Since high school, Allison Wiltfong has known she wants to work in the hotel industry. She is now about to graduate from Northern Arizona University (NAU) with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management (HRM) and live her dream. After working in restaurants during high school to make extra money, Wiltfong was instantly drawn to the industry. She came to NAU specifically for its HRM program because it is looked upon so highly.
“I just chose the school for the HRM program,” Wiltfong said. “It’s ranked really highly in the country. I knew that was what I wanted to do when I first started. I worked in restaurants when I was younger. I think I was really lucky finding what I wanted to do before I started college – and I still know what I want to do.”
Upon coming to NAU, Wiltfong discovered the HRM program was more than just going to class and learning what was required. She explained that student-teacher relationships form a family environment that has helped her grow as an individual.
“I’m really close with a lot of the faculty, and I think that’s one of the best things about the HRM program – we’re more of a family than professors [and students],” Wiltfong said. “I think it’s just helped me really be a better person; I’ve expanded my horizons.”
Richard Howey, executive director of the School of HRM, agrees with Wiltfong’s view of the program’s family environment. He said they try to prepare students by teaching them the newest trends occurring in the industry and helping them in any way possible.
“I think, as with NAU as a whole, we are a very close-knit group here,” Howey said. “Classes are small; there is a lot of student, teacher [and] staff interaction. We try to prepare folks here for a career in hospitality and life skills. And [we] try specifically to prepare them for what recruiters are looking for, for what the industry is looking for.”
Howey explained that some of the up-and-coming aspects of the tourism industry are revenue management and the issue of sustainability. Classes are tailored to make sure students are up to date on the industry when they enter the workforce.
“Right now, the hot button is revenue management,” Howey said. “We are altering our curriculum to factor that in, so that when students come out of here, they’re ready. I think, as with a lot of different industries, the whole issue with sustainability and ecological issues are becoming more and more important. We have segments of classes that do deal with sustainability – it’s a very popular and important thing to deal with.”
Along with taking classes, students in the HRM program are required to work a total of 1,200 hours in the industry to graduate. Howey believes work experience and internships help students learn and give them an upper hand when applying for jobs.
“One of the graduation requirements is work experience in the industry,” Howey said. “[Students can do] just about anything within the scope of the industry.” Allison Wiltfong did not waste time getting started on her internships. She has already done three, one of which led to a job once she graduates.
“I did an internship at the place I work at now in town, which is the Fairfield Inn Marriott, and then I’ve done two with Hyatt. I actually do have an offer with Hyatt because I’ve worked with them for so long,” she said.
Wiltfong’s boss, Mark Price, general manager of the Fairfield Inn Marriott, said he has made her jump through hoops to learn all the different aspects of running a hotel. “I think it’s coming on around two years [that Allison’s worked for me],” Price said. “I’ve had her do everything, from breakfast, the front desk, housekeeping and even maintenance. She’s spent weeks learning the processes of what we do.”
Price believes the relationship between the School of HRM and Flagstaff is efficient but can always be improved. He said as general manager, he tries to teach interns the ropes of the industry. “It’s a pretty good program, [but] I think there’s lots of room for improvement for this town,” Price said. “Most of us try and help out and do all we can. My job as the general manager is to be the leader – a manager, of course, but also the teacher. I want them to succeed.”
The economic recession during the past several years did impact the tourism industry, but it is believed to be bouncing back well. Heather Ainardi, director of Flagstaff’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (CVB), says there were some bad months during the recession, but people seem more open to traveling now. “Obviously when the recession occurred we had some decline – we had some pretty bad months and some good months,” Ainardi said. “People feel a little bit more confident in their desire to travel and their willingness to travel. Our job at the CVB is to really capitalize on it and make sure people are aware, so they know to come to Flagstaff.”
Ainardi has had the opportunity to work with interns from the HRM program, and believes it is successful in preparing students for the industry.
“The CVB and the school have worked quite well together,” Ainardi said. “I think NAU does a really good job of training people and making sure they understand the industry as a whole. We’ve worked with a lot of interns that have been very impressive.”
Reflecting upon her last four years at NAU and her graduation this month, Wiltfong believes that coming to Flagstaff for the HRM program was the right decision.
“I came to Flagstaff not liking it, and I still really don’t like Flagstaff,” Wiltfong said. “But I love the school and I love this program, so it’s made it completely worth it to me. I’ve had the best time here; they’ve just taught me so much.” FBN