Hospitality program thriving in the 'new normal'

By for CAES News

Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis on the hospitality industry, the University of Georgia’s Hospitality and Food Industry Management program is operating under full steam.

With enrollment numbers ahead of projections, the program is preparing to graduate its first class of students in 2021 after opening the program in fall 2019 to first-year and transfer students.

There are about 50 students in the major, according to John Salazar, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

With an extensive background in the hospitality industry around the U.S., Salazar came to lead the program at UGA shortly before it launched.

“I was surprised to see how well-developed it is, especially since it just began last year,” said Hannah Connor, a fourth-year student from Suwanee, Georgia. “Taking these classes has opened my mind to how many things in the state and country have to do with hospitality.”

The degree prepares students for a broad spectrum of careers in hotels and resorts, restaurants, meeting and event management, club management, agritourism, convention and visitor bureaus, and other related fields.

Faculty teach courses specializing in hotel operations, food and beverage management and meeting and event planning. Assistant professor Dan Remar is the “foodie” of the faculty with nearly two decades of restaurant and food experience, and Leta Salazar, a former hotel general manager, is a lecturer in human resources and law.

“I think the professors in the program are phenomenal. They’re able to share personal stories and give real-life examples when it comes to the material, which makes it feel more real,” said Tyler Grace Hunt, a junior who transferred from Kennesaw State University.

Industry guest speakers

In addition to faculty with real-world experience, guest speakers in HFIM classes have included industry professionals from global brands like IHG, Sysco, Marriott and Walt Disney World; national chains like Waffle House and Your Pie; and local organizations like The Graduate Athens Hotel, The Classic Center and The Ritz-Carlton Reynolds at Lake Oconee.

“I really like to brag that we just started the program and we have so many interested hospitality companies and industry leaders. They’re so eager to get involved with our program at UGA for our program to succeed and thrive. It’s motivating for everyone else coming in,” said Emily Posas, a fourth-year student from Valdosta, Georgia, who changed her major twice, from pre-med to business before finding her niche in the program.

As part of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the program gives students a unique opportunity to take elective classes that could shape their careers, including horticulture, food science and agricultural communication. Hunt is currently taking a flower-design class and plans to take organic gardening to get an idea of how to incorporate sustainability into the industry.

The major requires two industry internship courses and students are able to earn experiential learning credits on campus. Connor and Hunt both work at the UGA Center for Continuing Education & Hotel where they rotate through departments to learn about different operational areas.

“It’s a hands-on experience outside the classroom on campus – one of the few university-operated hotels on a campus within the U.S. that’s not contracted with an outside corporation or brand,” John Salazar added.

Students in the program are currently getting a firsthand view of how the industry is changing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Garrett Frangi, a senior who transferred from Georgia Southern University, interned with the city of Lawrenceville’s event planning team over the summer. “It was very different than what they’d usually do, but I got to see planning and replanning as things changed,” he said. “No one really knew what was going to happen. They had concerts planned throughout the summer, then it turned into drive-in movies, virtual concerts and virtual events.”

Hands-on experience

The flexibility of hybrid classes this fall allowed Posas, a sales intern with event planning company BizBash, to work a trade show in Orlando, one of the company’s first in-person events. She helped with hosting speakers and registration for the company, which she was connected to by her UGA alumni mentor.

“I am pretty optimistic, even in a post-pandemic world, that people will want to find new ways to make the industry work and thrive,” Posas said. “We’re able to use this time and what we’re learning to help employers and the industry.”

Despite the hit the industry took during the pandemic, all of the students are optimistic about job opportunities and their future careers.

“I think the industry goes where the economy goes. I think when slowly things get better, people will start traveling again. I definitely see a light at the end of the tunnel with the industry coming back to a healthy place,” Frangi said. “Getting the degree opens a lot of doors for you and a lot of careers. In hospitality, you can get your foot in the door and do lots of different things with your degree.”

To learn more about the program visit hospitality.caes.uga.edu.

Josh Paine is a marketing specialist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
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