A Turn Toward Hospitality Made an Economist's Career

John McKeith

Gary D. Praetzel
March 17, 2014

Gary D. Praetzel, who is 61, will retire as dean of the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Niagara University this summer. He helped create the college in 2001, and has led it ever since. Here is his story, as told to Danya Perez-Hernandez.

I started at Niagara University in 1978 as an assistant professor of economics while I was working on my doctoral degree in economics at the University at Buffalo. I thought that if I had an opportunity to work in the Federal Reserve System, that would be by far the best place I could start my career. After I earned my Ph.D., I actually worked at the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas, Tex., from 1980 to 1981, as an economist and adviser to the bank president.

When I was out of the classroom, it registered with me that I was missing what I really enjoyed doing. My calling was working with students. I had my mind set to come back to Niagara because I liked the environment here. Classes are small, and the emphasis is on that personal interaction with students.

Soon after I came back, I became the dean of the College of Business Administration and M.B.A. director.

I was very young when I became dean, in my early 30s, and I saw that if I didn’t get back to teaching, I would become outdated in the classroom. So I resigned as dean after eight years and returned to the faculty in the business college.

The university asked me in 1999 to take the position of director in the hospitality program, then called the Institute of Travel, Hotel, and Restaurant Administration.

In February 2001, the institute officially became the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management. To the best of my knowledge, we were only the fourth hospitality and tourism program in the United States to achieve college status.

Hospitality and tourism is the world’s largest single industry. It offers tremendous employment opportunities for students. Most of my career was based upon building close relationships with industry. So I saw it as a natural fit for me.

It was nerve-racking. And to be perfectly blunt, we didn’t have sufficient enrollment to warrant being a college. The university made us a college on the belief that we could significantly grow our enrollment, our stature, that we really could become a leading national and international program. So there was great pressure, and then what comes along is September 11.

That, of course, impacted the whole economy, but it most impacted hospitality and tourism. A number of programs in the country took significant enrollment losses around that time. We actually were growing through that time. It was at a slow pace, but we were fortunate. After 2003 we just accelerated in growth. We became one of the fastest-growing programs in hospitality in the country. When I first started we had about 130 students. Today we have 450.

Right at the beginning, we formed a powerful advisory council of industry leaders and our own alumni association. This allowed us to rapidly build up contacts with industry at the corporate level, showcasing our program and, most importantly, our students.

I’ve started seven international programs in my time here at Niagara, including one in Lake Como, Italy; a cultural-immersion program in Peru; and a dual-degree program in Germany. International experience is what, I believe, most changes the life of a student. Not only does it help someone professionally, but it really changes them personally by giving them maturity, responsibility, and self-confidence. They come back as true leaders.

My focus here at the university has been to make our students more marketable so that they are well prepared for the best possible job. I look at my job as a kind of ministry, in the sense that what you are trying to do is to help people and give back to your students.

Niagara University was founded by Vincentian priests, and their work was always focused on helping the less fortunate. It takes a special heart to do that. You want to go out and make a difference in a life, to be known as a giver and not a taker. The same is true in hospitality. It is highly interpersonal: You are working directly with guests, and it’s all about going the extra mile for them. It takes the heart of a servant.

I was given a blank sheet of paper. And what I’m trying to do now is to leave the college in a strong state so the next dean starts from a position of strength. I think it’s time for someone to come in with some other fresh ideas and carry on from there.