Chapter 3: The Statler Hotel: A case study on the evolution of a learning laboratory

J. Bruce Tracey

J. Bruce Tracey, School of Hotel Administration, Cornell University


The purpose of this case study is to present an overview of the ways in which the Statler Hotel has been leveraged to support and enhance the mission of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. Using a historical lens, this analysis demonstrates the application of and benefits from using a multi-faceted, learning-while-doing instructional design strategy to develop a wide base of operational knowledge and strategic leadership skills that are grounded within a “Life is service” philosophy.


The Statler Hotel has played an instrumental role in supporting the educational mission of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration for over 70 years. Since its opening in 1950 as a 36-room inn, to the current 153-room full-service conference hotel, the Statler has served as the hands-on learning laboratory for students to apply and further develop the knowledge and skills that are integrated within the School’s curriculum and directly applicable to real-world industry settings.

The hotel was named after Ellsworth Milton Statler, who attended one of the early industry events that was hosted on campus. Statler built his first hotel in 1907 in Buffalo, New York, and later became one of the most successful and influential US hoteliers of his time. While initially unsupportive, Statler’s public endorsement and financial endowment provided a substantial part of the initial and ongoing funding that secured the future of the School of Hotel Administration, and ensured that the Statler Hotel would remain a centerpiece of the educational program. And perhaps more importantly, Statler’s motto, “Life is service – the one who progresses provides his fellow man and little more, a little better service,” provided the bedrock for the initial and ongoing educational programming.

The Origins: Initial Design Strategy and Program Content

When the School of Hotel Administration was founded in 1922, the concept of a “practice hotel” was a key aspect of the initial programming objectives. As research has now demonstrated (e.g., Tracey, Kavanaugh, & Tannenbaum, 1995; Tracey, Hinkin, Tannenbaum, & Mathieu, 2001; Tews & Tracey, 2009), it is critical to cultivate a supportive context that facilitates the effective transfer and further refinement of the knowledge and skills that are acquired within formal learning settings. Unfortunately, the U.S.’s first higher education program in hotel management lacked the necessary on-campus facilities for promoting its primary mission. Moreover, while the industry’s support – including the American Hotel Association (currently known as the American Hotel and Lodging Association) – for the Hotel School was strong, the same could not be said of the University.

For the first several years, the School did not have its own dedicated space. As such, students developed and applied their skills primarily within the experimental kitchens of the Home Economics Hall, as well as through a variety of educational and social events that the students facilitated on campus throughout the academic year. While much of the coursework was delivered through typical instructor-led methods, the classroom and university context allowed students to extend their learning through numerous practical applications, including those that offered substantial influence in operational decision making. For example, students were given substantial latitude to develop new menu items, and even new dining concepts that were developed and tested within the program space. This experiential approach to instructional design provided a direct and systematic means for developing cognitive and behavioural skills (e.g., evaluating and creating) that go well beyond the mere application of newly acquired knowledge and skills (cf., Bloom, 1956). As such, instructional practices that afforded students opportunities to experiment while learning were incorporated throughout the curriculum in as many ways as feasible.

In terms of content, students completed traditional arts and sciences classes in topics such as English, biology, and economics during the first two years, and then focused on hotel-specific courses in the last two years. For example, of the 105 credit hours required for graduation in 1926, students were obligated to complete over 50 credit hours of classes that covered a wide range of industry-specific topics, including hotel operations, hotel power plants, food and nutrition, meats and meat products, hotel accountancy, and the law as related to inn keeping (cf., Edmondson, 1996). However, the active learning-by-doing approach was primarily limited to food service contexts, and much of the content associated with hotel operations did not include application opportunities. As such, the respective learning outcomes associated with hotel operations were primarily conceptual in nature.

Operational Applications…Without A Hotel

One of the most influential efforts to engage students directly in hotel operations was a student-led initiative in 1926. Hotel School students requested and were granted the opportunity to organize a dinner party in one of the campus residence halls for a group of industry leaders. The event, Hotel Ezra Cornell (HEC), was designed to showcase the learning outcomes of hospitality management education. The students were quite inventive in transforming the space and delivered a remarkably smooth and polished service experience. They also demonstrated strong improvisational skills when things did not go as planned. Moreover, the event was successful enough to impress the approximately 600 guests, and later university administrators, such that they provided the initial funding that was required for the School to operate as a standalone department. Since then, HEC has been an annual part of the School’s educational programming, and the Stater Hotel has played an increasingly significant role in the evolution of HEC and similar efforts to contextualize the learning process.

Over the next decade and a half, the School of Hotel Administration continued to attract more students, and the number of faculty – full- and part-time – and curricular programming grew accordingly. Unfortunately, the plans for continued growth, which included the construction of a stand-alone facility dedicated to hospitality management education, were halted with the onset of World War II and the resulting declines in enrolments and financial resources. However, the School maintained an efficient approach to program delivery, and due to the early programming successes and significant industry support, was poised to welcome hundreds of students back to campus after the war.

In 1941, plans were reintroduced to design a new building that would accommodate up to 450 students. But while enrolments were growing, the project was put on hold again for several years due to the economic conditions that remained from the Great Depression and World War II, as well as concerns that developing and operating a hotel on campus may jeopardize the University’s tax-exempt status. One of the turning points in the efforts to commence with the project was a proposal by the School’s first academic director and later Dean, Howard Meek, to include a faculty club in the design of the new building that the School would operate and manage. This provision was important because it not only addressed a broader faculty need/want, it reduced the University’s risk and need to fully finance development and construction. It also afforded the burgeoning program with additional programming options. After a somewhat difficult and lengthy approval and construction process, the new facility was opened in 1950 and included classrooms, the faculty club, and a 36-room Statler Inn.

Educational Programming at the Statler

The new building set expectations very high. The Inn was viewed as the University’s de facto lodging option for visiting scholars and dignitaries, as well as the School’s “teaching hotel”. As such, the operational, service, and financial outcomes were closely monitored. Moreover, Meek fully embraced E.M. Statler’s “Life is service” motto. It was not only a fundamental feature of the School’s curriculum, but critically important for meeting and exceeding the educational and operational expectations. With these factors in mind, Meek set out to ensure that the students who graduated from the Hotel School learned to “live rewardingly by making the hotel business an instrument of service to others” (Edmondson, 1996: 77), and he knew that the newly developed facilities would play a significant role in fulfilling this vision.

When the Inn opened in 1950, the applied elements of the curriculum were immediately integrated within the operational environment. Students had three new dining outlets, including a large institutional kitchen, a faculty club, and a full-service hotel that included a ballroom and meeting space as a platform for applying and further developing the knowledge and skills that were introduced in the classroom. For example, students would learn the basics of front office operations in their hotel operations courses, and then practice their newly acquired knowledge by working with faculty and Inn staff at the bell stand, reception desk, reservations, and guest services. This design afforded a direct opportunity to develop and refine the behavioural skills associated with technical and service-related requirements that are difficult to foster in classroom settings (e.g., operating Inn’s the property management system, developing effective service recovery skills, etc.). Moreover, while instructional strategies within the operational environment followed a structured and directed on-the-job approach to learning, the primary facilitation methods relied on coaching and mentoring. This personalized process was a critically important design feature in that it not only offered the opportunity for customized, real-time feedback that strengthened the knowledge and skills that were taught in the classroom, but also provided students with a strong and supportive basis for developing life-long relationships, which further reinforced the value of service to others.

Another key feature of the integration of the School’s curriculum within the Statler Inn was the significant focus on leadership development. While the servant leadership construct was not formally conceptualized until later (cf., Greenleaf, 1970; Sendjaya & Sarros, 2002), the School’s curriculum and applications within the Statler Inn were clearly aligned with this particular framework. For example, the “Life is service” motto is clearly consistent with one of the core traits/behaviours associated with servant leaders – putting others’ needs first. Another key aspect of servant leadership is helping others grow and perform to their fullest capacity, and the primary means for developing this important characteristic was giving students increasing responsibilities within the Inn. As noted above, students worked alongside full-time staff, and participated in a wide range of decision making and problem solving activities that had a direct impact on the Inn’s service quality and operational performance. In addition, students who assumed supervisory and managerial responsibilities played a significant role in the development of their fellow students. This peer-to-peer process provided an extension of the support provided by the School’s faculty and Inn’s staff to promote a hands-on and collaborative approach to learning, and concurrently reinforced the “Life is service” philosophy.

Working at the Statler also offered opportunities to develop skills and traits that go well beyond those required for various operational roles and those associated with the servant and related models of leadership. As noted above, the lessons from the Great Depression (and other significant events since then) taught students to be resilient, resourceful, and sometimes creative. For example, the entertainment selected for the inaugural HEC cancelled their performance three days prior to the event. As such, a group of students borrowed Meek’s car and drove to Rochester, New York to solicit support from a general manager (GM) whom the students had never met. After listening to their proposal, the GM arranged and paid for the services of another orchestra to play the event. While the educational curriculum did not formally incorporate topics such as strategic adaptation until much later (1980s), the ability to respond effectively to unforeseen circumstances was a central part of the educational and operational experiences the School was hoping to shape.

Despite the austere circumstances that remained for several years, HEC and related events continued to play a key part of the educational agenda because students became extremely proficient in using their ingenuity and leveraging their relationships to secure support – financially and otherwise – to advance their educational agenda. It is also noteworthy that the effectiveness of these initiative-taking efforts, as well as the many opportunities for students to be inventive and experimental while working in Statler’s operations, have prompted many graduates to pursue entrepreneurial endeavours and start new businesses. (The School’s current entrepreneurship programming is supported through the Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship.)

Another important capability that was fostered by the educational programming at the Statler Inn emerged from the rapid growth that occurred from the 1950s to the 1980s. The global expansion of the hotel industry that occurred during this time compelled the School to adopt a more internationalized curriculum, and systematic efforts were taken to help students cultivate a heightened level of cultural awareness and acumen. For example, a broad array of cuisines, amenities, and service standards were introduced within the Inn’s operations to expose students to emerging trends and practices from around the world. In addition, an increase in not only the number but also the diversity of visitors who came to campus, especially from outside the U.S., provided students with additional opportunities to develop and further refine their guest service skills.

The good news was that the School’s enrolments grew to over 700 students, well beyond the original plans. Moreover, due to the intensely interactive approach to learning and success in leadership development, the industry’s appetite for the School’s graduates was quite high. Unfortunately, this situation created a heavy burden on the Inn and its staff to provide adequate opportunities for students to gain much needed operational experience. As such, a significant fund raising campaign was launched to upgrade the educational facilities and build a larger, 150-room hotel that included a conference centre and executive education facility. The Statler Inn officially closed in 1986, and the new property was reopened in 1988 as the Statler Hotel, a four-star hotel, featuring 153 guest rooms, that now serves a globally diverse student body and customer base.

Exploiting New Opportunities

The new hotel provided a more extensive means to advance the School’s evolving curriculum. To further support and reinforce the “Life is service” philosophy, six additional principles – ethics, excellence, caring and sharing, personal growth, financial independence, and fun – were adopted to guide the hotel’s efforts in supporting the School’s educational mission. For example, the priority on ethics was reinforced through ongoing and open discussions between students, hotel staff, and faculty about the need for personal accountability and relying on multiple perspectives when addressing challenging dilemmas. In addition, the Statler Hotel offered a context to examine a wide array of real-world ethical challenges – from the little “short cuts” that may undermine standards of cleanliness, to bigger issues associated with confidentiality (e.g., guest information) and deception (e.g., room rates). The primary objective was to help students feel more confident about effectively managing the “grey area” they will inevitably face throughout their careers.

The new space also provided the hotel with additional programming opportunities to engage students and further enrich their operational learning experiences. For example, the new J. Willard Marriott Executive Education Center became host to a number of programs that attracted industry professionals from around the world. Given the Statler Hotel’s location on a university campus in a rural upstate New York town, the ability to “bring the industry to campus” gave students an additional means of working with and learning directly from a very diverse group of experienced leaders, and created new opportunities to extend their network of industry contacts.

One of the most significant curricular developments during the 1990s was the development of “concentrations” in which students could choose to specialize in a particular area of study. One of the areas focused on hospitality leadership, and as a complement to the additional course requirements, a formal Hotel Leadership Development Program (HLDP) was implemented to provide students with an even more expansive set of options for gaining operational experience at the Statler Hotel. In contrast to prior leadership development efforts, HLDP not only offered students supervisory and managerial responsibilities, but they also had significant influence and decision making authority (e.g., selection of soft goods for room renovations, room pricing strategies, environmental sustainability initiatives, etc.). Students who are selected for this “elite” learning track complete a series of seminars, and then have successive opportunities to gain increasing levels of responsibility across all hotel departments, up to and including planning/executive committee roles. The seminars are facilitated by industry guest speakers and Statler’s full-time management team, who also serve as mentors and provide both professional and personal guidance. The program current program also provides incentives for students who are promoted to management positions, including a post-graduation Weisz Family Statler Hotel Fellowship Award that offers students a one-year full time management position at the Statler Hotel and a substantial cash award.

The Statler Hotel has also evolved as a context for pursuing independent study, which offers students the option to explore topics that are not formally or comprehensively addressed in their required and elective coursework. In this self-directed model, students identify a topic of interest and submit a proposal that describes the scope of work, key learning outcomes, and primary deliverable(s). Proposals are jointly approved by hotel staff and a sponsoring faculty member, who meet with students on a regular and frequent basis to ensure they are making adequate progress. The hotel also provides an increasingly important setting for facilitating the School’s evolving curricular emphasis on strategic thinking skills. For example, the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the ensuing Great Recession sharply reduced demand at the Statler – and industry as a whole – and made forecasting extremely difficult. Students who were working at the Hotel during this time learned first-hand about the implications of maintaining rate integrity and a dedication to service quality for managing – and leading – during an economic downturn. Taking advantage of the learning opportunities associated with these types of challenging circumstances – from the Great Depression, to the current COVID-19 pandemic – has become hallmark of student life and working at the Statler Hotel. Involving students directly in property-level decisions and solving real-world problems provides an important means for developing strategic capabilities that are critical for helping organizations respond effectively to financial crises and related environmental shocks (cf., Wenzel, Stanske, & Lieberman, 2020), as well as the competitive challenges the arise during periods of positive economic and industry growth.

Summary and Conclusion

The Statler Hotel offers a critically important context for helping students gain knowledge and skills that cannot be developed exclusively in the classroom. The educational and operational programming is grounded within a “Life is service” ideal and an active learning model that utilizes a multi-faceted instructional design strategy. Using a combination of direct instruction and a highly experiential and immersive approach to learning, the Statler Hotel provides students with numerous opportunities to develop a wide array of capabilities – from perseverance through initiative-taking and creativity, to a broad, strategically- and socially-conscious mindset – that are critical for effective leadership in an ever-changing global hospitality industry.


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Practical Learning in Hospitality Education Copyright © 2021 by J. Bruce Tracey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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