Summertime professional development goes digital for hospitality and tourism students

An illustration shows a globe and plane, with a generic destination highlighted, to signal world travel.

(Illustration: iStock by Getty Images)

By Rebecca Maxon

July 21, 2020 — Doors to classrooms and dormitories shuttered in mid-March, as the COVID-19 global pandemic spread. As the world adjusted to quarantine, it quickly became clear to John Niser, director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s International School of Hospitality, Sports and Tourism Management, that summer internships were not going to happen in 2020.

But what to do instead? A simple online class could not replace the experience. “Students needed both industry exposure and networking,” says Niser.

He turned to the Hotel Schools of Distinction, a group that includes deans of some of the most prestigious hotel and restaurant management programs. Some had ideas to replace internships, reducing the required number of hours of work experience, offering case studies or requiring students to write papers.

Others came to the group for the reason he did: to find solutions. Ruth Hladyk, the ISHSTM director of professional development and internships, who accompanied Niser to the meeting says that upon attending a virtual meeting held by the International Council Hospitality, Restaurant, Institutional Educators (ICHRE), “I realized that our school has the most robust work experience requirements of all those [eastern seaboard] programs, at 400 hours per summer.”

After the forum, Niser started to formulate what ultimately became known as the Professors in Residence professional development program, by asking people he knew and FDU alumni in upper management levels of the industry to participate.

Together with Hladyk and Kane Pappas, assistant to the director of ISHSTM, he put together a series of virtual seminars, moderated by John Burns, president of Hospitality Technology Consulting, a leading expert in electronic distribution (reservations/sales) and revenue management. The series, “is designed to educate students not only on the current reality of COVID-19 in the hospitality industry, but also to work in the post-COVID hospitality industry,” says Hladyk.

Niser recruited enough volunteers to hold six weeks of moderated discussions, each featuring two to three lecturers and focusing on topics including: Successfully Increasing Personalization in Hotel Communication and Service Delivery; Guest Service and Hospitality Leadership Working Abroad; Planning for Recovery, Responding to Guest Feedback and Resolving Guest Situations; Setting Hotel Rates and Selecting Sales Channels During COVID-19 Crisis Recovery; and Interviewing in a New Market.

Between 60 and 70 students participated.

“It feels special to me,” says Metropolitan Campus senior hospitality and tourism management major Ediza Koch, “that so many people in important roles are willing to participate in these discussions.”

Each Sunday, Niser posted recorded videos that he had edited. Students could ask questions via virtual office hours and an online discussion board, and they wrote a paper each week.

The videos went up behind a firewall on FDU web pages, so that student participation through Zoom could be candid, since the personal work experience is important to discuss. “This goes one step further than the flipped classroom,” says Niser. “Here student are inviting us into their worlds.”

Students also blogged weekly, in the Professional Development Sequence Web Log that they began in their freshman years.

Three professors in residence, each brought their own areas of expertise to moderating the discussions: Burns; David Keys, vice president of sales operations, Americas, for Hilton Worldwide; and Michael Stutler, vice president and guest research manager, consumer insights for Walt Disney World.

“I liked that each week was a new topic, with exposure to new speakers giving their perspectives based on the extensive careers they have had in the industry,” says Stephanie Marotto, a junior hotel and restaurant major on the Florham Campus.

“My favorite guest presenter was Dan Cockerell from Cockerell Consulting Group,” whom Disney guest research manager Stutler interviewed, she continues. “I particularly liked him because of his 20-plus years of experience with the Walt Disney Company. I am very interested in working there one day.”

Koch favored Monika Nerger, group global chief information officer at Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, who spoke about customer personalization. “I believe it is crucial for me to witness success stories from female leaders, especially from luxury hotel brands.”

An all-encompassing Zoom Q&A capped off the program. And, students were asked to develop a three-paragraph “virtual elevator pitch” on what they have done to “grow personally and professionally during the 2020 pandemic.” They submitted these pitches in writing and by video, plus updated résumés.

“I’ve stayed on top of industry news and delved deeper into tips and secrets by reading articles and listening to podcasts, such as ‘Hotel Show Interactive Radio,’” says Koch of her time in lockdown.

Marotto talked about the challenges she faced in quarantine, some of her goals, and how she plans to accomplish those goals, based on the new information she has gleaned throughout the summer experience. “We must learn to adapt and to follow the ‘new normal,’” she says. “As difficult as that may be starting off, I’ve learned that people still want to travel, and we will be here when they are ready!”

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