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Center of Attraction

For decades, Orlando has drawn in people from near and far. Some for a great vacation, some for hospitality education and some to help shape the entire tourism industry.

In November 1963, Walt Disney took a flight over a sprawling swampland near Orlando that would later transform into the world’s most-visited theme park. A visionary, Disney knew the affordable acreage, year-round sunshine and proximity to major roadways and a new airport would be the perfect location to establish his iconic Walt Disney World Resort.

Coincidentally, the same year Disney took that flight, plans for a new university in Orlando were established under the vision of founding President Charles Millican. UCF, then called Florida Technological University, would hold its first classes five years later — three years before Walt Disney World Resort opened.

With Disney World as the centerpiece — and Universal Studios later cementing Orlando as the theme park capital of the world — the region’s hospitality and tourism industry has grown decade after decade. So, too, has UCF. Today, Central Florida’s tourism industry is valued at $87.6 billion in economic impact with 74 million visitors in 2022, according to Visit Orlando. This enormous industry depends on nearly 450,000 jobs — many of which are filled by graduates of UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

Forty years ago, if you asked Rosen College founding Dean Abraham Pizam — another visionary — if UCF would one day develop a world-renowned hospitality and tourism program, the answer would be yes. He saw what Disney saw, too: the incredible potential of Orlando.

A clean illustration of Rosen College of Hospitality Management with diverse group of people.

Looking to diversify the technology university’s offerings, UCF’s then President Trevor Colbourn hired Pizam to establish a degree in hospitality management. Launched in 1983, the small program housed in UCF’s College of Business eventually evolved into Rosen College, which now ranks No. 1 nationally and in the top five internationally among hospitality and tourism programs, according to ShanghaiRanking.

Pizam, a faculty member from the University of Massachusetts, was the ideal candidate for his range of expertise, including a doctoral degree in business and a hotel administration and tourism postdoctoral fellowship completed at Cornell University. Answering the call to join UCF was a clear yes for him, as well as the faculty he hired.

“When I recruited these faculty members, the first thing I said was, ‘Look at Orlando.’” Pizam says. “If this program was in a different location, we would not have been successful in creating such a great program and attracting such great faculty members — even myself.”

The hospitality management program’s first cohort included 70 students studying about a dozen courses taught by a handful of faculty. After three years, Pizam wanted to elevate the program to keep up with Orlando’s demand for hospitality professionals. He knew food and beverage service courses were needed to prepare students for jobs across the many attractions, hotels and restaurants nearby. However, some members of the college’s leadership team didn’t see the value in expanding.

Without adequate faculty to teach and develop new curricula, the program struggled. And people noticed.

In 1998, an Orlando Sentinel article criticized UCF’s “less-than-stellar hospitality program” and mentioned local industry leaders felt it was underperforming. The negative comments inspired philanthropist and hotelier Harris Rosen to donate to more than student scholarships — investing $18.2 million to not only bolster the program, but create a college around it.

Rosen approached UCF with a proposal to build a resort-style campus near a property he was developing on Universal Boulevard. With matching state funding, he created and donated the campus to UCF, placing it in the heart of Orlando’s hospitality and tourism industry, and next to his Rosen Shingle Creek resort.

“Mr. Rosen has always been supportive. He continues to give thousands of dollars for student scholarships,” Pizam says. “The friendship between me and Mr. Rosen [who is also a Cornell University graduate] increased over the years, and all three of his children graduated from Rosen College. Beyond his generous investments and support for students’ success, that signaled he truly believes in the value of a Rosen College education.”

When Rosen College opened in 2004, with Pizam as the founding dean, six instructors taught 250 students. The 159,000-square-foot campus now has 70 full-time faculty members, including international experts from 18 countries, teaching 3,000 students. With 18 high-tech classrooms, three test kitchens, two computer labs and a beer and wine lab, the college has extensive facilities to train students in just about every aspect of the industry.

“It’s very rare to find a hospitality and tourism college of this scale,” says Rosen College Associate Dean and Visit Orlando Endowed Chair of Tourism Marketing Alan Fyall. “They tend to be small programs. They tend to be in business schools or colleges of social sciences. There are very few around the world that are standalone colleges of hospitality.”

Fyall, a British native and former professor at Bournemouth University’s School of Tourism, is one of Rosen College’s international faculty members. After visiting for a presentation, he knew he wanted to join the college, which is a common result when experts come to campus. Within the past year, instructors and researchers have joined from Fiji, Ghana and India, to name a few.

It’s been a deliberate strategy to have international faculty here because hospitality is, by its nature, all about people, and a lot of the [industry serves] international [customers].”

— Alan Fyall, Visit Orlando Endowed Chair of Tourism Marketing

“Everybody is awed by the campus and its beauty when they come here, which is great, but it’s the people that make Rosen feel right,” Fyall says. “That remains what makes us a leader. We have really good faculty members. It’s been a deliberate strategy to have international faculty here because hospitality is, by its nature, all about people, and a lot of the [industry serves] international [customers].”

When the COVID-19 pandemic halted tourism around the world, hospitality programs were hit hard. Many reduced 20% to 50% in size and some even closed, according to Pizam.

Rosen College, however, only saw a 5% decline in enrollment.

“When COVID hit, we got incredibly busy because so many people were out of work or furloughed, so they came to study,” Fyall says.

He notes this was due to the same factors that contribute to Rosen’s top rankings: its perfect location, extensive faculty research and variety of students, instructors and degree programs.

Rosen College offers 22 degrees and certificates — including undergraduate and graduate offerings — for students to learn to how to manage food and beverage service, entertainment, events, finance, information technology, restaurants and more.

One of the newest degree offerings is event leadership, an online master’s program that prepares working professionals to take their careers to the next level. Selina Mullenax ’12, an event management alum and account executive with CORT Events, is part of the first cohort that launched last fall.

“The events industry has changed a lot in the past 10 years, into a niche all its own,” says Mullenax, a member of the Rosen College Dean’s Alumni Advisory Board. “There’s an opportunity for people who want to lead the change. It’s no surprise that UCF is out in front.”

Already a leader in her field, Mullenax says one of the biggest benefits of the program is the access to insight from Rosen alums across various industries.

“What I love about the program is we all come from different backgrounds,” Mullenax says. “There’s a restaurant owner in there. There’s an entertainer who wants to open an entertainment company. There are obviously people from Universal Studios (and other theme parks). Sharing and learning about the differences in our experiences is my favorite part.”

With 3.5 million jobs lost across the hospitality and tourism industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the industry is in great need of talent — which is why career opportunities for Rosen College graduates are better than ever.

Both before and after the pandemic, nearly every Rosen College graduate has landed a job in their field. That’s largely because students must complete at least three internships to earn their degree. To help them secure those valuable positions, the college leverages its connections with more than 800 companies to host many job and internship fairs, including Disney Days and Universal Days dedicated to each theme park giant.

Annually, Rosen College students earn about $14 million to $15 million through internship and co-op experiences, according to college leadership. Rosen College faculty and administration believe in the quality of their students and their contributions to these companies, and they recognize the value in return, which is why every internship is paid.

Josh Liebman ’09 ’12MS is among the Rosen College alums who credit these experiences and the college’s curriculum with accelerating his career. He is a guest experience consultant for attractions, hospitality and tourism after starting his career working for Orlando’s major theme parks.

As a teenager, Liebman says he fell in love with the thrill of roller coasters and chose to attend UCF to learn more about theme parks. His interests broadened while earning a bachelor’s in hospitality management and he went on to pursue a master’s degree in the field.

“[As a graduate student], it was really interesting to be working full time — whether it was at Universal Studios or when I was opening Legoland — and being able to take these academic papers I was studying and say, ‘OK, this is what research scholars say. Let’s implement this here in our operations and with our guest experience.’”

After completing his master’s, Liebman attended a career fair where he met the owner of F&G Hospitality Consulting. Although he had only worked in theme parks at that point, he accepted a job at the company and entered the world of top-tier lodging brands like Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. Today, Liebman runs a consulting business where he works with theme and amusement parks, zoos, museums, aquariums, family entertainment centers and short-term rentals to help amplify the guest experience and hospitality.

Long before Orlando became synonymous with theme parks and hospitality, Florida already had a strong reputation for tourism. Home to national parks — like the Everglades and Dry Tortugas — and beautiful beaches and springs, the Sunshine State’s natural sites continue to attract millions of visitors annually

We can use the economic power of tourism to shape these coastal destinations, to turn them into restoration projects.”

— Sergio Alvarez, assistant professor of tourism, events and attractions

“We are lucky here in Florida. We can take advantage of those amenities to create an economy that is based around them,” says Assistant Professor of Tourism, Events and Attractions Sergio Alvarez.

Alvarez is a natural resources economist who previously worked for the Florida Department of Agriculture. He’s a member of the UCF Coastal Faculty Cluster Initiative and studies how to mitigate threats to coastlines and waterways. His work is an example of the unique interdisciplinary research that sets Rosen College apart from other hospitality programs and makes a broader difference across Florida — and even the world. In 2022, Alvarez was part of a team of UCF researchers that presented at the United Nations Ocean Conference on the topic of sustainable coastal and marine tourism.

“We can use the economic power of tourism to shape these coastal destinations, to turn them into restoration projects in a similar way that theme parks reinvest some of their proceeds to upgrade their facilities or to build new ones,” Alvarez says.

Among the solutions he and other UCF Coastal experts are exploring is investing in solutions to promote stronger, healthier ecosystems.

An illustration of what is happening behind the scenes of tourism in Florida. Most of the sandy shores of Florida are manmade, where UCF Coastal experts are taking part in exploring solutions.

Most of the sandy shores of Florida’s beaches are manmade, with nearly $2 billion spent since 1935 on dredging sand from the bottom of the ocean to reverse erosion and create wider beaches, according to the National Beach Nourishment Database.

“The beach has a lot of life, but we could spend resources restoring marshlands, seagrass and mangroves that would be, in essence, more sustainable,” Alvarez says. “We won’t have to replant mangroves, [which help prevent erosion], over and over like we have to do with the beach.”

Another major issue affecting Florida’s coastal tourism is red tide, a harmful algal bloom that poses threats to people and animals, and creates a foul odor. While the tide is naturally occurring, human activity has caused it to become more frequent — killing sea creatures, creating environmental issues and ruining beach days, to say the least. In 2018, the west coast of Florida experienced a persistent red tide that lasted until 2019 and resulted in a $2.7 billion loss for the tourism industry and Florida’s economy, according to a National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science study that Alvarez contributed to.

One of the leading causes of this threat is runoff from lawns treated with fertilizer, including homes, resorts, golf courses and other attractions with lush landscaping. The runoff creates an excess of nutrients that feed the microorganisms. Some Florida counties even ban the use of fertilizers containing nitrogen or phosphorus during wet seasons, but Alvarez says more solutions need to be identified. UCF Coastal faculty are exploring ways to combat red tide, such as using a clay solution to sink the algal bloom and prevent it from coming closer to shorelines.

Across Florida’s springs and rivers, water quality is also an issue, with runoff making it unsafe for people to swim and fish. High volumes of visitors also impact ecosystems by killing seagrass, whether it’s boat propellers or swimmers, impacting the nutrient balance of the environment and animals’ diets.

“We will have to restore our waterways if we want to maintain this attractiveness that the state of Florida has,” Alvarez says. “We can’t just have an extractive mentality. That is not the right way to manage these natural attractions. To ensure that we have these attractions for future generations and, really, to maximize their value over time, we need to care for them today.”

To remain at the forefront of the hospitality and tourism industry, Rosen College is looking to increase its interdisciplinary expertise and teachings. Among the areas being explored is one Pizam has been driving for years.

“My vision was always that we can be not only the largest, but also the best,” Pizam says. “My vision is that hospitality is more than an industry. Hospitality is also a culture. If it is a culture, we can adopt it in other similar industries [like we have in the] event industry, theme park and attraction industry, and community living management. Now my vision is to apply it to the healthcare industry as well.”

Pizam, who is 86, was hospitalized for an extended period after surviving a stroke. That’s when he realized healthcare facilities could greatly improve interactions with those in need of care. One-third of patients surveyed noted they had a negative experience with a healthcare provider, hospital or pharmacy, according to a 2021 report from Accenture.

“If there is an industry that needs to adopt a hospitality culture, it’s healthcare,” Pizam says.

Faculty from Rosen College already include examples from healthcare case studies in several courses. They also collaborate with the UCF College of Medicine to offer a Culinary Medicine elective that combines the science of food and nutrition with healthy cooking techniques. Students learn from physicians, dietitians and chefs to understand the role food plays in good health and management of disease.

“My vision is that hospitality is more than an industry. Hospitality is also a culture.”

— Abraham Pizam, Rosen College founding dean and Linda Chapin Eminent Scholar Chair in Tourism Management

“Our hope is that [Rosen College will conduct] research and education to improve what [the healthcare industry] calls the ‘customer experience’ and what we call ‘patient satisfaction,’ ” says Pizam, who aims for Rosen College to also increase partnerships with UCF’s College of Nursing and College of Health Professions and Sciences.

As Lake Nona’s Medical City — where UCF’s College of Medicine and Academic Health Sciences Center are located — continues to develop, it’s becoming a destination for high-quality healthcare services. Expanding Rosen College’s reach to this industry, and specifically Management in this location, may help Central Florida secure a reputation for a different type of tourism.

Last year, Michael Chiang ’20MS ’22MD became the first UCF medical school graduate who also earned a master’s in hospitality and tourism management. Through his clinical experiences, he was reminded of the importance of soft skills associated with hospitality — which he also learned about growing up with a mother who worked in an assisted living home.

“I think that gets to the heart of what hospitality is. It’s trying to give people who walked through the door the best possible experience,” Chiang said in an episode of UCF’s Knights Do That podcast. “So, for me as a [future] emergency doctor, it is trying to recognize that people who come in are … in an extremely vulnerable place and when you see them, they not only want you to … address whatever detrimental life situations they might encounter, but also to [make them] feel at ease.”

To this day, Pizam is still a believer in the great potential of Orlando and its tourism sector. He can envision even more possibilities for UCF to play a role in not just expanding the field, but spreading the culture of hospitality across other industries.

“The secret to success, even in academia, is adapting to changes and having a vision for the future and making it happen now. That’s where we’ve been very successful,” Pizam says. “We have seen the future of the tourism industry and it is bright. And with the bright future of the industry, we will have a bright future for Rosen College.”