Brian Miller, University of Delaware
Bill Sullivan, University of Delaware
This case study discusses the challenge and success that emerged when developing a new hotel to be owned and operated for the specific rationale of providing hospitality and tourism students a live learning laboratory. Providing students with the opportunity to apply knowledge learned in the classroom with those hone in a practical experience is a key goal. The hospitality program at the University of Delaware found that the implementation of a long-term plan was not easy, and many unexpected challenges arose during the process. Challenges included negative reaction from the local hoteliers, delays in the construction process, and the unexpected resistance from initial students.
Academic programming in hospitality and tourism management programs is very diverse. Common curriculum blocks include business, nutrition, social sciences and professional studies. A common thread and attraction for students to many programs are the practical aspects of the education. Developing experiential learning opportunities can be very challenging for faculty, students, and industry partners. Today, program administers are seeking support and advice from a growing number of stakeholders including but not limited to faculty, student, governmental officials, industry, and industry recruiters.
Historically, early hospitality service professional programs always had a practical applied learning approach to student learning, yet today, many of the academic based programs have struggled to support an integrated practicum learning experience for postsecondary students who are working toward an advance baccalaureate degree. This chapter presents a case study from a medium size university located on the Eastern part of the United States. A presentation of the planning, developing and executing issues surrounding the implementation of an original hotel curriculum that included integrated experiential learning for all hospitality majors will be provided as well as the identification of key issues from both the faculty and student’s perspective.
Between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s there was a bevy of published reports from educators addressing the need for practical experiences in developing the future leaders of the hospitality and tourism industry. Since that time very little attention has been given to this topic. In a 1994 study by LeBruto and Murray discussing the educational value of “Captive Hotels” from the perspective of students, faculty and the industry, found that there were significant differences reported by students and faculty from programs with a captive hotel used for student learning and those from programs without such facilities (LaBruto and Murry, 1994). These researchers further assessed that there was no question regarding the efficacy on student experiences in programs with captive facilities.
A recent search of 4-year hospitality and tourism programs in the US yielded a tally of over 186 academic institutions offering this degree. The growth in hospitality programs is not limited to the US, as this phenomenon is occurring in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East. As the growth of academically based hospitality and tourism programs continues, it seems reasonable that programs will attempt to identify competitive advantages in their competitor set. Developing an integrated practical and theory-based program would appear to be a viable competitive strategy.
In early 2000s, the Department of Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management (HRIM) at the University of Delaware began the process of seeking approval for the development of a branded hotel located on the campus. The process took over 3 years to develop, which included approvals from University administration, local existing hoteliers, and local government. Additionally, the University needed to find a managing partner to operate the hotel and secure a branded hotel franchise. Once the approvals and necessary partners were in place, it took nearly an additional 3 years to get the hotel open to the public and to support student learning.
The main case
The University of Delaware is a Land Grant Public University, which receives public funding from the State of Delaware, however, the proportion of State support is relatively small compared to total operating income. The decision was made by the University to develop a for-profit entity to develop and operate a hotel for use as a learning laboratory for students in HRIM. In this initial for-profit entity, there was an ownership split between the University and the management partner. The management partner was responsible for the development of and eventual management of the hotel. Eventually a franchise agreement for a 126-room Courtyard by Marriott Hotel was secured by the management company. This hotel became the Learning Center for Lodging Operations curriculum for the HRIM program and was referred to as the Lodging Module (LodMod). The announcement of the hotel and its role in the Department’s curriculum led to a reorganization of the sequencing of courses for students enrolled in the LodMod to take 5 courses as a cohort group. Initially, this created some anxiety and stress for students as many of the Department’s students held jobs in the local town concurrently while enrolled in classes. Communicating the demands on students during the LodMod semester was an initial concern for faculty.
The LodMod semester included 4 academic courses taught in the salons located in the hotel. The courses were Management of Lodging Operations, Property Engineering, Managerial Accounting and Finance, and Marketing Hospitality Services. A fifth course was Management of Lodging Operations Practicum, which required students to work 140 hours in various shifts in the hotel working along-side hotel management and associates with direct guest contact.
Initial Elements of the LodMod Semester
All students enrolled for the semester in the LodMod were registered in all five courses. This requirement created up to 50 students as a cohort group, which made the semester unlike any other semester that students would have during their academic career at the university. The decision to create this requirement was done so that faculty would be able to schedule students in their rotation of hotel shifts and know that these shifts would not conflict with student’s class times.
Class times were set in the afternoon on Monday/Wednesday and in the morning of Tuesday/Thursday. Students could be assigned to work hotel shifts Monday/Wednesday mornings or Tuesday/Thursday afternoons or any time on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. At the beginning of the semester students would receive their individual hotel shift schedule. Prior to the beginning of the semester students were given the opportunity to request days for personal reasons that they would not be scheduled to work a hotel shift. Once students received their hotel shift schedule at the beginning of the semester, they were expected to complete their assigned shifts. Students were not allowed to request consideration for outside work or extracurricular activities (except for college sports participation).
Students were assigned hotel shifts in groups of two or more depending on the shift. In addition to actual hotel shifts, where students would be working alongside of a permanent hotel employee, the hotel management team also included shifts to learn the hotel’s PMS and reflect/debrief/discuss other hotel related topics (such as, orientation, revenue management, hotel projects, franchise standards evaluation, financial audits, etc.). Most hotel shifts were for four hours. Below is a list of hotel shifts:
Front Desk (AM), Front Desk (Midday), Front Desk (PM), Night Audit (11pm-7am), Housekeeping (room attendant), Housekeeping (supervisor). Manager on Duty (2 shifts), Restaurant (AM), Restaurant (PM), Administration, Maintenance / Engineering, Sales Calls, Catering (sales), Banquet (set up), Disaster Workshop Seminar.
With the addition of the bi-weekly hotel topic sessions and hotel related enhancement projects, students spent about 108 hours working in and for the hotel during the LodMod semester.
As noted above, the LodMod semester included four academic courses, each taught by a single faculty member. Most of the content for each course was presented at the discretion of the instructor, however, during each semester students were pre-assigned into groups and were assigned a US lodging market and required to prepare a comprehensive feasibility study. Each of the four instructors were required to supervise a portion of the feasibility study. Therefore, instructors had to include necessary content and in-class time to ensure that students were successful in the completion of the feasibility study project. At the end of the semester, student groups were required to present a 15-minute presentation of their project to the class and invited industry professionals, as the program matured some of these professionals were HRIM alumni.
Early on in the execution of the Lodging Module at UD, through the support of an Advisory Board member, faculty were able to request market data from Smith Travel Research (STR) for the assigned markets. This enabled the faculty to guide students in both their understanding and application of these data to their feasibility study projects. Since the development of the Certification in Hotel Industry Analytics (CHIA) by STR Share Center, students enrolled in the LodMod semester were required to complete and obtain the CHIA Certification.
Industry Training and Development Recognition
Since the hotel that students work in as part of the LodMod semester is a Courtyard by Marriott, students were also provided with a certificate in recognition of professional development in the Marriott training program. This recognition allowed for students to include this on their professional resumes.
Execution of the Strategy
The development and execution of the Lodging Module took considerable coordination between the hotel management team and the department’s faculty. The Managing Director of the hotel and an individual faculty lead the coordination efforts. The Managing Director took control to direct his team and the LodMod coordinator took control to direct the LodMod curriculum and faculty. Below are key issues that needed to be worked out on the hotel side:
- determination of shifts and related seminars for students, with source materials,
- integration with hotel staff and guests,
- evaluation of students and staff related to shifts,
- student standards – uniforms, parking, behavior, proprietary information,
- integration with safety and security issues,
- integration with other student time demands (sports, outside jobs, personal obligations),
- hotel enhancement projects,
- presentations and reports,
- end of semester recognition.
Below are key issues that needed to be worked out on the Faculty side:
- content of courses and linkage across the 4 academic classes with the hotel content,
- elements of the Feasibility Study Projects,
- coordinating student teams, lodging markets, securing STR data,
- schedule of student drafts of feasibility study sections,
- coordination of end of semester presentation and evaluation,
- end of semester recognition program.
Reflections and recommendations
Hotel market’s negative reaction
One of the initial concerns to move forward with the development of the University’s hotel was the negative reaction from the local hoteliers, who argued that the new hotel supply was not needed in the market and that the proposed hotel would have an unfair advantage with free student labour. Navigating through this unpopular view from existing hotel management was a significant obstacle. Fortunately, the University and Department had positive connections with these industry professionals, through existing university demand and a consistent labour force with university students.
Once the hotel was open it became clear to these hoteliers that students were not replacing hotel associates, they were merely learning from and shadowing. Additionally, the students worked with hotel management to invite area hotel managers to join them in a focused effort to collectively market Newark (Newark Hotel Co-Op) hotels for regional groups in alignment with the UD conference services facilities.
Delays in the construction process
At the time that the development of the hotel was occurring, the University had put in place a renovation and renewal of the central campus (The Green). These projects were funded through existing cash on hand and with the help of a favourable contractor. Much of the renovation work was specialized and was carried out far above the administration’s expectation. It was with this previous experience that the University offered the development of the hotel to this contractor. In the relatively short period of time from the announcement of the hotel, the selection of the contractor to build the property, the preparation of the site, and the foundation poured and the steel beams raised, the contractor filed for bankruptcy, leaving the site idle and vacant for over six months. The University’s administration scrambled to find another contractor that was willing (or rather incentivized) to pick up the project, with the hotel opening date moved back nearly 18 months. This delay caused angst among students who had been delaying their LodMod semester so that they would have the hotel as their practicum experience. This caused significant dissatisfaction from the students and stress for the faculty as they scrambled to provide an alternative experience that ended up not meeting either the student’s or faculty’s expectation. Once faculty and hotel staff communicated that all jobs are vital to guest service success, experiential learning and future management experience, this concern passed.
Unexpected resistance from initial students
Once the hotel development got back on track, the faculty and the hotel team began preparations to get the students involved with the opening of the hotel. The strategy was to develop teams of students to complete tasks that needed to be accomplished and would have needed additional hotel staff to complete. Faculty and the hotel’s leadership appreciated the excitement, energy and experience in opening a new hotel project and wanted our students to get this experience. Examples of these activities included: coordinating hotel parking layout/construction and identify policy for control of the space (managed by the hotel or by university parking services), development of a local marketing plan for surrounding businesses and university departments, creation of a VIP (very important parent) program, initiation of a Newark Hotel Co-Op, storage space allocations, etc.). These activities’ success was critical to the eventual operation of the hotel. However, students were not satisfied with the guidance and direction of these projects from the existing hotel team. It appeared that the student’s maturity level and industry experience hampered their view of the time spent and their own success in completing their assigned projects.
Similarly, dissatisfaction occurred with our initial students once the hotel opened. As would be expected, the University and the Department were very excited by the opening of the hotel. Faculty were excited for the expected experiential learning experience that this living laboratory was going to provide for students. What was very unexpected, was the way that the press presented their articles of the opening of the hotel and its integration of students into the operations. One of the initial articles included a photo of our students vacuuming the hallways of the hotel and opined if this was what higher education should be? This single article created a backlash from parents that ignited a protest by the students regarding the rationale/value of the lodging practicum experience. This unforeseen situation affected the faculty and took considerable effort to shake this viewpoint for many semesters.
Operational challenges for hotel staff to carry dual roles
Fortunately, the hotel team was initially hired with the expectation that the associates would all be involved with the training/mentoring/and support of the students. However, as with any new hospitality staff ramp up, not all selected employees continued employment for an extended period of time. A continual challenge for the hotel’s leadership is to keep its team members motivated to provide the same care and empathy for the students that they are expected to provide for the hotel’s guests. Evidence of the lack of this on the part of the hotel’s staff is manifested by students not receiving their expected amount of attention and guidance during hotel shifts. As the program matured, feedback on each student and hotel staff member was part of the shift evaluation process, this two way feedback was most informative.
However, the experience in this lodging practicum is that most of the hotel’s senior leadership (Managing Director, Director of Operations, HR/Accounting, Executive Chef) are still with the hotel since opening day and continue to be committed to the academic mission of the department. Their support and unwavering mentors of our students is noticed and appreciated by our students, faculty, industry and university administration.
Managing consistency of shift content and experience
Since the opening the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel and the commencement of the Lodging Module, there have been many changes both at the University and at the Department level. Of particular importance is the change in the Department’s name from Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Management to Hospitality and Sport Business Management, which one may suspect was a mind shift away from practical learning to a more theoretical and traditional management school educational experience. However, to date, this has not been the case. The Department still provides two laboratory/practical facilities to our students. First, we have a student run restaurant offering both lunch and dinner operations experience for our students. This facility is managed and lead by University staff/faculty. The facility only operates while students are on campus during the Fall and Spring semesters and demand is controlled by the facility’s leadership. Second, we have the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel, which is opened all year round, where demand is only controlled by the amount of supply (126 rooms, 2,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and food service capacity). Therefore, during the course that students are working in the hotel there will be times when the hotel demand is low and times when the hotel demand is at full capacity. Unlike the student run restaurant, were students’ practicum experience can be moderated by limiting/opening up demand, there is not this option at the hotel. So, there is the challenge to provide the lodging module students a consistent educational product while working shifts in the hotel. This challenge is ongoing and is addressed every semester.
Impact on guest service
Since the very first day that the hotel welcomed guests, the presence of students has had a significant impact on the service provided. This Courtyard by Marriott has consistently ranked in the upper percentile of Courtyard around the world in customer satisfaction. Almost daily, during the academic semesters the students in the LodMod are identified and recognized by guests for their great performance. Additionally, the VIP program developed by the first group of students in the lodging module program has been a resounding success and is highly favoured by university’s parents who visit campus.
Use of students in hotel sales calls has positive impact on hotel meeting business
In the 15 years that the hotel has been opened, the sales team, UD conference services and local industry partners (such as the Wilmington CVB) have used students to make sales calls to University Departments and the local community. These sales calls have proven to be a very valuable experience for students and have a consistently positive impact on hotel room and catering sales. Putting the work and experience of students in front of potential guests has proven to be a successful strategy to generate future bookings.
Coordination of Faculty to project-based learning and assessment
A lot has been learned in coordinating a valuable learning experience for our students. There have been many strategies deployed that quickly get modified the next semester, however, coordinating faculty to execute a project-based learning experience has stood the test of time. Students appreciate the time and effort that faculty give to their success. Throughout the semester students are working through terminology and activities that are novel to them, at times, feeling stressed and overwhelmed. However, at the end of the semester, when their projects are complete and their presentation (to fellow students and industry professionals) are positively recognized, there is an overwhelming appreciation of the work and effort that they have accomplished. Students are recognized by faculty and the hotel team by recognition of selected students as “Student of the Week” and from this list a “Student of the Semester”. The student of the semester is awarded an opportunity to attend a hotel investment conference with the President of the Management Company.
Opportunities for students to work with outside hotel development projects
Through the feasibility study project, selected student groups have been provided with the opportunity to work on real hotel feasibility projects. To date, the LodMod students and faculty have worked on 15 projects for industry professionals and firms.
Impression on Recruiters
Since the inception of the LodMod, the impression of our recruiters has been amazingly positive. Initially, recruiters were excited to hear that these students were provided with the LodMod experience. As time went on their comments changed from that is great to “WOW”, your student’s interactions with us stand out in their ability to discuss about important issues in hotels and their professionalism. A significant benefit of having a Marriott hotel for the LodMod is the ability to provide our students with the Management Trainee Designation from Marriott in the eyes of the recruiters.
The inclusion of a live learning practicum hotel experience for students seeking a baccalaureate degree in hospitality management adds significantly to the development of key skills for these future hospitality professionals, regardless of industry sector selected for a career. Buy-in and value of experiential learning from students, faculty and Administration is achievable but it takes time and a commitment to the long haul. In our experience, this lodging management practicum has led to better prepared students who have been exposed to industry data that provides them with the skill to integrate these data to real world projects. Additionally, the efforts put forth by the faculty and students has led to greater connection of the involved faculty and higher satisfaction and learning outcomes for our students.
LaBruto, S. & Murray, K. (1994). The Educational Value of “Captive Hotels”. Cornell Hotel & Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 35(4), 72-79.