PORTLAND, Maine — The University of Southern Maine is moving forward on a plan that has been talked about for decades in the state — the creation of a tourism and hospitality major in the University of Maine System.
The four-year degree is in the planning stages and is envisioned as a multidisciplinary effort to be housed in the School of Management and Human Service. For about a year, university leaders and industry professionals have been meeting on the concept.
Last week, USM’s faculty senate voted unanimously to allow the early concept to proceed. On Sunday, Joseph McDonnel, dean of USM’s College of Management and Human Service, and Steve Hewins, president of Hewins Travel Consultants and AAA Northern New England, will meet in Portland with the University of Maine System Board of Trustees to talk about the idea. Hewins has been working on the project for the Portland Regional Chamber.
The next steps will involve reviews by the provosts at all UMaine system campuses and a lot more planning. But McDonnel said he hopes the program will be accepting students next September.
“My feeling is it’s something that should have been done 20 years ago,” said Hewins. “If it had, Maine’s tourism industry would be 20 years ahead.”
Maine’s tourism sector is often looked down upon, and its impact on Maine’s economy is often not fully understood, said Hewins. Having the state’s university system address the sector with a major course of studies could help gain some respect.
“It’s a professionalization of the industry,” McDonnel added.
Greg Dugal, president of the Maine Innkeepers association, is involved in this effort, and has seen various other attempts going back to the early 1990s. Dugal said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, had put in legislation in the last session asking to study the idea of a tourism and hospitality program in the UMaine system. On learning of past effort, and of the Portland Chamber’s current work with USM, the project leaped past the idea of studying the possibility to actual planning, said Dugal.
Dugal noted there already are successful hospitality programs at Husson University and Thomas College, and that several community colleges offer two-year degrees in the field. But having USM and the university system embrace the idea broadens the potential offerings, both in a geographic sense and in a programmatic sense.
It’s time the university system helps build Maine’s tourism sector, Dugal said.
“Front office managers, reservation managers, restaurant managers, sales and marketing professionals, general managers, directors of operations — all those people don’t just happen,” said Dugal. “There’s an educational component that needs to exist, not only to allow young people to come into the system, but [also] to allow people who have been working in the system to access courses, certifications, or a degree.”
Steve Lyons, director of marketing at the Maine Office of Tourism, noted that at times, businesses in Maine have to hire tourism professionals from out of state and graduates from programs elsewhere.
“This would hopefully keep Maine students interested in living here in Maine,” said Lyons. “And if you have a generation of students graduating from a program like this, tourism will become more top of mind. Down the road, more people will understand the importance of tourism in this state.”
The idea is to teach students more than just the basic business aspects of Maine’s largest industry sector, said McDonnel.
“What we want to do is create leaders for the industry, and we want students to be thinking about innovation — where does this industry go in Maine? What’s the industry going to look like in 25, 30 years?” McDonnel said.
The 39-credit program would offer six concentrations, said McDonnel: tourism promotion, managing in the hospitality industry, nature and recreational tourism, community and regional planning, sustainable tourism and hospitality, and cultural, arts and heritage tourism.
All of those focus areas really key in on where Maine’s tourism sector has excelled going back more than a hundred years, said Hewins.
“That brand that is Maine, that’s on our license plates, goes back hundreds of years,” he said, recalling the rusticators who traveled from cities to the state’s backwoods camps on trains. “This isn’t new — what we’re doing is contemporizing that.”
McDonnel hopes to graduate students who have an understanding of where tourism fits into Maine’s economy, and why people want to visit the state.
“What is it to be a tourist? What is that experience?” said McDonnel. “We want them to have that kind of sensitivity.”
Working with industry will be key, he said. Ideally, students will partake in several internships in different parts of the sector. And, McDonnel said, he would like to see tourism and hospitality professionals leading lectures, working as mentors and helping out in other ways.
The school also is looking to work with community colleges including York County Community College and Southern Maine Community College to align programs, so a student can get, for example, a two-year culinary arts degree from SMCC then go on for two more years for a four-year tourism and hospitality degree from USM.