Growth Marks GVSU Program At 30 Years

May 18, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — The tourism industry is an $18.8 billion economic sector in Michigan, and Grand Valley State University has been preparing leaders for it for 30 years.

Starting with seven students in the 1977-78 school year, the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management now has more than 400 students, plus a handful of students pursuing minors, and expects a roster of 10 full-time and visiting professors starting in the fall. GVSU just completed a $726,000 remodel of the building at The Meadows Golf Course in Allendale, which serves as a laboratory setting for students.

“It’s essentially an applied business degree,” said Prof. Paul Stansbie, who chairs the growing academic department. “They’re studying statistics, accounting, marketing, doing math, doing computer science classes. Those are the business underpinnings.”

Courses include topics such as hospitality law, marketing, human resources and operations. Students also are required to amass at least 1,000 hours in tourism-related internships, ensuring that practical skills walk hand-in-hand with book learning. They have four concentrations to choose from: food and beverage, lodging, tourism and meeting, and event planning.

“They leave us with a sheet of paper that says academically they can do it. And 1,000 hours of practical experience, at minimum — that shows they have an understanding of different areas of the business,” Stansbie said. “That’s a lot of added value for our employers.”

The majority of the program’s graduates stay in Michigan, such as Andrea Scheckel. The 25-year-old 2007 GVSU graduate is a front desk agent at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, with dreams of some day running her own events and meetings planning business.

“I’m a really outgoing person, and I love working with people,” said Scheckel, of Grand Rapids. A Grand Rapids Community College graduate, she abandoned her original computer science track for the Hospitality and Tourism Management program once she moved to GVSU. Last month, she was named 2008 Student Star Intern by the Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association.

“I absolutely fell in love with it,” she said. “The professors are very good and the program is phenomenal.”

Bruce Lyon is a 1994 graduate of the program, and today is director of operations at the Amway Grand. His path was reversed: With an early job at the hotel, he decided he liked the industry and then went after the degree.

“It was very easy to get a management job right out of college,” he said. “There’s a good relationship between the Amway Grand Plaza and Grand Valley. We have lots of students still.”

The hotel has a formalized internship program that rotates students through different departments and allows them to shadow managers, he said. Also available are the work hours that students need to meet their internship requirement for the degree.

Stansbie said the program maintains close relationships with the industry through organizations such as the Kent County Lodging Association and Travel Michigan. In addition, an advisory council of industry professionals review curriculum. “We listen intently to the advisory board,” he said.

Stansbie has worked to strengthen the program’s connections since taking the chair’s job about 18 months ago, after four years on the faculty. For example, he has been re-establishing communications with alumni, a major reason for hosting an April soiree to celebrate the department’s 30th anniversary. The department paid for more than 20 students to attend a tourism conference in Grand Rapids earlier this year. And a full-time coordinator works to arrange for internships for hundreds of students each year.

With enticements such as a minor in adventure tourism and a summer excursion to Italy, it’s easy to see why the program has been attracting more students in recent years. But Stansbie said with professors engaged in research and a strong academic grounding, make no mistake that learning how to help other people have fun is serious business.

“We fight this sometimes: ‘Is this a real major? Is this as academically sound as the others?’ Absolutely,” Stansbie said. “It is driven by business. It really gives you that foundation for applying those business skills in a practical environment.”

He asks parents who wonder about their students’ future to think about the number of people — from the airlines to hotels to restaurants to attractions — they may have encountered during their last vacation. Tourism volume is expected to dip 2 percent and spending to remain steady in Michigan in 2008, according to Michigan State University, against a backdrop of a strained economy and record fuel prices. But long-term, the industry has seen steady growth since World War II and currently faces a shortage of qualified managers, Stansbie said.

“When they graduate, they’re going into jobs where they are making decisions almost right away,” Stansbie said. “A couple of weeks ago at a Travel Michigan conference in Grand Rapids, I met three alumni that have been out (of college) less than 18 months, and a couple of them are running $5 million hotels. They’re making decisions every day on strategy, on marketing, on human resources management. Would they get that in any other discipline at such a young age?”

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