The Next Normal: Experience design and management students prepare for changes

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Editor’s note: This story is part of a series that explores the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and how things have changed on and off campus.

COVID-19 has heavily impacted experiences: Hotels have lost guests, sporting events have lost screaming fans and events have lost big crowds.

Those whose careers revolve around providing “experiences” are having to implement longterm changes. Students in the design and management major in the Marriott School of Business — which covers planning things like weddings and corporate events as well as hospitality and tourism — have a front-row seat to the “Next Normal” of the event planning and hospitality industries.

Experience design and management courses

Experiences design and management professor John Garfield teaches a hospitality management class, covering hotels, restaurants and other hospitality-based industries. “COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on those industries,” Garfield said.

As a result, he will add lessons on cleanliness protocols when he talks about hotels. When he talks about cruise ships he will teach not only how to clean a room, but also food and water safety. When he gets to the Airbnb and sharing services portion of the class he’ll talk about how people who fear for their safety may try and avoid Airbnbs.

“We did talk about safety (before), we’ll just make sure it’s emphasized a little bit more,” Garfield said. “Everything from chemicals that’ll be used, to electrostatic sprayers and social distancing and what that will mean as far as large events.”

Nursing major Jordan Gibbs works at the info desk in the Wilkinson Student Center on the BYU campus. The desk has been fitted with new breath guards amid concern of COVID-19. (Preston Crawley)

Professor Brian Hill teaches the course Creating a Good Life through Experience Design. He is working on ways to engage students in the course, such as having students post a video or a paragraph of personal experience for other students to watch or read.

Hill said there’s a chance that the course could become more of a hybrid class, meeting once a week instead of twice, and all the lectures will be recorded so while in the classroom they can focus on more interactive and experiential things while allowing students to watch recorded lectures outside of class.

“I feed so much off of students and learn from them that I kind of hate to see us go too far that way,” Hill said.

Longterm effects in the major

Chief Student Experience Officer Ariadna Mateu was hired in February, just before the school shut down. Her role is to design, plan and implement strategies and services that enhance student outcomes during their time on campus. “Neither distance nor self-distancing could stall collaboration and creativity across our department,” Mateu said.

Mateu and experience design and management professor Mat Duerden agreed that there is a need to institute more intentional plans to build community within the major among students and between students and faculty. “Whether or not we are on campus in the fall, it’s not going to be the same. We’re going to need to institute more intentional plans to build community,” Duerden said.

If travel restrictions continue, there will be a rethinking of content because of the restrictions that might be imposed, Mateu said. “We will have to rethink what event management looks like, which is a big part of the experience design and management,” she said.

Garfield said the next two to three years will be one of the most exciting times for experience design and management as the industry changes and evolves. “Quite honestly, it’s the time to really get excited about travel.”

Lasting real-world consequences

Professor Brian Hill says one of the biggest impacts and the slowest thing to come back will be major events like sporting events and concerts. “Maybe there will be a bit of a trip as we’re going into the recession, but coming out of that and adjusting to kind of a new normal, I think businesses will really rely on a new way of thinking,” Hill said. “They’re going to need some creative and innovative people who can help them to make those transitions and hopefully they’ll look to our students to do that.”

Mateu said there could be a big shift when it comes to the event experience industry. “I think if things don’t change and the vaccine is not found, there’ll be interesting outcomes to that, and one of them is how we monetize an industry.”

According to Mateu, one of the changes to the sports industry is that planners will have to think about how they can get the sports fans to start watching the games online while still being able to monetize the events.

Mitch Harper, sports reporter and radio host at KSL, said he thinks media outlets and TV companies understand that they need to start streaming the games because they are big moneymakers. He said it doesn’t matter to the media companies whether or not the stadium is full as long as they’re airing on a network where they’re making revenue with viewership.

“Now there’s a lot more time spent at home, so they (TV companies and media outlets) know that the viewership could be off the charts,” Harper said.

Jessica Ballard, who teaches event planning and hospitality management at UVU, said she believes that while all the industries were hit really hard, the event industry has been more severely impacted.

“While there might be industries that are open but still struggling because they can’t bring in their typical amount of revenue, there are industries like this with event planning that they are not open period,” Ballard said.

Ballard said she often gets asked if live events will go away for good, even after the pandemic. She said events are definitely going to come back. “People need live events,” she said. “Virtual does not replace those experiences that you can get from live interaction.”

Even though Ballard believes events will be back in a matter of time, she does have a feeling that some things will permanently change. She said it’s a big possibility that caterers and food servers will continue to wear masks, people will start seeing more hand sanitizer stations at big events, and companies are likely going to have to change their cancelation and refund policies to account for a public health crisis.

Garfield said all of the industries being taught in the major are being impacted, but he believes that hotels have faced the most negative impact. “The leisure guests still travel, so if they want to get away with their family, they’ll drive two or three hours to have a great experience,” Garfield said. “But the business traveler or group traveler are not traveling at all so that has a big impact not only domestically, internationally, but also locally.”

Graydon Pearson, president of hotel management company In-Group Hospitality, said in a video posted on LinkedIn that “Travel and hospitality have been among the hardest-hit industries in the United States. To say the last couple of months have been hard is an understatement.”

In the same video, Cameron Gunter — the CEO of PEG Companies, a commercial real estate development and investment firm — said, “We are entering into a new era of hospitality.”

Garfield also said there could be a new market for hotels in the future as a result of the virus. He said if companies continue to have employees work from home, they may start renting out conference centers or hotels for meetings once or twice a month instead of entire offices or buildings for an entire month.

“Sure the pandemic is front and center, but two to five years from now I think people will be out traveling again,” he said. “They might be a little bit more cautious, but we’ll be traveling again.”

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