By Karen E. Klein Q: I am a budding entrepreneur with two years of undergrad left. My goal is to build and run a world-class resort. I'm currently studying business management and working toward either an entrepreneurial degree or one that is specifically geared for hospitality management. Beyond the basics, what can I do to prepare myself for the future? Would you suggest studying under an entrepreneurial major, or should I get more specific? -- B.M., Pontiac, Ill.
A: The first bit of advice experts would give you -- despite the invigorating stories we've all heard about college dropouts who go on to build empires -- is to stay in school and get your degree. Use your time to learn as much as possible. In fact, you might even try for a double-major.
If you have to choose one or the other, experts are split on whether you should concentrate on general business basics or major specifically in hospitality management. Most advise you to take entrepreneurship, which will build expertise in exploring the feasibility of a business concept, writing a business plan, raising money, marketing, managing customer relationships, and general business operations.
OPPOSING VIEWS. "The major in entrepreneurship will give you all the tools you'll need -- whether you settle into the resort business, or change your mind and go with another venture," says Bill Gartner, a professor at USC's Marshall School. You can get real-world experience working at a hotel or in a small business during the summers or by taking a part-time during the school year, he adds.
John Vinturella, an entrepreneurial consultant and scholar-in-residence at Dillard University in New Orleans, feels you should major in hospitality management, while taking as many entrepreneurship courses as possible. "Your goal is specific enough that knowledge of that particular industry is essential," he says. Whichever way you decide to go, take basic classes in both majors and develop your resort concept as part of class projects on marketing, analysis, or business-plan writing.
Meanwhile, do some research and identify the resorts that you'd like to own, then find work at them as a summer intern, suggests Ray Bagby, a management professor at Baylor University. Part-time work in a hotel year round -- if you can manage to juggle work and courses -- would also help you learn about the hospitality industry and identify its key players. "Supplement your academic preparation by planning to work for others in hospitality for a couple of years after graduation," says Vinturella. "With a view of everyday mishaps and challenges, you will develop a far better understanding of the practical side of the business, and enhance your readiness to pursue your goal."
CLOSE CONTACTS. Making contacts in the industry now will be vital for your success, especially with such an ambitious goal. "You'll need to have a network of credible people with a track record backing you, since you won't have the credibility to do this project right off the bat," says John Rooney, a USC business professor and Los Angeles-based small business consultant. "As you work in the industry, you'll meet people who have done this successfully who will, like you, get excited by your team. With their help, your vision will move forward."
Don't wait until graduation to start networking, Gartner advises. He tells his entrepreneurial students to talk to one new person every day about their business idea. "Start by talking to your friends and family: What resorts have they visited? What did they like? What didn't they like? Ask them about other people they know who have stayed at world-class resorts, or are involved in that industry," he suggests.
"It's surprising what you'll find and how quickly you'll start accumulating leads, contacts, and helpful individuals," Gartner adds. "If you talk to one person a day, in two years you'd build up at least 500 contacts, which is a pretty impressive way to start." Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at email@example.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 46th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.