Serving and Learning Blend in New Teaching Hotel:
Kirkwood Community College builds innovative educational model as it completes on-campus “working laboratory”
For Ellen Hemphill, the past year has been mighty busy. Even by the standards of her ambitious, job-juggling nature, 2010 has been intense. Dark eyes flash and her hands wave in excitement as she describes "priceless" insights and "once in a lifetime" opportunities to do, learn and earn, all at once.
Whether by design or desire, Hemphill jumped career-first into a new model for education at Kirkwood Community College. The Iowa 30-something snapped up a rare inside internship for her final semester in Kirkwood's Hotel Management program.
In the next decade, the college expects to give career-boosting experiences like Hemphill's to several thousand students. As Kirkwood built a $30 million upscale hotel around her, a new approach to teaching culinary, hotel management and guest care skills was also under construction. Hotel staff and college leaders alike are unabashed in their belief that this new four-story facility will rearrange concepts in higher education in the U.S. and beyond.
As the final touches are added to The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, a team of hospitality professionals have balanced their chosen professions of hotel management, guest relations and culinary arts with other, equally important roles: teachers and mentors. Their daily work is a 24/7 demonstration to complement the classroom and lab projects for students in Kirkwood's five Hospitality Arts courses. The caring, continually monitored marriage of guest services and education has few working models in the nation. The leadership of Kirkwood Community College knew they were entering pioneer territory as they moved their new teaching facility from concept through design and construction.
In the late summer of 2010, The Hotel has opened and welcomes guests on a daily basis. With a professional staff of about 70, the staff is a bit larger than some 71-room inns found in the private sector. That is by design, according to Hotel General Manager Lee Belfield.
"As we researched and developed the idea of this teaching hotel, I quickly realized that we needed to have people who embraced the idea of learning while working, imparting those skills and that wisdom every day. In my own experience over the years that was the case—and still is, as we work together building this new hotel. I can feel that spirit growing already," he said.
Part of the research and planning for The Hotel at Kirkwood Center involved visiting several of the rare teaching hospitality centers in the U.S. Belfield and others saw teaching hotels in several university settings and listened as staff and faculty members spotlighted successes—and admitted pitfalls along their own learning curves.
"We learned quickly that a successful operation has to create a curriculum and build the learning environment that understand and communicate with each other. We saw how other operations sometimes had problems between the staff and the classroom processes, and integrating students into daily operations," Belfield said.
"It was a bolt of clarity for us. We realized as a team that we could have our staff be student instructors, too. The students would know these professionals in a class or lab, then see them do their jobs each day for The Hotel."
This model is underway at Kirkwood, with nearly a dozen leading staff members playing adjunct faculty roles. From sales director and catering manager through the front office manager and executive chef, most of the key operations of the upscale hotel are taught and supervised by dual-role people. Many of those people were also Kirkwood Hospitality Arts graduates themselves, some within the past couple years. Others were Iowa natives who built professional careers in hotel/motel management and restaurant operations before signing on with Kirkwood for this new venture.
The facility itself is designed to maximize educational opportunities while delivering a distinctive guest experience. The Hotel's Class Act Restaurant has a multitude of seating arrangements: bar, tables, banquettes and booths, as well as a special semi-private seating area surrounded by a floor-length curtain.
"Each one of those choices involves a different approach to serving the guest. Each different area is its own opportunity for the diner to enjoy the meal—and for the servers to learn on the job as well," Belfield observed.
In order to organize this rare educational model, the college has given The Hotel's leadership and its Hospitality Arts faculty some leeway to customize the working lab around the realities of a four-story hotel's operations. One early realization was that the standard 50-minute class times and schedule structure of Kirkwood's 120 other academic programs would not easily fit into the practicalities of on-site learning for The Hotel.
"Our faculty has worked much of the last two years to revise and develop the curriculum to make sure the course content and labs work with the block schedule. By the time the new professional staff team was forming, these new class plans were also coming together. This fall our students will enter into a new way of learning with us," German said.
Executive Chef Melanie Ewalt was until recently in the full-time faculty ranks at Kirkwood and played a role in constructing the new classroom structures and schedule. Now the Executive Chef at the facility, she will see the evolving learning model from both perspectives.
"We started with the idea of teaching our students the skills and information they would need to know to be the best of the best. What resulted is a more intense and concentrated version of our past classroom structure that focuses on retaining skills and being the best they can be," Ewalt said.
Students will take part in Culinary Arts, Hotel Management and other course work in a block system, providing insights into how the lodging and restaurant functions are delivered—as they are delivered. Ewalt says the faculty visited some other culinary teaching programs and saw the benefits of a flexible block course setting, then adapted it to the needs of the Kirkwood training program.
"We will have more time to share the techniques and give them direct experience in an efficient time frame. We intend to produce world-class professionals when they leave Kirkwood," Ewalt added.
These and other educational needs have been created in real time and honed in an innovative crucible of necessity, according to Belfield.
"We are creating a lot of these ideas and methods around us and adjusting as needed. With a team as savvy and dedicated as these folks are, that's the only way we could do it," he added.
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On a warm July day, Lee Belfield's office is a pulsing cell of activity at the core of this hive of hospitality education. Post-it notes line an overhead credenza while workers in hard hats tote restaurant equipment past his window. Staffers lead new employees through tours and talk schedules, recipes and room amenities, all just outside his door. A set of footsteps begins briskly on carpet then breaks into a trot over new tile floors. A phone behind Belfield rings once and is picked up by an office manager down the hall. He smiles at the palpable energy level all around him.
"We knew going in that we didn't have many models to work from. The places we visited were helpful in many ways, but much of what we learned was a cautionary message. Kirkwood has given us the freedom as well as the responsibility to be the best hospitality program in the world, if we can make it so."
Lee Belfield leans forward and looks intently across his desk to drive home a final point.
"Yes. The world. Kirkwood has been known for excellence in teaching and community service for decades. When we got together as a staff and faculty group early this summer, we talked a long time about what we were all about. As a group we agreed that The Hotel at Kirkwood Center would be a global leader in teaching hospitality skills and understanding for our students, while we provide a defining experience for our guests. I truly believe that we are on the road to delivering that learning while we impart that experience. When our guests leave after a stay here and tell others they experienced just that—and use those terms—we'll know we are getting there."