New hospitality academy seeks to address tourism industry labor shortage

The Indian Lodge located within Davis Mountains State Park has been closed for renovations since early 2023 but is set to reopen this coming spring. The park is currently hiring for nine positions to help run the lodge and restaurant. Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

TRI-COUNTY — Mountain View Hospitality Academy, a new education initiative based in Fort Davis, will offer affordable, accredited training for adults interested in developing careers in the hotel and restaurant industry starting in early 2024. 

The academy is a part of Mobile Comunidad, a nonprofit outreach program helping fill gaps in community services in Jeff Davis County founded in 2020, and will be open to citizens across the greater Trans-Pecos region. 

“We’re targeting juniors and seniors in high school, and adults who are either working in hospitality and want to improve their skills, or adults who are not working in hospitality but would like to,” said Mobile Comunidad co-founder Jeanine Bishop. 

Mobile Comunidad co-founder Jeanine Bishop outside of the historic 1930s-built part of the Mountain View Lodge in Fort Davis, which will soon serve as housing for participants of a new hospitality program aimed at bolstering the local hotel and restaurant industry workforce. Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

The eight-week training program will take place at Mountain View Lodge, a 15-acre site off of TX-118 near Fort Davis that is already operating as a commercial enterprise complete with cabins and a cafe. Funds from the lodge will help support the program. 

The academy’s establishment comes during a time of increased development led by multiple hoteliers in the Big Bend region. Historic hotels including the Hotel Limpia, the Holland Hotel and the Maverick Inn are slated for renovation. El Cosmico has announced an expansion in a new location with plans to double its guest capacity and add a restaurant. The High Frontier, a new “full-service event venue,” resort and wellness center in the Davis Mountains is slated to open this spring. 

Bishop said the idea for the academy stems from an awareness that while tourism is the primary economic driver in the Big Bend, local restaurants and hotels often struggle to attract and retain staff

“How were they going to staff those — at the level of what they’re trying to do with those hotels and restaurants — if we didn’t come in and start teaching people that live here skills and get them on a career path in those kinds of positions?,” said Bishop.

Advantageous career opportunities, particularly for young adults from the area, are also sparse, she said. 

“We have high school students who either don’t want to go to college, or they go and it’s such a culture shock for them, they come back,” said Bishop. “Well, What are they going to do? There aren’t a lot of jobs that they’re going to be able to step into.” 

Odette Flores-Ruiz, rural development project manager with Workforce Solutions Borderplex (WSB), said the organization is in support of the new academy because of its appeal to younger tri-county residents and potential to train individuals for a variety of jobs. 

“One of the things that we’re trying to push is building career pipelines for the youth in the area so that they’re able to stay in the region,” said Flores-Ruiz. “We’re excited to help with this hospitality training so that they’re able to grow within an industry.” 

Through Mountain View Hospitality Academy, “learners,” as Bishop refers to them, will be able to earn a certificate from Cornell University, a nationally-recognized leader in hospitality training. The program will be part-virtual, but will include an in-person facilitator and guest speakers as well as field trips. The lodge has a classroom and will offer limited onsite housing for program participants as well.

The partnership with Cornell will allow for steep tuition subsidies, said Bishop, and, while an exact price is still up in the air, Mobile Comunidad will ensure the program’s cost is affordable, coming in under $1,000. The program may be offered up to four times a year, said Bishop, but will likely start with a session for adult learners in January 2024 followed by a session geared towards recent high school graduates in Summer 2024. 

Interviews with local employers will be facilitated upon completion of the program, said Bishop, and internships at Mountain View Lodge in housekeeping, front desk operations, reservations and marketing will also be offered. 

“It’s a pretty comprehensive package of offerings,” said Bishop. “A) it’ll be affordable, B) they’ll get a certificate from Cornell, C) they’re gonna have a really well-rounded education and D) they’ll be able to actually work on this property.” 

Despite being in-demand, jobs within the hospitality industry can often be low-paying with limited career growth, Bishop acknowledged. According to WSB, the average salary for those working in hospitality and tourism in the tri-county area is $36,464. Within the past year a total of 1,250 jobs in the industry were available in the area. 

Mobile Comunidad plans to work with local employers to ensure graduates of the academy are valued as trained staff with credentials upon entering the workforce, she said. 

“We can go ahead and do this training and say, ‘Well, hey employers, now there’s all these people that are skilled and educated,’ but if the employers don’t value that, then it’s not going to work,” said Bishop. 

Flores-Ruiz said WSB encourages employers to pay a living wage for hospitality roles, which she argues is more financially beneficial for their businesses in the long run. 

“We know that turnover can be more expensive than paying the higher wage,” said Flores-Ruiz. “Paying those higher wages, it just makes the jobs more attractive and you have less turnover.” 

Mobile Comunidad is partnering with the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hospitality Leadership at the University of Houston which will offer resources and advice on employee retention and business management to local employers. 

“There’s a whole bunch of jobs in hospitality and tourism, there’s not careers,” said Bishop. “We want the employers and the learners to look at these as career paths.” 

Another key partner, said Bishop, will be London-based Saira Hospitality, a nonprofit that hosts pop up hospitality schools across the globe that will help train students in customer service “soft skills,” like how to present oneself, work with coworkers and answer common questions about the area amongst other things.

Bishop and others have recently traveled to highschools in the area including Van Horn, Sierra Blanca, Ft. Hancock, Terlingua and Presidio to introduce upperclassmen and teachers to the program. She said a number of districts are considering rolling the hospitality training into existing Career Technical Education (CTE) programs and those on a four-week schedule may be able to send students to the academy on Fridays. 

Adam Daley, a social studies teacher at Terlingua CSD, said he appreciated that the hospitality academy exposes students to the idea that they do not have to leave the area to have a successful career. 

“You can work in the hospitality industry and they’re not necessarily entry level jobs that with training and experience they can continue to move up and advance within those individual companies,” said Daley. 

“Kids hear about college, kids hear about trade schools more and more now, but what about this other thing that is available and very feasible?” he added. 

The local attitude towards tourists — who sometimes travel from metropolitan areas and fail to understand the area’s limited resources — varies, acknowledged Bishop, who has dealt with her fair share of Mountain View Lodge guests asking why there are no televisions in their room.

But quality hospitality services involve helping visitors embrace their locale, she said, a topic that will be covered at the new academy. 

“What is it we’re proud about in this region?” said Bishop. “How do you explain to somebody why they don’t have TV and why we think you should appreciate the ability to see the Milky Way from your porch — that’s why people visit here.”