The extensive renovation planned for Niagara University's landmark St. Vincent's Hall could be a symbol for the university's efforts to remake its tourism school as a landmark program as well.
After Gary Praetzel took the helm of the tourism administration school earlier this year, the university started overhauling the Institute of Travel, Hotel and Restaurant Administration's core curriculum to better serve students looking for positions in a growing, and rapidly changing, global tourism market.
"We want this to be a state-of-the art program in a state-of-the-art facility," Praetzel said.
The university will pour $8 million into transforming the castle-like four-story building, erected in 1905. New additions will include a 150-seat auditorium, a glass atrium with view of the Niagara Gorge and a full teaching kitchen with a 50-seat dining room for student-served dinners.
The reception area for the institute, ensconced on the top floor of St. Vincent's Hall, will be designed to resemble the lobby of a five-star hotel.
"We're really tearing it out and starting new," said Praetzel. "You would hardly recognize the interior of this building when it's done."
While the curriculum changes promise to be far-reaching, Praetzel said, they will not be quite as dramatic.
Thirty years ago, Niagara University offered the world's first bachelor's degree in travel and tourism, Praetzel said. Now, about 200 students are enrolled in its tourism administration school, making it one of the larger schools at the roughly 2,000-student university, Praetzel said.
But as the business of tourism has continued to change and grow, becoming the world's single largest industry in terms of employment, Praetzel said, the school's lessons needed updating to meet changing times.
In a nutshell, the changes, to be introduced in the fall 2000 semester, fall under three categories, Praetzel said: internationalization, technology and leadership.
The tourism management school has long had a strong international study program, Praetzel said, giving many students the opportunity to study at sister programs in Switzerland and France. But the new curriculum will focus on tourism as a global market, where tourism businesses, including hotels and restaurants, need to stand ready to serve patrons from around the globe.
"Our students also need to be ready to work for a foreign company or be involved in foreign travel," Praetzel said. "Our classes need to reflect the fact that our students could be dealing with people from many cultures and serve them all well."
Technology is one of the most-powerful forces for change in the tourism industry today, Praetzel said, and the school's courses are being revised to reflect its importance.
Tourism management students have to be adept at using the technological tools that are becoming increasingly important in the field, whether Web-based reservation systems or computer spreadsheets for overseeing hotel inventories and payrolls.
The focus on leadership in the revised curriculum reinforces the school's mission to turn out graduates able to effectively manage a hotel, restaurant or tourist destination, with all the people management skills those positions require, Praetzel said.
"Computer skills aren't enough," he said. "Today's tourism managers need to be able to articulate a clear vision to their employees and be persistent and consistent with that vision in everything they do."
The school also has been exploring the possibility of establishing an affiliate of the International Institute for Peace Through Tourism, Praetzel said. That's a group that focuses on the connections between tourism and economic opportunities in underdeveloped countries, Praetzel said.
"They're trying to work on ways to make tourism sustainable and responsible, bringing in dollars and providing jobs without harming the environment," Praetzel said. It's not clear yet whether Niagara University will link up with the effort, he said.
But that's the kind of thing the institute will have to keep looking at if its goal -- "a leading regional program becoming a leading national program" -- will be reached, Praetzel said.