Randy Hassen’s first hotel job came 30 years ago, working for $4.50 an hour at a Days Inn in Athens, Ga., to help offset the cost of college. The place was run by McKibbon Hospitality, a longtime hotel management company based in Tampa.
Little did Hassen know he’d never work anywhere else.
“If I had viewed it as I initially did, as just a part-time job for a paycheck after school hours, and never really understood that I was starting a career, that’s how many of today’s students might look at hospitality — as a front-desk job, or a food and beverage position, server, cook, anything. Just kind of a paycheck,” Hassen said. “It can be so much more if you look at the career path 10, 20, 30 years down the road.”
Hassen is now president of hotel management at McKibbon, which wants to give today’s college kids the same sort of boost he got back then. McKibbon recently announced a partnership with the University of South Florida in which students at USF’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management will engage in hands-on training at some of its 100-plus hotels across the country, including the Courtyard by Marriott Tampa Downtown and the Kimpton Hotel Arras in Asheville, N.C.
The partnership comes as USF aims to expand its hospitality management program from its Sarasota-Manatee campus into St. Petersburg and Tampa, opening the doors to hotel careers for entirely new swaths of students.
What makes kids today want to go into the hotel business? How has that business changed during the pandemic? And how will the next generation of hotel managers differ from the last? Those are among the questions we had for Hassen during a recent chat about the USF partnership. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
This isn’t a totally new idea. Other universities have partnered with hotel companies before, right?
This is the first time I’ve heard of a company like ours that represents Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, the major brands, aligning themselves with a school of hospitality operating an accredited program. There are programs for on-campus recruiting, but actually training students, students learning in the hotels as well as in the classroom, I’m not familiar with anything that’s structured exactly the way we’re going about it.
What are some skills you learn working in a hotel that you don’t learn in school?
Certainly the customer service aspect of it. In the classroom, you’re not dealing with customers’ requests and challenges and demands. We’re very much in the people business, so you’re not learning how to serve others, and you’re not learning how to overcome challenges and obstacles that are real-world. I learned ordering, inventory, labor management, accounting, revenue management, hotel inventory, dynamic pricing, how to properly price your hotel. You learn about the competition and what sets you apart, and where your niche is in the market. There’s just so much that it would not be impossible to learn in the classroom, but I don’t know how well it sticks if you’re learning it from a textbook versus having it actually done in practice.
What makes somebody want to go into the hotel industry? What are the personality elements that make people want to get into this business?
Most of it is somebody who really enjoys serving others. Somebody who really enjoys no two days ever being the same, who enjoys a fast-paced work environment, who likes to interact with people all day long, and is just genuinely in a service state of mind.
Do people like to bounce around geographically, or do they go where there’s a job and stay there?
More of the opportunities are coming in urban city centers, which are very attractive to the next generation of hospitality leaders. That urban density and infill growth that’s happening not only in Tampa, but in other markets, really lends itself to the lifestyle that this younger generation wants — to work close to where they live, with lots of activity. That really helps attract the workforce that we’re looking for.
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Are you, like every other industry, having trouble hiring workers?
Yeah, it is the No. 1 challenge we face today. We’re looking for innovative ways to reach new individuals that aren’t familiar with hospitality, tapping into social media channels to really reach that new workforce. A lot of what we’re dealing with is increased competition for workers in this pay range from other industries. And then we’ve also had kind of an aging workforce. We’re at the point where people are beginning to retire, and there’s not a younger generation replacing them — which is one of the reasons we’re hoping this partnership with USF exposes a younger generation to opportunities in the hospitality industry.
Tourist tax receipts in Hillsborough just topped where they were in 2019. Do you think the industry is back where it was before the pandemic?
In isolated markets. Tampa’s certainly one of them. Asheville is there. There’s a handful of markets that are stronger than they were at this time pre-pandemic. But it’s been primarily leisure-driven markets. There’s still markets that are well behind where they were in 2019.
Tampa Bay’s hotel inventory actually grew during the pandemic, with new hotels opening at Water Street Tampa and Midtown Tampa. What’s the net impact on the talent pool for local employees?
Ultimately, it makes it more challenging. It’s more critical that we’re offering competitive wages, competitive benefits, taking great care of our associates, providing them with growth and a career path so we retain them, and they don’t go to work for the newest hotel on the block.
As somebody who’s been in the business 30 years, what do you hope a 21-year-old student at USF would get out of working and learning at a McKibbon hotel?
That there is an actual career path. There’s no task at a hotel that’s menial. There’s no task that’s not contributing to a hotel’s success. There are no shortcuts to experience. People are quick to jump ship for one reason or another, and sometimes if you just stick with it long enough, opportunities will come your way. There’s a lot to consider when you’re 21 years old and you’re just looking for a paycheck; you don’t really look at all of that. But if you dig in a little deeper, you’ll understand that who you go to work for is one of the biggest decisions you’re ever going to make, next to who you get married to. If you make the right calls there, you’re going to have a happy life.