Chapter 6: The Commercial Campus Hotel: An alternative model to the traditional hotel school?

Brian Hay

Brian Hay, Heriot-Watt University


For too long, hospitality education has relied on established methods for training its future managers, with the traditional hotel school often seen as the gold standard in hospitality pedagogy. This chapter suggests that now is the time to consider new hospitality education models, particularly for non-hospitality students. For such students, a possible new model could be developed around the growing number of free-standing commercial university campus hotels, which are not linked to university hospitality education programmes. This chapter suggests that, for both hospitality and non-hospitality students, this model offers an alternative and perhaps more relevant method of entry into the hospitality sector.


All research has a beginning, and often it is driven by a literature review and previous studies that highlighted areas for further investigation. However, the starting point for this chapter was different; it was an observation by a non-hospitality student who was working in a campus hotel: “I never thought of working in hotels, but now I am thinking about an M.Sc. in hotel management” (Hay, 2020, p. 12).

The worldwide spread of Covid-19 in 2020/21 had a profound impact on the hospitality sector: some hospitality businesses failed, some adapted to the new normal, while others emerged as the sector responded in different ways to the future needs of the consumer. As with all profound societal changes, there are always calls to return to the comfort of the tried and tested methods of the past, and hospitality education is not immune to this call. However, societal shocks also provide an opportunity to explore new opportunities, for, as suggested by Jones and Boer (2018, p. 161) “Innovative developments in hospitality education are becoming rare occurrences”, due to: bureaucratic difficulties, such as who is really responsible for the quality of the programme; fear of the unknown, for example the development of new hospitality programmes that are widely different from the current narrow hospitality education model.

Since the establishment of the first hotel school, the Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne in Switzerland in 1893 (Yong et al. 2019), the hospitality sector has viewed the hotel school as the ideal model to provide education and skills development for its future managers (King & Tang, 2020). It can be argued that traditional hotel schools satisfied past markets, when hotels, travel, and hospitality services were designed to meet the needs of the well-travelled elite. However, in today’s market of budget hotels, low-cost airlines, online booking systems, and the importance of consumer experiences over physical products, a different range of skill sets are required to better meet ever-changing consumer expectations. Historically, hotel schools have been seen, for perhaps far too long, as the gold standard of hospitality education. They and their associated hospitality education programmes, through restricted admission policies and driven by an ideology that only hotel school-trained students possess the skill sets necessary to work in the higher echelons of the sector, established themselves as the de facto gatekeepers to the hospitality sector. Formica (1996), Morrison and O’Mahony (2003) and Yong et al. (2019) all argue that this model places too much focus on skill-based vocational education for a very narrow and elite segment of hospitality students.

The two major criticisms of the existing hospitality education model are: first, its failure to produce graduates who rise to the most senior positions in hospitality, as such positions are often filled by non-hospitality graduates who have a wider range of skills sets than hospitality graduates. Second, driven in part by the close association of hospitality education with the hotel school model, hospitality educators often associate hospitality education with employment in the commercial hotel sector, rather than recognising the wide range of positions that may be open to hospitality students, out with the hospitality sector. Perhaps a more serious criticism of the existing model is its failure to recognise the education of the increasing number of non-hospitality school-trained staff, including students working in casual employment (in bars, cafés, fast food restaurants, etc.) for whom hospitality could be a valid career option. For such students, this may not only be their first experience of working in the hospitality sector but could also provide an opportunity to apply their specialised non-hospitality university-acquired skills (information technology, languages, engineering, etc.) within a hospitality work environment (Hay, 2020).

The aims of this chapter are as follows:

  • To deconstruct the idea of the traditional hotel school as the solitary future model for hospitality education.
  • To advocate that a commercial university campus hotel, without the constraints of accepted hospitality pedagogy, can provide a more relevant and legitimate career entry point into hospitality for both hospitality and non-hospitality students.

Literature review

In the interest of brevity, this literature review focuses on and draws examples from three different locations (USA, Hong Kong [SAR China], UK) as they all have similar Western developed campus hotel models. This is not to dismiss other countries, such as Malaysia, Thailand and China, but their campus hotels have different development priorities (King & Tang, 2020).

Since the creation of the Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne in Switzerland, the traditional model for campus hotels has been the hotel school, with a strong link to campus-based hospitality management education programmes. There is no one universal model for the operation of campus hotels; some are associated with a specific hotel brand, such as the Hilton on the campus of the University of Houston (USA), and others are owned by a university but managed by a commercial company (Alfond Inn at Rollins College, Florida). Other operational models include the Pousada de Mong-Há Hotel in Macau (SAR China), managed by the Macao Institute for Tourism Studies, a public sector provider of vocational hospitality education, while the Edge Hotel School (England) operates in partnership with an education charity (Edge Foundation) and the University of Essex.

Despite the creation of the first degree in Hotel Administration in the USA some 100 years ago in 1922 at Cornell University, the first research on university campus hotels did not emerge until LeBrutto and Murray (1994), in their study of USA campus hotels, identified 12 university hospitality programmes that had “captive training facilities” (p. 73), that is, hotel schools. Some 20 years later, Tripodi and Baltzar (2015), in another survey of USA captive training hotels, recorded 16 such hotels but also crucially noted that there now appeared “to be quite a few hotels on campuses where there are no hospitality programs” (p. 266). This growth in USA campus hotels continues, for example, the University of Texas and Texas A&M University opened new-build campus hotels with no formal links to any hospitality programmes on their campuses in 2015 and 2018, respectively.

Hess (2017), Powell (2017) and Rhodes (2017) also highlighted another trend in the USA: a growth in new commercial hotels, close to, but not on or formally associated with a university. This growth in such campus hotels is reflected in the emergence of a hotel brand aimed specifically at the millennial market (, 2020) and in the popularity of a college-ranking site (, 2020), which lists the 50 best university hotels close to or on USA college campuses. However, far more interesting is that none of the university hotels listed was associated with a hospitality education programme. Dimitropoulou (2020), in a listing of the 50 best hospitality and hotel management programmes in the world, noted that more than half (29) were in the USA, followed by 7 in Switzerland, 3 in the UK, another 3 in India and 1 each in 8 other countries. It is also notable that of these 50 programmes, less than 10 were associated with a residential training hotel/school, suggesting that an associated training hotel/school is not a necessity for a hospitality programme to be classified as one of the best.

Looking further afield, Hay (2020) suggested that the growth in campus hotels “is perhaps best illustrated by the development of three Hong Kong campus hotels” (p. 5), each with different operational models and markets (ICON Hotel, Hyatt, T Hotel). Recent research on campus hotels in Asia and, in particular in Hong Kong, has been undertaken by King and Tang (2020), who noted that the ICON Hotel on the campus of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, “appears to have achieved both its teaching outcome and the desire to be a viable hospitality operation”; however, they also cautioned that “some training hotels may emphasize profitability over educational objectives” (p. 51). King and Qui (2017) highlighted that Asian hospitality providers have developed innovative methods for developing their hospitality students’, for example, paid internships in university owned/managed training hotels. While Tse (2012) praised both the importance and quality of hospitality training in Hong Kong training hotels within a commercial environment, Ninarum and Wongleedee (2019) suggested that such hotels need to more openly recognise and acknowledge their service shortcomings.

Although not unique to the UK, over the last few decades, UK universities, driven by the twin pressures of increasing student numbers and decreasing central government funding, have viewed the conference market as a source of additional funding (Woodward, 2013). However, to attract what Connell (1996) calls learning tourists (conference delegates and academic visitors) will in itself be insufficient to support a campus hotel. For, as noted by Powell (2017) in a study of one campus hotel, only 30% of its hotel guests had a link to the college; this suggests that campus hotels need to look outside their own internal market for additional guests.

In the UK, building campus hotels is not a new development; for example, in 1991, Loughborough University built what can best be described as a sport-focused hotel (Loughborough University, 2020). More recently, campus hotels in the UK have mostly been built on the campuses of universities created by the 1960’s expansion of UK university education: Aston, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Essex, Heriot-Watt, Keele, Lancaster, Loughborough, Nottingham and Stirling Universities. While there is no single operational model (charity, commercial hotel, university-managed hotel, franchised hotel), only one of these new campus hotels was associated with a hospitality programme/hotel school, namely the Edge Hotel School at Essex University, which was developed through the support of an educational charity. Research on UK campus hotels is limited, but Jones and Boer (2018) explored the rationale for the development of the Essex University Hotel School and highlighted the importance of a hotel school in “developing a real world of learning” (p. 161) approach to hospitality education. However, this real-world model seems to be centred around the acquisition of practical skills provided by a training restaurant, rather than an opportunity to develop higher forms of skill development that can contribute to the student’s educational development. Hay’s (2020) study of an independent commercial campus hotel at Heriot-Watt University explored the views of its students and staff with regard to having a fully commercial campus hotel on their campus, and the importance of open access to all the hospitality spaces for all campus users. Other operational models for campus hotels in the UK continue to be explored, with Surrey University (2018) proposing the creation of a ‘learning hotel’. However, it is noticeable from the literature review that none of these studies explored the educational needs of non-hospitality students.

Looking to the future, two recent and interesting trends in the operation of independent commercial campus hotels have emerged, which highlights their flexibility in responding to fast-changing market conditions. First, in the USA, there are examples of campus hotels used to quarantine students suspected of being infected with Covid-19 (Oliver, 2020). Second, as suggested in the introduction, new businesses will emerge as the hospitality sector responds in different ways to the future needs of the consumer. A start-up company, The U Experience (Bragg & Russell, 2020), plans to buy hotels near university campuses and to develop them as “resort campuses, through COVID-19-safe bubbles” (p. 1).

Research method

Despite the lack of any hospitality programmes or even courses in 2017 on the campus of Heriot-Watt University (UK), a fully independent commercial hotel was opened, operating under the Marriott Courtyard brand. Its development was driven by a number of factors: increasing the number of campus research institutions, the development of the Scottish National Sports Performance Centre and growing the number of academic visitors/conferences. In addition, like most UK universities, reflecting a shift in education funding from the traditional academic learning model to an educational commercial business model, there was a commercial imperative to seek external sources of funding, if the campus hotel was to be built.

Since the research for this chapter was essentially explorative, its qualitative approach was based on that adopted in an earlier study on the same campus hotel (Hay, 2020). The sample used for this chapter was based on a type of non-probability sample, a convenience sample. Zikmund et al. (2011) suggest that this method is useful in explorative research, but as noted by Saumure and Given (2008), given the self-selection nature of the sample, it may be biased.

To collect the data, face-to-face interviews were conducted in early 2020 with undergraduate students who were working or had worked in the Heriot-Watt University campus hotel. Based on the recommendations of Marshall et al. (2013) and Thomson (2010) that 30 interviews should be enough to find commonalities within the data, 30 interviews were conducted, which generated some 9 hours of discussions. To collect the data, a desk was set up outside the university’s main catering outlet, with a sign inviting undergraduate students who had worked/were still working in the campus hotel to take part in the study. While this method had the advantage of conducting interviews without prearranged appointments, it also had some disadvantages: the openness of the environment meant it was not possible to record the interviews, and as only one person conducted the interviews, the results were based on the researcher’s notes rather than full transcripts.

The development of the interview topics, while based on insights provided by the literature review, were designed to open up discussions with the interviewees about the campus hotel, rather than to provide answers to a set of questions. Driven by the two aims of the study, the research methodology used semi-structured questions, as this allowed the interviewees to highlight issues that they, rather than the researcher, thought was important (Waller et al. 2016).

A thematic approach was used to analyse the data, for, as noted by Braun and Clarke (2006), this provides an opportunity to identify patterns or themes. The researcher’s notes from each of the 30 interviews were first grouped into a series of codes so as to identify common issues. From these issues, a series of patterns emerged, which were categorised into one of two themes (Table 1). One of the practical challenges in thematic analysis is to allocate the codes to themes because, as Braun et al. (2019) noted, in seeking to establish the strengths of themes, there is no definitive sample size; rather, the inclusion of a code within a theme “should be informed by pragmatic and subjective considerations” (p. 842). Given that words are powerful tools, in the results section, they are used to illustrate the key messages emerging from the two themes, for, as suggested by O’Gorman and Macintosh (2014), using the actual words of the interviewees to tell a story is one of the strengths of thematic analysis.

Table 1: Thematic map

Thematic map
Themes Codes
Do the training and work experiences provided by a campus hotel encourage non-hospitality students to consider a career in hospitality? Not thought about a career in hospitality or tourism but would now consider this as a career.

Working in hotels was hard real-life work.

Working in a campus hotel was fun, but it was not a real job.

Training provided by the hotel was really focused, and we got paid for attending courses.

It helped to be working alongside other students.

Learnt a lot by working alongside real people in real jobs.

The university careers service had very little information about graduate training programmes in hotels.

The university discouraged me to consider a career in hospitality or tourism.

Could the hospitality education/training provided by a commercial campus hotel offer an alternative pedagogical model for a new type of hospitality training hotel? Real-life hospitality/tourism courses taught by the hotel staff could expand the university teaching programmes.

Students already gain a lot of work experience by working in research centres [institutions] on campus, so why not work in a hotel.

Hospitality is a lot more than serving drinks and meals; it involves lots of unseen technical skills.

Given the number of public/commercial research institutions already on the campus, the campus hotel could enhance the university’s research reputation/outputs.

The university could form links with further education colleges/teaching universities in the local area to provide real-life [hospitality] training programmes.

The [campus] hotel could act as a place for hospitality training in Edinburgh/Scotland.

Findings and discussions

Theme 1: Do the training and work experience provided by a campus hotel encourage non-hospitality students to consider a career in hospitality?

The interviewees used the terms ‘hospitality and tourism’ interchangeably and saw little difference between such terms. They tended to see the campus hotel not as a building that provided a service (rooms, food, etc.) but as a facility for experiences (meeting friends, workmates, colleagues, etc.). They also clearly saw the campus hotel as a place where they could gain real work experience, while also working alongside their friends. That is, the campus hotel provided the best of two worlds: work experience and friendship. However, they were also aware that for some of their work colleagues, the campus hotel was not ‘pretend work’, and this helped them to develop a stronger work ethic as they knew that real people’s lives/income were dependent on their approach to work.

There was much praise for the quality of the training provided by the campus hotel, not only from those working in front-of-house positions but also from those in support positions, such as revenue management, accounting, human resources and IT. Indeed, it was clear that the permanent campus hotel staff recognised that they had access to a ready supply of skilled (if not fully trained) temporary staff. However, the hotel managers, while supporting training, also recognised that it was expensive, but by encouraging the undergraduate students to work in the hotel for two to three years, through the provision of hospitality training, they developed a pseudo ‘staff loyalty scheme’. The training opportunities provided by the hotel certainly raised awareness among the students of the broad range of working opportunities provided by the hospitality sector. However, there was clearly a discrepancy between the quality of the skills training provided to the students by the hotel and the recognition of these skills by the university careers service. The university careers service failure to recognise the skills gained by students working in the campus hotel, highlights a poor understanding of the breadth of skills required by the hospitality sector.

The student’s loyalty to the hotel was a surprising and frequently mentioned topic. This trait is often associated with hotel guests, but it was difficult to understand why this issue was raised by students. Perhaps it was driven by the quality of the training, the perception that they were paid above the average pay rate, or the ease of access to paid work for students living on campus.

I have previously worked in casual jobs in cafés/bars but working in a hotel alongside other women [like me] made me take my job much more seriously. [2nd year Chemical Engineering student]

I spoke to one of the assistant hotel managers about a permanent job in hotels, and she encouraged me to seek help from the university careers service. They were rubbish, and implied that working in a hotel was not for language graduates. [4th year Modern Languages student]

I started working in the hotel café making cappuccinos, but one day I helped a guest with their email. The manager spoke to me afterwards and asked for help with a PowerPoint issue. The next week, I was asked to help with a broken link to central reservations, and when I sorted this out, I got transferred to the IT team with a big pay rise. [4th year Computer Science student]

When I saw your sign, I thought it was a great topic to research. The hotel work was my first real job, and I am really grateful for the experience. [2nd year Civil Engineering student]

Some of my friends thought working in the campus hotel was demeaning for a science student, but as a shy person it helped me understand the importance of working in groups. Also, speaking to hotel guests helped me to be more assertive. I am a big fan of the hotel. [1st year Physics student]

Theme 2: Could the hospitality education/training provided by a commercial campus hotel offer an alternative pedagogical model for a new type of hospitality training hotel?

The students, when discussing the opportunities provided by the campus hotel, focused on the quality of the training, but when discussing the opportunities for the university, focused on the education benefits. They had clearly thought about linking the training and work experience provided by the campus hotel to the possible pedagogical opportunities for the university. This was surprising given the strong science/engineering focus of the university, but perhaps this reflects a Scottish tradition, that favours a broad university education over a narrow technical education. The students were aware that working in other campus establishments (research institutions/centres/laboratories, retail outlets, sports centres) helped with their skill development, and highlighted both the formal and informal links between the university staff/departments and such institutions. However, they saw a discrepancy between the training provided by the campus hotel and the education programmes provided by the university and could not understand why the university failed to develop teaching/research links to the campus hotel.

The students had a surprisingly wide understanding of the hospitality education/training programmes in other local universities. When expanding on the issue, it appeared that some had explored the possibility of postgraduate study in hospitality/tourism, while others had spoken to their line managers, who were aware of training opportunities in other local universities. There was a widely held view among the students that the university had failed to acknowledge that hospitality and tourism was a key economic sector in Scotland, accounting for 5% of Scotland’s GDP. They suggested that the campus hotel not only offered an opportunity for the university to diversify its mainly engineering/science teaching programmes, but also provided an opportunity to develop a new centre of excellence in Scotland for hospitality education/research, by making use of the wide range of technical skills already provided by the university. For example, when asked how their own degree programmes could be linked to hospitality education, all the engineering students and most of the science students were able to provide examples from their work experience. It was clear that they would openly welcome hospitality options in their current degrees, and, based on real-life tasks drawn from their campus hotel work experience, some suggested courses, including “ventilation issues in hotel air circulation” (mechanical engineering); “modern hotel furniture design” (architectural engineering); and “management of cyber-attacks in hotel booking reservations systems” (computer science). This raises the question as to how such courses could be provided and the type of hospitality education model that could deliver such training. One interesting suggestion outlined by the students was the development of joint degrees, such as Mechanical Engineering with Hospitality, Urban Planning with Hospitality/Tourism or even joint degrees with recognised international hotel brands.

The university encourages us to gain work experience in the campus research institutes and to use this experience to develop a final year project. When I suggested I could use my campus hotel experience by modelling their pricing policies, this was rejected. [4th year Property Management student]

The senior hotel staff would make great teachers; they know how the real-world works, but none of them had ever been asked to speak in our classes, but they have spoken at Napier and QMU [two local teaching universities]. [2nd year Chemistry student]

The university is missing an opportunity to broaden its teaching programmes, but the hotel staff have no contact at all with the university staff. [3rd year Brewing student]

Given that the university focuses on practical research-focused degrees, I don’t understand why it does not work with the hotel to run courses in specialised tourism and hospitality subjects. By that, I do not mean cooking and making coffees but running a commercial business and all the practical issues that this involves. [4th year Structural Engineering student]

The university offers a number of joint subject degrees, and it is missing a trick by not linking our degrees to hospitality. [3rd year Building Engineering student]

Some of my friends at other universities are taking degrees in partnership with major engineering companies, so why can we not offer a joint degree with say Hilton Hotels. [4th year Electrical Engineering student]

Conclusions and implications

The chapter questions why today, and much more importantly, in the future, the restrictive practices of the traditional hotel school should be seen as the only and the best method to provide hospitality education. It argues that the hotel school model has failed to recognise that hospitality education is more than cooking skills, silver service or even warm interpersonal interactions, best provided by one of the declining number of hotel schools. Arguably, the current hotel school training model has failed to recognise that customers’ aspirations, needs and wants have changed, and that we are moving into an era of contactless payments over credit card payments, machine interactions over personal interactions, fast service over slow service, experiences over physical products and, maybe even, hospitality services over hospitality interactions. This chapter suggests that university hospitality departments have failed to recognise the opportunities provided by the growing number of interdisciplinary teaching programmes, outside their own traditional narrow range of hospitality subjects. To thrive in the future, hospitality education needs to develop a ‘go big, or go away’ education model and needs to break the connection between a university’s hospitality programme and the traditional hotel school model.

More importantly, the existing hospitality education model has failed to recognise that many non-hospitality trained students work and thrive in a hospitality setting without setting foot in a hotel school. For far too long, such students have been seen as second-class workers compared to those who trained in hotel schools, resulting in their real-life hotel work experience, along with their specialised university education skills, lost to the hospitality sector. This failure is perhaps due to the low regard held by society of hospitality, as both a service and a career. This perception may have become institutionalised within universities, for example in the comments by the university careers service, resulting in hospitality not seen as a valid career choice, irrespective of a student’s degree. It may also be due to the hospitality sector’s failure to recognise that students with a non-hospitality degree, but with work experience in a campus hotel, may offer a different, but just as valuable, skill set from that of hotel school-trained students.

While rejecting the existing hotel school model, this chapter does not reject the need for hospitality education programmes and, to paraphrase Scotty in Star Trek, ‘It is hotel school Jim, but not as we know it’. Moving away from the idea that hospitality education requires a special physical building or even needs a distinct hospitality programme, hospitality education in the future could be built around three concepts:

  • Acknowledging that hospitality education provided to non-hospitality students by a commercial campus hotel could open up new career paths for such students.
  • Recognising the universality of demand for hospitality skills, hospitality students should consider careers in customer facing sectors, such as banking or social welfare.
  • Accepting that hospitality education is no longer the sole preserve of the traditional hotel school/hospitality department but could be better provided through specialised hospitality options in a wide variety of non-hospitality university degrees, thereby opening up hospitality education to the many, not the few.

In conclusion, this chapter advocates that a new operational model for hotel schools could be a campus-based hotel associated with, but not driven by, a university hospitality programme: a hotel that focuses on providing education opportunities for the many non-hospitality students, for whom a career in hospitality is an option, but not a definitive career path.


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

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