Insights From the 2023 Fall HSMAI Faculty Forums

Rob Kwortnik, PhD, Associate Professor of Service Marketing, Nolan School of Hotel Administration, Cornell University SC Johnson College of Business 

Executive Summary: In the fall of 2023 the HSMAI Foundation engaged faculty from colleges and universities in the Americas, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region to address how the industry could better support faculty efforts to educate and motivate students to pursue careers in commercial fields. Faculty expressed the need for ongoing information about current industry knowledge and practice, including case studies, digital assets, and access to industry professionals as guest speakers. Industry can take a more active role in bringing commercial careers to the classroom through paid internships, specific case studies, industry RFPs sent to schools for research projects, and access to industry for mentoring students. Attracting talent to commercial fields in hospitality requires robust industry-academic collaboration and proactive industry partners. 

Action Items for Travel And Hospitality Business Leaders: 

  1. Build relationships with hospitality faculty to share insights, trend reports, and expertise about current commercial practice in hospitality. 
  2. Guest lecture in classes to help faculty and students connect theory to practice. 
  3. Collaborate with faculty by joining university advisory boards, associations (such as the HSMAI), or special interest groups to discuss curriculum and teaching.  
  4. Become a content marketer for commercial careers.  
  5. Tell the brand story through commercial applications such as case studies using real business situations and data, video cases involving decision makers, or simulations of problem solving typical in commercial contexts. 
  6. Champion internship programs and career-planning resources that guide students in their educational journey as they consider commercial opportunities. 

When we’re looking at addressing students who are going to be entering industry in two to three years, what does this look like for them? We need to prepare them for being commercial practitioners, not salespeople, not marketing people, not revenue management people. And for that they’re going to need good foundations in all of those ideas in order to be prepared for what it looks like in the real world. 

-Nicole Young, Senior Corporate Direct of Commercial and Revenue, Rosewood Hotel Group (10/23/23 Hospitality School Revenue Faculty Forum) 

Travel and Hospitality Customers Are Back but Talent Is in Short Supply to Support Commerce

The resurgence of travel and hospitality in 2023 following the COVID-19 pandemic was nothing short of remarkable. Travel and hospitality businesses pushed through additional headwinds such as supply chain shortages, inflation, and concerns about a recession dampening buyer spending. Lodging rates surged in many markets; demand returned to pre-pandemic levels—and sometimes better—for bars, restaurants, cruise lines, spas, and casinos. Even business travel bounced back, though the sector still lags leisure.  

Yet one area remains a significant challenge, and in some cases, a critical limitation in 2024: the lack of labor. A recent American Hotel & Lodging Association report revealed that two out of three hotels still have staffing shortages, and that’s despite higher wages, better benefits, and more worktime flexibility. Though the labor deficit is largely in terms of front-line staff, there’s also a shortage of knowledge workers vital to commerce and operations. 

Central to the HSMAI Foundation’s mission is attracting, developing, and engaging talent in the fields of sales, marketing, and revenue management—or what a growing number of travel and hospitality organizations are calling the commercial (commerce-focused) domain of the business. Rather than viewing sales, marketing, and revenue management (as well as distribution and customer loyalty) as distinct and sometimes siloed, a commercial perspective is integrative both strategically and functionally, with technology as an enabler, and where market growth and revenue generation are primary goals. 

Understanding this emerging commercial perspective and how to attract tomorrow’s talent to careers in commercial’s component fields was a theme of the HSMAI Foundation’s Faculty Forums in the fall of 2023. The HSMAI Foundation engaged 49 faculty from 38 colleges and universities in the Americas, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region through six virtual faculty forums. The forums addressed how industry could better support faculty efforts to educate and motivate students to pursue careers in commercial fields. In addition to polling faculty on how industry can partner with academia or provide resources to help with curriculum development, the faculty forums featured discussions with subject matter experts Eric Kreins, Managing Director of Strategy Accounts, Hilton Hotels & Resorts and Chair of the Sales Advisory Board for HSMAI; Jay Hubbs, VP of Advertising, Marketing, Innovation, and Analytics, BWH Hotel Group; James Wheatcroft, Global SVP Mid-Scale Brands Accounts, Accor; Nicole Young, Senior Corporate Director of Commercial and Revenue, Rosewood Hotel Group; Shumi Khan, Global SVP Business Intelligence & Revenue Management, Accor, and Chair of the HSMAI Europe Revenue Optimization Advisory Board, and Liz Perkins, VP Commercial, Hilton Hotels & Resorts. 

The Commercial Field Is Evolving and Academia Needs to Keep Pace—With Industry’s Help

College and university faculty teaching in business and hospitality programs are key intermediaries for the talent pipeline but face challenges in performing this role. A main challenge is the evolution of the field in terms of structure, practice, and technology. Noted one revenue management forum participant: “The field is changing rapidly and is adapting new technology as a new concept every year. In order to apply that new concept into the revenue management course, as faculty members, we want to know what’s going in the industry and what topics in the industry are hot potatoes.” Indeed, when asked what they most wanted to discuss with subject matter experts, faculty were especially interested in trends in sales, marketing, and revenue management, especially how artificial intelligence is affecting commercial practice.  

Among the trends that play an important role in attracting talent is the transition of sales, marketing, and revenue management to a commercial discipline, which only compounds the challenge of explaining to students what people in sales, marketing, revenue management—and now commercial—actually do. Commented one faculty participant, “I remember in 2010 there was this discussion about separating marketing from revenue management. It seems like after 10 years or 14 years, we are coming back to put them together. Universities or programs in hospitality need to start from a curriculum perspective. We need to start developing a commercial course to make students more prepared when they go to the industry, in addition to [courses in sales,] revenue management, and marketing.” 

Some faculty acknowledged that the idea of a commercial discipline is vague, both conceptually and in practice; that is, the models, methods, and tactics of commercial. Nicole Young, Rosewood Hotel Group’s Senior Corporate Direct of Commercial and Revenue, offered an insightful take on the issue saying, “I recognize it’s difficult in academia, really, to keep up with the whiplash sometimes, but if you remember, revenue management was a hot ticket for a while and it was going to rule the world. But then when you get down to it, sometimes we’re a little too sharp on the business side and not as customer focused as we need to be, which is really where marketers come into play. And so, especially with the digitization and distribution being so open, transparent, and dynamic, you really have to have both of them together to deliver an optimized strategy that is customer friendly.” 

Young further explained, “Commercial is really taking that revenue strategy and making sure that it is aligned and deployed through how we communicate directly with our customers through sales, how our message is marketed and how we’re merchandised, [and] where our products are distributed. So, it really is very closely aligned, but maybe the next iteration is where you get commercial. And if you think of it academically, commercial is almost like the capstone, right? It’s the application of these building blocks of skills that we put together.” 

Forum faculty were polled about industry resources that would be of interest to support curriculum development or enhancement for commercial courses. The top responses speak to the need for ongoing information about current industry knowledge and practice:  

  • Case studies and supplemental materials 
  • Digital assets, videos, interviews, podcasts, etc. 
  • Access to industry professionals as guest speakers 

Less sought after by faculty because of the time required or lack of flexibility were: 

  • Faculty development opportunities or certifications 
  • Faculty externships 
  • Plug-and-play curriculum 

Faculty elaborated on these needs, saying that finding hospitality case studies about commercial fields such as sales, marketing, and revenue management is not easy. Noted one participant, “One thing that seems to work well with the undergraduates is video case studies, because that way they don’t have to do a lot of preparation beforehand.” Another forum participant suggested simulations or games to help students understand commercial practice and how to use data to make decisions. These responses signal an opportunity for industry to think about content marketing not just as a customer-attraction tool, but also to attract talent through the development and dissemination of case studies, videos, white papers, and gamified simulations that faculty might use to expose students to commercial fields—and to the content creators (brands) as thought leaders in the space.  

One example of such content is the HSMAI Adrian Awards, now it its 67th year, which recognizes hospitality brands and agencies for excellence in travel marketing, including advertising, digital marketing, public relations, and integrated campaigns for hotels, airlines, cruise lines, car rental companies, destinations, and more. The Adrian Awards’ archives, which features cases of recent winning entries, can be found on the website Adrianawards.hsmai.org. The cases describe the goals for the communication, what the strategy was, what the outcomes were, and the creative elements. 

Industry Can Take a More Active Role in Bringing Commercial Careers to The Classroom

Faculty teaching in hospitality programs can find it daunting to translate theory into practice—to explain how modern travel and hospitality sales, marketing, and revenue management are performed, especially in dynamic fields such as digital marketing. Posed one faculty forum participant who teaches integrated marketing communications and digital media, “As an educator, I worry that I’m behind at times even as I try to stay as current as possible. So, if you’re looking to hire someone right out of school, what’s the expectation from industry as far as students’ knowledge of some of these areas and more importantly, their ability to use [technology]? I have a lot of students who are worried that they need to be coders…” 

Jay Hubbs, VP of Advertising, Marketing, Innovation, and Analytics, BWH Hotel Group, responded, “At the end of the day, I need industry expert experience, right? Well, industry or some kind of experience outside of the classroom that says this is something that you want to do. Outside of my analytics department, I don’t hire anyone who knows Python on my social media team, I don’t have that expectation. But I do like people that have social media experience, which goes beyond just posting. If they’ve got a side gig and they’re doing campaigns, they’re a mini or Nano influencer, and they can tell us how they’re telling their story or connecting with an audience, that is great experience, I think, for an undergrad or a grad student if they want to be in hospitality marketing.” 

Echoed Nicole Young, Senior Corporate Director of Commercial and Revenue, Rosewood Hotel Group, “We shouldn’t be teaching the back-end math [for case studies]. We should be teaching theory of how you build your business cases. So, the subject matter just shifts a little bit. Actually, I think it will make executives out of our people a lot earlier if we can remove all of just the tactical rote mess that lives in hospitality technology.” Eric Kreins, Managing Director of Strategy Accounts, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, offered a similar opinion “Students need to be well versed in data, and I think they need to be well versed in analysis. We want people who are curious, so we want them to be able to figure out the answers to their questions themselves.”  

In support of this approach to preparing the next generation of commercial practitioners, a forum poll revealed that faculty partner with the industry in a variety of ways, most often with guest speakers and class projects, but also by obtaining data for case studies, doing industry research projects, and facilitating student mentoring.  

Faculty noted that bringing alumni back in the classroom is important, especially when the alumni are close in age to the students and can share their experiences to make the interaction and learning more engaging. Though bringing high-profile senior executives into the classroom is motivational for students, it’s the guest speakers who are out just a few years who spark student engagement.  

Commented one faculty forum participant, “I always think the [executives) will be really motivational for students, because they [the students] could be this someday, but, boy, they want that person who’s been out two or three years. They’re looking only that far ahead. So, they’ll ask them a million questions [of younger guest speakers], and they’ll ask the much higher up ones, like, two questions.” 

Faculty can find it challenging when students ask about career paths in commercial fields because there are so many, as opposed to careers in accounting, finance, or real estate that are more precise and linear, which means more understandable to students. This suggests that travel and hospitality businesses need to do a better job of showing what the career paths are in commercial fields, for example by offering illustrative exemplars of industry leaders and where they were three, five, or ten years after graduation. This illustration might include compensation comparisons to dispel the belief that high-paying careers in hospitality are solely found in finance-related fields.  

To close these knowledge gaps, faculty look to the industry to support their efforts in the classroom. Faculty forum participants were asked how industry could help bolster classes in sales, marketing, and revenue management. Responses indicated that a variety of types of industry contributions to the classroom are valued, though some stand out as most important:  

  • Paid internships 
  • Specific case studies 
  • Industry RFPs sent to schools for research projects 
  • Access to industry for mentoring students 
  • Collaboration for applied research grants  

Rated as less important to educational efforts, though still valued by some faculty, were:  

  • Video libraries of young industry leaders speaking about career paths 
  • Encouraging hotel partnerships 
  • Industry advisors for student groups 
  • Video libraries of executives speaking about curriculum-related topics  
  • A speaker bureau of executives in specialized area 
  • Global competition programs 

Faculty elaborated on these educational needs, especially the importance of paid internships that immerse students in commercial practice rather than just having them work the front desk at a hotel. Noted one participant from the sales forum: “We have found where the student gets the internship, at least 80% to 90% of the time they get hired. So, it’s a turnkey opportunity for the student, and it’s a win for the brand as well, because they get to see and train to their specifications.” Faculty also discussed the challenges of placing international students and how internships can reduce this problem as well as build relationships with hospitality brands that see the strength of the talent produced by strong programs. 

The importance of industry case studies to illustrate for students what commercial practice is and to put students in the shoes of commercial decision makers was underscored throughout the faculty forums. Faculty offered specifics for how industry could develop case studies that are difficult for faculty to source from common case distribution platforms and that would likely generate student interest. For example, one participant stated, “I would like to see industry professionals from HSMAI write case studies and then provide a lecture about their personal experience with the case study.” Other wish-list ideas from faculty for industry case studies included: 

  • Cases that use the types of data, benchmarks, and analytics that commercial practitioners use daily to make decisions 
  • Cases based in international contexts 
  • Industry-sponsored case competitions 
  • Short real-life case studies that cannot be readily addressed by generative artificial intelligence 

In terms of how industry could help faculty to motivate students to consider careers in commercial fields, forum participants again ranked internships first, followed by career planning and placement resources, and access to industry professionals. Ranking less important were mentorships, academic scholarships, student certifications, scholarships for membership in HSMAI, and HSMAI collegiate chapters.  

Speaking to the importance of internships and career planning and placement resources, one faculty participant explained that students can find it difficult to make the connection between the classroom and the career, especially for commercial roles. While students may understand what operational roles involve, they might be intimidated by what exactly a revenue manager does or how much technology they need to know to do the job or if additional education is required. Having some career planning and placement opportunities can “tear down that wall that really puts fear in a lot of students.” 

Industry can also find creative ways to let students see behind the career curtain to get a glimpse into what a hotel salesperson, marketer, or revenue manager does. For example, Eric Kreins, Managing Director of Strategy Accounts, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, revealed that for internal sales conferences, Hilton will reach out to universities with business or hospitality programs located in the conference destination to invite students to join a portion of the conference and have lunch with members of Hilton’s sales team. This interaction can remove the mystery of what hospitality sales do. Kreins stated, “I think that engagement between industry and academia and those students is really vital to help them get exposed to what it is we do on a day-in and day-out basis.” 

Attracting Talent to Commercial Fields in Hospitality Requires Robust Industry-Academic Collaboration and Proactive Industry Partners

HSMAI Foundation’s Fall 2023 Faculty Forums had a consistent narrative: The industry needs talent in hospitality commercial fields, and hospitality educators need the industry to be proactive partners in producing that talent. A common refrain from the faculty who participated in the Forums is that staying current with hospitality management practice in commercial fields is often beyond the capabilities of time-pressed educators. Travel and hospitality organizations that streamline professional development for faculty will not only have better access to students but will nurture better students and future employees. To that end, the HSMAI Foundation’s Faculty Forums point to these opportunities and action items for travel and hospitality business leaders: 

  • Build relationships with hospitality faculty to share insights, trend reports, and expertise about current commercial practice in hospitality. 
  • Guest lecture in classes to help faculty and students connect theory to practice. 
  • Collaborate with faculty by joining university advisory boards, associations (such as the HSMAI), or special interest groups to discuss curriculum and teaching. Share ideas about hospitality business curriculum for tomorrow’s commercial professionals. What courses would you include? What knowledge is critical? What skills are essential? What does the industry need and look for in new graduates?  
  • Become a content marketer for commercial careers. This means answering faculty and student questions about commercial roles and career paths through illustrative examples based on success stories within the organization. 
  • Tell the brand story through commercial applications such as case studies using real business situations and data, video cases involving decision makers, or simulations of problem solving typical in commercial contexts. 
  • Champion internship programs and career-planning resources that guide students in their educational journey as they consider commercial opportunities. 

Faculty Forum subject matter expert Nicole Young, Senior Corporate Director of Commercial and Revenue, Rosewood Hotel Group, aptly summed the need for industry to be proactive in collaborating with academia in 2024 and beyond: “There’s a unique goal that we [industry and academia] share and that’s the people, right? Every university program wants to produce employable individuals into their industry. That serves the value proposition for the student and for the community. And we perpetually struggle with where do we get the pipeline for [commercial fields like] revenue management? Well, unless we change the conversation and help bolster the interest, make it less intimidating and [help] it make sense in how it [commercial] drives the business of hospitality, then we are going to continue to [have] a dry well once we see graduates.”  

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