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The coronavirus pandemic continues to upend the global travel industry, but hospitality schools aren’t rushing to overhaul their curriculums around how to operate a travel business — yet.
There is no doubt the pandemic’s impact will maintain a grip on hospitality operations for years to come. But the curriculum overhaul process at an accredited university can take as long as 18 months, according to Nicolas Graf, associate dean at New York University’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality.
University leaders have to follow state guidelines and other academic compliance measures as well as gain approval from their own board of trustees. It can take as long as six years by the time the new curriculum is fully implemented to all students at a university.
A hospitality student’s best chance at pandemic-related lessons is likely within existing course framework until universities get a better understanding of the pandemic’s lasting legacy on travel.
“For accredited programs in the U.S. to radically change and even consider a major change for their curriculum takes a while,” Graf said. “From a pure curriculum standpoint, I don’t think there have been so many changes. Every one of us are bringing Covid-related issues and impact into the classroom for context.”
Rather than upending the foundation of the university’s travel and hospitality programs, professors are adapting existing courses to the current industry catastrophe.
A leadership and crisis course at NYU presents events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks and natural disasters as the framework for how hotel operators, event managers, or destination marketing organizations could best react. Coronavirus is just the latest crisis to pass through the lesson plans.
“In many ways we’re doubling down on what we already did and had access to,” said Kate Walsh, dean of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. “You can bring it to every conversation in your classroom.”
Cash and liquidity issues and working out loan modifications during the crisis can be tackled in a standard hotel real estate and finance class at Cornell. Recovery from a branding standpoint would be covered in a marketing class. An existing airline management course at NYU would still tackle cashflow issues, only now with a coronavirus skew.
“The curriculum remains the same, but there is no question, in every single class, Covid is coming up because no industry has been impacted like ours,” said Leora Lanz, chair of the graduate hospitality program at Boston University.
An NYU destination marketing organization course previously used Puerto Rico’s devastation from the 2017 hurricane season as a case study. Now, the class is looking in its own backyard by partnering with NYC & Co., the destination marketing organization for New York City, on how to recover from being a coronavirus hot spot and the accompanying bad press.
“The immediate response has been to adjust the content of existing courses through the current discussions,” Graf said.
A Real-Life Lesson
Laura Book — a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Harrah College of Hospitality — has done just that with the strategic management class she’s teaching this semester.
Book typically guides her students to come up with a long-term business plan for a hospitality-related company. Coronavirus dominates the class this year, as the pandemic is such a central part of each of the central elements Book expects from the business plans: laws and regulations, socio-cultural impact, technological advances, the economy, and ecological impact.
Her students are currently working on plans for hotel companies like Hilton, Marriott, and Hyatt as well as other hospitality businesses like MGM Resorts and Darden Restaurants.
“Students get a chance to understand how something like a global pandemic can come in and shake up not only the day-to-day operations but also strategy for years to come,” Book said. “They can try to understand what would be the best way for companies to move through this and have long-term success and not be completely wiped out due to challenges of Covid.”
The UNLV students take on the role of a consultant and use available financial data and market conditions to come up with their recommendations, from selling off a hotel brand to advising on future growth (or lack thereof).
Book plans to continue incorporating the pandemic into her lessons, including a human resources management course in the spring.
“I think it’s ultimately shifted how we think about the industry as a whole and how vulnerable the industry is,” she said. “Something can easily shift, and hospitality is usually the first one hit, whether it’s an economic issue or an ecological one like a hurricane or fires. The industry as a whole was not prepared to handle this, so what does it mean moving forward?”
A Degree With New Purpose
While the academics interviewed for this story may not feel the need to upend their respective curriculums, they aren’t ignoring the brutal job environment for their students and recent graduates.
Major brands like Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt have all made significant layoffs at the corporate level, and job losses at the operations level are equally staggering. MGM Resorts alone announced plans in late August to lay off 18,000 of its staffers.
Hospitality school leaders are making one immediate shift in strategy by encouraging students to put their degrees to use in other industries while the travel industry recovers from cratered demand levels and mass layoffs.
“I think there are always jobs for talented people. If you think about a hospitality degree, what do we teach in hospitality schools? Service, operations, service recovery, and managing a multi-age workforce,” said Stowe Shoemaker, dean of the Harrah College of Hospitality at UNLV. “I would say those characteristics can be used in many industries.”
Boston University professors are shifting gears in the classroom to show students how to operate restaurants and hotels with revenue streams beyond their traditional uses, like expanding a restaurant’s focus to delivery meal kits as a way to compensate from less in-person dining.
But the university’s leaders also recognize students may have to look beyond hotels and restaurants in the near-term to find employment. Industries like healthcare, sports, and senior living often still want to hire people with a hospitality foundation, Lanz said.
“I do think that’s going to be temporary, but we’re looking outside our traditional boxes,” she added. “It will come back, but in the meantime we found ways to adapt to make it worthwhile for our students.”