Georgia’s hospitality and tourism industry continues to expand. As the second-largest economic contributor to the Georgia economy after agriculture, hospitality and tourism workforce development is critical. The University of Georgia is addressing the need and preparing the workforce of the future through partnerships and experiential learning.
The UGA Center for Continuing Education & Hotel is a showcase for best practices in hospitality and tourism, and collaborates with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences for the bachelor’s degree program in Hospitality and Food Industry Management (HFIM), serving as a working laboratory opportunity for students in the major. The HFIM program, which launched in 2019, prepares students for jobs in hotels and resorts, restaurants, meeting and event management, hospitality management, agritourism and other related fields.
The Georgia Center provides a key place for training
“One of the program’s key attributes is the Georgia Center experience,” said John Salazar, professor and program coordinator. “Giving students opportunities to work on projects, and having part-time job and internship opportunities keeps them engaged throughout the entire curriculum. And I think that’s an important attribute that makes us very unique and competitive among the other hospitality programs in the country.
“We want the students to feel like the Georgia Center is a key component of their education as they move through the degree program.”
Having access to the Georgia Center, a unit of Public Service and Outreach, is a big benefit for hospitality and tourism students. Most hospitality and tourism programs either don’t have such a facility or have to send students off campus.
“Hospitality management is not a textbook,” said Isabella Losurdo, a fourth-year student from Milton, Georgia, who is working as a concierge. “You learn it by doing it, and a lot of that comes from real-world examples like we get at the Georgia Center. We’re fortunate to have a place like that.”
UGA is boosting Georgia’s economic prosperity by supporting the workforce needs of the state’s robust hospitality and tourism industry. In 2022, nearly 168 million visitors to Georgia produced a state-record $39.8 billion in direct visitor spending. Those visits generated $4.7 billion in state and local tax revenues, and created a total economic impact of $73 billion, according to state data. The hospitality and tourism industry supported more than 442,600 jobs in 2022—an increase of more than 20,000 jobs from 2021.
“It’s an honor to be a key partner with the Hospitality and Food Industry Management major in growing our own future hospitality leaders for the state,” said Stacy Jones, director of the Georgia Center. “As part of Public Service and Outreach, the Georgia Center is uniquely positioned to understand the value of hospitality and tourism around the state. Educating and developing future managers is something we take a lot of pride in.”
A growing program
The program’s enrollment has quadrupled since the first undergraduate class of 19 students. It is now the fifth largest undergraduate major in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, with 93 students enrolled for the fall 2023 semester. Since 2019, it has been the second-fastest-growing undergraduate major at UGA.
To help the program provide even more industry skills to students and accommodate the expected growth in enrollment, the Georgia Center is in the early phases of renovation planning. The proposed plans include investment in a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen, an event management lab, a beverage management lab, and renovations to the Savannah Room restaurant. The changes will enhance learning of restaurant operations, menu development, event planning and management, and customer service.
UGA ranks No. 1 among public universities and No. 4 among all public and private universities on niche.com’s 2023 rankings of colleges with a hospitality management program.
Through HFIM’s partnerships across UGA, students can gain 400 to 600 hours of industry experience by graduation. Working at the Georgia Center also helps them experience UGA’s public service and outreach efforts. Through its eight units, UGA Public Service and Outreach strives to improve the quality of life for Georgians by helping create jobs and prosperity, developing leaders and addressing the state’s most critical issues.
“It’s very fulfilling because everyone gets to be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves,” said Jay Lavender, a first-year student from Statham, Georgia, who is working as a concierge. “We provide great customer service to guests at the Georgia Center, but our work also helps attract more visitors and UGA continues to have a big economic impact on Georgia.”
In addition, corporate partners help students build connections and gain more insight into the industry. Four students—Losurdo, Jodie Grace Henderson, Sarah Johnson and Kathleen Blasingame—currently have offers to join the prestigious Marriott Voyage Leadership Development Program after graduation in the spring. The program places recent college graduates in a Marriott hotel in a manager-level position with full pay and benefits.
“Those offers serve as a great affirmation that our curriculum and Public Service and Outreach partnership is working,” said Salazar.
Angie Im, a first-year assistant professor in the program, saw an opportunity to give her revenue management class real-world experience by partnering with the Georgia Center. The class is working on revenue management projects utilizing hotel and sales data. They’ll make project proposals that the Georgia Center can use to maximize revenue. Im said working with real data gives her students an invaluable experience.
“I thought it was a really great opportunity for my students to collaborate and have a partnership for the project,” said Im. “This is a perfect environment for the students because it’s a really strong piece for the hospitality and industry management program.