A year after a feasibility study suggested that Cal Poly could build a financially successful hotel and conference center on campus, the university has begun studying the idea more closely.
It’s also studying whether to expand its academic hospitality program, now part of the Recreation, Parks & Tourism administration department, by creating a new school of hospitality. The latter could proceed without the hotel.
Both initiatives would foster students’ hands-on hospitality skills in a county — and state — that depends heavily on tourism. Planning is in the early stages, with no timetable set for a decision, according to Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong.
For the hotel-conference center, the university wants to find a private partner to invest in what the feasibility study indicated would be a $48 million project generating an estimated profit of $2 million in its first year.
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For the academic program, the university hopes to get a commitment in state funding to support it.
Much information still needs to be gathered from other universities with established academic programs and hotel-conference centers, as well as from faculty and students, Armstrong said.
“We’re focusing our attention on a group of faculty, and we’ll engage students, on what the pros and cons are of what a hotel or hospitality school or major should look like,” he said
Decisions about whether to move forward will be made with careful consideration of Cal
Poly’s specific academic and financial interests in mind, Armstrong said.
What other colleges do
Cornell University has long operated a hotel on its campus in central New York, along with a nationally recognized program that trains students for hotel administration jobs, offering bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees related to hotel management.
“When they graduate after five or six years, many work for developers or strive for hotel executive positions,” said Rick Adie, general manager of Cornell’s Statler Hotel.
Cornell’s hotel, established in 1922, now maintains about 80 percent
annual occupancy of its 153 rooms, selling out about 40 of 52 weekends per year.
“Our students get a really well-rounded experience in operations, which helps them understand how hotels work,” Adie said. “They learn theory in the classroom and they get the practice here.”
Adie said students are assigned a wide range of duties, including sales, food service, accounting and front desk hospitality to learn the business inside and out.
Armstrong said Cal Poly students could similarly work in a variety of capacities at a Cal Poly hotel and conference center.
“I want a student who graduates from this program to experience every job,” Armstrong said. “What’s it like to clean a room? What’s it like to manage rooms? It’s possible to have a program without any new hotel on campus, but I think it would be difficult and I don’t think it would be the best experience for the student.”
At Cornell, Adie said the hotel is financially sustainable and profitable, though much of the revenue goes to upkeep and renovations, including a $200,000 investment to install Wi-Fi last school year. Other recent upgrades have included new bathrooms and room overhauls.
Armstrong also mentioned Michigan State and Cal Poly Pomona as potential examples for Cal Poly.
Michigan State’s Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center serves as a training facility for its School of Hospitality Business — offering undergraduate and graduate programs.
Coursework includes hospitality finance, management of lodging systems and separate classes titled “introduction to wine” and “hospitality beverages.”
Cal Poly Pomona’s Collins College of Hospitality Management is the first four-year program of its kind in California. It was founded in 1973. It’s the only hospitality management college on the West Coast, according to its website.
And its curriculum prepares students for careers in restaurant management, culinary product development and special events planning, as well as other concentrations.
University hotel model
An Atlanta-based consultant who advises universities on building hotels said an inn on campus gives “a university status and panache and provides an amenity to entertain guests, hold executive education programs and host parent weekends.”
Robert Mandelbaum said 88 campuses nationwide have hotels or inns on campus.
Hotel ventures on colleges can be risky, though traffic can be fairly well predicted around events such as football games, move-in days and parents’ weekends, Mandelbaum said.
Professional conferences — such as medical and legal training — also can be big draws.
Cal Poly doesn’t have a medical school or law school but could potentially host training in its strong suits, including agriculture or engineering.
Some hotels brand with companies such as Hilton or Marriott, but most don’t because they don’t necessarily need the affiliation with a name brand to attract guests.
“A fairly high number of university hotels are not branded because the university is the destination as it is,” Mandelbaum said.
However, a model such as Cornell that operates independently of any outside investor is a luxury that Cal Poly likely can’t afford without a massive donation.
“We’re working to understand our public-private partnership opportunities,” Armstrong said. “The two boxes to check: Does it make sense for students? And does it make sense financially?
"When you think about a Cal Poly inn or a Cal Poly guest house here on campus, it will have to serve the needs of the community, the thousands of people who visit, the academic and
other types of conferences we have,” Armstrong said. “We had a feasibility study done that’s now more than a year old, and it pointed to a successful business model. We’re going to continue to look at that.”
Forming a new academic program
A Cal Poly faculty group has formed a task force that is in the process of developing ideas about how to shape a new hospitality and tourism program.
The idea is to create a new school, similar to the setup of Cal Poly’s School of Education that’s housed within the College of Science & Mathematics.
The conceived School of Hospitality could be administered by the College of Agriculture, Food & Environmental Sciences as well as the Orfalea College of Business, said Bill Hendricks, department head of Cal Poly’s recreation, parks & tourism administration department.
“The task force is not involved with the hotel at all,” Hendricks said. “The plan is to move forward with a (restructured) hospitality program whether the hotel-
conference center is built or not.”
An expanded program could significantly grow the number of students at Cal Poly who concentrate on tourism. Of the 300 students in the recreation, parks & tourism administration program, 60 concentrate on tourism as a minor.
In comparison, Cal Poly Pomona, which has a hotel and conference center, has about 1,200 students in its Collins College of Hospitality Management.
A hotel and conference center at the San Luis Obispo campus could help train students in the operations in a “myriad of ways supporting existing departments,” said Doug Cerf, head of Cal Poly’s accounting and law department in its College of Business, also part of the task force.
It could also better prepare students for market demands, including a call for more people with hospitality-related financial backgrounds.
The hotel could include a learning laboratory, such as a demonstration kitchen for food and beverage services.
“Dairy science, wine and viticulture, and food science nutrition all could play a role,” Hendricks said. “The curriculum is developed by the faculty.”
Faculty union reaction
Cal Poly’s faculty union president said the union hasn’t taken an official stance on the addition of a hotel and conference center.
Although the California Faculty Association initially was resistant to the idea of money going toward new facilities, union President Graham Archer said, the union likes the idea of adding faculty positions and an academic focus.
“If the faculty are involved right at the start, and the program is benefiting faculty and students, who am I to say they should be doing anything differently?” Archer said. “It strikes me as expensive, but tourism is part of the economic engine here. It sounds like they’re trying to develop a program that contributes to that industry.”
The faculty union leader said the hotel project will depend on finances.
“We all have concerns about the finances,” Archer said. “If you have money going from one end, it’s being taken from another. We haven’t looked at the finances of this specifically, however.”
But Archer said donations could help support the project and that alumni and industry partners would likely contribute.
“It would be much easier to attract donations for something like this than the HVAC system (heating, ventilation and air conditioning),” Archer said.
Armstrong said the university doesn’t plan on spending “student or state resources on a hotel-conference center,” meaning the funding will have to come from donations and private entities that would “win the bid to be in a partnership with us.”
Cal Poly’s latest steps
Armstrong said no timeline has been established to decide on a hotel-conference center project.
The project has been put on the university’s Master Plan update — a planning blueprint for how the campus could look over the next 20 years. But Armstrong said that doesn’t mean the university has decided to build the facility or that funding has been found.
“It has to be a part of a public-private partnership,” Armstrong said. “We’re evaluating from a broader perspective, ‘What are the best partnerships to be engaging in?’ ”
Armstrong said the feasibility study revealed a demand for more local hotel rooms, especially higher-end accommodations.
“We believe that type of experience of a mix of three- and four-star rooms is something that would be positive for us,” he said.
An expanded program would set students up for a hospitality industry in need of people to fill positions, Armstrong said he believes.
“Hotel-hospitality is a focused area of an experience that brings in culinary, wine, food pairing — all hot items,” he said. “There’s really no equivocation on the shortage of graduates in this area in California. That’s not a debatable point.”
By the numbers
• Cal Poly’s proposed hotel and conference center is envisioned as an “upper-midscale” 143,000-square-foot complex with a 120-room hotel, 12,000-square-foot ballroom and 22,000-square-foot conference center catering to university and business events.
• The San Luis Obispo market has 29 hotel properties and nearly 2,100 rooms. Cal Poly’s hotel, as conceived, would make it the fourth-largest hotel in the area by number of rooms behind Embassy Suites (195), Courtyard San Luis Obispo (139), and Quality Inn (138).
• The two local venues for conferences are the Madonna Inn Expo Center (20,000 square feet) and the Embassy Suites (5,100 square feet junior ballroom).
2014 Cal Poly feasibility study
• • •
Poly conference center could compete with Grover Beach facility
Cal Poly’s feasibility study for its hotel-conference center cited projections that it would heighten competition within the county’s hospitality industry — a concern that has been raised most notably in Grover Beach, where a $30 million hotel and conference center is scheduled to break ground next year.
Grover Beach Mayor John Shoals said he hopes to sit down with Cal Poly officials to discuss how such a university center might impact Grover Beach’s plans for its beachside hotel-
conference center, which is viewed as key to the city’s revitalization.
The planned Grover Beach development — a joint project with the city, State Parks and San Diego-based Pacifica Companies — will feature a 150-room hotel and 11,000-square-foot conference center.
“I’d have to have more info on what they’re proposing and who they’re targeting,” Shoals said. “I haven’t had any requests from them to meet. Certainly, depending on how they move forward, I think it’s going to be important to be on the same page. We see our area as more regional in nature and having more coordination is key.”
Alison Rolfe, Pacifica Companies’ director of planning, said she believes the project in Grover Beach will present competition for Cal Poly — not the other way around.
“Our project is a bigger deterrent for them than it (theirs) is for us,” Rolfe said. “We’ll be ahead of them no matter what. It’s worse for them to follow in our footsteps.”
— Nick Wilson