As the hotel industry continues to rebound from the pandemic, Virginia Union University is expanding its academic offerings to include a hospitality management program that’s planned to be anchored with a new, student-run hotel next to the Carver neighborhood.
VUU’s Sydney Lewis School of Business is now offering three degrees in hospitality management: a bachelor’s and master’s, and an executive MBA with a hospitality management concentration.
The private university — an HCBU, or historically black college or university — has been rolling out the programs over the past year, with all of them fully launched in time for the fall semester that got underway this week.
As part of the effort, VUU also is planning a hotel near Carver that would be open to the public and run by students in the program, providing them with a real-world training ground of sorts.
Initially considered for a planned expansion of VUU’s campus on the former Budget Inn of Richmond motel site, the hotel is now being planned for the site of C.D. King Hall, a university-owned administrative building at Lombardy and Leigh Street, across Leigh from Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School.
The university enlisted Retro Hospitality, a Richmond-based management group whose clients include Quirk Hotel, to complete a feasibility study for the hotel project, as well as assist in establishing an advisory board for a VUU hospitality school.
The study selected the 1.2-acre C.D. King site over other options considered, including land next door to the Sugar Shack Donuts across Leigh and Lombardy, Retro Hospitality’s Paul Cooper said. That site is now under development for Carver Square, a 90-unit condo project from Stanley Martin Homes.
“It’ll be a project that will support the education of the students through the hospitality management program, and then it also will have to make financial sense from a commercial standpoint,” Cooper said, noting the hotel would be open to transient travelers. “We’re conducting a pretty deep study to suggest what level of amenities and services will be provided in that hotel.”
That study, slated to be delivered this year, also would determine whether the C.D. King building would be renovated and incorporated into the hotel development, or razed to make way for new construction.
Pending approval from administrators and VUU’s Board of Trustees, the project would involve a request for proposals from general contractors, architects and engineering firms. A tentative name for the project is “Virginia Union University Hotel and Conference Center,” though the conference center component remains up in the air.
Cooper said it could be 18 to 24 months after approval before the project is completed, putting the hotel’s potential opening in the 2024-25 timeframe. He said a project cost and other details remain to be determined.
Motel site project still planned
When VUU announced plans for a mixed-use building to replace the former Budget Inn of Richmond at Lombardy and Brook Road, officials said they envisioned the building’s upper floors housing a 50- or 60-bed hospitality management program, with the ground floor consisting of storefronts for small businesses.
While that building is no longer planned to be a hotel, the university still plans to develop that site in line with conceptual renderings that were presented at the 2019 announcement, said Robin Davis, dean of the Sydney Lewis School of Business, who’s leading the hospitality management effort along with Provost Terrell Strayhorn.
“We’re still going to do something with the motel,” Davis said, adding that specific plans and a timeline for that project have yet to be released but the general concept would be the same, with educational programming above ground-floor storefronts.
With the C.D. King site, Davis added: “We just felt that that would be the best proximity for a hotel, because of the traffic and it’s not too far from Broad Street, and you have the Kroger and so forth.
“Our desire, because of the pandemic, is to make sure that our workforce is really ready to ramp back up, especially after the pandemic is over. People are going to want to travel and entertain and things of that nature, so we really need to communicate (the hospitality management program) at VUU.”
To that end, Davis and Cooper have been reaching out to hotel contacts across the region and others in the industry to get the word out about the programs, and to solicit support and potential involvement on the advisory board.
Names include regional heavyweights such as Quirk owner Ted Ukrop, Shamin Hotels’ Jay Shah, Apple Hospitality’s Justin Knight, and Eric Terry and Jim Wilson with the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association. Davis said she also reached out to GMs of downtown Marriott properties, and Cooper’s contacted administrators with the hospitality programs at Virginia Tech and JMU.
Davis said she’s invited those she’s contacted to represent the industry at a career development event planned on VUU’s campus in September.
As for the programs’ reception so far, Davis said enrollment has been growing steadily since the bachelor’s program was introduced in January and the executive MBA rolled out in the spring.
Deborah Martin, VUU’s graduate admissions and development coordinator, said the executive MBA has enrolled 59 students so far and is still accepting applications.
“That was more than what we anticipated,” Martin said.
Enrollment numbers for the master’s program, which launched this semester, weren’t available, but Martin said they’re aiming for an initial cohort of 10 to 12 enrollees. All of the programs are offered online.
Davis said the programs, while in development prior to the pandemic, come at a crucial time for the hospitality industry, which she said is struggling to rehire staff after layoffs and other cutbacks in 2020, particularly at the executive level.
“One (executive) stated they lost about 80 percent of their business shortly after the pandemic started and they had to lay off 80 percent of their workforce,” Davis said. “Now, he stated that they’re trying to ramp up hiring, and he has 93 positions open that he can’t fill fast enough.”
Strayhorn, VUU’s provost and senior vice president of academic affairs, said the university’s hospitality management programs provide a value compared to others across the country.
“We’ve got probably the most affordable executive MBA in the country right now,” Strayhorn said, noting that some MBAs can cost as much as $70,000 over the course of the program.
“In 12 to 15 months, for no more than $20,000, you can have an executive MBA from Virginia Union, a historically black college in the United States. That’s just incredible,” he said. “It’s an executive MBA, at an HBCU, in the commonwealth’s capital. It’s affordable, and it’s got multiple tracks to it, including church management.”
Laughing, Strayhorn added, “Every pastor in the country should get our MBA right now.”
On top of expanding its academic offerings, VUU also has been adding to its real estate holdings in recent months. In addition to the Budget Inn site, the university last month bought an industrial warehouse building across the street from its Hovey Field football stadium.
Correction: Terrell Strayhorn is provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at VUU. An earlier version of the article incorrectly referred to Strayhorn with a title he previously held.