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New Degree Excites The Tourism And Hospitality Industry

Tourists crowd downtown Jackson last summer.
Bob Beck

The University of Wyoming will be launching an Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Management degree this fall. It’s been a three-year effort, but those in the industry have wanted the degree for almost 20 years.

Tourism and recreation is the second leading industry in the state, so it was crazy to many that the state’s only four-year University wasn’t interested in helping the industry develop young people who could potentially work the wide range of jobs that the state has to offer.

Then one day Indy Burke, who at the time was the Dean of the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, reached out to the Director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism Diane Shober.

“It was the first time ever that I had heard someone at the University of Wyoming talk about a tourism degree that was more than a natural resource and conservation type of management degree. That it was really about the business of the tourism economy and what the vision could be, so we got very excited about it.”

Shober shared the information with those in the tourism field and they were off and running.

“The industry has weighed in all along the way, from early research to interviews, to no we think this needs to be shaped a little bit differently here and the University has been really responsive to that in working through the academic side and the input from the industry.”

Shober notes that there are jobs in the hospitality industry, at ski areas, museums, and state parks.  And that’s just to name a few. The Haub School’s Doug Wachob did the early legwork and held groups with business leaders. He was pleasantly surprised at the list of skills they asked for.

“Communication skills, critical thinking skills, teamwork skills, the ability to work in digital environments, things like that. They listed those out first and then they began to talk about things like I need a marketing person, or I need someone with accounting skills, or I need guides…those sorts of things.”

The other thing the advisory group pushed was developing people with entrepreneurial skills.

“Folks that would start to develop or build existing businesses, start new businesses, things like that.”

Dan McCoy is in charge of the degree program. He says it will be diverse and utilize a variety of programs across campus that involve such things as science, business, and the humanities to name a few. 

“And the skills that we want students to have coming from this degree is the ability to adapt and change career paths and trajectories throughout their careers.”

The degree will have four focus areas that will include Business and Hospitality Management, Outdoor recreation and leadership, as well as two more.

“Cultural and International tourism which is working with international visitors in a western context and then recreation resource management which is a little more geared towards the ski area operations, guest ranches, dude ranches.”

There is going to be a lot of classroom work, but Wachob added that hands-on work in the industry will be required. Students will be encouraged to get internships and a stronger real-world experience will also be part of the curriculum.

“But we also designed a professional semester, some concentrated time in their senior year in which they’ll actually be working in and around the industry, in some capstone projects and things like that.”

Rick Howe of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce said a degree program should develop high-quality employees who are ready to deal with the challenges of a guest service industry.

“Whether it’s dealing with how staff interacts with people, whether you’re dealing with conflict resolution, I mean education is so key because what you’re typically learning is the best ways to handle something.”

Alex Klein is the Vice President and General Manager of the Grand Teton Lodge company. He said the degree is very important and he likes the mix of the curriculum, especially in an era where all businesses are becoming more complex. Klein also hopes this will keep Wyoming students at home and no longer lose them to other degree programs and other states.

“You know we are the second largest industry in Wyoming and I think we want to be able to able to educate the future leaders in the industry right here in the state of Wyoming and not send them out of state to other colleges and universities and have the question if they’re gonna come back.”

Cheyenne Little America General Manager Tony O’Brien agrees with Klein. He added that it’s sometimes difficult to hire people who know and love Wyoming. He thinks the UW program will take the industry to another level. 

“Not having a degree in tourism, it hurts us. We are trying to grab people from other colleges that are close by and maybe they know or don’t know about Wyoming, but I think it will be very important to find quality management employees who will last a long time.”

Program Coordinator Dan McCoy said there’s lots of student interest in the program, not only from Wyoming, but from throughout the nation. The program will begin offering classes in the fall. 

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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