The shifting landscape of hospitality and tourism education

Historically, positions within the hospitality industry did not require a formal education. Even in 2022, many entry-level roles, supervisory roles and managerial roles can be obtained without any formal education at the college level. Indeed, some of the top CEOs among hotels, cruise lines, airlines, travel agencies and restaurant groups started in entry-level roles right out of high school and rose to the top of their organizations through hard work, dedication and on-the-job training.

Nonetheless, times have changed. There are additional roles requiring college degrees, graduate degrees (or similar) being added to the cadre of tourism roles globally. From data analytics to artificial intelligence to forensic accounting, hospitality and tourism employers now may require a minimum of a baccalaureate degree to enter their manager in training roles.

Early Education

The earliest of hospitality and tourism college-level programs emerged in Europe and truly focused on etiquette, guest service, knowledge of food and beverage and—to a lesser extent—on business management. In the U.S., the Cornell program began in 1922. Hotel magnates of the American Hotel Association (now the American Hotel & Lodging Association), launched this first U.S.-based degree program. They even titled it “hospitality management,” a first of its kind. (From this point further, “hospitality” will be used interchangeably as the broad industry of travel, tourism, hospitality management, culinary et al.) 

Over the years, the hospitality industry has emerged to its current modality, which consists of global businesses in every niche area: travel agencies, meeting and event companies, destination marketing organizations, hotels and resorts, casinos, cruise lines, airlines, auto rental businesses and so forth. And even the entrepreneurial, independent owner/operator businesses now require sophistication in software, hardware, standard operating procedures, accounting and finance. All styles of hospitality businesses now require business experts of every discipline from accounting and finance to information technology, from economists to digital marketers, and from supply chain managers to more typical operations experts handling the day-in and day-out.

As our industry has professionalized and continued to require more in terms of knowledge from its workers, hospitality college-level programs have flourished. In the century from 1922 (with Cornell’s debut in the U.S.) to 2022, the number of programs has skyrocketed. According to the International Council on Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Education’s "Guide to College Programs in Hospitality, Tourism, & Culinary Arts (2021)" there are now hundreds of degree programs with tremendous variety and niche focus areas. These include two-year (associate), four-year (baccalaureate), graduate (Master of Science or MBA or similar) and for-credit and not-for-credit certifications and professional certifications of every kind.

In the United States alone, programs experienced particularly noteworthy growth between 1980 and 2010 until a plateau seemed to emerge. For the past 12 years, national enrollments have been on the decline, especially in the culinary area of higher education. To combat this decline, many programs now have created “niche” styles of education. A few niche degree areas include: hospitality leadership, sustainability in hospitality operations and entrepreneurship in hospitality. Further, many programs have now moved into the colleges of business at their respective institutions while others have decided to become freestanding units or align with nutrition, recreation and parks, education or other areas. 

Across the country, there are many more examples of hospitality college programs moving into business schools than there are of those moving out of business schools. Indeed, when Cornell became the Nolan School of Hotel Administration at the SC Johnson College of Business and announced the official move into their business school, it solidified the global relocation into business schools as an acceptable, appropriate, modern style of hospitality management education. Indeed, several new niche areas all fall under the traditional business roles with a hospitality specialization. Whether it’s using artificial intelligence to secure robotics that specialize in hospitality worker efficiencies, these are probably best taught by a combination of IT experts, engineering experts, marketing experts and hospitality experts. If we want to hire forensic accountants for our hotel management group, we would rely upon those with account degrees, possibly MBAs, who also know the hospitality industry. The business school setting offers great synergy for these combinations of learning, specializing and future career pathing.

Changing Styles 

This variety in style of education provided outlets to maintain and/or expand enrollments. It was a global shift away from the historic training of a future general manager as “figurehead,” etiquette leader and culture builder. Indeed, these same skills are still necessary, but garnered along the way through more traditional business education.

As the world moved to late 2019/early 2020, COVID affected the hospitality industry, its workforce, its owners and those who provide education to its future leaders. The mass resignation of the hospitality workforce has slowed, but labor challenges continues. Research at Florida Atlantic University indicated that almost 70 percent of workers during 2020 indicated a departure from their roles in hospitality. In April of 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated the quit rate in food service at 6.8 percent—an all-time high compared to its norm of about 2.9 percent. In fact, hotels remain down about 10 percent to 20 percent of their needed worker numbers.

The masses who lost their positions during COVID are speaking to their neighbors, their family members and their children. Many are encouraging their children to pursue a degree in a different subject other than hospitality. The industry, in its attempts to maintain business operations and high demand from travelers, has raised entry-level rates at unprecedented levels. The resulting changes to profits remain to be seen; in the short run, this was a survival method. And yet ... the labor situation has not fully improved. 

One would think that with highly improved entry-level rates of pay, students would want to study hospitality now more than ever. There are more open positions than ever before and higher rates of pay than ever before. For now, this demand among students has not materialized. Anecdotally, regular conversations with deans and directors of hospitality management college programs indicate enrollment drops from 5 percent in the best scenarios to over 50 percent among the hardest hit programs.

Combination Efforts

So, where do we go from here? As an industry veteran with more than 25 years of industry experience and an additional 15 years of full-time hospitality education experience, my opinion is that we need to be cautious and somewhat wary of the road ahead.

The industry will continue to remove full-time equivalent through automation, robotics and the use of artificial intelligence, reducing the overall number of employees globally. The need for better-educated individuals with critical thinking skills simultaneously will increase. And, along the pathway we have already started, the business-school model of hospitality education will become the preference for both independent owner/operators as well as large, global chains and brands. However, the importance of guest service, etiquette and traditional hospitality knowledge will always exist. It must be a combination effort.

Those programs that move into a business school model must keep their core hospitality spirits and teachings and those that are freestanding must enhance and expand their traditional business discipline teachings. 

As for future workers, they will want more remote options. Fewer will stand for the ongoing stress often placed upon them by demanding guests once they get a taste for remote roles that may exist. Our workforce will continue to evaluate the benefits, experiences and fulfillment provided or not provided by hospitality employers. So, to many, the overall business foundation is beneficial. They can move in any direction for a future career path.

This is a time of awakening, rethinking and a full-scale shifting of the ground beneath our feet—and on all sides: the operations side, the career path side, the pay side and the education side. 

As an educator in Florida—one of the top visitor destinations on the planet—there will always be a need for hospitality workers and those programs and venues that educate future workers. But I would prove too much of an optimist if I believed that hospitality and tourism enrollments will be as strong as they were during the period 1980-2010. Indeed, many have left the industry and many will continue to choose other options. It’s a fact, plain and simple. When combined with automation, there is a reality on potential numbers who wish to pursue a college-level education in hospitality management.

With the global reduction in FTEs, only the strongest programs that create value to employers will remain. Our next move may be into partnerships with engineering and IT as automation, robotics and artificial intelligence blend into everything we do in the hospitality workplace. And, social media, digital marketing, search engine optimization, development of new apps, and the like ... they too will continue their march forward within all industries—hospitality being no exception.

I close with—yes, I am indeed an optimistic. We are the best employer on the planet. We will re-emerge. But we will be a different industry. As an educator, I have to be ready, willing and able to change and adapt to match what current and future employers desire of our graduates.

Peter Ricci is the director of the Hospitality and Tourism Management Program at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla.