Hospitality Education - It's Time for a Sea of Change

By Jeffrey Catrett Dean, Kendall College Les Roches School of Hospitality Management | October 28, 2008

Imagine a world in which five and ten cent stores have faded from the landscape; a world in which Sears is no longer the dominant retailer, a world with no Marshall Field's and no Stern's and no Filene's. Imagine a world in which you can order your car in 256 different colors, yet General Motors struggles to survive against the onslaught of superior Japanese technology and European automotive styling. Imagine IBM selling solutions instead of mainframes. Imagine a world in which ABC, NBC and CBS must compete with 750 offerings including the Food Network and the Weather Channel.

It is not difficult really, for it has all come to pass, even though such a world was utterly unimaginable just thirty years ago. Now imagine a world in which Hilton, and Sheraton, and Marriott join Howard Johnson's, Statler, and Americana as fading icons of a time gone by. What started as product niching, through concept restaurants and boutique hotels supported by internet, is now a sea change in how the buying public is perceiving hospitality. The benefits of yesterday's standardization - reliable cleanliness and reservations - are now simply the expected attributes of any player in the game.

Today's increasingly travelled and savvy mid-scale and high-end customer no longer settles for "no bad surprises," seeking instead to be delighted outright. Increasingly, it is design, lifestyle harmonization, ambience, service style and delivery, creativity, flare and finesse that distinguish the winners from the losers. And it is precisely these very human elements of differentiation and customization, that do not conform to econometric models, defy focus group testing, and can only be measured and "proven" after the fact. Today's hospitality leaders need to be equipped not only with the scientific business skills to manage complex organizations, but also with the creative flare and aesthetic rigor to be able to bring together differentiated and consistent sensory and service experiences for increasingly discerning guests.

Nevertheless, today's hospitality education continues to embrace applied social science as the only source of teachable knowledge to future hospitality leaders. Academic conferences showcase endless streams of "scientific" research papers of questionable rigor and even more questionable relevance, and faculties seem unable to recognize that human knowledge is not only fact-based or scientific but also tradition-based or artistic, that arts are just as teachable and "scholarly" as are sciences.

In a recent discussion with the CEO of a major European hotel company, I asked about the restaurants he was putting back into his hotels. Specifically, I asked if he trusted concept development to his F&B people. He responded, "Oh God, no! I have people from fashion and theatre creating the ideas, and I just hope that the F&B people don't mess them up." Although there are certainly some very creative F&B managers in hotels, overall it is a damning commentary on hospitality education's inability to prepare leaders for the new world in which we find ourselves.

How we got to this juncture is easily traceable. It is the result of the legitimate improvement of hospitality education to face the needs of an evolving industry but also of academic status issues that are unique to university settings and have very little to do with the industry or even students.

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