As COVID-19 dismantled the rules of engagement for individuals and businesses throughout the world, the Harrah College of Hospitality found itself facing its own set of new challenges. Long regarded as a hands-on-learning superpower, the college saw its internships, work experience, in-person events, and industry projects quickly shift to the remote world — throwing faculty, students, and administrators for a loop.
The college responded by changing its own rules of engagement — looking beyond the delivery format and technological challenges to focus on its unique set of assets. On the academic front, professors set up classes as problem-solving laboratories and worked with students on pandemic-related research. Meanwhile, away from campus, alumni and industry partners found new ways to connect and brainstorm solutions.
It was just the latest example of the Hospitality College doing what it does best: meeting a problem head-on and working tirelessly to overcome it. Here are a few stories that highlight this omnipresent can-do spirit.
Virtual events keep connections alive
How do you sustain career-building opportunities for students in the absence of face-to-face job fairs and professional development activities? Ask your friends for help.
The College of Hospitality, with its Boughner Center for Career and Alumni Services, did just that. At the first sign of suspended in-person classes, internships, and networking events, alumni and industry partners worked together to create a series of remote career events, such as online mock interviews, company information sessions, and monthly virtual mixers to keep recruiting pipelines active and help students build their networks.
Alumni and students also came together for virtual industry panel discussions that focused on topics ranging from the changing entertainment industry to the importance of advocacy.
“We wanted to create a space where we didn’t just talk about challenges,” said alumni board member Karen Achatz. “We wanted to pool our expertise and focus on solutions.”
Whether mixing mojitos or playing golf, Rebels also made it a point to keep social connections alive.
Hosted by the Alumni Board, the college launched two popular virtual series last year: Cook Like a Rebel features a special guest chef who takes viewers through a pre-selected recipe; and Salud! Prost! Cheers! which treats aspiring mixologists, wine connoisseurs, and beer lovers to lessons on how to make and enjoy their favorite beverages (episodes can be viewed on the college’s YouTube channel).
“We thought, ‘Let’s ease a bit of the stress by creating some fun, casual events’,” said Achatz. “It’s a great way to bring Rebels together who may be in different cities or just feeling isolated.”
Rather than shuttering the mentor program in the wake of the pandemic, the Boughner Center widened the program’s net, virtually pairing students with industry mentors from as far away as Asia. Mentor/mentee pairs exchanged advice on industry best practices, goal setting, networking strategies, and more.
“It’s critical for our students to get face time with professionals actively working in the industry,” said Maggie Hausbeck, Boughner Center executive director. “We’re so fortunate to have industry mentors who are willing to show up for our students, regardless of the format.”
Master’s student looks at emotional toll COVID-19 has on Black supervisors
Jaimi Garlington is no stranger to hard work and long hours. As a Hospitality College master’s student and assistant manager for a busy drive-through restaurant, she’s used to pulling double duty. But when COVID-19 hit and she was tasked with filling in for those who were furloughed or on extended sick leave, Garlington quickly found herself stretched thin.
When the pandemic began tightening its grip in summer 2020, Hospitality College researchers Kweisi Ausar and Cass Shum started looking into the emotional impact the virus was having on restaurant supervisors and managers like Garlington. They specifically wanted to test whether race was an additional stressor in the pressure cooker of the pandemic.
The two asked then-undergrad Garlington to join the research team, knowing she would bring special insight to the project as a working professional of color and budding researcher.
“I knew about my own experience,” Garlington said. “But we wanted to get the data to determine how the pandemic was affecting Black restaurant professionals across the board.”
The team surveyed 105 restaurant supervisors and 282 restaurant managers (with both Black and white participants), looking at how economic constraints were affecting work hours and ultimately their psychological well-being.
Their findings, which culminated with an article now under journal review, suggest that Black supervisors and managers were hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Fueled by job insecurity and a lack of social support, Black managers were motivated to work longer hours than their white counterparts. They often did so in constant fear of contracting the disease, which is no surprise given that studies show Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. This combination of economic insecurity, intense workload, and increased health risk was translating into higher stress.
In an industry where Black professionals represent only 15 percent of the supervisor pool and earn markedly lower salaries than their white counterparts, Garlington said these findings magnify the racial disparities already known to exist in the restaurant industry.
“Even though we [hospitality] are one of the most diverse industries, that doesn’t mean we are immune from social justice issues,” she said.
One year into her master’s program at UNLV, Garlington feels empowered to continue addressing racial inequities in the hospitality industry through research — a tool she believes can help the industry push through racial barriers and find solutions.
“I have the freedom to be creative and have this consciousness to make changes in the industry,” Garlington said. “I like this about UNLV. It’s a community that’s willing to go outside of the box with me.”
Faculty and students co-create a new kind of hands-on learning
In the pandemic-challenged sphere of higher ed, courses centered on experiential learning have taken a huge hit. The restaurant operations class led by Murray Mackenzie and chef Christopher Lindsay was no exception.
Known for its immersive, boots-on-the-ground classroom experience, this culminating seminar needed a dramatic formula shift.
Rather than settling for a watered-down version of their in-person class, Mackenzie and Lindsay decided to push their students into active restaurant recovery mode, addressing the elephant-in-the-room question: How do you stay connected to customers and remain operational during a pandemic or other disaster?
“We basically set it up as a crisis management course around the food and beverage industry,” Lindsay said. “Students work in groups to come up with restaurant concepts using both pre-COVID and post-COVID scenarios.”
After spending the first half of the semester conceptualizing, building, and analyzing a novel restaurant concept, student teams devoted the next half to mapping out their business’s survival strategy in the wake of the pandemic. This meant exploring new ways of doing business, along with new health and safety guidelines.
“We are preparing them for management, challenging them to think through problems and stay flexible,” Mackenzie said.
To keep students grounded in the real world, industry guests virtually joined the class to review recovery plans, brainstorm ideas, and offer wisdom designed to carry students forward into their careers.
The response? Students are consistently bringing their A-game, introducing innovative ideas such as one-click online ordering, meal and cocktail kits in lieu of prepared orders, and delivery-only restaurants. These concepts have left Mackenzie and Lindsay impressed – not only by their students’ creativity but also their enthusiasm, which they describe as “off the charts.”
This same type of creative energy has found its way into Mackenzie’s meetings and events class as well. Students, whose final class assignment typically culminates with a live in-person event, are now working to plan and promote virtual fundraisers for local nonprofit businesses. Spring 2020 events included a bingo night, a virtual cooking/cocktail gathering, and an animal shelter pet adoption.
“Virtual and hybrid meetings and events will continue in the post-pandemic world,” Mackenzie said. "We’re really at the cutting edge of what’s going on in the industry, giving students the skills they need to be employable.”
Even as they look forward to returning to in-person classes in the near future, Mackenzie and Lindsay acknowledge that an extremely valuable lesson was learned during the pandemic: Always be prepared for the unexpected.
“Complacency is the enemy – both in the hospitality industry and in higher education,” Lindsay said. “We are better teachers because of this experience. And our students will be better professionals.”