Nashville’s multibillion dollar tourism industry has spurred unprecedented job growth in recent years, leading hospitality and education officials to look for new ways to address the sector’s workforce needs.

The city’s hospitality industry employed more than 71,000 people in 2018—up from 68,000 in 2017. Industry experts expect this job growth to continue as more than 40 hotels have opened or will open from 2019-20, according to the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp.

Thom Druffel, general manager of the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt in West End, said the local industry is now depending on local universities to train the next generation of hospitality workers. Druffel serves as an adjunct hospitality professor at Tennessee State University.

“On the surface, it’s great Nashville is experiencing this growth,” Druffel said. “With the growth also comes the challenge of filling these new positions. We need to focus on training students to become leaders in Nashville’s hospitality industry.”

In 2018, Nashville attracted 15.2 million tourists and generated $7 billion in visitor spending, according to data released in August by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. To prepare college students for careers in the city’s booming industry, Belmont University and Lipscomb University introduced hospitality programs into their curricula this fall.

“As you watch the number of cranes and buildings go up downtown, it’s proof Nashville is doing something right with tourism,” Belmont University Provost Thomas Burns said. “The opportunities are so great right now that it only makes sense we train future hospitality professionals right here in Nashville.”

‘The Nashville Way’

With the addition of these new degree paths, Belmont and Lipscomb join other area colleges, such as Tennessee State University, Nashville State Community College and Middle Tennessee State University, which have hospitality education programs.

Although Belmont and Lipscomb do not offer the same courses, both colleges train students for work in Nashville’s hospitality industry as opposed to the industry on a national level.

“Nashville does a lot of things differently than everyone else does, and that makes it a very attractive city to visit,” Burns said. “We want to teach our students how to do hospitality and tourism the Nashville way. We don’t need to bring in employees from New York, LA and Las Vegas.”

Beth Morrow, director of industry relations at Lipscomb’s new School of Hospitality and Entertainment Management, said the city’s thriving industry is the result of decades of planning by hospitality leaders. Morrow previously served as the communications manager at the Nashville Downtown Partnership, a private sector nonprofit that engages with downtown businesses and organizations.

“When it comes to Nashville as a destination, the work on making Nashville an ‘it city’ in terms of tourism began 20 years ago,” Morrow said. “There have been people working on this success for a long time, but we didn’t see the fruits of what that means for job opportunities until the last few years.”

In 2018, Nashville’s hospitality industry employed 71,140 people, nearly 14,000 more than in 2014, according to the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.

Druffel, who manages more than 105 employees at the 300-room Holiday Inn Vanderbilt, said hotel staff size is determined not only by the number of rooms but also by the scale of each hotel’s dining operations and meeting spaces. Virgin Hotels Nashville in Music Row and W Hotel in The Gulch, both slated to open in late 2020, will offer a combined 603 rooms, and both will have on-site restaurants.

Morrow said events like the 2019 NFL Draft, which the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. said generated $133 million in direct spending and $74 million more the 2018 event in Dallas, are opportunities students will only find in Nashville.

“Of course, Nashville should host the NFL Draft, and [of] course, it should be the best draft the NFL has ever seen,” Morrow said. “That’s just the expectation here. With this new program at Lipscomb, we’re trying to match that.”

Classroom to the industry

According to Druffel, there are two sides to the hospitality industry: the operational side, which includes customer-facing jobs like front desk clerks and banquet servers; and the corporate side, where employees work behind the scenes to make key industry decisions.

Burns said Belmont University’s new Hospitality and Tourism Management major in the Jack C. Massey College of Business is answering the industry’s need for employees with strong business backgrounds. He said the program is preparing students for corporate management careers at places like conference centers, convention and visitors’ bureaus and entertainment venues.

“We’ve been hearing from the hospitality and tourism management industry for some time that they want employees who truly understand the business side of hospitality,” he said. “We think these students will go into food and beverage management and hotel management, but they’ll also go into jobs that are driving the ever-growing tourism models, like [at] the chamber of commerce.”

Lipscomb is taking a multidisciplinary approach by preparing students for a variety of career paths, according to Morrow. She said the hospitality program is a natural fit for Lipscomb’s service-oriented approach to education.

“We’re trying to tell students that you have to roll your sleeves up and work really hard, and at Lipscomb, we are already in the business of being so good, you don’t even notice,” Morrow said. “In this industry, employers want to hire graduates who have the grit, creativity and strategy to succeed.”

Morrow said the program, which incorporates courses in management, marketing, entertainment, food and beverage and other disciplines, is already attracting industry partners in Southwest Nashville and beyond—including Chartwell Hospitality, a property management company that opened two hotels in Green Hills in 2018.

“We have people standing by and asking how they can best support our hospitality students,” Morrow said. “The Mall at Green Hills is a huge partner for us, and they are standing by, asking how they can best support my students.”

However, Morrow said she also wants students to take advantage of opportunities available on campus, such as working production at the annual Dove Awards at Allen Arena or checking in guests at Lipscomb’s full-service hotel, the Bison Inn.

“Lipscomb is an entertainment, sports and arts destination 365 days of the year, so it’s important for us to hone in on campus first,” she said.

Local high schools leading way

Burns and Morrow said they hope to see their respective hospitality programs gain traction over the next five years—much like the industry they are meant to help support. In the meantime, higher education officials and industry leaders are looking to recruit students involved in hospitality programs offered at the high school level.

In 2007, Metro Nashville Public Schools launched the Academies of Nashville, a districtwide program modeled after college courses. Hillwood High School in West Meade is one of four high schools in Nashville offering a hospitality program for students to receive dual credit and industry certifications.

“Students are uncovering talents they never knew they had,” said Mary York, the academy coach at Hillwood High School. “With the state of Tennessee now recognizing dual credit and industry certifications along with other indicators like ACT score, the program is being recognized as a valuable thing for students who want to pursue a career in the hospitality industry.”

Druffel said Hillwood High students have the opportunity to shadow employees at the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt as part of the program, and he has hired two graduates from the program.

“People don’t realize how rare it is to find a program like this offered on a high school level,” Druffel said. “Students recognize that hospitality is not only a good career opportunity—it’s something that’s very achievable for them to do.”