Sitting in the lobby of the Hilton University of Houston, Davide, a Swiss-born entrepreneur who spent much of his life in Paris, took time to fully reflect on the globetrotting educational voyage he was about to complete. He recalled a brief encounter during his first-ever visit to Thailand’s capital city of Bangkok. The 26-year-old graduate student had immersed himself in the vibrant culture and even learned to speak the native language when he made a compelling cross-cultural connection.

“I was talking Thai with a taxi driver, and he had this light in his eyes. I was a foreigner, but I made the effort to integrate, respect and understand his culture. To see the joy he had interacting with me was a wonderful feeling,” he said.

First-of-its-Kind Program

Experiencing different cultures and understanding how businesses operate on a global level is the goal of a first-of-its-kind master’s program run by three world leaders in hospitality management education, including the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. The 18-month adventure took 27 graduate students from 22 different countries to three continents and more than a dozen world-class cities.

“As soon as I heard about this program, I was absolutely passionate about it. Instead of competing against each other, the schools worked together to really bring an added value and competitive advantage to their students,” said Davide.

Ki-Joon Back, Hilton College associate dean for research and graduate studies, and Eric Hilton Distinguished Chair Professor, helped develop the groundbreaking program to mold future global hospitality leaders. The challenge, he says, is connecting the gaps between cultures to better prepare students when multinational companies expand to different locations.

“We don’t want to make them bookworms. Yes, we want them to be very sophisticated, smart decision makers by going through rigorous academic programs, but we also want them to speak to the industry in their languages and to deal with the industry’s actual problems,” said Back, who administers the program at UH.

Global Learning

The hungry, yet humble inaugural cohort, all of whom speak at least three languages, started their three-semester trek towards receiving a Master of Science in Global Hospitality Business in September 2015. The first leg of the journey took them to Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland. The focus of the semester was honing analytical skills, especially in finance and strategic decision-making. Once-in-a-lifetime “business field trips” to Paris, Berlin and Rome followed, where students met face-to-face with top executives from global brands.

“We’re definitely making a mark on the other side of the globe,” said Jennifer Glickman, Hilton College’s director of international programs. “Our students want to be able to market themselves and have something very distinctive and unique that will put them ahead of other job applicants. This program does that.”

For recent University of Houston Hilton College grad Shuchang Zhang, 23, the second semester was a homecoming of sorts. She and her classmates traveled to her native country of China for a semester at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. In Hong Kong, the studies shifted to operations management, revenue and service excellence. The aspiring hospitality consultant already had plenty of stories to share with family and friends about more field trips to Macau, Shanghai and Beijing.

“Everything has been so memorable. Hilton College is quite famous in China. I knew this was going to be quite a unique program. I chose it for the school’s reputation,” Zhang said. “The networking is amazing. You get to visit headquarters of major companies, meet industry leaders and talk with them.”

Real-world Experience

Zhang got to do much more than just “talk” to industry leaders—she and the other graduate students actually went to work for global hospitality companies during their rigorous capstone consulting project. Under the supervision of a faculty mentor, teams of three spent the summer at one of nine partner companies. They were tasked with solving real-world business problems.

“They really understand what’s going on in the industry rather than just reading about it in a book. Students deal with actual decision makers and share their own experiences about what’s really going on. They examine what’s not working, what’s working well and analyze how they made their decisions to understand the whole process,” said Professor Back.

Zhang consulted for Swiss hospitality corporation Michel Reybier and was asked to develop a client-relationship strategy. Meeting face-to-face with the CEO and other top executives at the company headquarters was admittedly intimidating but at the same time, she says it was an invaluable learning experience.

“They know what they want, so they ask you a lot of questions you never thought of. It really takes you out of your comfort zone, and you have to try extra hard to be prepared to talk to them,” said Zhang.

Competitive Advantage

According to Back, relationships and networking are the most important takeaways from the consulting projects. “The students already are connected. The companies already test-drove you. They already know, ‘Wow, this kid is smart, I want to offer them a job right now,’” he said.

The final semester of this exclusive program brought the cohort to UH’s prestigious Hilton College in fall 2016. Hospitality technology, organizational behavior, leadership strategies and even advanced wine appreciation were the focus in the classroom, while much of the learning was done in the field.

“We’re definitely making a mark on the other side of the globe,” said Jennifer Glickman, Hilton College’s director of international programs.

“Most of us will have jobs we could not have had with another master’s degree. Your self-confidence is on steroids, and you feel you’re really ready to go into the job market and kick it,” said Davide.

During more field trips to Washington, D.C., New York and San Antonio, the aspiring hospitality professionals visited the Smithsonian, as well as Hilton Worldwide headquarters in nearby McLean, Virginia. They talked industry politics at the American Hotel & Lodging Association. Plus, they got a dose of media 101 inside the USA Today newsroom. Cumulatively, it was a rare glimpse inside the hospitality industry from varying perspectives.

“What do I get out of this? Happiness. I want our students to become better than me—that’s my success. I want to help develop better leaders. That’s my happiness,” said Back.

Already endorsed by dozens of industry leaders, this global master’s program allows students to choose which of the three educational institutions from which they will earn their degrees. They also receive a certificate from the other institutions. The program’s second cohort expanded to 42 students and 15 capstone partner companies.

“It was an amazing journey to travel through so many different continents,” said Zhang, who received her degree from UH. Now she’s a Cougar for life. “This has been an incredible opportunity for me.”