Gwendolyn Woods has wanted to open a food business for quite some time, and she’s taken an important step toward reaching the goal.

Woods is enrolled in the hospitality management program at Itawamba Community College, and she recently began an internship at the Wingate by Wyndam hotel in Tupelo.

“I was planning to open my own food truck, which is why I started the program, but now I’m leaning toward opening a catering business,” she said. “But I do want to specialize in hotel management, and on my own get into catering.”

At Wingate, Woods is learning a little bit of everything, including front desk responsibilities that include checking guests in and out, ensuring housekeeping is staying on track and making sure guests are enjoying their stay, whether it’s the breakfast they get or the right WiFi password.

“It’s a lot more to it than you think when you manage a hotel,” she said. “But it’s very fun, and I’m enjoying it.”

Woods graduates from the program in May.

Cheryl Foster, the general manager at Wingate, also sits on the advisory board for ICC’s Hospitality Management program and sees great value in having internships.

“They’ll learn what all the functions are and all the responsibilities on the job,” Foster said. “I take Gwendolyn through my day, showing her what we’re held accountable for. It can be an eye-opening experience. A lot of times, they’ll think working at a hotel is like being a receptionist. But it’s a lot deeper than that. As I explained it, you have to think of this as a house – a really big house – with 82 rooms. You have to know who’s coming and going, how much food you need to have, how many towels they need, all that.

“This is invaluable experience for them ... and it teaches them about public relations and how to treat people right in the hospitality industry.”

The ICC Hospitality program actually has several pathways for students including hotel management, catering, wedding and event planning, floral design, restaurant management, retail customer service training and travel agent training.

Billy Carson, has headed the Hospitality program at ICC since its start four years ago. This year marks the program’s first class to graduate from it.

“The scope of the program is to teach students every aspect of hospitality,” he said. “A lot of people think of just hotel and restaurants when it comes to hospitality, but there are also clubs, nightclubs, cruise ships, casinos that also are a part of all that. I’ve got one student who wants to work in a casino.

“The program is designed for management, but in order to get into management, you have to tie everything together, and that’s what we’re trying to do with our program at ICC.”

The internships give students practical experience they can utilize. The work gives them a glance at what happens in the “real world,” and they’re able to take what they learned in the classroom and apply on the job.

ICC has 10 students currently enrolled the 60-hour hospitality program, and there’s plenty room for more, Carson said.

And hospitality and tourism is big business in the state, contributing more than $6.7 billion to the economy and employing some 125,000 people.

“Most of my students are familiar with the industry and the impact it has,” Carson said. “I have one student who is a waitress, and she’s headed toward working on a cruise ship once she finishes the program. A lot of the students have a pathway figured out.”

According to salary.com, the average salary for someone in the hospitality industry can range in low five-figure territory to high six-figure territory, depending on age, experience, type of job and location.

Indeed.com says average “hospitality manager” pay is around $48,000 annually.

dennis.seid@journalinc.com

Twitter: @dennisseid

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