The College of Hospitality and Technology Leadership needed a "teaching hotel" where its students can get the necessary hands-on experience, while even the AAA Four Diamond resort can use a pipeline to future employees.
All it took was a chance meeting between resort general manager Jeffrey Mayers and the college's Dean, Dr. Cihan Cobanoglu.
"Both Cihan and myself were speaking as a part of a panel at a symposium regarding tourism and hospitality in our community, and instantly drew a great relationship as far as our passion for students and hospitality, and started the conversations at that time, as far as creating this teaching lab here at the resort," Mayers said at a recent event announcing the arrangement.
Students in the class "Introduction to Hospitality and Tourism" are currently rotating through shadowing opportunities in four different departments at the Resort: Housekeeping, Food and Beverage, Front Desk and Leadership. That last one is something Mayers pushed to include.
"I think it’s extremely important in our business, as in many businesses, it’s about managing people and having to make difficult decisions, business decisions," Mayers said. "And so creating that exposure for the students will provide that frame of reference for the future when they have to make those decisions in a real-life situation."
College officials say students will spend at least four hours in each department and will write a reflection paper afterwards. While the first class has 23 students, school officials hope to expand it in the future to include both Lodging Management and Restaurant Management.
The College is already emphasizing that ‘real-life’ aspect in its Restaurant Management teaching through its Culinary Innovation Lab: a kitchen/classroom in Lakewood Ranch where students learn restaurant skills from the stovetop to the table.
"Hospitality is an applied field," Cobanoglu said. "For that reason, imagine somebody is teaching you how to cook...online. Can you learn? Yeah, you can learn pretty much. But is it the same thing as doing it in action? It’s not."
"I think that, in the beginning, with pretty much anything you’re studying, theory is definitely the foundation, said Hospitality Management junior Katoria Hughes. "But what makes that theory concrete is actually having that actual hands-on shadowing that can also enhance the theory that you’re learning in the classroom as well."
"When I was growing up on Siesta Key, you just heard about the Longboat Key Club," added Hospitality Management sophomore Jay Dwyer. "And now to have the opportunity to shadow people that work here is amazing. It’s going to look great on a resume, it’s great for networking, and it’s just an easier way to learn because theory and textbook can only get you so much rather than the experience."
And there’s a call for students to be ready. As Florida tourism continues its recovery - officials hope there’ll be 100 million visitors to the Sunshine State next year - projections show there’ll be a need to fill 17,000 hospitality jobs in the next five years.
"What that means is it’s a huge job for the hospitality schools like ours, to be able to fill that gap," Cobanoglu said. "Because if you don’t fill that gap, you know what’s going to happen: then we are going to import people from other states, from other countries. We don’t want that. We want our Floridians to work here, study here, and stay after they graduate and have a job in the state of Florida."
The partnership will have other benefits as well. Proceeds from the Resort’s upcoming “Bacchus on the Beach” food and wine festival will provide scholarships for the USF Sarasota-Manatee College of Hospitality and Technology Leadership.
The Resort, located just off the coast of Sarasota, has 223 luxury hotel rooms, along with a 291 slip marina, 45 holes of golf, 20 tennis courts and eight restaurants and lounges.