Hospitality and tourism is booming in West Michigan. It’s no wonder. For decades, private and public sector partners in our community have rallied around a commitment to elevate Grand Rapids and Kent County as a premier visitor destination and, at the same time, enhance the quality of life for area residents.

That commitment has paid off. Just ask Forbes, which recently dubbed Grand Rapids the best right-sized city in America.

“Grand Rapids is in the Midwest, so it won’t brag about itself, but make no mistake; this is the best right-size city in America, with the stats, the people and the ‘want to’ needed to continue to drive forward,” the article contends.

What does that mean for the local hospitality and tourism industry? One thing it means is, the industry is not only competing for visitors, it’s competing for talent. And the talent the industry attracts must reflect the growing diversity of the local community and of the visitors we hope to attract.

That’s why, in 2019, Experience Grand Rapids partnered with Grand Rapids Public Schools, Grand Valley State University’s Hospitality and Tourism Management Program and AHC Hospitality to launch and advise the Academy of Hospitality & Tourism at Ottawa Hills High School.

A Chef speaking to students.

The Academy ignites excitement about future careers in the hospitality industry through a hands-on curriculum.

Photo by Dorelle Brock for Experience GR

The Academy is designed to expose high school students from all backgrounds to a variety of hospitality and tourism career opportunities in event management, recreation and attractions, lodging, food and beverage, sustainable tourism and more. The Academy employs a proven experiential hands-on learning curriculum designed by NAF, a national education nonprofit that brings schools and businesses together to better prepare students for college, career, and future success.

The Ottawa Hills High School Academy of Hospitality & Tourism welcomed its first cohort of freshman students in the fall of 2019 and, despite some pandemic setbacks, celebrated 17 graduates in 2023. In May 2024, 12 more students graduated from the program.

Program features include:

  • Industry-Aligned Curriculum: The curriculum aligns with national standards and has garnered validation from the Global Travel and Tourism Partnership, ensuring students receive a comprehensive and industry-relevant education.
  • Real-World Connections: The Academy is designed to connect classroom teachings with real-world applications, enabling students to gain practical skills and experiences that prepare them for a wide array of roles within the hospitality and tourism management industry.
  • Post-Graduation Opportunities: Upon completion, students emerge equipped with marketable skills, ready to enter the workforce. Additionally, they have the option to pursue advanced placement opportunities in Grand Valley State University degree programs or explore a combination of both career entry and higher education.
Students listening to a speaker at Savor & Soar
Savor & Soar - Speaking to Students

Experience Grand Rapids collaborates with industry partners, like the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, to bridge the gap to hospitality careers through events like Savor & Soar.

Photo by Dorelle Brock for Experience GR

Experience Grand Rapids Vice President of Engagement & Inclusion, Jordoun Eatman, leads our work with the Academy and notes that engaging a diverse population of students and their parents is a critical component of the program.

“Equity is important when you see who has historically held leadership positions in the industry and recognize that African American and Hispanic employees have traditionally worked in lower level jobs. We aim to change that,” he says. “That’s why it’s important to educate parents. If an individual worked in hospitality and struggled to advance and make ends meet, they might not aspire for their children to enter the field.”

To overcome that hurdle and give students from the Academy and other area high schools and their parents a behind-the-scenes peek into the inner workings of a 4-star hotel, Experience Grand Rapids collaborated with the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel and other industry partners to host Savor & Soar: A Hospitality and Tourism Summit in November 2023.

The event showcased the hotel’s culinary, events, and sales & services operations and featured a tour of the hotel’s commercial kitchen, etiquette training related to table setting and service, an exploration of large-scale event planning, two dynamic panel discussions led by industry experts, a five-course formal dinner and a career fair where students, parents and guardians could learn about careers and apply for jobs in the industry.

A student on a laptop.

Academy support drives interest in hospitality careers, growing talent for West Michigan's hospitality industry.

Photo by Dorelle Brock for Experience GR

Savor & Soar afforded the 55 student participants, as well as parents, guardians and educators, a deeper understanding of the industry and gave employers the space to have more meaningful discussions with those considering hospitality and tourism careers.

The event received rave reviews, with 80% of survey respondents stating they had an improved perspective of the hospitality industry after participating, 90% reporting that the event met or exceeded their expectations, and 100% feeling that the event prioritized diversity and inclusion.

That affirmation, paired with a 2024 Governor’s Award for Innovation, fueled the decision to host Savor & Soar again in November 2024.

Interest in local Academy of Hospitality & Tourism programming has soared, as well. Jordoun is now working with GRPS and other public school districts in Kent County to explore the possibility of launching academies in several area high schools.

We greatly appreciate the creativity, knowledge, time and support that our partners at Grand Rapids Public Schools, AHC Hospitality, Grand Valley State University and so many others contribute to ensure student success and to build a pipeline of qualified talent to fuel the vital hospitality and tourism industry in West Michigan.