The new Hospitality and Marketing Academy at Davenport High School (DHS) is preparing students to enter the field with unique skills. 

Courses being offered at the new high school, which opened in August 2021, include multiple career programs in the fine arts, hospitality and hotel management, technology, computer modeling and gaming. That includes the first such hospitality-related academy in Polk County, which introduces students to hospitality and tourism and offers classes in marketing and the culinary arts, said Hilary Wright, the lead hospitality instructor at Davenport High.

Kyle Kennedy, a spokesperson for Polk County Public Schools, said the district “felt this was a unique addition to our career academies that would take advantage of the many hospitality/tourism opportunities in our area, especially with Polk County’s proximity to Orlando and Tampa.”

The hospitality and tourism industries are critical to a state like Florida with its sun, sand, beaches and attractions. 

“Tourism is Florida’s largest industry and the top economic engine here in Polk County, as well,” said Mark Jackson, director of Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing. “Add to that and you have Central Florida, including Polk County, is the most popular tourist destination in the world.”

Wright said the goal is to ensure students graduate “with the skills, knowledge and confidence to pursue a career in the hospitality industry. Some students will have the opportunity to obtain an industry certification, which will set them apart from other job applicants.”

In its first year, the academy has attracted more than 300 students across three tracks; Introduction to Hospitality and Tourism, Marketing Essentials and Culinary.

Students, staff and the community are adjusting to Davenport High, which opened next to Davenport School of the Arts and can accommodate 2,500 students. More than 100,000 students attend Polk County public schools.

As time goes by, Wright said she hopes to establish partnerships to further educate students. 

“I’m looking forward to next year and beyond,” Wright said. “We are going to make connections with local hospitality businesses and establishments. Next year, DHS will have a senior class, and those students will be building relationships with key mentors and employers.”

Wright said she is using social media to highlight activities and accomplishments to attract students. 

“Word of mouth among the students also has a huge impact. Our goal is to become the academy of choice among the student body,” she said. 

With 20 years in the hospitality industry, she knows what she’s talking about. 

“Most young adults in Central Florida will enter the workforce in a hospitality role — whether that is working at a fast-food restaurant, lifeguarding at their neighborhood pool or working at one of our attractions and theme parks,” Wright said. “Students who go through our academy will be better equipped and more successful in those roles. They will have been taught how to interview for a job, create an impressive resume, navigate workplace ethics issues and provide customer service. Often these soft skills are not a focus for the core academic classes required for graduation. Our Hospitality and Marketing Academy graduates will have a strong work ethic combined with problem-solving and technical skills that will set them apart and help them achieve their postsecondary goals.”

Wright said they’ve been working with the district’s workforce education department to develop the program. They’ve also sought best practices from academies across the country. 

Through the program, students will gain the “real-world” skills and certifications necessary to succeed. 

Wright uses her experience working at the Walt Disney World Resort and owning a small business to develop the program. 

“I find it helpful to use the lens of a hiring manager when teaching,” she said. “The students are held accountable for turning in work on time, using correct email etiquette, and making eye contact and smiling when greeting a peer or staff member. While these may seem like small or inconsequential things to teach, I find they are exactly the type of behaviors that will set our students apart and impress hiring managers. Once they have secured their job, they have the necessary skills and knowledge to excel.”

The hospitality industry is the “industry of fun,” Wright said. Almost 1.1 million people worked in the hospitality industry in Florida in July 2021, according to Leisure and Hospitality in Florida.

“Students in this academy are exposed to roles in various environments, such as the cruise ship industry, food and beverage locations, lodging, tourism and transportation, and national parks, just to name a few,” she said. “We are teaching students they can find roles that use their strengths. There are roles that are behind the scenes and ones that are guest-facing. It is a career that can be very fulfilling and will allow students to achieve great things.”

Jackson said the industry’s most important asset is people. 

“Human resources are the key to any successful industry, regardless of the role or position,” he said. “Europe has known this for decades, and also has well-established educational programs at both the secondary and university levels. In light of the fact our regional economy is dominated by the tourism/hospitality industry, educating our workforce is absolutely critical to the area’s continued economic well-being. The fundamental skills learned from an academy will inevitably bolster Polk County’s labor force, economy and overall quality of life…for all citizens and local businesses.”