IUPUI’s tourism department luring hundreds of students: City’s convention industry, program’s focus on meeting planning make department fastest growing on campus

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After Kelly Sernau earned an associate in arts degree in hospitality at Michigan State University, she began researching schools that offered a bachelor’s degree in the field.

She considered staying in her home state, then researched schools in Chicago and other places.

Ultimately, she opted to transfer to IUPUI’s Department of Tourism, Conventions and Event Management within the School of Physical Education and Tourism Management.

“I wanted to focus on meeting planning, [but] most programs focus on the hotel aspect of tourism,” said Sernau, who will graduate in December.

“But also, there is so much job opportunity here,” she said. “The city’s tourism business is growing and that leads me to have more opportunity. There are so many places I think I can get my foot in the door.”

And IUPUI’s tourism department is growing right along with Indianapolis’ tourism and convention business.

Just 2-1/2 years ago, the department had fewer than 80 students. Today, there are 400, according to the department’s chairman, Sotiris Avgoustis. It is the fastest-growing department on the IUPUI campus.

“We’re actually in the middle of controlled enrollment,” Avgoustis said. “If we opened it up, we would get way more students than we can handle. It’s always a good thing to be able to be selective. If a school struggles for enrollment, you sometimes get people who won’t finish.”

To meet the demand in student enrollment, the department has increased staff from four full-time faculty members to 10.

In addition, the department has 25 associate faculty members-instructors who teach part time and work full time in the field.

Many of those who teach went through the program themselves and say they are thrilled to watch it blossom.

“I was in the program for seven years,” said Heather Easterling. “I watched it grow from classes of 15 to classes of 40. Students just weren’t aware of the professional jobs in the tourism industry.”

Easterling, who graduated from the program last year, works for a Chicago consulting company on contract to Eli Lilly and Co. where she is involved in the corporate meeting-planning department.

“The school’s growth is due to the growth of the city,” she said. “And many students are non-traditional students looking for a change in career.”

Jobs in the industry are now being more recognized as professional by requiring degrees and certifications.

“The impact on labor in the hotel market is huge,” said Christian Celis-Schemidt, another member of the school’s associate faculty, who is director of sales for the Hilton Garden Inn downtown. “Many of our students are prepared to come into the professional world. It’s providing fresh people for the industry.”

Some students are especially prepared for employment because they work part time in the industry while taking classes, Celis-Schemidt said.

Event planning emphasized

Avgoustis said IUPUI wants to build one of the top 10 tourism programs in the world. To meet that goal, the program covers all aspects of the tourism industry, including hospitality and hotel management.

“Tourism is so much more,” Avgoustis explained. “It’s shopping, amusements parks, event planning. The focus on event planning sets us apart from other departments at other schools.”

And the business of event planning will likely go through the roof, so to speak, when the expansion of the Indiana Convention Center is complete in 2010.

“We do anticipate the expansion will generate another 18 to 20 major conventions a year,” said Bob Bedell, CEO of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association. “And that will happen simultaneously with a new convention headquarters hotel of 1,000 rooms.”

While equating that to the number of event-planning-specific jobs is difficult, it’s clear it’ll be significant, Bedell said.

So he is excited that the growth of IUPUI’s tourism department means more event planners to meet the demand. And he isn’t surprised at the school’s growth. Not only are students choosing the field in response to the city’s growth, but the school is aggressive in its recruitment.

“Those that are running the department are very visible,” Bedell said. “And the industry is so high-profile here in the city. Many people around the state are becoming more aware of the tourism industry and the related jobs. That awareness is showing up in more students wanting to do this.”

Indeed, students are quite savvy when it comes to choosing a career in a field that is clearly taking off.

“I’ve lived here since I was 10,” said Brooke Del Gallo, an IUPUI senior who will also graduate in December. “I’ve seen the growth of Indianapolis. Even kids graduating high school today realize what’s happening here, so it’s encouraging people into the field.”

And keeping them in the field locally.

“When I told my family in Florida that I was going into tourism, they thought I should come there for that,” Del Gallo said. “But people just don’t realize what all Indy has to offer.”

Like Sernau, Del Gallo isn’t worried about landing a job.

So far during her studies, she’s worked part time at a hotel and is coordinating event planning for the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Indiana.

After starting out sure she wanted to go into hotel management, she thinks she’d like to combine her passion for hotels with her newfound enthusiasm for event planning.

“I think I could put hotels and event planning together as a career,” Del Gallo said. “At a bigger hotel, it’s possible. There are lots of events and meetings within a hotel.”

And even if she moves initially after graduation, Del Gallo said she plans to return when the convention center is finished.

“It’ll be a very exciting time to be a part of all that.”

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