When Richard Sypert came to UNLV, he searched for a degree program that would allow him to pursue his passion for sports events management. Sypert soon found a permanent home in UNLV’s Harrah College of Hospitality.
The Las Vegas native knew what he wanted to do wasn’t necessarily conventional — majoring in business was a more traditional route — but hospitality checked many of his boxes.
“I felt like the hospitality program could complement more of what I wanted to do because there’s an emphasis on management as well as serving other people,” said Sypert, who is currently a sophomore. “That’s what stood out to me.”
Fellow UNLV student Cassandra Karsten found herself in a similar situation — gravitating to the Hospitality College to set herself up for a career in nonprofits.
“The focus of this college is people,” said Karsten, now a senior. “We are taught how to treat customers so they’ll keep coming back. We’re taught how to treat employees so they’ll feel respected and want to be part of the team.”
With business principals at its foundation and service at its heart, the Hospitality College is attracting more and more students like Sypert and Karsten, whose interests lie outside of the traditional hotel/restaurant sectors. Hospitality has become one of the fastest-growing industries because it’s not limited to one type of service. Indeed, hospitality hopefuls now cast a wide net into fields such as travel, entertainment, health care, sports ... the list goes on.
But even the most open-minded students and programs have to live within the bounds of a university system, where core requirements and prerequisites reign supreme. It hasn’t been easy for students like Sypert (who hopes to someday direct major tennis tournaments) and Karsten (who looks toward a future working with foster children). They had to find room in their required class schedule — not to mention their wallets — to explore all aspects of their budding passions.
It likewise has been a challenge for the Harrah College to stay fluid enough to accommodate an industry so highly adaptive by nature. Innovations and trends are moving the needle at hyperspeed, and the industry is seeking a workforce that is well-equipped to steer their organizations through fluctuating times.
“The industry knows what it wants in its future employees,” said Stowe Shoemaker, dean of the Hospitality College. “They want people who thrive in an increasingly dynamic environment but who also come prepared with a specific set of soft and hard skills.”
Recognizing the new needs of both industry and its future professionals, it was clear the college needed to move its own needle: Students like Sypert and Karsten wanted more choice and more relevance; the industry wanted a highly trained, yet more nimble, workforce. And the College of Hospitality was determined to give them what they wanted.
If It Ain't Broke, Why Fix It?
In December 2017, the Hospitality College launched what many in academia consider to be a mountain-moving effort of redesigning a curriculum. It was a bold move for a top-ranked program known for its tried-and-true academic formula. But faculty members knew the industry would soon be outpacing the college, and responsiveness would prove key to student success as well as program longevity. They also were convinced that introducing a few new courses wasn’t the solution; to truly evolve, wholesale structural change was required.
“We started with a blank page, knowing that we wanted to base our new curriculum on the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that the industry wants,” explained professor Gail Sammons, a member of the college’s ad hoc curriculum committee.
Learning precisely what the industry wanted didn’t happen overnight. The committee spent months gathering the perspectives of hospitality professionals through interviews and surveys. These findings were supplemented by those collected two years prior at Hospitality 2025, a workshop where hospitality insiders and the Hospitality College took an in-depth look at trajectories and projected trends over a 10-year period.
Throughout the data-collection process, recurring themes and skill sets began to rise to the surface. These became the springboard for a curriculum discussion and a course “wish list.”
“Several things stood out,” Sammons said. “Industry definitely wanted analytics — the understanding of financials. They also wanted students to understand guest services and be able to manage the service experience ... so critical thinking and problem-solving skills were big on the list.”
The committee agreed that certain identified competencies would be baked into the learning objectives for all new core courses. Students would now have to demonstrate strong communication and critical-thinking skills across the board, no matter which course they were taking. In addition, they would be required to sharpen their analytical skills through new core selections, such as Hospitality Financial Accounting, Hospitality Financial Analysis, and Revenue Management and Profit Optimization.
Under the new curriculum structure, proficiency in several computer programs, such as Microsoft Excel, also now are required. Students are expected to demonstrate mastery of these computer programs within the first two weeks of class as part of a certification process. This helps students by front-loading any technical learning or “refreshers” needed to succeed in each course while allowing instructors to focus on course content rather than teaching computer skills.
For a full year, the ad hoc curriculum committee created, reviewed, rearranged, and consolidated the college’s core courses so that the appropriate content would land in the path of all students. That year of blood, sweat, and tears finally paid off when the committee presented the college’s faculty with a shiny, new curriculum in October 2018; in a vote of the entire faculty, 79 percent approved it.
With university approval still pending, the work was far from over. But with such strong support across the faculty, the college had the green light to start refining courses under the new curriculum structure.
On the Subject of Choice
Perhaps the most notable shift in the new curriculum comes in the form of its core-to-electives formula: While beefing up desired competencies, the required core courses was actually trimmed from 58 to 52 credits. This allows students to take up to 30 credits in elective courses, giving them more room to form specializations.
“Prior to this, we were really lockstep,” explained Bobbie Barnes, Hospitality College assistant professor-in-residence and ad hoc committee member. “Now, we’ve reduced the amount of core requirements so students can construct a career path that more closely aligns with their passions.”
Under the new structure, students will have the option to choose up to two concentrations in hospitality sectors — an appealing option for students such as Sypert, who would have jumped at the chance to gain a wider skill base.
“Tennis tournaments are multifaceted,” he said. “I would love to learn the food & beverage and hotel management side of things to better understand all of these facets. Even if you’re concentrating in events, there’s a good chance you’ll be involved in these other aspects of hospitality.”
The Wider Applications
The revised elective structure also gives students the new option of building a 15-credit concentration outside of the hospitality college, which benefits nonconventional students like Karsten.
“Students are going to be able to explore more things they’re interested in without paying for extra classes that don’t lead to a degree,” said Karsten, who would have liked to supplement her hospitality degree with social work courses. “This opens the door for someone like me, who wants to do nonprofits but needs the meetings and events knowledge. I felt like I had to pick one or the other, but now [students] can have both.”
Another creative component of the new configuration is the flexibility to launch (and, likewise, discontinue) electives according to industry demand. By adding an “X” to the end of course numbers — with the “X” denoting a kind of temporary status — the college can roll out content on a trial basis as special projects or new industry trends present themselves. “Let’s say we offer a new course on menu design and assign it the number FAB 329,” Sammons said. “If we put an ‘X’ by it (FAB 329X), we can offer it up to two times before it becomes an official part of the curriculum. That way, if a trend doesn’t persist, that course topic doesn’t have to become permanent.”
Engineering a flexible curriculum embedded with the right knowledge, skills, and dispositions was the faculty’s primary goal. But the process, Barnes said, also involved creating a learning model that primes students for career mobility in the real world.
“We want students to be exposed to course material that really prepares them to move from employee to supervisor to manager to executive level,” Barnes explained. “So under the new curriculum, we thoughtfully built our freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior course schedules to mirror this progression, focusing on the decision-making skills required to get to the next level.”
Added Shoemaker: “We’re really preparing our students for their first, second, third, and fourth jobs. Whatever sector they’re in, whatever new trend they’re facing, they can draw from the solid foundation they got here at the Hospitality College and move up in their organization.”
On Oct. 17, 2019 — virtually a year to the day after Hospitality College faculty signed off on the new core curriculum — the university gave its stamp of approval. The college’s list of elective courses, meanwhile, continues to be fleshed out by departments. Those involved describe the process as a labor of love — sometimes contentious, but always respectful.
“We had some knockdown, drag-out fights,” Sammons recalled, “but we promised we’d hear each other out; we promised we’d do our homework and clear our calendars to meet as much as we could. If we had questions, we made sure we reached out to other subject-matter experts in the industry, our alums, and other faculty to make sure we were going in the right direction.”
There were additional hurdles. For instance, finalizing the updated curriculum meant gaining approvals from feeder programs — CSN and Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno — to ensure the seamless transfer of credits between institutions. After serious negotiations and concessions on both sides, CSN and Truckee Meadows agreed to align hospitality courses with those of the Hospitality College.
“The Nevada system has high standards,” Barnes said. “With each layer, we had to evaluate it, justify it. It’s painful, but the extra layers of approval only serve to make the product better for the students.”
It’s a product the college was determined to share with a larger audience. Coinciding with the fall 2020 launch of the new-and-improved curriculum, the college will begin offering select courses online. A full-scale online degree program will soon follow.
“We want to make sure our program is not only better but also more accessible,” Shoemaker said. “If students can’t come to us, we want to come to them. That’s how we’re going to connect students with the career of their dreams. That’s how we’re going to keep changing lives.”