GRAY, Tenn. (WJHL) — East Tennessee State University and the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association (NETTA) continue to direct focus on the tourism industry in the region and the professionals who keep it running.

The two organizations teamed up to offer a Hospitality and Tourism Management Certification course for industry professionals interested in honing their skills. The course is the first of its kind in Tennessee and has produced 40 graduates in its three years of operation.

The course is led by Alicia Phelps, the executive director of NETTA, with guest presenters and behind-the-scenes visits to various leading tourism and hospitality establishments in the area such as The Carnegie Hotel and the Tri-Cities Airport.

Phelps said the course covers a range of topics from management, public relations, current technology, finance, safety and social trends. She said the hope is to retain talent in the region and give them the skills necessary to progress at their current employer or with another company or organization within the area.

“We were one of the industries that pulled the region into one of the top four visited areas in the state when it comes to hospitality and tourism,” said Phelps. “So, it’s very, very important to invest in our industry to make sure that it grows sustainably and that our workforce is ready and educated and top-notch.”

According to NETTA, tourism is the second-largest economic driver in Tennessee, and in a non-pandemic year, Northeast Tennessee can generate $911 million in direct visitor spending. NETTA and ETSU want to capitalize on the talent and professionals already working in the tourism and hospitality region to retain their talent and continue to grow the region’s income.

“One of the things that we started talking about very quickly, and ETSU approached us, was how can we create a program that may not last an entire semester, but it is specifically geared toward continuing education,” said Phelps. “So, you’re not going to see a traditional college student here, you’re going to see folks from all walks of life from all different facets of the hospitality and tourism industry.”

On top of visitor spending, NETTA reports the tourism and hospitality sector in Northeast Tennessee pays more than $194 million in payroll and employs nearly 7,000 people.

The course has expanded to include high school teachers as well; they then take the lessons back to students in career and technical education programs. Graduates of the program said the course takes a holistic approach, starting from the bottom up.

“On one of the first days you’re coming in, and they’re teaching you how to dress, some of the manners, some of the words to use,” said Bradley Hoover, a sports marketing manager at Visit Kingsport. “Then, by the end of the course, we literally had a gentleman come in that owns and operates his own restaurant. And he came in with his master plan and presented that to us. He also let us go home with a hard copy of it. So where else you are you find something like that?”

In previous years, graduates said topics also included timely issues like a pandemic response.

“Something that should not have surprised me, but I thought was very relevant, is that we had a whole seminar on crisis communication,” said Alec Castro, the director of sales and public relations at Visit Johnson City. “In our industry, the pandemic was devastating. So, really preparing the future workforce with those skill sets was very important.”

Darla Dye, the director of professional development in the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies at ETSU, said advertising and awareness of what the region has to offer don’t just benefit tourists.

“We can offer great customer service and to the public, not just the tourists, but also our people who visit our different events and our venues throughout the region,” said Dye.

Castro had only been in the tourism industry for two months before starting the course. He said getting the certification accelerated his career.

“I had just started in the industry and it really provided a launching pad and a primer, to grow my career and really expedited my trajectory as well,” said Castro. “I was promoted fairly quickly into the organization that I started…it really has given me the network and the knowledge that someone who was a seasoned professional would have.”

Administrators said the growth of tourism in the region leads them to believe there will be continued demand and need for the program.

“Recently, I attended a luncheon where the Commissioner of Tourism came in, and he talked about how they’ve even increased tourism dollars for Tennessee through all this COVID and pandemic,” said Dye. “So, I think it’s going to be here a while and as long as we take care of our resources, and keep things beautiful as they are.”

Classes will be held over two six-week sessions on Tuesday nights from 6-9 p.m. from August to November at Hands On! Discovery Center. Registration is required and scholarships are available. For more information and to enroll, click here or call ETSU Office of Professional Development at (423) 439-8084.