Sarah Prince knew the clock was ticking.
“My favorite restaurant is Goode Company Taqueria. They serve Mexican and American food. And margaritas on the patio.”
Whew. She offered a summary of a favorite restaurant in 12 seconds, well below the 20-second limit and without stumbling over any verbal tics – “hmm,” “er“ and “you know.”
Welcome to 5-star service and a day-long intensive training session for students in The Super Four Experience. Held at the Houstonian Hotel last fall under the direction of Jeff Wielgopolan, an executive with Forbes Travel Guide, the session taught students from the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management and the Department of Health and Human Performance the nuances of successfully ushering the nation’s top executives through the days leading up to the National Football League championship game in Houston.
The four-semester class, evenly divided between graduate and undergraduate students from the hospitality and sports and fitness administration programs, offered a hands-on look at running a major sporting event, said David Walsh, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance and a former executive with the San Antonio Spurs.
“This is a great opportunity for the students,” said Anthony Caterina, a lecturer at the Hilton College and a veteran manager of large event venues. The students also organized, trained and managed volunteers for the 2016 NCAA Final Four Division 1 men’s basketball championship, which, like the 2017 football championship game, was held in Houston.
The session at the Houstonian, followed by an evening at Tony’s, the high-end Galleria area restaurant, reinforced the idea that hospitality is a lifestyle, a way of treating others that goes beyond manners and competence.
“We have to live and breathe what we do,” Wielgopolan said.
The challenge to describe a favorite restaurant in less than 20 seconds was a reminder to be aware of how you present yourself, whether you are serving as concierge to the owner of a NFL team or recommending a wine pairing at an upscale restaurant.
Prince, a senior at the Hilton College, said it’s all about providing a higher level of service, no matter where you work. She also took away another lesson.
“If you make a mistake, keep on, just like we do in real life.”
The Super Four Experience offered students from the Conrad Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management and the Department of Health and Human Performance behind-the-scenes experience for two major sporting events, the NCAA Final Four men’s basketball championship and the NFL football championship. UH Magazine talked with David Walsh, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance, and Anthony Caterina, a lecturer in the Hilton College, about the program.
How did the idea come about?
Walsh: Health and Human Performance already was talking with the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee when I was hired in the summer of 2014. Our department chair at the time, Charles Layne, and I talked about developing a course on the “behind-the-scenes” planning and execution that happens when a mega-event, like the Super Bowl, comes to town.
Host committee CEO Sallie Sargeant suggested we talk with Anthony Caterina from the Hilton College.
Caterina: I met Sallie at a luncheon for the International Association of Exhibitions and Events Convention in 2014 and mentioned I’d like to have a course dedicated to the Super Bowl. Talking with David, we realized the NCAA Final Four was the year before the Super Bowl, so we reached out to Doug Hall (president/CEO of the Houston Final Four Local Organizing Committee) about a back-to-back course with students from both Hilton and HHP.
I knew Doug because he had been a guest lecturer in my classes in the past. Sometimes, it is about networking.
Walsh: We ultimately proposed a four-semester, two-year course that would provide training, education and hands-on experience to students on two of the largest sporting events in the world. Since no city has ever held the Final Four and Super Bowl in a 10-month period, we could honestly say this was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students to learn sport administration for mega-events.
With a class that covered two huge events, are there a few common themes you wanted students to take away?
Caterina: I am always discussing how Sports Management is a hospitality industry. The experience you have at a game is becoming as important as the score on the field. So being able to expose our students, who may not be focused on the sports industry as a possible career, to two of the largest sporting events gave them a chance to see the opportunities available to them. It also gave them a sense of all the different vendors, departments and labor it takes to make a large event successful.
Walsh: We wanted students to learn that events, and sports events in particular, aren’t like typical services or products. Sporting events are selling intangible goods, like memories. Creating a lasting, one-of-a-kind memory for not only the people who attend the event but also the community of Houston takes an understanding of how you create memories. So we taught concepts like sport and event marketing, community engagement, volunteer management, event operations and logistics, finances and economics of mega-events, social media, risk management and legal issues and public safety. All of these areas are important touch points for fans, customers, staff and volunteers, along with Houstonians.
The students themselves came up with the mission of creating a WOW experience, and to deliver that experience, they had to work together, learn about themselves and others and learn how to deal with people. And students had so many opportunities through this course. They met guest speakers for networking opportunities, assisted in (other) events like the Thanksgiving Day parade and Touchdown Tours, worked with members of the host committees in their offices and were part of confidential, high level operational meetings.
The students were challenged to get out of their comfort zone and were consistently put in “uncomfortable” situations that required them to seek additional resources. We think this is the major value of a course like this.
How has this been different from a traditional internship?
Walsh: For one, it is a lot longer. Traditional internships rarely go past one semester. In my research on experiential learning, I have come to understand that the traditional internship does not provide enough time for students to learn from their mistakes, reconcile the differences between their expectations or assumptions and the reality of the real world and get over the learning curve most new employees experience.
Secondly, internships are typically individual, rather than with a cohort of students from different disciplines. Traditional internships are more like full-time positions. Our course is more like how the Department of Labor defines an internship: a learning environment guided by practitioners and academics in an active, real-world setting where the goal is the learning of the student, not the outcome from the student employee as a benefit for the employer. Students are getting both theory and practice simultaneously, whereas most internships are practice only and theory is just delivered in the classroom.
Caterina: Another difference is the long-term commitment these students have made. Our students pay to attend each semester of the course. In some cases, students have given two years to the program and have taken these four courses in place of electives.
You both have a lot of experience with big events and big venues. Did anything about the Final Four and NFL championship surprise you?
Catarina: I knew going in the two organizations would run differently, as they have different priorities, organizations and scale of event, to name a few things. The thing you need to keep in mind is, the larger the event, the more changes you will encounter. That is why these events are such a great learning experience for students.
I had worked with many of the host committee members at different venues, so I knew we were working with good partners.
Walsh: The amount of bureaucracy and its impact on communication and execution of operations was a bit unexpected. But it was actually pretty amazing to pull off a well-executed event in a relatively short time period, given the number of stakeholders and their different interests and objectives. So I have a broader level of respect and appreciation, due to the collaboration necessary to overcome these obstacles.