Unique partnership with Hotel Madison gives students special experience

HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — The walls of Hotel Madison in Harrisonburg were built with a purpose of more than just serving the guests who walk through the lobby.

Students will be able to go to class and work at the hotel.

The hotel has a special classroom space reserved for students at James Madison University to use, especially the Hart School, which is their hospitality program.

Eddie Bumbaugh, who serves as the director of Public Relations for Hotel Madison, said one of the developers of the hotel is a JMU graduate, and knew the students needed hands on experience, so the partnership was born.

"Could the Hotel Madison have used this space for our own purposes? Absolutely, but the priority was to partner and give students this unique experience," said Bumbaugh.

Dr. Reg Foucar-Szocki, a professor at the Hart School for 29 years, said it is something that will set their program apart from other hospitality schools in the nation.

"It will just be a tremendous opportunity for our students to see first-hand what the industry is all about," said Foucar-Szocki."To be able to be here and actually interact with people who are doing it on a day-to-day basis just will help move our program to the national prominence that we're hoping it will go to."

According to Foucar-Szocki, there are less than 25 hospitality programs in the United States with a partnership like this one.

Since it's all new, there will be a pilot program in the fall to see how the partnership will work.

Students will have classes right on location, but not all students have to wait until next semester to get the experience.

Seniors Natalie Batlle and Jonathan Weiss are working in the hotel right now.

Natalie Batlle, who is a senior in the program, started working with the hotel in the early stages of development.

"To be able to watch it grow has been really cool, and seeing, like a hotel being built from the ground up, has been new to me as well," said Batlle.

Jonathan Weiss, who is also a senior, started working at the hotel a few weeks ago.

"Being part of the opening team for the Hotel Madison has already been an eye opening experience, you see how much stuff has to go into even putting the lobby together," said Weiss.

Both of the students agreed the experience they have had so far is priceless.

"Simulation on the computer doesn't give any justice to when someone is actually in front of you, and it's really up to you to provide that level of customer service," said Weiss.

Battle said the face-to-face interaction with guests is one of the best aspects of the experience she is gaining.

"You get to know them, and why they're coming to visit the area, or visit the hotel, and you don't get that when you're sitting in a classroom," said Batlle.

"It kind of patches up some disconnects that I felt were arising until I had the chance to work in a professional setting," said Weiss.

Students and faculty agree that what they learn while having hands-on experience will help them in the classroom.

"I think our students will bring that real world back into the classroom, and I think that to me is the most exciting part," said Foucar-Szocki.

Faculty also sees this as an opportunity to recruit for the program when potential students are visiting JMU, and see the hospitality students working at the hotel.

"I just think this is going to be an amazing asset to the Hart School program," said Battle.

Right now, only the culinary students have a lab to work in, but this partnership gives the students an "all inclusive experience" since they will have access to the ballrooms, conference center, as well as the rest of the hotel.

"The interpersonal skills already that I've gained with having to speak with everyone and having to figure out the things that we haven't figured out yet, it's just been a wonderful experience," said Weiss.

Students will have the opportunity to work over the summers as part of their training, too.

"Clearly for Hotel Madison, students with this actual experience will benefit us, but also benefit the hospitality industry in general in our area," said Bumbaugh.

It's a partnership they hope benefits the entire community.