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May 28, 2012

Training for the hospitality industry gets a boost from three institutions

University of Southern Maine

Program: Bachelor's degree in tourism and hospitality

Type: Four-year degree

Enrollment: Starting fall 2012

Cost (per year): $7,590 in-state, $19,950 out-of-state

Target demographic: Students who want to supplement a two-year degree and experienced hospitality professionals who want to advance their careers

More info: 780-5670, usm.maine.edu/tourism

Program: School of Hospitality, Sport and Tourism Management

Types: BS/MBA in hospitality and tourism management (5 years); BS in hospitality and tourism management; minor in hospitality management; certificate program in hospitality.

Enrollment: 100

Cost: $14,190 annual tuition for degree programs; free for certificate program

Target demographic: Students looking to supplement a two-year degree and those interested in entry-to-mid level hospitality and tourism jobs.

More info: 1-800-4HUSSON, husson.edu

Type: Certificate program

Enrollment: 139

Cost: Free

Target demographic: Workers already employed in Maine's tourism and hospitality industry.

More info: 581-1951, umaine.edu/centro

Consistently rated as the largest service sector industry worldwide, tourism is an especially important economic driver in Maine where miles of coastline and natural wonders draw those "from away" to the state.

Eager to sustain the state's Vacationland reputation, Maine universities and economic development groups have identified tourism and hospitality training and education as an important asset in growing and sustaining the industry.

"The industry is always looking for homegrown talent," says Carolann Ouellette, director of the Maine Office of Tourism.

While the summer tourist season often sees a big influx of foreign workers on temporary visas filling entry-level tourism and hospitality positions, Ouellette says the state's degree programs also play an important role. "These programs are training the managers of tomorrow and leading them into management positions within the industry," she says.

"There is a shortage of experienced people at this time," says Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association, who says a homegrown work force that is familiar with the state could only mean good things for the industry.

"We need a constant flow of workers so that we don't 'age out,' we need new ideas and we need to keep some of our people home in Maine," he says.

Three new programs across the state aim to do just that, preparing students to enter Maine's robust tourism industry though the kitchen, hotel front desk or casino floor.

University of Southern Maine

With industry leaders clamoring for qualified workers, USM didn't need to do much research to test the viability of introducing a four-year degree program in tourism and hospitality.

"You know the time is right for something when people start coming to you about it," says Kreg Ettenger, a USM professor of geography and anthropology who will lead the new interdisciplinary program.

Recognizing the economic and job-placement potential of such a degree, USM fast-tracked the program, earning approval from the UMaine System board of trustees in little more than six months.

"We had very strong industry support and strong support from the state Legislature, but we didn't get an automatic pass," says Ettenger.

USM's proximity to coastal resort hot spots and qualified instructors made the university an obvious choice to host the system's first non-recreation focused tourism degree program, according to Ettenger. "A number of people involved in key industries said that they would prefer that program was at USM because they want to be directly connected and do internships with them," he says.

The program will draw from an eclectic mix of academic disciplines, including geography, anthropology, environmental science, marketing, finance and business management, with courses in history and art rounding out the curriculum.

Designed to offer a more academic slant on a traditionally vocational degree, USM's Tourism and Hospitality Program will embrace an emphasis on critical-thinking skills that will help students land a job a few pay levels above front-desk clerk or housekeeper, according to Ettenger.

"This is distinct from a two-year program and includes critical theory, background and case studies of global issues to provide students with a well-rounded vision of what tourism is all about," says Ettenger. "Employers are looking for students who understand the larger picture of tourism as an industry."

The program will address some specific contemporary issues within the industry, including the impact of tourism on communities from both an economic and sociological perspective.

"We'll have a course to help people understand the contact between visitors and people who live there," says Ettenger. "It can lead to conflict when [tourists] come in and crowd out locals. Many Maine students will understand what we mean by that."

The trend toward sustainable, "culturally authentic" tourism will be another focus of the program, says Ettenger. "The face of tourism is changing, people want to experience communities and see the real heart of a place, so we're going to focus on developing a tourism experience that helps people to really connect with the state," he says.

The program is likely to draw a range of students, in Ettenger's estimation, from the world travelers and those looking to supplement a two-year degree to entrepreneurs and people already working in tourism and hospitality who want to advance their careers.

When Lee Speronis arrived at Husson in 2008, he says the university's hospitality program was "floundering."

In spring 2011, Husson reorganized the program, added tourism management, and debuted the School of Hospitality, Sport and Tourism Management within its College of Business.

Stepping in as director after a career as a lawyer and area director for a major restaurant company in New York, Speronis has seen enrollment rise from 10 to 100 over the past four years. "The timing has been absolutely right, because [tourism and hospitality] is the No. 1 industry in the state," he says.

Husson now offers three hospitality and tourism management degrees, including a bachelor's degree, a combined five-year bachelor's and master's degree and a minor in hospitality management. "The combined BS/MBA is becoming really popular. It's worth that extra year of staying in school in this economy," he says.

The school also has articulation agreements with five Maine community colleges, allowing students to transfer into the program after two years while retaining 90% of their course credits, according to Speronis.

He credits much of the program's success to an active and engaged network of business partners who help the school to achieve over 100% job placement — a figure that speaks to the viability of a degree in the hospitality and tourism industry. "Our placement has been 100%, plus we've actually placing people from other colleges [like] criminal justice, marketing and accounting," says Speronis.

Emphasizing the importance of industry experience, Speronis strongly encourages students to find work within the industry in some capacity by the time they are sophomores. These jobs often lead to internships, which in turn lead to full-time job offers upon graduation. "I don't want students to graduate with a degree and then be out looking for their first job," he says.

Running a robust, well-regarded internship program is vital to the future of the program, says Speronis. If the school turns out high-quality interns, companies are more likely to think of Husson next semester. "We really push students to excel in internships because you represent not only yourself, but the program at Husson [and] it can be self-perpetuating," he says.

A close relationship with local industry leaders like Bangor's Hollywood Casino has benefited students inside and outside the classroom. In addition to internships and jobs for students age 21 and up, some of the company's directors will lend their expertise to Husson's casino management course, including lectures in security, food and beverage, and human resources.

Husson has also recently introduced a hospitality certificate program in collaboration with the TriCounty Workforce Investment Board's youth services program. Aimed at underperforming high student students, the program includes period of training followed by a four-week, paid internship and a test students must pass to earn their certificates.

"It gets them a resume that makes them work-ready for hospitality and tourism jobs," says Marilynne Mann, director of Husson's Research Institute for Tourism. The certificate program trains students in front desk, restaurant and housekeeping work. It is offered at no cost to students or businesses through the Workforce Investment Act, which pays for the training as well as the four-week internships.

Sixteen students have graduated from the program thus far, with another class of 10 in June, according to Mann. "The industry has wanted this kind of program for a long time," says Mann.

A joint venture between the University of Maine, CenTRO — the Center for Tourism Research and Outreach — and the Maine Woods Consortium, Welcome ME is an online customer service certification program that offers a free, industry-vetted training to Maine's tourism and hospitality workers.

Funded by The Betterment Fund and a USDA Rural Development grant, the program was developed by REDGlobal Group and based on a similar product designed for the Oregon tourism industry.

The four-part, web-based program uses videos and slides to demonstrate exceptional customer service skills, and is followed by a timed, 29-question quiz that requires a grade of 80% in order for students to earn their Welcome ME certificate.

"Being one of the largest, most tax-productive industries in the state, we feel that everyone should be on their best behavior where visitors are concerned," says Vaughn Stinson, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association.

To that end, the Welcome ME program heavily emphasizes greeting visitors with one stock phrase, "Welcome to Maine."

Stinson was one of the program's early champions, requiring all current and future employees within the state's network of visitor centers to take the training. Good customer service is "extremely important for repeat business," Stinson says.

Mann, who helped to develop the program during her time as director of CenTRO, says the program responds to an industry need for convenient, consistent training offered at low or no cost. "There were barriers because of cost and getting workers to training, so we thought if it was online and free, it would meet all those needs," she says.

Too often those in the service industry forget they are selling a service, according to Mann. "We found that people were so focused on their product and they weren't focused on people, but whatever you think your product is, service is really your product," says Mann, who has since moved on to become the director of Husson's Research Institute for Tourism.

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