Hospitality is on the Menu at Business School

The sector is driving an economic rebound, and demand for graduates of specialist MBAs is outstripping supply

As the developed world reopens as lockdown restrictions are eased, the hospitality sector has helped to drive a rebound in economic activity. The reopening of hospitality has also driven a surge in hiring for roles in finance, marketing and HR, not just the staff on the hotel floor. Many businesses face labor shortages and are raising wages to attract candidates.

The hospitality sector is also an area of increasing focus for business schools, which are launching new specialized MBA programs in hospitality, not just in Europe, which pioneered formal training for the sector, but in China too, which has experienced explosive economic growth in recent years, leading to greater leisure and vacation travel.

The latest example of the interest in business education is the launch of a dual-degree hospitality MBA program by Cornell University’s Johnson College of Business and Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management. Students enrolling in the program from Cornell in the US and Peking in China will earn an MBA and a Master of Management Degree in Hospitality, in two years.

The program targets Chinese professionals who will study hospitality management and related topics including real estate and human resource management. The degree will be delivered by both institutions, but participants will spend 70 percent of their time in Beijing on the Guanghua campus, with the remainder of the program delivered at Cornell, in New York state.

Liu Qiao, dean of the Guanghua School of Management, says this new program comes at a time when the service industry is gaining importance in the Chinese economy after decades of development.

“The rise of the digital economy and the carbon neutral economy are quickly becoming an important engine for high-quality economic growth in China,” he says, explaining that he aims to “train internationalized senior management talent for the service industry, and to facilitate the growth of the global service economy”.

However, it was not in China but Europe where such training originated: the Swiss set up teaching institutions as long ago as 1893. The first executive MBA program in hospitality was created by EHL, Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, in 2001. EHL is not yet accredited by the leading management education organizations, but it is a member of EFMD and AACSB.

A few years ago, the Swiss school launched an MBA for younger professionals delivered mostly online with some periodic residential modules. It helps learners to address business and managerial issues in the hospitality industry. Participants develop strategies at various organizational levels, incorporating all relevant stakeholders and functions.

Achim Schmitt, associate dean for graduate programs at EHL, says the course, designed in close collaboration with industry leaders, addresses the dynamic challenges of hospitality management.

“The hospitality industry continues to be disrupted by technology, new players and business models, and most recently the global pandemic,” he says. “Further to this, the intangible nature of services makes managing a hospitality business complex.”

The hospitality industry: great careers for people-centric MBA grads

Soft skills such as interpersonal communication are highly prized by employers, according to numerous surveys of the most attractive attributes in job candidates. That is a big part of the appeal of the EHL degree, says Schmitt:

“We strongly believe that people-centric leadership is a key success factor in hospitality and other service businesses. Due to the intangible nature of these businesses, people are the most important asset.”

A key outcome of the MBA at EHL is for students to be able to manage and develop people within teams and collaborative groups, particularly in virtual environments. They graduate with the tools to succeed not only in the hospitality industry, but in services businesses more broadly.

“About 50 percent of our 30,000 alumni work in completely different industries, including wealth management, luxury retail or real estate,” says Schmitt.

Elsewhere, the Robinson College of Business, at Georgia State University in the US, runs an MBA with a concentration in hospitality, the only such program offered in the state of Georgia, where hospitality and tourism are major economic drivers. Debby Cannon, director of the Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality at the Robinson College, agrees that career opportunities for the school’s graduates cover a broad range of industries.

“The competencies and skill sets of effective, business-savvy leaders are sought by every sector of the hospitality industry as well as professions such as health care, finance, supply chain and real estate,” she says. “While most of our graduates stay in the hospitality industry, they are certainly recruited by a variety of companies.”

Cannon says that interpersonal communication will always be an important part of hospitality education, but the biggest draw is leadership development: “The big appeal is learning how to be serviced-orientated, but achieving long-term profitability through sustainable, environmentally proactive operating procedures – and a workforce that is engaged and driven by purpose.”

Despite the pandemic impact, she insists that the career opportunities in hospitality are especially bright in the current economic environment. “The career opportunities are actually at one of the highest levels ever,” she says.

Cannon explains that many hospitality companies did have to furlough employees at all levels during Covid. A significant segment of those employees did not return. Others decided to retire. The result has been a very active job market.

“Students who are entering our programs now and over the coming years, in my opinion, will find a robust job market,” she says. “And, with the demand greater than the supply of employees, the other result of Covid is higher salaries.”

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