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Growing Tourism

January 19, 2022
mountains seen a landscape of autumn trees
The fall colors shine below the peaks of the Teton Range from an overlook above Spread Creek, on the east side of Grand Teton National Park.

The Wyoming Outdoor Recreation, Tourism and Hospitality Center aims to serve the state’s second-largest economic sector.

By Micaela Myers 

Tourists flock to Wyoming for its amazing national parks and monuments, but there’s so much more to explore—from pine-clad mountain ranges to colorful deserts. Tourism is Wyoming’s second-largest economic sector but offers plenty of room to grow. From skiing and snowmobiling to fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking and more, Wyoming offers year-round recreation and sightseeing. 

The state’s Wyoming Innovation Partnership efforts inspired the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation, Tourism and Hospitality (WORTH) Center—a new hub for the sector.

“WORTH is designed to provide real-world experiences for students; courses, training and certificates via distance technologies to working professionals; outreach services such as market analyses and business incubation; and applied research in collaboration with industry,” says University of Wyoming President Ed Seidel.

“The WORTH Center will be extremely valuable in continuing to grow and support the state’s second-largest industry—tourism and hospitality,” says Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism. “We need to foster the next generation of hospitality industry leaders, as they will be vital in strengthening and diversifying our local and state economies going forward.”

The initiative builds on UW’s success with the outdoor recreation and tourism management degree launched in 2018. “We knew that this was just the first commitment UW would make to help the outdoor recreation, tourism and hospitality industries in Wyoming,” says Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources outdoor recreation and tourism management Degree Coordinator Dan McCoy. “It was always our No. 1 goal to expand and diversify Wyoming’s economy by ensuring WORTH industries are supported and thriving. Our industry partners are very excited about the possibilities of the WORTH Center, and I cannot wait to see what we accomplish.”

 

Expanded Educational Opportunities

UW currently offers a minor in hospitality, and the WORTH Center expects to grow that program to offer a bachelor’s degree focusing on the business side of tourism and hospitality management and marketing. At the same time, it will offer expanded coursework to students in the outdoor-recreation-focused degree program and vice versa. Students could also do both majors concurrently. These two degree programs are partnerships between the College of Business and the Haub School.

“They are two sides of the same coin,” says College of Business Interim Dean Rob Godby.

Unlike some hospitality programs that focus on hotel management or culinary arts, this new program focuses more broadly on the industry itself and the business of it.

“It creates an applied focus, and that’s a benefit to students and the industry,” Godby says. “It will not only serve the students already here, but it forms an attractor.”

Current UW students are excited for the new opportunities WORTH will bring. “I fully support the development of a hospitality management program at UW,” says Meredith Hoerman of Franklin, Tenn., who graduated this winter with a degree in management, a concentration in entrepreneurship, and minors in economics and energy resource management. “The industry is massive, and it would be a wonderful investment in our student’s futures to specifically train them in the skills needed.”

Hoerman spent last summer working as a reservations specialist for Premier Resort Properties, a franchise of iTrip, in Orlando, Fla. The company manages vacation rental properties for homeowners.

“Hospitality is such a broad industry with so much opportunity for our management majors, especially in Wyoming, where there is so much untapped land and property potential,” she says. “If I had the option to closely study hospitality management at UW, I certainly would have done so.”

Currently, UW only has one hospitality-focused instructor, Haub School Assistant Professor of Practice Sara Ghezzi, though the new program will grow this field significantly.

“We’ve seen tourism increase,” Ghezzi says. “This degree goes hand in hand with helping meet the needs of the state.”

person mountain biking
UW student Jimmy Borchard bikes along the new trails at the Pilot Hill Recreation Area, east of Laramie. During planning of the recreation area, UW students helped facilitate public feedback workshops.

She explains that hospitality stretches across many industries, including some people may not think of, such as health care. “Hospitality and management is all about customer service. There are lots of different paths you can take with this major. There’s a big need in Wyoming right now.”

Ghezzi teaches foundations of customer service, global tourism, managing profitability in hospitality, hospitality operations and a practicum course on business strategies. She envisions the new degree creating well-rounded leaders in hospitality.

One of her students, senior Erin Barnhardt of Bismarck, N.D., is majoring in outdoor recreation and tourism management with an emphasis in cultural and international tourism and minor in hospitality business management. She hopes to work in event planning. “I think the new degree would be beneficial to students, as it offers real-world application of business courses within a specific industry,” Barnhardt says. “Hospitality professionals are needed within the state of Wyoming, especially as tourism continues to grow as an industry.”

A fellow hospitality minor, junior Faith Joiner of Highland, Calif., is also majoring in outdoor recreation and tourism management and hopes to work as a resort manager. “I love working with people, and I think that making them as comfortable as possible in a hospitality setting would be very fulfilling as a career,” she says. “I have really enjoyed hearing about the inner workings of the hospitality industry, such as why pricing works the way it does, how hotels and resorts cooperate with and utilize other online platforms to help sell rooms, and various activities I would participate in if I worked as a revenue manager for a hotel.”

Joiner believes the new offerings will expand the scope of career paths for students. The program can also create more opportunities for them to stay and work in Wyoming. 

“It’s really about workforce development, which we’ve found is much needed as we visit with folks around the state,” says Haub School Dean John Koprowski. “They can’t find enough qualified staff.”

Partnering with community colleges is a key aspect of the Wyoming Innovation Partnership and WORTH. Koprowski says that not all jobs require a bachelor’s degree, but for community college students who want to go on to UW, transfer planning guides make transferring a seamless process. Online offerings are also key for those around the state looking to learn new skills and advance their careers without relocating. These could include webinars and certificate courses, in addition to the degree offerings.

 

people using binoculars by a mountain lake
Tourists enjoy the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone, which is a popular wildlife spotting destination. Among them is Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources graduate student Kayla Matlock, whose fieldwork included studying wildlife and interacting with the public about their experiences in the park.

A Growing Sector

As part of the WORTH Center, UW personnel met with industry leadership around the state to gauge their needs.

“The collaboration of the WORTH initiative with industry partners from throughout our state has been tremendous,” says Jim Waldrop, president and general manager of Silver Dollar Inc., the parent company to Jackson’s The Wort Hotel, The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar and The Wort Plaza Shops. “The initiative has been thoughtful and strategic in support of our state’s second-largest industry. To bring all of our resources together with the WORTH initiative is overdue and timely and will truly help our industry by providing a skilled, work-ready workforce.”

There’s a great deal of room to grow the industry, Godby says. While there’s high-end tourism in Jackson and camping around the state, a lot of value can be built in between. He says experiential tourism unique to each region can be built out to keep people coming back, not just checking Yellowstone off their bucket list. Great service will play a key role.

“We’re going to give them an experience they’re not expecting so they come back,” Godby says. “The idea is to create this depth and workforce development.”

To aid the industry, WORTH will offer services such as market analyses and applied research projects led by faculty and students. The center will conduct detailed business analysis and studies of the industry, Godby says. Companies, towns or organizations can approach the center for help evaluating their ideas.

A local example is Laramie’s Pilot Hill Project, a large recreation area, which approached UW to learn how the project would impact the community. Koprowski offers other examples, such as a rancher who wants to diversify and accommodate birdwatchers or campers. The National Park Service may contact WORTH for data on wildlife jams in Yellowstone, or Jackson may need assistance with destination management. WORTH can also help the state determine how to get tourists to visit more places.

“There are numerous ways we can provide data for data-informed decisions,” Koprowski says. “Graduate students and undergraduates interested in research will be involved collecting data.”

In this way, WORTH will work closely with the proposed School of Computing. “It could be managing environmentally sensitive assets to very sophisticated marketing efforts that use very granular data,” Godby says. “WORTH is also entrepreneurial. We’re helping economic development in the state, which ties to the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.”

Student internships will combine hands-on learning with service to the state. “It will train students and expose them to industry and organizations,” Koprowski says. “Students will provide services and get educational value as well as gain a foot in the door. To the organization, it’s a recruitment opportunity.”

Godby says WORTH also incorporates UW’s other disciplines. For example, environmental sciences play a role in understanding impacts, and agriculture is affected by tourism and also a draw for tourists wanting to experience the “Western” lifestyle, which is where the humanities also come in—from iconography of the West to local art that draws tourists.

“WORTH is important to the region,” Godby says. “How do we beef up what we have here, encourage it, sustain and support it in a way that makes us stronger?”

 

Serving the State

Bridging both educational offerings and workforce development is the larger concept of service to the state.

“The president really sees the land-grand institution of the 21st century connecting to the state in new and meaningful ways,” Koprowski says. “We want WORTH to be the go-to place where people come for training and assistance in this sector. We have a long history of extension agents being out in the state. We want to use that connection working with the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources to reach out to residents and have someone available they can go to for assistance, guidance and expertise.”

As part of being that go-to place, he says: “You can get not only degrees via WORTH but also advanced training, continuing education and career advancement, and that provides the workforce the state needs. Then that service and outreach component really connects us around hospitality, tourism and outdoor recreation in ways we haven’t been connected. That applied research provides data to make those informed decisions. We’re wrapping that all together and trying to broaden the impact in the state. The No. 2 industry will have a home in WORTH.”


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