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Business Observer Friday, May 8, 2015 5 years ago

A hospitable school

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With nearly 900 students, FGCU's school of resort and hospitality management is producing job-ready graduates for the recovering industry.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Executive Summary
Industry. Hospitality Trend. Higher education Key. Hospitality school graduates with business and international skills will be in high demand.

About a dozen years ago, a small group of Naples hoteliers approached Bill Merwin, the president of Florida Gulf Coast University at the time.

They had a bold proposal: to start a hospitality school at the newly created state university in Fort Myers. Fact was, the hoteliers were having trouble recruiting and retaining mid-level executives to their Naples resorts, and they needed an educational institution that might provide them with talent.

“We went to Bill Merwin and took him out to lunch,” recalls Ed Staros, the vice president and managing director of the Ritz-Carlton Resorts of Naples.

Merwin didn't roll his eyes, Staros says, but the message was clear: “He was less than enthusiastic at first,” says Staros.

But Merwin, who died in 2011, was a fundraiser extraordinaire, and he understood the language of money. The clincher: Staros shared with Merwin the Ritz organizational chart that showed executives in Naples were making more money than the deans at FGCU.

Using money from an annual fundraising event to promote tourism in Naples called Wanderlust, they handed Merwin $50,000 in cash to commission a report to advocate the creation of a resort and hospitality school at FGCU.

Thanks to a multimillion dollar gift from the Sugden family, the school got its own building. Today, less than a decade after opening, the School of Resort & Hospitality Management and the affiliated PGA Golf Management program have nearly 900 students combined. “It's an amazing story that started over lunch,” Staros says.

New director
As the new director of the school since January, Randall Upchurch says there are opportunities to grow the school even further.

For one thing, the school itself might get a new name. “There are very affluent people who could help this program get to the next level,” Upchurch says.

Private contributions are critical because state funding is limited. That's been the key to growth at other hospitality schools in the state, such as the Rosen College of Hospitality Management University of Central Florida, named after hotelier Harris Rosen, who gave $10 million to the school.

Upchurch certainly has the contacts. As one of the country's top experts in the timeshare industry, he has connections with the top hotel operators in the country, many of which launched timeshare divisions. “We're building those connective threads,” Upchurch says.

One key is to involve top hotel executives in advising students and funding endowed chairs for leading experts in the hospitality field. “I'd like to see a senior executive program started here,” Upchurch says.

Hoteliers rave about the students because they must have extensive work experience before they can graduate. “You end up getting these great interns,” says Ron Albeit, director of hospitality at Fiddler's Creek near Marco Island. “The work-study is a real job,” Albeit says. “That's a very important part of the hospitality school.”

Golf and spa
FGCU already has a unique program in the state: the PGA Golf Management program. By the fall, it will have 180 students who combine golf skills with business classes.

“Our students do 16 months of required internship,” says PGA Golf Management Director Tara McKenna. “That's going to lead to nearly 100% job placement when they complete the program.”

Today's golf operations include multimillion-dollar clubhouses, upscale restaurants, spas, elaborate courses and they charge six-figure club fees for well-heeled patrons. “This is the club central of America,” says Albeit.

Albeit, who with Staros and others pushed for the hospitality school at FGCU, says it's important the school continues to educate students about club management. “We don't want to be just a hotel management school,” he says.

The school has its own student-run spa, for example. Under the guidance of Mary Wisnom, a professor at FGCU and director of the spa-management program, the facility includes a retail shop, massage rooms and special chairs for manicures and pedicures.

Both Staros and Albeit says the school's home within the Lutgert College of Business means students are well equipped with understanding of accounting and finance. “You have more highly talented people coming out of the university who will be senior leaders in the industry,” Staros says.

Upchurch wants to broaden his students' horizons beyond Southwest Florida, too. An international joint degree with institutions in Latin America or Asia could be beneficial. “There are markets we could enter easily,” Upchurch says. Bilingual students who have experience overseas are highly desirable, he notes.

A large financial gift to the school doesn't necessarily have to translate to a new building. “I'm more into getting better than bigger,” Upchurch says. “Everyone wants to take it to the next level.”

International growth
Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France, may not mean much to you if you're not in the hospitality business.

But for the culinary arts, it's the center of universe. Bocuse is France's most celebrated chef, and his institute in the heart of that food-obsessed country is considered the Mount Olympus of hospitality.

So it's no surprise that you might find Cihan Cobanoglu was a recent visiting faculty at the institute for a seminar. Cobanoglu, the dean of the college of hospitality and technology leadership at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, has recruited students from the institute to his college as a way to broaden the school's global horizons.

“I want my students to be global citizens,” reasons Cobanoglu, who originally came from Turkey 25 years ago and became a U.S. citizen.

In addition to France, Cobanoglu has attracted students from as far as China to his fast-growing school. He explains it's less costly to bring foreign students to his campus than to send his own students overseas.

“We're a small campus,” Cobanoglu says of the 250-student college. But it operates a teaching hotel on Longboat Key, it has developed a technology program thanks to a gift from hotelier John McKibbon and it recently started offering a degree on USF's Tampa campus.

“Our numbers will increase to 500 students in the next few years,” Cobanoglu says.

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