Colorado's only integrated commercial-learning facility is changing the shape of hospitality, tourism and events education.
By Leslie Petrovski and Dan Vaccaro
Publish Date: June 22, 2015
Photo: Michael Richmond
Nine years ago, MSU Denver’s Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center (HLC) was little more than an idea, part of an ongoing conversation between hospitality industry leaders and John Dienhart, former chair of the Hotel, Tourism and Events (HTE) Department. The idea progressed when Dienhart walked into Associate Professor of Hotel Management Chad Gruhl’s office and asked, “How would you like to build a hotel?”
Back then, Gruhl said, he didn’t know anything about the byzantine complexities involved in constructing a building on a state campus shared by three colleges. In the end, it would take a determined college president, savvy board members, industry gurus, politicians, deans, faculty, investors, architects and hundreds of PowerPoint presentations to build Colorado’s only teaching hotel and academic building, which now graces the corner of Speer Boulevard and Auraria Parkway.
The über-modern SpringHill Suites® Denver Downtown, which is part of the HLC, is one of only 11 campus-based teaching hotels in the country, serving as both a training ground for the program’s 675 students and the hotel of choice for many lower downtown businesses, including the Pepsi Center, and visitors to the Auraria Campus.
Managed by Denver-based Sage Hospitality, SpringHill Suites is staffed by 40 full-time employees, one-fourth of whom are MSU Denver students and alumni. Since opening in 2012, it has been enormously successful. According to Anne Frye, director of sales and marketing for the property, revenues are three years ahead of projections — having generated $1.9 million to date for the MSU Denver Foundation — and the hotel consistently ranks in the top 10 on TripAdvisor.com.
Beyond its identity as a fully functioning commercial hotel, SpringHill Suites also serves as a learning laboratory for students, who regularly rotate through the hotel either as interns or class participants, learning the business from the ground up by cleaning rooms, washing towels and assisting visitors.
“They are getting real-world training,” said Frye, who teaches in MSU Denver’s program. “They are going to take those experiences into the city of Denver and the state and improve hospitality for our tourists.”
But the experiential opportunities afforded by the HLC don’t stop with the hotel. A 5,000-square-foot conference center gives events management students a venue to practice their skills. The close proximity to downtown Denver allows tourism students the chance to explore the city and connect with the local tourism community. There’s a sensory analysis lab (and a 3,100-bottle wine cellar management lab) where future sommeliers and restaurant and beverage managers can educate their palettes, sampling beer, wine and spirits in a space optimized for natural light, sound and odor dampening.
On top of that, the HLC’s Metropolitan Grill is staffed by hotel and restaurant students, who do everything from designing the menu to washing the dishes. During the spring 2015 semester, diners enjoyed Costa Rican-inspired dishes including a veggie quesadilla, arroz con pollo and dulce de leche cookies.
All of this stands in stark contrast to a single, dark kitchen and handful of classrooms in the Plaza Building where the HTE program was housed previously. The change has been staggering, said department Chair Carol Krugman. Enrollment in the program has grown nearly 40 percent in the last five years.
“When students and parents visit the facility, the first reaction is usually ‘Wow!’” said Krugman. “Wow, indeed — who wouldn’t want to come here every day to learn?”
“It’s brought a lot of notoriety to who we are,” Gruhl said. “Nine years ago barely anybody knew we had a program. Now anybody in the world of hospitality education knows us. This is where most hotels in the state come for hiring students. This is their number-one choice.”