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USF revamps hospitality school to align with changing industry

Mark Parker



Dr. Cihan Cobanoglu, interim dean of the USF Muma College of Business' School of Hospitality and Tourism. Cobanoglu is leading dramatic changes at the school to keep pace with the industry. Photo provided.

The University of South Florida is modifying and expanding its School of Hospitality and Tourism Management to keep pace with an industry undergoing rapid changes due to the pandemic and technological innovation.

Dr. Cihan Cobanoglu, interim dean of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management and director of the USF M3 Center, called the pandemic an eye-opener and said it resulted in establishments offering services previously inconceivable.

To ensure its programming aligns with the hospitality industry’s dramatically changing landscape, Cobanoglu told the Catalyst that the school is undergoing a “zero-based curriculum review” this summer.

“What that means is, we are going to assume we don’t have a hospitality school,” said Cobanoglu.

“We will ask our stakeholders from hotels, restaurants, theme parks, casinos, travel agencies, tourism destinations and management organizations to come and help us to draw what a hospitality student should know.”

Once the school, which operates under the Muma College of Business, ascertains what courses, skills and competencies it should teach, program administrators will compare that with the current curriculum and conduct what Cobanoglu called a gap analysis.

He said the school’s leadership would then create new courses to address the programming gaps. That process has already started, as Cobanoglu said he recently added two new business analytics classes to the college’s curriculum.

“We know that it’s becoming so important to be able to understand the data that’s coming from the businesses and make decisions based on that,” he said. “This is the reason why it’s so important to look at the curriculum on an ongoing basis.”

The school will also lean on recent high-profile partnerships for curriculum guidance.

In November 2021, the college announced a partnership with McKibbon Hospitality, which manages 98 hotels and 20 brands, including Marriott and Hilton. In 2013, John McKibbon, chair of the company, established the M3 Center for Hospitality Technology and Innovation on the Sarasota-Manatee campus. The center conducts innovative research to advance the global hospitality industry, and it also created the McKibbon Endowed Chair – currently filled by Cobanoglu.

In May, the school announced two additional partnerships, one with food service and catering behemoth Aramark and another with Mainsail Lodging and development. Mainsail oversees several boutique hotels, including the Epicurean Tampa and the Fenway Hotel in Dunedin. The collaborations allow students to shadow employees, receive on-the-job training and reduce the time it takes them to reach upper management.

Cobanoglu noted that just this week, McKibbon invited students and faculty to attend a leadership conference with over 300 general managers and senior leadership executives.

“I’ve never seen hospitality school students and faculty invited to a closed, private strategy meeting,” said Cobanoglu. “This is just one very hands-on, very solid example of this partnership.

“This exposure is unheard of.”

Juli Corlew (left), vice president and managing partner of Mainsail, Moez Limayem (center), dean of the Muma College of Business, and David Vandenberg, regional vice president of Aramark, all sign agreements for the new fellowship programs. Photo: Veronica Brezina

Cobanoglu said the whole world is changing, but the effects on the hospitality industry are more pronounced as of late. He noted the entire industry came to a screeching halt during the pandemic, which forced businesses to adjust on the fly.

He used fancy steakhouses offering curbside pickup and hotels and restaurants embracing QR code systems as examples of pandemic-induced changes.

“On top of that, Generation Z and all the customers or guests preferences are changing,” added Cobanoglu. “So, we feel we need to do a good analysis of what the industry needs – in terms of the talent pipeline.”

That pipeline is in desperate need of a talent stream.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, leisure and hospitality employment increased by 78,000 in May. However, the industry is still down 1.4 million workers since February 2020.

While businesses frantically search for employees, Americans are ready to get out and travel – especially to Florida.

Visit Florida’s 2020-2021 annual report states that Florida’s hospitality and tourism industry is outpacing recovery in other states, with a 54.6% increase in visitors in 2021. In just the first quarter of 2022, Florida’s hotel demand has exceeded pre-Covid levels from 2019.

“Hospitality is probably the number one industry in Florida,” said Cobanoglu. “For Pinellas County, particularly, and Hillsborough – hospitality is the industry.

“We are going to fill the need for our industry; they are desperate right now.”

Judging by enrollment numbers, students are ready to fill the need.

According to the university, summer enrollment has increased by 95%, and 75% for the fall. While headquartered on the Sarasota-Manatee campus, USF is expanding the revamped major to classrooms across all three campuses for the fall semester.

Cobanoglu said the expanded offering would have a “huge impact,” again noting the importance of the hospitality industry to cities like St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

“We are so happy that our university allowed us to offer this degree on three campuses,” he said. “That’s going to help our industry immediately.”


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