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Washington State University
Dividend - Fall 2023 Features

Washington State Hospitality Conference:
A Place to Learn, Connect, and Celebrate

By Sue McMurray

Kelly Fong, SHBM student; Brian McGinnis, WSU faculty session leader; and John Sommer, Hilton Hotel Company; network at the Washington State Hospitality Conference.
Photo by WSU Photo Services

In 2020, when Bob Harrington became director of the WSU School of Hospitality Business Management, he envisioned becoming the “go-to” institution for the study of hospitality business management through strong relationships with the hospitality industry and the strength of Carson faculty and students.

Later that year and into 2021, while the pandemic severely impacted the hospitality industry, he stayed true to the mission by bringing business professionals and advisory board members to campus to share insights on business recovery and navigating careers in a changed world. He also continued to build the school’s Hospitality Week program and Hall of Fame membership.

Inducting Anthony Anton (’91 Poli. Sci.), president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association (WHA), into the Hall of Fame in 2020 led to a pivotal partnership in 2022.

The hospitality school and WHA are both leading sources of education and business insights for the state. Acutely aware of Washington’s vast shortage of hospitality employees, Anton, Harrington, and Carson College of Business Event Manager Angie Senter saw value in collaborating to provide hospitality professionals with opportunity for education and networking.

Working diligently for about six months, they created the Washington State Hospitality Conference.

More than 300 hospitality professionals, WSU alumni, faculty, and students convened in Tacoma for the conference trade show, educational sessions, and a dinner raising $66,200 for hospitality school programming.

“You wouldn’t have known there were two separate staffs and volunteers working to pull off a great event,” Anton said. “They worked together as one, focused on the larger goal of creating a greater picture of hospitality.”

WSU faculty led six different sessions and moderated panel discussions on industry topics and trends, including post-pandemic workforce development, technology, alcohol and dining forecasts, tourism, and sustainability.

Insights on hospitality workforce development and retention

“One of the biggest challenges ahead of us is how we change perception about the industry to show it’s one of opportunity,” said Phil Costello, WHA chief of staff and panelist in Mark Beattie’s session on staffing and workforce development. Panelists discussed resources that educate the public about hospitality careers, including the WHA Education Foundation that supports ProStart®, a restaurant management and culinary training program for high school students, and ServSafe®, a training program for food handlers.

“In your operations, see who’s ready for the next step of leadership and support their educational needs,” Beattie said. “We need more students going into hospitality.”

Others in this session offered tactics for employee retention, such as paying tuition for employees, employee award programs, and recognition events. “Recognition is vital for employee retention,” said David Porter, Ilani Resort director of hospitality and guest experiences. “It keeps team members with us during growth phases.”

Creating a pipeline for internships

Brian McGinnis (’77 H&RA), who serves as the WSU Marriott Foundation corporate engagement coordinator, led a session on building internships to attract potential hospitality employees.

“Many attendees weren’t aware a WSU hospitality undergraduate degree requires 1,000 hours of industry experience such as internships or jobs,” he said. “Internships are important because they not only confirm students are in the right major but also allow them to gain real-life work experience.”

Panelist Amy Alonzo, WSU Marriott Foundation industry relations manager, explained internships can be tailored to fit both the company’s and students’ needs and often include cross-training. “The company may not have to hire an extra employee, and students gain experience in more than one area,” she said.

In 2022, the hospitality school had 45 employers attend the Burtenshaw Hospitality Career Night with hundreds of internships and career opportunities for students. At least 49 students were placed in internships, and more than 44 were hired into the industry, she said.

What hospitality professionals need to know about changing landscapes

In other sessions, panelists discussed trends hospitality professionals will need to be prepared for. Rapid advances in technology, specifically service robots and cybersecurity, were at the core of Dipra Jha’s session.

“The use of robots in various tech roles is gaining momentum. They will fill a void for dirty, dull, or dangerous tasks,” said panelist John Senaga, Bear Robotics territory account manager. “AI and machine learning in guest services can offer huge labor savings.”

With the increase in labor and production costs, robot use in restaurants and other technologies will increase, said Jim Harbour, who led a session on trends influencing dining experiences. “We need to think outside the box to continue to create valuable guest experiences. This includes but is not limited to online ordering and payment in broader segments, use of robots, and forecasting programs to better schedule labor.”

He said demand for unique, experiential dining is growing, and customers are interested in supporting operators who align with their values—a concept discussed in Jenni Sandstrom’s session on moving tourism forward after the pandemic.

Sustainability is part of the fabric

Tourism as a shared community value has been an industry topic for many years and now has greater relevance, Sandstrom said. She explained destination management organizations like Visit Vancouver are making a bigger effort to educate community members about the economic advantages of tourism and get their buy-in.

Convincing customers to support sustainability efforts hinges on communication, added Dogan Gursoy, who led a session on addressing sustainability challenges. He said more people will book green hotels and buy carbon-offsetting products if they are informed with the right messaging. “Managers can increase customers’ willingness to pay for sustainable efforts by giving them objective information about what will be gained—or lost—when not taking sustainability actions,” he said.

“It’s important for communities to understand tourism and how it dovetails with sustainability. Our hospitality graduates are part of this equation and will be well prepared to support the tourism goals of our state,” Sandstrom said.