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the harbor town lighthouse and marina at sea pines plantation on hilton head island

Fueling SC’s top industry

From well-prepared hospitality graduates to cutting-edge research, USC keeps tourism economy thriving

Tourism is the main driver of South Carolina’s economy, accounting for about 10 percent of jobs in the state and an estimated annual impact of $29 billion.

The University of South Carolina helps keep this economic engine humming by preparing graduates of the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management to take on key roles in a variety of businesses and by helping those businesses adapt and grow.

“It’s about getting our students jobs, but it’s also about getting into these businesses and organizations for research then using that research to provide help to the industries,” says Robin DiPietro, director for the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. “We need industry and, in reality, industry needs us to provide great employees and to provide cutting-edge research.”

That dual mission starts with hiring faculty who have the right educational background and the industry experience to provide students with the perfect balance of coursework and out-of-the classroom experiences to learn the business.

“Most of our faculty come from the hospitality and tourism industry. That's where we started,” DiPietro says. “Not only do faculty need the academic credentials, but they need to have some experience in our field, because that's the primary way it will benefit our students.”

USC’s work on both fronts is essential to the industry’s success. But there also is a learning curve, especially for parents who are looking for a return on their investment in their child’s education.

“I think that’s one of our challenges, trying to overcome this ‘burger-flipper’ image that we sometimes have with parents,” says Duane Parrish, director of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism.


Meeting workforce needs

Parrish, a 1981 USC business graduate, has more than 40 years’ experience working in hotels, including when he was a student at USC.

“I graduated in one of the worst times economically,” Parrish recalls of his USC days. “It was ugly in terms of finding a job.

“But I had been working at a Holiday Inn and I really loved it. My general manager took me under his wing and taught me the hotel business,” he says.

Parrish has been an instructor in the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management and serves on the college’s industry advisory board. His agency hosts HRSM interns every year and several of those interns have started their careers with the state department.

He says part of what the advisory board works on is helping students with that “kitchen table” conversation with their parents — convincing them that hospitality careers are more than waiting tables.

“If your child comes home and says, ‘I want to work in hospitality or in a hotel,’ that's a tougher sell for the child,” he says.

Parrish says hospitality wages are up more than 20 percent since the pandemic.

“I don't believe many at all in our industry are making minimum wage anymore,” he says. “We've come a long way in terms of pay, but we still have that reputation nationally as a ‘burger flipper,’ I'll call it. But we've come a long way from that.”


Different roads lead to hospitality

For 2002 biology graduate Laurie Savidge, it was her parents who suggested a return to school to earn an advanced degree in hospitality.

woman stands on deck overlooking marsh, ocean
Laurie Savidge, director of operations for Marriott’s Grande Ocean resort in Hilton Head Island, has taught classes at USC Beaufort and some of her students have gone on to be employees with Marriott Vacation Club.

“My introduction to working in the hospitality industry was at Charleston Place Hotel. And how could you not fall in love with hospitality there?” Savidge says. “My parents gave me the great advice of, ‘You might want to consider continuing your education and learn more about the business of hospitality.’”

So Savidge returned to USC to earn her master’s in 2005 in international hospitality and tourism management.

“That's where I really learned the fundamentals of the business of hospitality,” says Savidge, who is director of operations for Marriott’s Grande Ocean resort in Hilton Head Island.

But it was two visiting professors from Australia that Savidge says laid the groundwork for her interest in corporations’ environmental and social responsibility to the communities they operate in.

To that end, Savidge partners with local purveyors — farmers and fishermen — who provide produce, seafood and other products from areas like the Port Royal Sound for the resort’s guests.

“Marriott International and Marriott Vacation Club have a firm foundation in corporate citizenship and giving back to the community our resorts exist in,” she says. “I've been fortunate to support our organizational sustainability initiatives since the early stages of my career.”

Savidge has also taught hospitality classes at USC Beaufort and some of her students have gone on to be employees with Marriott Vacation Club.

“We provide tours to hospitality students who want to learn more about the business and see a resort, see the front of the house, see the back of the house, and we do a Q&A,” she says.

“When I was teaching introduction to hotel management, I had a student who went on a tour, then he became an hourly associate and now he's one of my managers.

“I love being able to see their careers grow and see how their degrees have helped them be successful leaders.”


Education and experience

Darron Kirkley began his hospitality career at the age of 18, working as an event planner for his hometown Pageland, S.C., Chamber of Commerce. He worked there while he was earning his first degree from USC in math education (2007).

A woman walks in a parade dressed like a watermelon with a VW beetle decorated like a watermelon
South Carolina cities and towns host dozens of festivals every year, including Pageland's Watermelon Festival.

“I just fell in love with the industry,” he says. “I think that's one thing a lot of people don't think about, the necessity of the education and the training behind festivals and events. So that’s sort of where my life changed.”

But getting deeper into the industry without a hospitality degree was not so easy.

“I literally applied for a job straight out of college and my undergrad wasn't in hospitality and tourism, and I was told point blank that I didn't get the job because I didn't have the degree,” Kirkley says. “The industry experience mattered, but there are definitely those employers out there that value education.”

Kirkley returned to USC to get his master’s in international hospitality and tourism management and later a second master’s in sport and entertainment management.

Now Kirkley serves as Chesterfield County’s tourism coordinator, where he is responsible for sales, marketing, advertising, social media and all other aspects of getting people to come to a destination.

He says working while he was in class helped him make the connection between what he was learning and how it applied in the real world.

“I then could instantly go and apply those strategies, theories, those future trends, future topics that we were taught in class and see that actually happening in real life, which was definitely unique,” he says. “But it goes back the other way, too. In class as we had those discussions, I could bring in those real-life experiences of what the industry was facing.”

Kirkley also gets to put his undergraduate degree to use as a teacher — by day at Central High School, where he teaches a hospitality class, and by night, as an instructor in the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management.

“I serve on multiple committees and boards that are tourism-related, so when our students come out, they are very well versed in what the current trends are, what's going on, what the state is experiencing,” he says. “I think that has made a huge difference for our students having those connections.”

Those industry connections don’t just help the students, but they help professors and researchers in the college learn even more about the industry.

One such USC research project is funded by the Economic Development Association to create an online training tool for the post-COVID hospitality industry.

“It's through our industry connections that we are able to collect surveys or collect data that helps enhance our research,” DiPietro says.

“We really need those industry connections for student success, which is No. 1, to get them jobs, then secondarily, getting relevant research data and being able to provide it back to industry partners.”

a man stands at a railing looking out on a mountain vista at sunset
From Caesar's Head State Park to Hilton Head Island (banner image), South Carolina's natural beauty draws millions of visitors every year. Photos by SCPRT/