In early February, NYU’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality launched a brand new Hospitality Innovation Hub. “The state-of-the-art facilities of the new HI Hub offer students, start-ups, established industry partners and investors opportunities to learn, discover, innovate and invest,” noted Associate Dean Nicholas Graf.

The HI Hub houses the Experiential Learning Lab, serving as both a classroom and event space where students will put theoretical knowledge to the test, employ best practices in real-time settings and experiment with technology, from POS systems to Revenue Management solutions.

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The hub’s Prototyping Space is complete with virtual reality and coding equipment, while the Coworking Lounge provides a central brainstorming space for students, guests and entrepreneurial partners.

The hub will also serve as a launchpad for three Tisch Center programs with industry partners and investors that will be open to all NYU students. The programs will include mentorship opportunities, a venture capitalist’s club and, eventually, an accelerator program for series C hospitality industry startups.

The hub’s debut comes as a resilient industry emerges from the restrictions of the worldwide pandemic, with a greater need than ever for solution-oriented innovations and perspectives. Associate Dean Nicholas Graf shared the origins of the hub, planned long before the pandemic—but opening just in time.

“The vision really emerged about 10 years ago when we realized how the hospitality, travel and event industries were changing. This was driven by changing consumer behaviors and expectations as well as by the growing ubiquity of technology. These changes created many new opportunities to engage, acquire and retain customers. The need for our students to develop new skills around the use of technology to market and create more seamless and immersive experiences became obvious. The hospitality, travel and event industries were not viewed as very innovative, as well, and so we decided to position the Tisch Center as the leading institution in driving innovation and entrepreneurship. We updated all our curriculums to reflect this move. HI Hub then became the cornerstone of this broader initiative.”

Across the country, San Diego State University’s Hospitality and Tourism Management program is making changes, too. Carl Winston, director of the program, says shifting gears in the midst of the pandemic was a huge learning curve partly made possible by a partnership with a private production company.

Winston said the program’s partnership with Caspian Agency was a crucial assist in implementing necessary changes in academic coursework during the pandemic. Last summer, as the Covid outbreak raged, instructors took the time to get up to speed on virtual options. In the second semester, students studied dozens of virtual platforms and discussed how to make engaging things happen without physically present attendees.

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Winston also spoke about the disparity in consumer perception of virtual events versus the reality. “A client thinks, ‘OK, run my Zoom meeting, and I’ll pay you less because you don’t have expenses.’ But we do. We need a team of production people.” Because of that, he believes a post-pandemic industry will demand a new skillset from students who aspire to hospitality careers, and visionary production skills will be highly sought after.

“I’ve interviewed 26 different organizations, from Disney down to a local third-party planner, and I’ve asked them—who are you going to be hiring post-Covid?  It all comes down to soft skills, attitude and critical thinking. No one is saying they need experts at staging or menu design. It’s project management and attitude. I think one of the biggest challenges for education is—how do I grade you on soft skills?”

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Lynn Minnaert, academic chair and clinical associate professor at NYU, echoed similar sentiments about industry solutions still in development. “While the last year has offered plenty of opportunities to experiment with virtual events, some attempts have clearly been more successful than others, and monetizing virtual events was a challenge for most. Navigating the question on which attendance options to offer, and what to charge, will be a big point of discussion as the sector reopens.”