I was in New York City (NYC) over Veterans Day weekend for HX: The Hotel Experience 2019, one of the most important trade shows in the lodging industry. Similar to last year’s trade show, the HX 2019 also entailed four components: HX: The Marketplace; HX: The Conference; Boutique Design New York; and the STR (Smith Travel Research) Student Market Study Competition.
STR is the leading data analytics provider for the lodging industry. Since its debut in 2015, the STR Student Market Study Competition (the STR Competition hereafter) has received significant attention from hospitality programs around the world.
This year, over 20 students from the Collins College of Hospitality Management at Cal Poly Pomona traveled to NYC for HX 2019. Moreover, six of them also participated in the STR Competition for the first time.
In the end, the Cal Poly Pomona team won 2nd Prize among the 25 competing colleges and universities. The other winning teams were Michigan State (1st Prize) and Virginia Tech (3rd Prize).
I was fortunate to work with the Cal Poly Pomona team as one of their faculty advisors. I was able to witness their journey from first-time participants to second-place team.
The following is a report about the experience of the team. I am hoping this report will offer additional insights for the students who also want to participant in the STR Competition, as well as the advisors who will be coaching the students.
The Cal Poly Pomona team
The six members in the Cal Poly Pomona team include (in alphabetical order of last name): Emily Fedorchek, Heather Kingsbury, Devon Lilley, Sean Mayor, Marissa Robledo, and Natalie Thé. Their initials will be used when quoting their comments.
The learning experience of the STR Competition
Students spent two semesters preparing for the STR Competition. Students studied and gained both the Certification in Hotel Industry Analytics (CHIA) and the Certification in Advanced Hospitality and Tourism Analytics (CAHTA) in the spring semester. Then, in the fall semester, they began analyzing the STR data for the competition in NYC. The continuous practice was critical in their learning experience.
“As we prepared for the competition, we kept in mind that success is never final. We practiced consistently, making sure that every piece of our presentation was polished and picture-perfect.” (S.M.)
“(In the spring semester), we even got to take a trip to Pasadena to visit a few hotels and learn about how they use STR reports in their daily operations. The second semester in the fall was completely different. We went into full competition preparation.” (D.L.)
“Then we were practicing the presentation over and over again, getting advice from faculty and industry professionals, taking their notes down, and doing it again. … The actual day of the competition was nerve-racking, but looking out into the room of familiar faces made me confident that we would do well.” (D.L.)
Skills acquired from the process
Students suggested the process helped them acquired skills in data analytics, story-telling, data visualization, and teamwork. For example:
“I learned how to use numbers and data with a high degree of complexity to present a story that is engaging and easily understood.” (S.M.)
“I was not really confident in my ability to analyze data. Yet, this experience made me realize how a massive amount of data can be used to explain (a) how things happen in the real world and (b) how different hospitality and tourism operations affect one another. I also have improved my public speaking skills, as well as my skills in PowerPoint. It definitely helped us learn how to work in a large team with different levels of skill and experience.” (D.L.)
“I learned how to collaborate with my team members successfully and accept constructive feedback.” (M.R.)
Linking the STR Competition with students’ college experiences
The learning process during the STR Competition added invaluable experience to their student life in college. For instance,
“Participating in the competition enriched my college experience by challenging me to step outside of my comfort zone. I also learned a different aspect of the industry that has not been offered yet in the classroom.” (M.R.)
“It enriched my college experience by creating lasting relationships with the faculty throughout the college. I will very likely work with them for the rest of my collegiate years, and hopefully, even my adult life. I also developed new friendships, and the competition allowed me to be part of Cal Poly Pomona’s history.” (D.L.)
Linking the STR Competition with students’ career goals
Not all hospitality students see themselves working in data analytics after they graduate with a hospitality degree. Still, the preparation of the STR Competition can be particularly helpful for those who are interested in a career beyond room or restaurant operations.
“Through preparing for the competition, I was able to gain and develop skills that would be useful for a future career regarding numbers in the hospitality industry. I have always found myself very interested and enjoying the classes at The Collins College that involved numbers, such as Hospitality Finance and Accounting. However, when expressing this interest to recruiters, many of them told me that positions involving numbers required specific degrees, which hospitality management was not one. This competition gave me the opportunity to work with real data and apply analytical skills that is specific to the hospitality industry. Further, it opened my eyes to future career paths within the industry I did not know existed.” (N.T.)
“As someone looking to get into the event industry, this competition has given me a greater perspective on how event venues, especially convention centers, CVBs, and hotels all play into the success and the reputation of a market in terms of group travel.” (DL)
“I can confidently say that the competition will help me achieve my career goal because anything is possible with dedication and passion.” (M.R.)
The challenges and the remedies
This year’s competition was especially challenging for the Cal Poly Pomona team because it was the first time that the school ever organized a team to compete. As a result, students needed extra help from their advisors.
“The challenge of being the first group within our school to compete meant we had to pave our own way to the finals without having previous teams or PowerPoints to learn from. We overcame this challenge by starting from square one, and then built our way up through constant practices, feedback, and revisions.” (S.M.)
“The competition has only been going on for about five years, and it was our first year competing. So, we didn’t really know what we were getting into. We didn’t have any reference regarding how to gauge the processes. It was also difficult to tell if we were on track to where we needed to be in order to be successful.” (D.L.)
“Learning how to analyze data was the most challenging lesson of the competition. Fortunately, our mentors helped me overcome this challenge by taking the time out of their busy schedules to sit down with me and help me think outside the box.” (M.R.)
“Our team watched last year’s videos of the winning teams and watched not just what information they were presenting, but how — How were they standing? How were they speaking? Watching them present definitely helped us think about our presentation style. Nevertheless, we definitely wouldn’t have gotten where we are without our amazing faculty support. They took extra time out of their day to make sure we really understood our sections, and each of our slides was the best they could be.” (D.L.)
Factors contributing to the success of the team
As their faculty advisor, I believe their success was the result of a team effort from the students, the faculty/staff, alumni, and even the Board of Advisors of the College. Everyone shared the same goal and kept an open mind for feedback and suggestions. Everyone made a strong commitment to the team. Students stated:
“The factors that contributed to the success of the team were the individual members’ eagerness to learn and being receptive to feedback. Everyone on the team had never been exposed to a hotel market study prior to joining the team, but their excitement to learn something new and take on challenges contributed immensely to the team successfully creating a hotel market study. Additionally, each member being receptive to feedback allowed the team to constantly improve the presentation and performance to create a presentation we were very proud of. Another factor that contributed to the success of the team was the incredible support we had from our advisors. Their expertise and guidance gave us direction and clarity on how to improve our analysis and presentation.” (N.T.)
“Leveraging our strengths contributes to the success of the team because those strengths will make up for some of the imperfections we may carry individually.” (S.M.)
“Each member of the team has not just to be willing to put in the work, but also have the desire to improve and advance the team overall. We had to make lots of changes and improvements throughout the process. … I didn’t want to be successful alone, I wanted to succeed with my team and my school. It entailed hard work, and as a part of the team, you need to be there to help and support each other. Even the judges asked about how we were selected, and how we worked together, so the data is definitely key, but the people presenting it together makes the difference.” (D.L.)
Advice and suggestions for participants in the future
In the end, I asked the team what suggestions they would make to the students who want to participate in a future STR Competition. They said:
“I would tell any student that has the slightest desire to do this competition to go for it! Many students have only had operations experience in the hospitality industry, which may cause them to be hesitant to participate as they have not been exposed to anything like this before. However, this experience is very unique and is very beneficial to anyone anticipating to have a career in the hospitality industry. You will learn immensely and develop a new way of thinking, which only makes you an even more well-rounded, stronger leader of the industry. Everyone on the team works together to acquire new skills, and it is very rewarding to see how far you have come when you are on stage, presenting in front of the judges.” (N.T.)
“Don’t take the feedback personally. Having an open mind and positive outlook will only benefit your personal growth and the experience of the team. Try to make efforts to get to know one another to solidify the unity much earlier in the process. Continue to support one another through the good and the bad. You’re all in the competition together. Don’t make it a competition among each other.” (M.R.)
“Being willing to listen to each other.” (H.K.)
“It’s not about the individual section you’re doing; the entire presentation needs to flow. To really understand the big story you want to tell, you must have a very good idea of each team member’s piece of the puzzle and how they connect overall.” (D.L.)
“I recommend them to start working together as a team early on so that they can strategize a plan to utilize everyone’s strengths during the presentation.” (S.M.)
The result truly came from a team effort. The other advisors who also worked diligently with the team are Dr. Margie Ferree Jones, Mr. Hank Jones, and Ms. Carolina Sanchez. Additionally, Mr. Bruce Baltin, Mr. Troy L. Jones, Ms. Tiffany Jassel, Ms. Chia-Ju (Kate) Ko, Mr. Aarick (Eric) Sepulveda, and other faculty/staff members at the Collins College provided valuable feedback to the students’ work and made critical contributions to their success.
Have you or your school participated in the STR Competition before? How was your experience? What suggestions will you make to future participants?