Students Take Charge of Hotels, Build Team Decision-Making Skills

November 22, 2010

Students in one Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Management course get a sneak peak at some of the complex decisions they’ll have to make as future hotel managers. In the course, HRIM 480: Advanced Hotel Management, students assume the role of manager through a computer simulation known as Hotel Operational Training Simulation (HOTS).

Teams of students are given control over a hotel that is performing poorly—compared to the three computerized competitors in the simulation—and they need to dig the hotel out of its financial rut. To accomplish this, they make decisions on an in-game monthly basis for three years (a total of thirty-six periods). During one seventy-five-minute class period, students may complete three months of a simulation.

The complexity of hotel management is revealed as students sift through the nearly countless options in HOTS for how to allocate their financial resources. Add more rooms or refurbish existing ones? Build a health center, a quick check-in/check-out system, or added conference rooms to attract guests? Purchase food from a local vendor or a national retailer? Train employees or add new ones? Go green with energy-efficient washing machines? Add satellite TV to enhance the guest experience? These are examples of what a manager has to think through on a regular basis, and students have to make the same decisions in class. The only limit is their pool of money.

In reality, a successful hotel relies on effective advertising; the same is true in the HOTS simulation. Students tailor their advertising strategy to better reach their target audience. During the summer in the simulation (the peak season for most hotels), students may decide to advertise in the local paper, the nationwide Sunday paper, and on the local radio station to reach leisure travelers. If the students want to reach out to business travelers, they can use direct mail or run ads in a business journal. To give themselves an extra boost, the teams can purchase optional market research, giving valuable data for how their prices and advertising strategies compare with competitors’.

“A focus of the HRIM curriculum is making decisions as a team, which students get to do in this class. They gain experience with big-picture strategic decision making,” says Dr. John O’Neill, associate professor of hospitality management, who teaches one section of the course.

HOTS also provides customer feedback, which is generated based on certain parameters in the simulation. “They could receive negative and positive feedback at the same time, which happens often in the hotel industry,” says O’Neill. “It might sound contradictory, but it’s a sign of the complex responsibilities hotel managers have.”

Before they have the chance to make any decisions, students conduct a preliminary survey of the state of their hotel. They envision their three-year goal and develop a business plan, marketing strategy, and mission statement, outlining goals for improving customer service and gaining market share.  Each year in the simulation, they revisit those goals to see whether they performed as well as they desired.

While financial gains are a main goal of the simulation, O’Neill has his students analyze their decisions and think of what—if anything—they could have done differently. At the end of each year in the simulation, students present their progress to the class.

“Presenting allows the students to understand the concepts of running a hotel more deeply,” he says. “Plus, it gives them a chance to ask other students questions and get feedback from other students for future decisions.”

The class is a very engaging experience for students. Says Rachel Clark, an HRIM student in O’Neill’s class, “It gives you a chance to be an entrepreneur. You’re handed a property that is suffering, and you get the chance to help make it prosper.” The course, she says, builds on previous courses in the HRIM curriculum, such as accounting and advanced management, and teaches students group ethics.

“There’s competition, which creates energy in class. It’s fun, and it keeps the students engaged,” says O’Neill.

image of John O'Neill's Class

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Editors: John O'Neill can be reached at jwo3@psu.edu. For additional information, contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.