By Heather McNeill
It should come as no surprise that higher education has taken a hit in this economy, especially in regard to funding. Yet, other effects on higher education are less than straightforward. For example, some colleges are seeing declining enrollments in certain fields of study because there are fewer prospects for jobs. Others, however, are gaining new students as underemployed or laid off professionals go back to school to gain new skills. Trends in higher education in the hospitality and meeting planning fields are equally complicated. Even as restaurant and hotel business has declined, programs in culinary studies and hotel management seem to be maintaining steady enrollments. Although meetings have been scaled back, the numbers of students interested in planning and events seem to be soaring, so much so that several colleges are adding event planning offerings to their programs.
So what should students and working professionals know about pursuing a career in this field? First, the long-term economic outlook for hospitality careers is improving. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, travel and tourism are anticipated to grow over the next decade, although most hiring in hotels will come from smaller facilities that don’t hire as many employees or managers. Second, a degree in hospitality is worth having. As the Bureau’s 2010-2011 report on lodging careers states, “College graduates with degrees in hotel or hospitality management should have better opportunities for jobs at full service hotels and for advancement than those without a degree.” Other hospitality careers, including event planning, also will offer opportunities in the next decade, and colleges are ready to prepare students for them. At least a dozen community colleges, universities, and propriety and trade schools in Missouri are offering a number of degrees, including certificates of proficiency, associate’s, bachelor’s, and even doctorates in hospitality fields. A searchable database of programs is available on the Missouri Department of Higher Education Website, http://www.dhe.mo.gov/.
THE POPULARITY OF EVENT PLANNING
One of the most surprising trends in hospitality higher education to emerge out of this economy is an increased interest in event planning coursework. The University of Missouri’s Hotel and Restaurant Management (HRM) program, for example, was restructured three years ago to incorporate a core of business and hospitality courses, followed by specialized tracks of study. Of these specializations, Conference and Events has been the most popular. Food and Beverage and Lodging are the others. (Soon, there will be a fourth, Sports Venue Management.) “The Conference and Events track is very, very popular,” says Julie Hosmer, assistant teaching professor in the HRM program. “We’ve never advertised it— it’s all been word of mouth.” She says currently the HRM program has about 380 students, and about 40% are pursuing this emphasis area. The College of the Ozarks, which founded a Hotel and Restaurant Management program in 1993, also has restructured its curriculum recently to meet student demand and community interest. Currently, the college offers three courses specifically aimed at meetings and special events. “We have a professional advisory group. All programs do—professionals from the community who come in and sit down and we talk,” says Jerry Shackette, associate professor of Keeter’s Hotel and Restaurant Management program. “The meetings and events program came out of their heads just as much as it came out of the faculty’s or students’, so it’s been a collaborative effort.” Students at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park also are showing increased interest in event planning. The Hospitality Studies Program, which originated in 1967 and now offers associate’s degrees and certificates of proficiency and specialization in several areas, plans to extend its event planning offerings. Currently, the school offers a popular convention and meeting planning course. New event planning coursework will most likely plug in to the Hospitality/ Tourism program. “We’re going to be re-tooling the entire Hospitality Management curriculum so it has more of a hospitality/business slant, and we’re planning to offer a specialization in event planning,” says Craig Mueller, associate professor and program coordinator for Hospitality and Tourism.
REAL WORLD LEARNING
At the University of Central Missouri, students can pursue a bachelor of science in tourism or a bachelor of science in hotel and testaurant administration. “We’re one of just a handful of schools in the U.S. that offer a separate bachelor of science in tourism,” says Robert Slana, associate professor and coordinator of the tourism program. Three courses in the program focus on events and conference topics. Tourism students must complete a significant number of hours doing field work in approved industry settings as well as internships. “We require not only 500 hours of internship, but 500 hours of work experience in the industry before they qualify for the internship,” Slana says. Study abroad programs, while not required, are also popular among tourism students at the school, he says. The real-world experience at these different hospitality schools may get to the heart of why these programs may be so popular, and nowhere is work experience a bigger part of a hospitality program than at the College of the Ozarks, where students work for the cost of their education. Students in the school’s Hotel and Restaurant Management Program work 15 hours each week and two additional full 40-hour weeks during the semester. Most of these students work at the Keeter Center, the headquarters of the program, which also is an upscale lodge, with fine dining, conference facilities and catering and banquet services. At the facility, students have the opportunity to do everything people in their chosen fields would do, such as prepare meals, register guests at the hotel, and plan meetings. Students also complete an additional internship as part of their education. Although all the hospitality and event planning programs in Missouri seem to have a large component of practical learning, St. Louis Community College-Forest Park’s facilities are also worth special mention. Its Hospitality Studies students, of which there are about 600, have an entire building devoted to their hands-on learning, which includes four kitchens, including a demonstration kitchen, a full dining room used by culinary students to plan and present meals, and a travel and tourism lab with 26 computers offering “live” reservation systems training
NETWORKING AND JOB PROSPECTS
Hosmer observes that the job placement rate of MU’s program has been very good, especially considering that some undergraduates have gone on to pursue graduate education. For planners in the program, the high placement rate may be due in part to the Mizzou Meeting Planners Association, which offers students the chance to network and get involved with professional organizations and work with event planners to gain hands-on experience with live events. She says the placement rate of students for the HRM program overall has been about 80% . Other program coordinators have said that higher paid positions or positions in lodging have been harder to come by in this economy. But Shackette, for one, is hopeful. He says job prospects for his students are generally good, particularly since many students stay in the Branson area, where hospitality is the primary industry. “We do struggle with, ‘How do you get that management job with that management level salary with limited experience?’ If you’re going to start in Branson, you’re going to start at middle management at best, because of the kind of market it is— but that’s still a good job,” he says. At the very least, companies are showing a willingness to hire, even if it is on a limited basis or for lower-paid positions than in the past. Nevertheless, as indicators of the industry’s health, these are good signs. When the economy does rebound, new graduates in hospitality will be ready. MM&E
(Heather McNeill is a contributor from Kansas City, Mo.)