked hard to show students the breadth of job options their degree can help them access.
The concept of “commercial” as an umbrella term for sales, marketing, and revenue optimization departments working collaboratively was new to most of the deans, directors, and faculty. As industry accelerates its shifts following the pandemic, programs need time to adjust. Deans listed more than 25 hurdles to offering more commercial courses. Most responses indicated that lack of student interest, lack of faculty expertise, and lack of funds were the biggest challenges, but added that initiating a completely new course offering can take two to three years.
Course offerings in the commercial disciplines are already a concern. While most schools offer a marketing course, and 75% have a revenue management offering, only a third of hospitality programs offer more than one marketing or revenue management course. Students lack career information and resources to learn about these positions and find few entry points for internships in these areas. Helping students see a clear career path can encourage them to invest time in the coursework.
Sales offerings lag. Our 2021 research indicated that only 64% of programs had a sales course in the curriculum. This presents a daunting challenge. Negotiating skills, data analytics, strategic thinking, business acumen, and more are required for salespeople to catch and close the right sales for their properties in today’s hyper-competitive environment.
In short, if hospitality schools were hotels, they would see plunging occupancy, low guest ratings, higher costs, smaller budgets, falling guest loyalty, high staff turnover, and increasing resources for their competitors. Stakeholders would be worried.
HSMAI Foundation Board Talent Concerns
As “commercial strategy” becomes the umbrella for sales, marketing, and revenue optimization collaboration, few schools reported familiarity with the term. The lack of textbooks and curriculum resources means even schools that want to be innovative cannot access the tools to do so.
Commercial strategy is the driver of top line success, and students need to have expertise in the individual disciplines as well as cross-training and expertise between the fields, according to Lori Kiel, Chief Commercial Officer, Kessler Collection, and HSMAI Foundation Board Member. The numerous hurdles to offering new courses make this shift to teaching commercial strategy even more difficult.
Several board members asked how the industry can be more involved, realizing that schools need tools and resources to teach the latest innovations, especially in social media, data analytics, customer loyalty, and business acumen. Students have always been a vital pipeline to the industry, but the closing of most management training programs and internship opportunities has kept even student involvement low during the past two years.
Lovell Casiero, Senior Vice President, PM Hotel Group, and HSMAI Foundation Board Member, was concerned about parental perceptions: As a salesperson, I have always followed the money to close the deal. The person paying is the decision maker. How can we better promote this to parents?
How Industry Can Help Bolster Hospitality Programs
- Get Involved. So many executives, when asked if they would be guest speakers, say, “Sign me up!” There is no system for finding the right connection, so reach out. Call your local university or college hospitality program and ask who teaches sales, marketing, or revenue management courses. HSMAI Foundation has 167 programs and nearly 500 deans, directors, and subject-matter faculty in its Forum database, so there’s bound to be one close to your location.
Talk to the faculty about how you can help students learn about your area of expertise. Beyond guest speaking, think about inviting students to your office to shadow you for a day or sharing a marketing challenge that students could use for a research project.
- Provide Case Studies. All the forums expressed a need for current and in-depth case studies. Students want to grapple with real world challenges. Faculty would like the opportunity to partner with hotels or tourism organizations to conduct research or develop student projects. Case studies tell the story of a situation, allow students to grapple with various decisions and strategies, and then finish the story with what happened and why.
- Offer Paid Internships. Internships that expose students to the sales, marketing, or revenue management work of a hotel or corporate office are hard to find. Many hospitality students are first-generation college students, so earning money to pay for school is essential. Unpaid internships, a common model especially at luxury properties, are simply a “nonstarter.” Most hospitality programs require hundreds to thousands of hours of hospitality work experience prior to graduation, so your local program is also a major potential source of talent.
- Look to Academic Institutions for Research. When industry needs research undertaken, they should include universities in the RFP process. Even if industry does not win the RFP, academia can learn about the questions Industry is asking, according to Stowe Shoemaker, Dean of the UNLV-William F. Harrah College of Hospitality and HSMAI Foundation Board Member. Dr. Breffni Noone from Pennsylvania State University, and Dr. Jeff Beck from Michigan State University, joined Anja Fiedler, Executive Director of Revenue Management Integration at Accor for a discussion of Industry-Faculty partnerships at the recent ROC Conference in June. Capitalizing on collaboration can drive innovation and development. And you might find your next new hire, too.
- Participate in the HSMAI Foundation’s Global Collegiate Marketing Case Competition. This first event will launch in August. Undergraduate and graduate teams with a passion for hospitality marketing will choose a hotel company for analysis and assessment, then create a video proposal of marketing strategies to improve the organization’s marketing efforts. The final six teams will face executive level judges, with recognition opportunities for the winners.
Participate as a sponsor, work with a team, fund the recognition awards, or act as a judge. Many top programs are involved. We are also interested in sponsoring a revenue optimization and a sales competition if there’s sufficient interest and support.
- Join HSMAI and Get Involved. HSMAI provides extensive resources and extraordinary networking opportunities on all aspects of commercial strategy. But YOU must take the first step. The HSMAI website provides information on benefits, and right now the association is actively recruiting volunteers for 2023 advisory boards, leadership opportunities and more. Whether you want to drive top-line performance or broaden your career experience, there’s a place for you.