Training – Graduating into the online world

University tourism degrees and postgraduate courses often focus on the traditional end of the travel industry. However, a new range of options are now available to hopefuls and existing employees in the online sector, as Caitlin Fitzsimmons discovers


The internet has fundamentally changed the travel industry, and it is set to become even more important as a rising number of businesses see the majority of their revenue coming from online operations.


It’s not surprising then that universities are responding to the trend by making their tourism courses more focused on the online sector and even introducing specialised e-tourism degrees.


The University of Surrey pioneered the specialised e-tourism Masters course back in 2001 and is reintroducing it next year after a two-year hiatus.


Meanwhile, online tourism is now an important part of nearly every general tourism degree in the country.


The industry is taking note and there is little doubt that many regard an e-tourism degree as an asset for candidates and a potential tool for staff development.


However, there are many paths to success and most employers in the online travel sector believe a general tourism degree or a business degree is just as valuable.


Thomson head of HR for the sales and training department, Caryl Roberts, says: “I’m not sure an e-tourism degree would gain any more kudos over and above a tourism degree. I think both are equally valid. We have a number of people in the company with business degrees and for someone applying for our graduate programme, a tourism, e-tourism and business degree would all be attractive.”


However, the rise of the e-tourism course is a relatively new phenomenon.


Dr Dimitrios Buhalis, the programme leader for the MSc in tourism marketing at the University of Surrey, says the specialist e-tourism degree shares a lot in common with the general tourism degree but it’s a question of emphasis and structure.


Students starting the course this year cannot enrol in the e-tourism degree but can largely achieve the same ends by enrolling in the MSc in tourism marketing and choosing the e-tourism elective modules.


Buhalis says the idea is to equip students to focus on the burgeoning online tourism sector, whether as part of a web specialist such as Lastminute.com, or with a traditional player moving into the online world, such as a hotel chain or an airline.


About half the students have prior industry experience while the other half are fresh from their first degree, and about 15%-20% are sponsored by an employer. “Our students are very employable – most get a job quickly and some students are now in influential positions,” Buhalis says.


The University of Surrey course is unique in its focus on e-tourism but there are a number of universities in the UK that offer e-tourism modules as part of the general tourism degree. The University of Nottingham, for example, has a both an online and a face-to-face degree in tourism and travel management – and both courses contain units in e-tourism.


Anita Fernandez Young, lecturer in tourism marketing and management at Nottingham University, says: “The course objectives are to provide an overview of consumer behaviour in the tourism context and understand the factors that influence tourism consumption,” she says. “[The course means that] people working at these organisations have a clear understanding of how their own business uses the Internet internally in its supply chain, in its internal communications, in its business structure and also how industry and individual uses it to communicate with potential market.”


The courses are updated constantly with close involvement from the industry and connection with industry events – such as the E-commerce Futures Forum at the University of Surrey.


E-tourism courses have won favour with many inside the industry but not to the exclusion of other qualifications, skills and experience. Opodo HR advisor Ana Nikolic says the company prefers a specialist tourism or e-tourism degree to an MBA.


Nikolic says: “E-tourism courses are getting better as they provide students with up-to-date knowledge of the relevant industry tools. However, this educational area is still new and is quite generic – there needs to be more focus on more specific areas of e-tourism such as IT and commercial.”


She adds that Opodo’s emphasis is on a good mix of both academic qualifications and on-the-job experience but a degree is desirable for more than 90% of jobs at the company.


Expedia Europe senior HR director Rob McDavitt says the group deliberately tries to employ people from a wide range of backgrounds. While some staff might have tourism degrees, there are others with experience in other sectors, such as fast moving consumer goods or medical devices.


McDavitt says a tourism and hospitality background is particularly useful for the partner services group, which liaises with airlines, hotels and other partners.


He finds the concept of an e-tourism course interesting and would be keen to discuss with candidates how it differs from a conventional tourism course. “It’s indicative of the shift in how people are purchasing and planning travel and the fact there are now e-tourism degrees shows where things are going,” he says.


Expedia currently supports senior staff through an MBA and McDavitt says there would be no barrier to supporting people through an MSc in tourism or e-tourism instead.


Thomson also provides support to existing staff to undertake university training as part of their professional development but its approach is more about vocational training. Roberts explains that Thomson is working with Wolverhampton University on an accredited degree programme tailored to the company’s needs, but this is designed to give recognition to staff who have worked their way up from the shop floor without a degree.


Sarah Jowett, HR manager for Cendant Travel Distribution services, the parent company for Ebookers, Travel Bag and Octopus Travel, says the degree requirement depends on the position. She believes the rise of the e-tourism degree is a healthy trend but says the company has not made special efforts to attract e-tourism graduates in the same way that it has marketed itself to MBA schools.


“I like it on the basis that a lot of the industry is moving towards e-tourism, and e-tourism makes a difference to how to the customer is dealt with via technology etc,” she says.


However, she adds: “I see it more as an add-on – a specific module within a tourism course.”


Lastminute.com and Travelocity group HR director Joe Kenny says the company tries not to be too prescriptive in its approach to recruitment but tries to find people with a positive attitude.


“We will take the needs of each role individually and so will not state that everyone coming to work at Lastminute.com, at a management level, must have a degree,” Kenny says.


“The combination of relevant work experience and academic qualifications is key – and having the personality and tenacity to be able to think on your feet, juggle multiple projects and get involved from the very beginning is important.”


Kenny also notes that the company values experience in the online sector just as much as a background in the tourism industry. Lastminute.com is considering sending staff on MSc e-tourism courses but does not currently do so.


E-tourism is an essential part of any general tourism degree and it seems likely that specialist e-tourism degrees will find favour with an industry crying out for fresh talent.


Yet diversity is highly rated in the online travel business and general degrees such as business and finance could be equally useful. In the current climate it would appear there are few wrong choices when it comes to potential e-tourism candidates selecting their postgraduate courses.


* Jenny Ibison from Investors in People will be speaking at a Personnel Today conference on June 29. Visit www.rbitalentmanagementconference.com.



At the University of Surrey, e-tourism students are taught to assess:


* Strategic implications of technology on tourism organisations


* Innovative technology that emerges in the marketplace


* Different applications to streamline business processes within tourism organisations


* How to use technology to facilitate and support partnerships between different partners


* How to look for an online presence – such as brand integrity, price parity, usability


* The future – for example how Wimax (large area wifi networks) will affect the business

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