February 12, 2020


Nick Thomas on Hospitality Industry Trends and Hospitality Leadership Education

In the 10 years since DePaul’s School of Hospitality Leadership was established, the hospitality industry has seen dramatic changes. Advancements in technology are improving how hotels, restaurants and convention centers operate; new trends are reshaping the travel experience; and far-off destinations are more within reach. How does DePaul prepare students to enter this fast-growing sector? With a combination of classroom instruction led by professors with industry experience and hands-on training. In this episode, Nick Thomas, the school’s director, talks about how hospitality leadership educators are meeting the challenge of evolving with the industry—and shares what he’s learned from spending time on the opposite side of the world.



LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I’m your host, Linda Blakley, vice president of University Marketing and Communications.

Whenever you visit a restaurant or neighborhood pub, attend a sporting event or concert, or stay in a hotel, you’re coming into contact with the hospitality industry. It’s the world’s largest and fastest-growing sector, and it presents a vast array of career options.

DePaul prepares students for the field through its School of Hospitality Leadership in DePaul’s Driehaus College of Business. Now in its 10th year, the School of Hospitality Leadership is the premier urban-based hospitality leadership program in North America.

As the school celebrates this 10-year milestone, I’m talking to its director, Nick Thomas, about hospitality industry trends and changes and how DePaul is preparing students to fill the industry’s needs. Nick, thanks for joining me.

NICK THOMAS: Thank you so much for having me today. I really appreciate it.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I want to start by asking: how did you get your start in the hospitality industry?

NICK THOMAS: That’s a great question. I think many people got their start not necessarily thinking that they wanted to go into hospitality. I was in high school. I was looking for a part-time job. I opened up the newspaper and a local hotel was looking for someone to drive their airport shuttle, help guests carry their bags, and I thought it would be interesting. I wasn’t looking for something that was going to be a 9-5, sit at a desk all day. I wanted something that was engaging. And at that moment, I had no idea that I would end up going into hospitality. I certainly had no idea that I would end up being an educator and running a great hospitality program. I was just looking for a job. And it happened to be really close to my house. And the rest is history, as they say.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Is it common for professors to have industry experience in addition to academic credentials in the field?

NICK THOMAS: You know, there are so many hospitality programs out there. There’s about 900 two-year, four-year programs just here in the U.S. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a prerequisite. I would say here at DePaul, it’s an absolute must for our faculty to have that industry experience. It’s one of the ways that we build credibility in what we’re teaching, the theory in the class, but it also helps us stay engaged to the constant trends that we see evolving in the hospitality industry. So whether it’s an adjunct teaching one class, maybe two classes a year, or a member of my full-time faculty, having that industry experience in a specific area related to the topic that you’re teaching is an absolute must for us here.

LINDA BLAKLEY: The School of Hospitality Leadership is in its 10th year at DePaul. How has the industry changed in the past decade?

NICK THOMAS: Wow. It’s changed immensely. And I would say it’s changed in the last – it seems to change almost on a daily basis. Over the last decade, though, I think to use the words of Thomas Friedman, the world is becoming more flat. So the idea of globalization is very true. This is a global industry, as you mentioned, so it’s easier to get around to destinations. I mean, we just look at all the nonstop flights throughout the world just out of Chicago alone. We see travelers from all over the world coming to places like Chicago, so this mobility aspect is very important. I remember just looking at the news yesterday, Qantas Airlines is testing out human elements and the human factors related to flying nonstop from London to Sydney. This is a 19.5-hour flight. It’s evolving. The world is becoming easier to get to. Destinations that might not have been on people’s radar 10 years ago are becoming more popular. The ease of travel is there. And it’s becoming very affordable. We still see segments in the luxury segment of hospitality and tourism, but budget and economy travel is also quite popular.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What kind of things are you teaching students today that wasn’t as common a classroom subject 10 years ago?

NICK THOMAS: I think it has to do a lot with the trends. I think the primary segments of hospitality and tourism haven’t changed that much. We still see a very strong concentration in the hotel industry or lodging. We still see a strong concentration in food and beverage, restaurant operations. We still see, particularly here in Chicago, a great emphasis on meeting and events. This is a meeting and event town going all the way back to the Columbia Exposition in the late 1800s, and we model that in our courses.

Where we started to see some evolution in the curriculum relates to specific operations and things within that, say, for example, revenue management and pricing. It’s quite popular for us in the hotel industry because of advancements in technology to start teaching pricing and distribution, how we sell hotel rooms. People don’t just book their hotel rooms directly through the hotel. They may go to online travel agencies, Booking.com, Expedia, things such as that, so we need to be able to teach students how to deal with the quantitative aspect of the industry through courses like revenue management. We can do a lot of that because we’re housed within the College of Business, so we can rely on the knowledge, skills and abilities that our students are already going to have to be able to deliver those classes. We do that at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I’m a foodie and I like to hang out with foodies. Are there trends that would reflect this attention to culinary delights?

NICK THOMAS: It’s nice to visit with a foodie because I’m a foodie as well. I love it. You know, I think one of the biggest trends that I’ve seen lately is people’s willingness to try food from all over the world. If we took a snapshot 30 or 40 years ago, the idea that we would sit down and at any given week one day have Indian, one day have Japanese, one day have Chinese, one day have Thai, one day have Mexican, one day have Peruvian. And that almost has become the norm—that we have a truly globally represented food customer here. Chicago is a great place for that with its over 70 different neighborhoods, each neighborhood has their own individual food footprint, if you will. We’re also starting to become recognized as truly a global leader in the food scene. We’ve got over 20 Michelin star-rated restaurants here. We host the James Beard Awards here in Chicago. I would argue—and I get into debates with people all the time about how is Chicago as a food city—and I would put us up easily as one of the best food destinations in the U.S., not the world. Traditionally, people think about Los Angeles and New York, but I think we have a mixture of all worlds because of that true global nature and the type of cuisine that we offer.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What are some of the other trends that have surfaced in recent years?

NICK THOMAS: There’s several. I think one of the ones that I’m really interested in right now is this idea of wellness travel, that people are looking about how travel can enhance their mind, body and spirit, in addition to being able to travel for business or leisure purposes. We’re seeing this not just here in the U.S., but we’re seeing this in places like Japan. It’s very popular for this wellness travel where people are incorporating this idea of wellness into their travel experience. Historically, you might see a hotel that might offer just one amenity focused on wellness or two amenities focused on wellness. Maybe it’s a really comfortable bed, maybe it’s having Pilates or yoga available on site. But hospitality and tourism organizations are really looking at how we incorporate wellness into the entire travel experience from tip to tail, from check in to check out, everything from menu design to temperature to scents, all of the ambient conditions of a hotel or a restaurant are taken into consideration really with this idea of wellness in mind.

LINDA BLAKLEY: It’s almost like taking a vacation within a vacation.

NICK THOMAS: I think it is. And I think that we all define vacation very differently. Some people, it’s just purely disconnecting from the hustle and bustle of the normal life. Sometimes it’s about rejuvenation. Sometimes it’s about getting a deeper connection with those that are close to you and being able to do that together. Here in the U.S., we maybe only saw places like that in certain destinations. In the Southwest, for example, there’s a great hotel outside of Tucson called Miraval that was very popular for this. But now we’re seeing it in all destinations and all states. Maybe it’s just going north of here up to Wisconsin or Michigan, the northeast. Idaho and the Hot Springs is a very popular place right now for wellness tourism.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I have a good buddy who has researched her ancestry and is planning a trip to Ghana, and she convinced five of us to go with her. Is she alone in this ancestry search?

NICK THOMAS: Ancestry tourism or DNA tourism is incredibly popular right now. This is something where maybe traditionally 10 years ago, to your point, wasn’t as on the radar, let’s say, but because of all the DNA testing and people taking a really strong interest in genealogy, this has blossomed immensely, particularly in the United Kingdom, in Africa, as you were just alluding to. People are really curious. People are really curious not just who they might be connected to in present day, but also where that originates and looking at the history and how their family and how their current state of life came to be about. That’s really exciting to see.

I was just in Dublin last year for a conference and we were sitting around talking and people are there for the purpose of going to the conference, but many people were going to extend their stay. They would say, ‘I’m really curious to travel around Ireland or go up to Scotland to see three, four, five generations ago where it is.’ What’s really nice to see is that many of these destinations are embracing this. This isn’t something that’s just initiated by the traveler. Some destinations are saying, ‘this is a huge part of our tourism and marketing strategy of how we’re going to get people here, so we will make town records easily accessible, we will make sites within the town, be it cemeteries, churches that would have a registry.’ People are able to actually go search that very easily. It’s not as much a detective story and a mystery. It’s very accessible for the tourists.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Are there different approaches to hospitality across the globe? And if this is indeed the case, how are we teaching students how to embrace international perspectives?

NICK THOMAS: I think hospitality and tourism is truly a global industry, as you mentioned. And because of that, we see many programs around the world embracing similarities but also differences. I think similarities in the sense that the basic operation of a hospitality business, be it a hotel or a restaurant, isn’t vastly different depending on where you are geographically. A hotel in the center of Shanghai, let’s take the Four Seasons in Shanghai, might not be that much different structurally and fundamentally than the Four Seasons in Chicago. There is a front desk. That’s the mechanism where guests can check in and check out. There are restaurants. There is meeting and event space. That basic core foundation is relatively the same. Where you start to see some differences around the world is more cultural nuances, more focus on service. In some places, it’s also just a re-education of the student and the culture about what the service industry and hospitality and tourism is, breaking away from some misconceptions that it’s servitude, that it’s not seen as a glamorous industry to be in. Hospitality and tourism is one of these industries where you can truly have a lifelong career doing lots of different things. Because those skills, as I mentioned, are somewhat universal, you can take those skills and apply them in Singapore, in Sydney, in Seville, Spain. It doesn’t matter.

LINDA BLAKLEY: But are there kinds of personalities that would do well working in the hospitality industry?

NICK THOMAS: Yes and no. I think that hospitality is one of these industries that – and back to your original question about how I got interested in this – it really is an industry that will open its arms to everyone regardless of what their interests and their skills are. There really is something for everybody in hospitality and tourism. What I would say is that people that are the most successful in hospitality and tourism are those individuals that have critical thinking ability. Every time a guest walks into a hotel or they sit down at a restaurant, it’s going to be a completely different experience. That’s just human nature. Individuals that have the ability to critically think, enjoy that interpersonal communication, are not looking for a very monotonous job, that look for a challenge, that are eager to meet people, this is the perfect industry for them to be successful in.

But also what’s interesting is that - and one of the things that really excites me when I talk to our students, is that let’s say you have someone that’s very interested in accounting and finance, there are jobs for people like that. If you have somebody that maybe accounting and finance is not their niche, there are plenty of jobs for that. If you want to be a pilot, if you want to sail cruise ships, whatever you’re looking for, there is something in hospitality and tourism for them. I think a lot of people don’t realize that. It’s one of the things that on a constant basis we’re trying to convey to our students and those interested in coming to our program.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Does education replace experience? Do DePaul hospitality leadership students only learn in the classroom?

NICK THOMAS: To your first question, no. I don’t believe that education replaces experience. I believe that both are complementary to each other, but both are absolutely required. We require internships of all of our students who major in our program. But most of our students are also working while they’re going to school. I did that when I went to hospitality school. I think we are afforded that opportunity because of where we’re located. Our school is right at the corner of State and Jackson in downtown Chicago. Some of the largest hospitality corporations in the world are represented here in Chicago, so most of them do. What the students learn in the classroom can easily be applied in the real-world environment, but that real world environment, that moment when a guest comes up to you and they have a challenge, or that guest comes up to you and they just want to express their delight, we can’t replicate that in the classroom. We actually have to be in the real-world environment to do that. If you’ve ever walked through a busy restaurant on a Friday night or seen McCormick Place Convention Center during a huge convention, we can show pictures of that, we can read narratives about what that’s like, but until you’re actually there and you experience it, nothing can replicate it.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What do you think are some of the industry’s future needs and how are you preparing students to meet those needs?

NICK THOMAS: I think back to your point about the international aspect of hospitality is probably the most critical thing that students have to understand, that this is truly a global industry. If we take a city like Chicago, for example, we see tourists coming here from all over the world, whether it’s China, countries within Africa, South America. They need to understand that that’s a big part of what they do. The future needs in this industry revolve around quantity, keeping up with the demand. Our students are in constant demand here in the city of Chicago, but the industry is also in critical demand.

Let’s take our hospitality career fair that we offer every year. We have about 95 companies that will show up to this career fair every January. Every single one of them has opportunities for students, whether it’s internships, part-time, full-time jobs, not just here in Chicago, but our graduates are in all corners of the United States. They graduated and they’re in Hawaii, they’re down in Florida, they’re on the West Coast, they’re on the East Coast. This is an industry that is represented in every developed country in the world, so being able to keep up with that demand is absolutely critical, but also realizing that that demand exists across all segments of this industry. Part of what we try to do at DePaul is help students understand what segment of the industry they want to go into. They might come in knowing very generally I want to go into hospitality and tourism. We help them through their academic programming here to decide what segment is going to be the best fit with their interests. I think students also are really curious about what the cultural differences are within organizations, finding that fit of ‘this is who I am, this is what I believe.’ ‘Social responsibility is a very important part of my life. I want to try to find an organization that matches up with that really well.’

LINDA BLAKLEY: And finally, since you are a well-traveled person and an industry expert, I’m curious about your own experiences. What has been the best example of hospitality that you’ve ever encountered?

NICK THOMAS: I think I probably reflect back on some of my travels throughout Asia, particularly in places where tourism is not only an aspect of the just general success of the economy, but it’s something that’s helping the economy develop and become better than it was before. There have been some places in Asia that I’ve traveled that are not necessarily big metropolitan cities, whether it’s in Guiyang, China, on a little island off the coast of Vietnam called Phú Quốc, these are cities and destinations that, for whatever reason, maybe 30-40 years ago weren’t that developed. Tourism has been the catalyst to jobs. It’s been the catalyst to breaking the trend of poverty for some families. It has been the things that have put them on the map. Being able to go to places like that and be a part of that, being able to share in rich cultural diversity amongst its citizens, try the great food. Back to your comment about being a foodie, and learning about who I am and what makes them different and while we might be on the opposite sides of the world from one another, realizing that we have a lot in common, we have that hospitality spirit.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Well, Nick, thank you for your hospitality as you joined me for this conversation. I’ve learned a lot.

NICK THOMAS: Thank you so much for having me. It was great to be here.

LINDA BLAKLEY: If you’d like to hear Nick in conversation with hospitality industry leaders, I encourage you to check out his podcast, The Hospitality Spirit. It’s available on SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, and YouTube. I’m Linda Blakley. Thank you for joining me for this episode of DePaul Download presented by DePaul’s Division of University Marketing and Communications.