Western Grads Hone Career Skills at Top Resorts

One former Western Resort Management student landed at Aspen’s only five-star, five-diamond hotel, The Little Nell. Another works as front-desk manager at the Elevation in Crested Butte. Others have found leadership positions and internships at Colorado Springs’ Broadmoor, in Hawaii and around the world.
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Steadily, Western graduates are making the world’s finest escapes better – for their visitors, for their owners, for their employees and for themselves.

Many colleges have programs in Hospitality. But Western State Colorado University, with its unique location near some of America’s favorite, remote destinations, takes a slightly different tack, training business students in Resort Management.

Kevin Nelson, professor of Business Administration.
When Dr. Kevin Nelson came to Western in 1999, the college’s Hospitality major was part of its Recreation program.

“We lived over there in the gym,” Nelson recalls. But he also notes that when his fellow instructor left for Michigan State and he took a sabbatical to teach in Hawaii, it was clear the program had to evolve.

“I asked them on Oahu, ‘What do you need?’” Nelson says. “We ended up changing the program and moving it to Business in 2009.”

The emphasis has shifted from service to management of services, he explains. And with Western a couple hours from resorts in Telluride and Durango, an hour or so from popular river towns Salida and Buena Vista, and just a tad more than 30 miles from Crested Butte Mountain Resort, which is just across the mountains from Aspen, the school offers plenty of opportunities for students to find basic experience – and sometimes, careers.

“They can work on the lifts or ski patrol,” he says of ground-floor opportunities. “Or they go inside and work at marketing and management.”

Dr. Michael Vieregge brings a European flair and strong culinary background to Western’s Resort Management program. Vieregge came to the University of Texas from Germany, earning two master’s degrees and a doctorate, working for Swenson’s Ice Cream on the side. With his master’s in Public Administration, he says, he was on track to become a hospital administrator. Instead, he opened an artisan bakery. He and his partner also had one of Austin’s first coffee carts, discovering a niche that was quickly expanding into one of today’s top dining trends.

His doctoral research focused on hospitality leadership, looking at different styles across different cultures.

Michael Vieregge, professor of Resort Management.

“It’s a global business,” he explains. “Our students won’t just compete with people from the states, but from all over.”

When he came to Western in 2010, Vieregge began considering carefully Western’s apparently remote location, particularly as it relates to his personal love for local fare and affinity for so-called “slow food.” He and some of his students have worked with Western’s annual Farm-to-Table Conference to examine sustainable, local solutions for growing – along with serving and eating – food. With his eye toward European towns and regions known for local food specialties, Vieregge steered the 2014 conference toward finding a similar signature fare for the Gunnison Valley. That food may be a cured meat product, sold directly to visitors and to others by mail.

He thinks in similar ways about the resort industry, suggesting that opportunities may lie not only in hosting visitors but also in niche businesses, such as supplying guests with the right clothing, designed for what they’ll experience in the high mountains and valleys of Colorado. He continues to survey resort operators to learn where they see challenges and opportunities. And partnerships continue to develop.

Also teaching in the Resort Management program is Chris Greene, a trained attorney and proprietor of the Ruby of Crested Butte, rated the resort town’s top inn. He brings current experience in managing both lodging and dining for discerning guests.

Students learn about hospitality, marketing, retail principles and the law in Western’s program. As they progress, they take on special projects, including running virtual resorts, where they work in competing teams to make decisions about labor, marketing, purchasing and services.

Hannah Layman at Broadmoor Hotel

Nelson and Vierrege agree the kinds of students drawn to Western are key to the program. They tend to love the outdoors, while still appreciating technology and a good meal. Many are hands-on learners who have the courage to challenge themselves at what Nelson calls a “destination school, similar to the destination resorts that surround it.

“You don’t accidentally show up at Western as you do at some other places,” he explains.

Similarly, Vierrege says, local resorts attract visitors who appreciate the rugged mountains and experiences around them but also want good service and top-notch dining. And economic realities won’t allow such places to survive with only seasonal business. Ski resorts need summer festivals to fill rooms. Hunting lodges can draw backcountry skiers when the season ends. Rafting companies can offer snowmobile tours in the winter.

The solution is what he likes to call “Western hospitality.”

“Our students are a little different,” Vierrege explains. “They know and love the outdoors well enough to take a client hunting, fishing or on a ski tour, and still do the hospitality part.

“I like to say ours is a student who can field dress an elk with a customer during the day, and then prepare a fancy cappuccino at night.”

Western story by Greg Smith, University Communications.


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Tuesday, July 15, 2014 - 11:00am