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With The Pandemic Persisting, UNLV Hospitality Students Face An Uncertain Future

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UNLV William F Harrah College of Hospitality/LinkedIn

Each semester, about 200 students graduate from UNLV’s hospitality college. 

And roughly 45 percent find jobs in Las Vegas.

The coronavirus pandemic, though, has changed so much of the job landscape in Las Vegas. Some resorts remain closed on the Strip; restaurants are limited in the number of guests they can serve; bars remain closed.

So for students who are getting into the hospitality industry—or graduating soon, what’s the future hold? 

Stowe Shoemaker is the dean of UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hospitality; in 2017, the college was ranked best in the country.

Shoemaker told KNPR's State of Nevada that traditionally people think of hotels and fine dining when they think about hospitality, but there is more to it than that.

“If we expand the scope of what hospitality is all about, hospitality is about creating great experiences. It’s about taking care of customers,” he said.

The dean said he is telling his students to think about other fields that need excellent customer services, like retail or health care, but aren't considered part of the hospitality industry.

Another challenge the college is facing is the move to online classes. UNLV has moved 80 percent of its classes online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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“Even though they’re not physically in hospitality hall, they’re virtually here online and we’re giving them the same kind of experiences,” Shoemaker said.

He said the students and faculty have had to adapt to the new way of learning. For instance, the university has been conducting monthly virtual symposiums with industry experts and alumni about the latest topics in the industry. 

A professor teaching a class on spirits got creative. He required students to go out and buy small bottles of liquor for an online tasting class that is usually done in-person.

“Even though we would love to be in the classrooms with our students and vice versa, I think what we’re showing them is that our industry is all about adaptability,” Shoemaker said.

He noted that in hospitality things rarely go exactly as planned and this school year is a chance to show students how to adapt to problems.

Not only is the hospital college adapting to the new normal created by the pandemic, but it is also looking ahead to creating a new course aimed at a growing section of the restaurant industry.

The co-founders of Panda Express are gifting the college $5 million over five years for a new program focused on fast-casual dining.

Shoemaker said the gift is a phenomenal show of faith in the college.  

The new program will be the first of its kind in the country. Shoemaker noted that fast-casual dining is a fast-growing segment of the industry and requires more skills than most people realize.

He said some of the money will be put into an endowment for the future growth of the college, but it will also fund the development and launch of the course work and a professor position to oversee the program.

“It’s really an incredible gift,” Shoemaker said.

The dean noted that people have misconceptions about fast-casual and fast-food restaurants. He said people see them as a place to get a first job in high school, but in fact, managers of the restaurants can make a good living.

He said the new program will be a chance to train those managers.

“For kids who really fall in love with it and really learn the business, they can become entrepreneurs and go out and create their own company,” he said.

The pandemic has caused uncertainty in a lot of industries, but in hospitality, which relies on face-to-face interaction, it has a lot of people worried about what the future will look like.

Shoemaker is concerned, but he believes the industry will return to full strength.

“The hospitality industry is probably one of the most resilient industries in the world because people need people,” he said.

The dean said that while Zoom meetings are fine people like to sit across from each other to build relationships and those face-to-face meetings happen because of his industry.

“We’re fortunate enough that we provide the space for human interaction and for people to develop relationships and to create great lives and that’s why I think we’ll always be resilient,” he said.

Mari Salazar, Regional Director, Operations, Panda Restaurant Group (left), Dean Stowe Shoemaker, William F. Harrah College of Hospitality, UNLV (middle), Royce Chow, Vice President Operations, Panda Restaurant Group (right) 

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Stowe Shoemaker, Dean, UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hospitality 

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