By Walter Villa – Special to St. Thomas University
Just a few months ago, Sofia Volberg was living in her native Argentina, dreaming of one day owning her own restaurant.
Now that she is a freshman in St. Thomas University’s Culinary Arts, Travel and Hospitality Management (CATHM) program, Volberg has amended her goal.
She wants to own a restaurant and a hotel.
In a way, Volberg is the perfect example of STU’s startup CATHM program, which features 15 students, nearly all of them freshmen.
“Our students dream big,” said Dr. Samer Hassan, who was hired by STU in January of 2022, and is now the program director for CATHM.
“What we’re doing as faculty members is giving our students a strong foundation so that they can launch a limitless career.”
Prior to STU, Dr. Hassan was a professor at Johnson & Wales, from 2001, until their hospitality program shut down in 2021 in the wake of COVID.
Dr. Hassan seized that moment to jump to STU, calling it “an amazing opportunity.”
A native of Egypt, Hassan earned a Ph.D. in Hospitality at FIU in 2001.
A large part of his education was hands-on, working in the hotel industry for most of his life, including his early days at the five-star Cairo Hilton.
“I love being of service to others,” Dr. Hassan said. “The mission of service has always intrigued me. Service is something in our business that makes or breaks a hotel stay, and the same goes for enjoying a meal at a restaurant.
“Service is a must.”
That is just one of the many lessons Dr. Hassan imparts to his students, setting them up for success.
“When my students graduate,” Dr. Hassan said, “they will be what the industry is looking for.”
That means his STU students, upon completing the four-year Bachelor’s degree program, will have a well-rounded understanding of the entire industry, from hotel management to commercial food service, and everything in between.
STU’s students, upon graduation, are set to jump into a fertile field. In 2023, demand for hotel rooms is expected to surpass pre-pandemic levels. That equates to 1.3 billion occupied room nights, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. That compares to 1.29 billion occupied room nights in 2019, pre-COVID.
In addition, staffing is projected to grow to 2.09 million people employed in the industry in 2023. After getting hit harder than perhaps any other industry by COVID, hotels are now among the fastest-growing employers in the nation.
That demand for employees also equates to higher pay.
Construction of new hotels is also a growth industry, as projects are planned or underway that are expected to add more than two million hotel rooms globally.
With year-round warm weather, quality beaches, and attractions such as Disney World and the Florida Keys, the Sunshine State has an epic hotel industry, with 429,000 rooms available to rent. Also, planning is in the works to add more than 25,000 rooms in Florida.
Guests of Florida hotels spend more than $40 billion per year.
“All of this means that there is room for more careers in the industry,” Dr. Hassan said. “Employers are ready for our graduates.
“The hospitality industry has more than 200 career pathways, and many of our STU graduates will become entrepreneurs. They will be the ones hiring employees.”
For others, it is important to know that 90 percent of U.S. hotels have increased their wages over the past two years, and 50 percent of hotel general managers started at an entry-level position.
Adelfa Plasencia, a native of Cuba who was raised in Miami, is an STU student who has designs on becoming the general manager of a large hotel or a hotel consultant who visits different properties, assessing problems and offering solutions.
Plasencia, the president of STU’s Culinary and Hospitality Club, has been interested in this industry for years. As a freshman at Miami Springs High, she worked an internship at a hotel, doing everything from housekeeping to dealing with customers at the front desk.
She landed her first hotel job at age 17, and her hands-on learning has continued in college.
For example, this school year alone, STU students have taken field trips to South Florida hotels such as Hard Rock and Hilton. They also had a visit from celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein.
It is important to note that in order to graduate from STU, each student must complete at least one internship in the industry.
David Edwards, a native of Jamaica who is serving as the interim dean of STU’s Gus Machado College of Business, was originally a sportswriter before he happened upon and fell in love with the hospitality field.
He sees a strong connection between sports and tourism, and he brings that perspective to STU students.
Edwards also sees St. Thomas University’s location in South Florida as a huge advantage over other hospitality programs from around the country.
“We’re the gateway to the Americas,” Edwards said. “This is a unique market that is driven so much by tourism. This area is like a laboratory for hospitality, hotel management and tourism. Then, you merge that with all the major sports teams and sports events we have in South Florida – it’s a dynamic place to be.
“St. Thomas University has a great history and reputation in sports administration. Now you add the culinary arts and hospitality management, and it’s the perfect marriage in a city that is a melting pot of different cultures.”
Edwards said he’s getting a lot of positive feedback from those in the industry regarding STU’s students.
“There is tremendous support from people in hospitality,” Edwards said. “They’re telling us, ‘We need your graduates.’
“I know we’re on the right path. A lot of culinary schools just focus on producing chefs and technical skills. Ours is a management program. We’re training future leaders.
“Our students are being taught technical skills. But we are also teaching them management skills. We believe our graduates are going to do big things in the industry.”
Edwards said he expects STU to have an on-campus cooking lab by this fall, as the school’s old cafeteria is being transformed and retooled for just that purpose.
Such moves are important, and Edwards believes that enrollment in STU’s hospitality program will double or triple within the next year.
“The cooking lab on campus will be a game changer,” Edwards said. “It will be a full-blown teaching kitchen.”
Edwards also believes STU’s hospitality program will continue to draw students from a variety of places, including Florida, but also South and Central America and the Caribbean.
Plasencia, from her perspective as a student, also believes in the growth potential of hospitality at STU.
“It’s a small program, but it’s growing,” said Plasencia, who said she has already convinced one young female student she recently met to enroll at STU this fall. “Everyone knows each other in the hospitality program. We all get along. It’s like a family.
“One thing I love is that the classes are not pure lecture. It’s an education.
“But it’s a fun education.”