When Tristin Sornson receives her diploma in a couple weeks, she will be among a select group of graduates from Oregon State University-­Cascade’s hospitality management degree program.

As a member of the first graduating class, she and five others are part of a public-private partnership that created Oregon’s only four-year hospitality management program.

The graduates are entering at a time when employers in Deschutes County are finding that it’s a job seeker’s market. Compound that with a strong visitor industry, and the need to invest in a trained workforce becomes apparent, said Rick LeSage, a Bend hospitality consultant. The tight labor market makes it difficult for employers to find and retain back-of-the-house staff here in Central Oregon, he said.

Tourism generated $11 billion in economic impact statewide last year, and there were 4.2 million visitors to Central Oregon.

“It’s such a unique business and educational partnership,” said Todd Montgomery, the OSU-Cascades executive in residence who runs the program. “It’s a huge deal. We’re showing that this model works, and it’s paid off for the businesses.

“We’re producing quality leaders who can go right into management.”

OSU-Cascades student Jenna Hanshe already has a management job lined up at Brasada Ranch — where she has been interning for several months as food and beverage supervisor. The 27-year-old hopes to take her classroom learning and experience to the mecca of hospitality, Las Vegas, later this summer.

“I love Central Oregon, but in terms of what I want to do, I want to work at a high-end resort,” Hanshe said. “There are a few resorts here that qualify, but it’s seasonal here, and it’s difficult to find year-round staffing.”

As an intern at Pine Ridge Inn in Bend, Tyler Spragg, 25, will continue his work as director of sales and marketing, a position he’s held since January. While he will graduate with his class in June, he has one more internship to complete over the summer.

“I will give a lot of credit to the program, especially with how I was able to connect with Pine Ridge,” Spragg said. “I’ve had a lot of real-life simulation.”

Making of a partnership

Navis was one of the companies that made the initial investment to the degree program. Kyle Buehner, CEO of Navis Inc., a Bend company that operates a reservation call center and provides data analysis, said that it was an easy decision to make the donation because it will enable the region to benefit from a degree program that is focused on skills.

“We invested for a couple of reasons,” Buehner said. “We believe in the mission of OSU-Cascades, and it will be helpful for us when we look to hire. The program should make for a good potential workforce for Navis.”

It’s a unique partnership, one that is emerging on college campuses. At OSU-­Cascades, which is a relatively new campus, the partnership works to integrate the campus into the community, said Christine Coffin, campus director of communications and outreach. She called it a 21st-century model where academia and business merge to satisfy both needs.

“Launching a new degree program requires startup funds to get it off the ground before students can enroll,” said Becky Johnson, OSU-Cascades vice president. “When we can add donor funds to our own resources, we can speed up the process and meet industry’s needs more quickly for talented employees. The donors to the hospitality management program recognized the need for skilled workers in their industry and generously supported the development of this new degree at OSU-Cascades.”

Initially the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association and other businesses worked with the school with a pledge of $320,000 to start the process of renewing the four-year degree program. The Oregon State University system had a hospitality program, but budget woes in the 1990s forced the school to disband the degree program. Two years ago, the Baneys, who own The Oxford Hotel Group, which owns hotels in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, donated $500,000 of their own money to fund an endowed chair position.

“It makes practical sense that Oregon has a strong hospitality program that provides leadership in the future,” said Robin Baney, co-owner of The Oxford Hotel Group. “What better place than here in Bend and OSU-Cascades.”

Today there are 17 students enrolled. Students must work at three internships before graduating and learn about the future integration of technology in the hospitality industry as part of the curriculum, Montgomery said. Automation is occurring at a fast pace from web check-ins through apps to back-of-the-house automation using 3D printing of food products. At the end of their internships, students each present a problem and a solution to the companies where they have worked. At 10 Below Restaurant and Lounge in Bend, they proposed a menu redesign, and at Pine Ridge Inn they evaluated a software solution.

Sornson, 24, has accepted a management position at Sunriver Resort in the reservation and sales department. She said she’s looking forward to applying what she’s learned in the classroom to her position, which gave her a lot of hands-on learning

“I chose this school because of the hospitality program,” said Sornson, who originally came from Salem. “It’s a good fit and makes sense. The program is very hands-on. That’s one of my favorite parts about the program.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2117, sroig@bendbulletin.com