Tennessee tourism boom impacts University of Memphis program

Graceland, a top tourist attraction in Memphis.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Tourism is booming in Tennessee and in Shelby County, and hospitality professionals know they need to capitalize on the industry while they can.

The state of Tennessee brought in about $22 billion from about 119 million tourists in 2018. In Shelby County, 11.8 million tourists brought in about $3.7 million. The tourism numbers for both the state and the county increased from the previous year.

The Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management at the University of Memphis trains young future professionals to go into the growing industry. But just as the industry is growing, so is the school, in hopes of keeping up.

The Kemmons Wilson School has the only full four-year hospitality program in West Tennessee, and the dean of the school knows that helps them act as a pipeline for the hospitality and tourism agencies and companies in the city.

“It’s a good opportunity for employment, and it’s a good opportunity for us to showcase the city across the globe,” Kemmons Wilson dean Radesh Palakurthi said.

The school added a new program this year for culinary management, after the U of M acquired the space that was formerly L’Ecole Culinaire.

With recent additions of sports and E-sports management programs, Palakurthi said students can get into all types of hospitality fields, and they can be ready for the growing and changing industry.

“This industry is way beyond what they normally think about — being at the front desk,” Palakurthi said. “There’s careers in accounting, marketing, finance. There’s many new, interesting things going on.”

The investment into hospitality seems to be paying off for the university. In the fall 2018 semester, there were 406 students enrolled in the Kemmons Wilson School. Only five years prior, in the fall 2013 semester, 104 students were enrolled in the school.

Palakurthi said the school works with executives from the industry to make sure students are prepared for careers.

He said the state, county and city tourism agencies are working together, which contributes to the boom. He said with the industry trending upward in the state now, it’s likely to continue to increase in revenue and people brought to the state.

“All the entities are working together,” Palakurthi said. “We always had the resources, but we never articulated our story well. We’re now telling our story the same way. We’re singing the same song.”

Shelby County is second in the state in tourism revenue, behind Davidson County (Nashville), and Palakurthi said one thing that adds to Davidson’s appeal is a central location where the focus is on tourism and where hotel rooms run in abundance.

Downtown Nashville has many large hotels all within walking distance of each other, which helps tourists trying to be near destinations. In Memphis, by comparison, those lodging locations may be spread more throughout the city and county.

He said Memphis needs a few more Peabody-like hotels that can handle a massive amount of guests at one time. The proposed Loews, Clipper and Hyatt hotels downtown will help, but Palakurthi said they are just the beginning of assisting what is a very important industry for the city.

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