Wanda Gispert (third from left) and her Contemporary Problems in Hospitality graduate students during a field trip to MGM National Harbor. Virginia Tech photo

Gaining real-world exposure to navigating labor shortages, festival emergency planning, bolstering sustainability, and more, graduate students in Wanda Gispert’s Contemporary Problems in Hospitality course are prepared to tackle the latest industry challenges.

“My goal is to equip students with the ability to jump into any hospitality ecosystem, approach challenges with a critical mindset, and pose creative solutions,” said Gispert, vice president of HR Global Development for MGM Resorts International and adjunct faculty in Virginia Tech’s Master of Science in Business Administration - Concentration in Hospitality & Tourism Management (MSBA-HTM) program. 

“In preparing the next generation of hospitality leaders, nothing is off the table and that is where the Contemporary Problems in Hospitality title comes in. We cover a lot of ground on topics that aren’t typically in a textbook but get a lot of buzz in the news or on social media,” she said.

An all-star lineup of executive-level guest speakers from MGM Resorts International, live events entertainment agency Superfly, Emirates Airlines, and more brought their real-world challenges to life each class, with homework assignments providing a runway for students to pose creative solutions to these challenges.

The guest speakers, or clients, would give the students an assignment that focused on a problem unique to their specific situation. The students were charged with researching the problem and, ultimately, coming up with a solution. After the students presented their solutions to the class, Gispert would then submit the work to the client and receive their feedback.

Ensuring event safety and preparedness at large-scale events like festivals, summits, and album launches is top of mind for guest speaker Talia Vernon, senior vice president of production and operations at Superfly. Vernon stressed the need for extensive emergency event planning and spoke about how factors like weather, celebrity behavior, and food, can disrupt even the soundest event contingency plans.

For Birju Patel, president of BPR properties, labor shortages are paramount. As an entrepreneur who owns a hospitality company with multiple small and mid-size hotels, the problem is not a lack of capital or land for projects; it is the lack of staff when those hotels are ready to open.

I want the students to understand what a contemporary problem in the industry is,” said Gispert. “What are we talking about here? I purposely didn’t tackle traditional problems. There were no textbooks. I wanted to get the students out of the mentality of ‘read a book; take a test; write a paper.’”

“This course changed my vision towards a book-based study and a real-world-based study,” said Neema Sherpa. “We didn't have any books for this course because each of our assignments was based on each guest speaker. The class exposed me to real-world hospitality problems and increased my ability to brainstorm ideas and suggestions for those problems.”

Outside of the classroom, a field trip to MGM National Harbor deepened students’ industry exposure and provided an inside look into retail and gaming strategy within the hospitality industry.

Alex Alvarado, vice president of casino operations, and Ana Maria Viditchi, vice president, retail strategy at MGM National Harbor, offered students insights into the operations of an integrated resort – and how elements like hotel, gaming, dining, retail, surveillance, and security all intersect under one roof.

Students were tasked with developing a store concept within this dynamic environment and conducting research.

“We received true insight into the unique operations of each department at MGM and were presented with their real-life issues and challenges as our homework,” said student Douglas Levy. “The class was unique as we were presented with current issues of a leading hospitality organization and had to develop solutions in real time. These solutions had to be comprehensive and presented in an efficient manner, which is the way that the real world works.”

The course was rooted in reality. Students were not given much time to prepare their homework – mimicking work on a hotel floor or a festival stage, it was fast-paced on purpose. In day-to-day work, there isn’t always time to conduct extensive research and finesse deliverables. Rather, one must act and make quick decisions to propose immediate solutions.

“It is my hope the experiences gained through this course will help give students a competitive edge, to be able to act in any situation,” said Gispert. “Particularly, the ability to approach problems from a broader vantage and then review all the scenarios.”

According to Gispert, the course is expected to be delivered again in fall 2023.

“In this learning environment, students are prepared for tomorrow's challenges by understanding what's relevant,” she said. “So many things have changed, much of which has been accelerated by the pandemic. However, there has never been a better time for students to go into hospitality. Coming out of the pandemic, the industry is thriving, and business is stronger than ever.

“It's exciting, and that excitement is growing.”