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Hospitality Management students turn canceled work experiences into research opportunity

head and shoulders of Hailey

It didn’t matter if it was Disney World, Hersheypark, or the local country club. Starting in mid-March, each one of those entities made the call to an eager York College of Pennsylvania student with the bad news: their summer work experiences were canceled.

Hospitality Management students are typically required to complete a one-credit work experience each summer of their college careers. But, in March and April, COVID-19 caused much of the hospitality industry to shut down, closing restaurants, canceling sporting events, and furloughing thousands of employees. The students who were hoping to gain valuable experience over the summer also felt the impact.

Looking ahead as the Spring Semester wrapped up, Fred Becker and Joseph Scarcelli, Associate Professors of Hospitality Management, decided to create a unique course that would turn this missed opportunity into a chance for research analysis.

“This pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Becker says. “We decided it would be really beneficial for us to spend the summer focusing on it. We wanted to watch the industry, see how they’re adjusting to the changes, and look for examples of innovation.”

Divided into three classes, students meet every other week on Zoom to discuss what they’ve found. For many, that’s discovering news articles on an area of the industry that interests them—such as hotels, food and beverage, or tourism—and attending industry webinars to hear what leaders are discussing.

Becker and Scarcelli are also bringing in industry experts to speak to students, such as FLIK Hospitality Group, based in New York, and Aramark, which plans large events in Camden, New Jersey. In addition, graduates now working in the hotel industry will join a Zoom call, not only to talk about their career experiences, but to bring insight into the changes they’ve seen since COVID-19.

Planning for a future with COVID-19

Hailey Bitner ’21 was hoping to add some event experience to her résumé this summer. She had been lining up an opportunity at Wyndridge Farm in Dallastown, Pennsylvania, and looked for experience in Hershey, with some promising new development set to open there this summer. Then COVID-19 hit the region, and internships and other work opportunities disappeared.

“I didn’t want to be a hassle when so many people were losing jobs and worried about the crisis,” she says. “It was a really unfortunate situation to be hoping for work experience while we were watching the industry struggle.”

While she also worked as a server at the local White Rose at Bridgewater restaurant, that establishment and its sister locations shut down temporarily to weather the strict social distancing standards required by Governor Tom Wolf’s office.

Bitner’s heart was set on the event industry as the place she’d land after graduation. She remembers watching the romantic comedy The Wedding Planner as a little girl, and the role seemed to align with her attention to detail and work ethic.

With an industry that has lost a lot of momentum this year, and with reports indicating a slow return to the same capacity, Bitner is using all her resources to prepare for her career. “I’m considering additional certifications and trying my best to maintain a 4.0,” she says. “There are going to be a lot of candidates applying for the same jobs once they become available, and I know I need to be the best candidate if I’m going to have a shot at it.”

Getting ready for what’s ahead

Despite the grim details of what’s happening to the hospitality industry, there have been signs of growth. People may not be traveling as far, Becker says, but they are visiting destinations they can reach in a day. Outdoor excursions are becoming more popular as people look for entertainment, but with safety in mind.

“If you can watch the trends and see what’s attracting people, you can try to weather this,” Becker says. “It’s been an interesting experience to dive into what’s happening in the industry, and I hope it shows our graduating students, like Hailey, that an industry built on fun can be susceptible to a crisis, yet through innovation can adapt and succeed.”