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Lokvani Talks To Arun Upneja

Ranjani Saigal

Dr. Arun Upneja is the Dean of the School of Hospitality Administration at Boston University. Prior to that he was at  The Pennsylvania State University, where he held the positions of Professor of Hospitality Financial Management and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the Schreyer Honors College - a position that included oversight for more than 200 honors courses, academic advising, and career development for 1,800 honors students. Dr. Upneja has spent his career as both a practitioner and teacher of hospitality administration. He earned his B.S. in Hotel & Restaurant Management, his M.B.A., and his Ph.D. in Accounting from the University of Houston. He also holds a B.A. in Economics and Business Administration from the University of Jammu in India. Following six years of hotel management with Mumbai-based Indian Hotels Company Limited, Dr. Upneja spent 17 years sharing and building on that knowledge at Penn State, where he established new interactive honors programming for faculty and students and won numerous awards for his research, including the John Wiley & Sons Lifetime Research Achievement Award (2007) from the Council on Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Education. He talked to Lokvani about the school and the opportunities ahead.

What motivated you to choose an academic career in hospitality?

Even as a child, I was always interested in higher education—and the idea of engaging in research at an institution of higher education was particularly exciting. So when I got the chance to do a Ph.D. in accounting after earning an undergrad degree in Hospitality Management, I jumped at the opportunity. After that, I was fortunate enough to get a position at Penn State teaching accounting to hospitality management students. An academic career in hospitality allows me the opportunity to impact the next generation of managers and entrepreneurs. It also allows me to stay at the forefront of all major developments taking place in our industry.

What careers can graduates of BU school of hospitality hope to pursue?

We are a management school that focuses on the hospitality industry. However, the underlying management skills can be used in any industry. Our graduates go on to take leadership positions in hotels, restaurants, and other related firms. Some of them head to real estate firms, take up positions as financial analysts, or become revenue managers. Ultimately, they face myriad possibilities when they graduate.

What new directions has the school taken under your leadership?

There have been four major changes in the school in my tenure as dean: an increased emphasis on research, the globalization of student mindset, an updated curriculum, and a new master’s program.

Our faculty are engaged in advancing the research on some of the most important issues facing the industry and are publishing in the top research journals in our field. The most recently hired faculty all have extensive experience in the industry as well as a strong background in research, with potential to be among the leading scholars in our profession. We have initiated multiple research conferences, including an invitation-only research conference targeting the top minds in hospitality.

The School of Hospitality Administration (SHA) seeks to create remarkable experiences while students attend the School, and it does so in part by finding and offering opportunities for international experiences. Not only does this enrich their academic studies, but it also goes an extra step by having students’ graduate ready for their future careers with a global mindset. Few other institutions at the same level as SHA are as committed to this concept. One example of how SHA implements this mindset is through classroom-to-classroom collaborations with international universities – for example, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) – that allow students in both settings to collaborate on a joint presentation. This project offers students a chance to experience global hospitality in action. In addition to CUHK, we are in partnership with the Emirates Academy in Dubai, Institute Paul Bocuse in France, and Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand.

The major change driving our curriculum innovations can be summarized as follows: being in the business of hospitality, versus being in the hospitality business. SHA aspires to attract and graduate smart, hardworking students who leave with a grasp on the many emerging sides of the hospitality business, as well as a solid understanding of the key trends and courses of direction that occur in a global hospitality world. On one hand, for example, is the continuation of operating hotels where the chief responsibility is to provide great customer service and grow the business – which is traditionally the environment in which our graduates have moved. On the other hand, the business of owning and operating has become increasingly fractured among different owners, managers, and franchising companies. Having students graduate with a strong grasp of the myriad sides of the industry and skills required within each is perhaps the cornerstone of SHA standards.

Finally, I am also excited to announce that our inaugural class of the MMH program (Masters of Management in Hospitality) has kicked off very successfully, with 35 students from around the world. This is our first graduate degree in the School, and we are happy to contribute highly educated graduate students to our industry.

What opportunities do you hope to bring to the school in the next 5 years?

We have already created three concentrations in our program: real estate, event management, and marketing. In the future, we hope to introduce more concentrations. Similarly we just introduced a joint degree in collaboration with the College of Communication and hope to have more such joint efforts with other schools and colleges at Boston University. We also hope to create a SHA-specific honors program in the next couple of years. Our efforts to forge international partnerships will continue, and we expect to add more international programs to our list of partners.

With the advent of technology and sharing economy, how is the hospitality industry expected to change in the next 5 years?

Change is happening so fast that it is difficult to be in the business of predictions, particularly with the continued rise of the sharing economy. For example, changes in the speed of transportation can upend even the brashest predictions. Consider the example of Hyperloop that can make daily commuting possible even between cities that are far apart. So I hope that no one remembers my predictions five years from now.

The sharing economy will pick up speed and will impact the lodging industry in a significant way unless there is a robust response from the industry. There are some consequences of the sharing economy for the society, both good and bad. The good is that society uses some resources that have been idle—e.g., an unused basement can be rented out with benefits to both the homeowner and the customer. However, people are being driven out of the rental market because there are greater profits to be made from Airbnb rather than renting out by the month.

Because of the sharing economy, brand values will potentially take a hit, since brand promises can be replicated by individuals and certified by posted reviews. In other words, a customer doesn’t need to be assured of quality by a hotel brand because dozens of previous customer reviews are available at the click of a button.

What has the impact of the South Asian community been on the hospitality industry in the US?

Most people do not realize that over 70-80% of limited service hotels in the United States are owned by people having their origins in Gujrat. So the impact has been tremendous. I believe that the management changes they have brought to our industry are now making their way to full service and luxury sectors of the hotel industry. Lean management systems and revenue management are some of the practices that the South Asian community has pioneered in the hotel industry.

What advice do you have for recent graduates who may be considering a career in academics?

Critical thinking skills and a strong foundation in quantitative skills are a prerequisite for a successful career in academics. Of course, a love for teaching is paramount, and you certainly have to believe that an academic career helps our future generations. There are many areas in academia in which the supply vastly exceeds demand, so make sure that you investigate this before spending 5-6 years earning a Ph.D.

You have worked at the most famous hotel chain, the Taj. Any special experiences you would like to share?

I look back so fondly at that time with very different working conditions. We would work 6-7 days a week and on average 10-12 hours a day. Each day would bring different challenges, celebrities, politicians, and some of the wealthiest people in the world. I still remember one New Year’s Eve spent standing at the front of the coffee shop Shamiana and telling people that we had a 6-8 hour wait for a table—and the most common response was, “Just call out our name, we will be waiting.”

Thank you for your time

Thank you 

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