Learning the trade at the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management
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This spring, the school expands the relationship with an upper-level operations course at the Hilton Hotel on Ridge Lake Boulevard in East Memphis. Throughout the semester, students will rotate through every department, including the front desk, housekeeping, laundry, engineering, revenue management, marketing, and sales.
“In the end, this industry is skills based,” said Radesh Palakurthi, the school’s director and chair of excellence. “If we can get our students broken into the industry before they start applying for jobs, then they will be good candidates.”
At the helm of the school for the past 18 months, Palakurthi has shepherded impressive growth in student enrollment. He is particularly proud of the school’s scholarship program, which last year awarded $85,000 to 69 applicants, and the growing number of students who are attracted to the hospitality major. “When I came in 2012, we had 126 students,” Palakurthi says. “Now we have 185.”
Palakurthi attributes the school’s growth to both internal changes in the school’s degree program and external industry trends. Until recently, students in the hospitality school graduated from the Fogelman College of Business & Economics with a Bachelor of Business Administration,. “We had no enrollment to start and we needed some administrative help, so we were put under the stewardship of the business school,” Palakurthi explains.
But over time, Fogelman’s requirements, especially for advanced mathematics courses, hindered the school’s ability to offer more specialized classes. “Our limits on credit hours were a huge handicap for our program, and mathematics was a hurdle for us,” Palakurthi says.
So, starting in 2012, students could opt for a Bachelor of Arts degree, which requires the same core requirements as the university’s School of Arts and Sciences and allows 60 credit hours for specialized classes in hospitality and resort management.
“With the B.A., the sequence of math is different, and the language requirement draws in people from other disciplines,” Palakurthi says. “Now we are seeing students look at our program for a double major or to transfer in from community colleges.”
In West Memphis, for instance, Mid-South Community College has developed a new hospitality program into a perfect two plus two, which is academic speak for courses that dovetail seamlessly with University of Memphis degrees. “Oftentimes, credits are difficult to transfer from community colleges that offer applied degrees, but Mid-South worked with us from the ground up,” Palakurthi says.
Working closely with community colleges and adding additional concentrations such as food and beverage and event management will help Palakurthi and his six full-time faculty reach a significant goal: to double enrollment to 400 students within the next five years.
“Our program has always leaned more toward hotel and resort management because of our Kemmons Wilson legacy,” Palakurthi says. “But our students grew up watching the Food Network, and many are interested in the culinary arts.”
Industry demand also is driving course development. Certification is already available for students who complete a course in revenue management and analytics, a growing specialty in the hotel industry. Students also participate in revenue management internships at the headquarters for InterContinental Hotels (parent company of Holiday Inn), and some parlay the experiences into international jobs.
Palakurthi and his faculty embrace a global mindset and encourage students to think beyond the opportunities in their hometowns.
“We always tell our students if they are willing to travel anywhere in the world, they will move up very quickly,” he says. “This is a global industry, so if students are willing to take a risk and leave Memphis, the industry will challenge them in many good ways.”
Pamela Denney is food editor of Memphis magazine and writes the blog Memphis Stew at memphismagazine.com/blogs/memphis-stew.