HCA teaching hospitality’s next generation

In the early 2000s, The Classic Center, a convention center and performing arts theater in Athens, GA, launched an initiative to promote careers in the hospitality industry. Out of that effort came the Hospitality Career Academy (HCA), a weeklong program that immerses students in the hospitality industry.

“We set out to educate students, parents, teachers, school counselors and other educational leaders about the opportunities and benefits within the hospitality industry,” said Paul Cramer, president/CEO, The Classic Center. “HCA was designed to be a feeder for the new program at Athens Technical College. Today, both Athens Technical College and the University of Georgia (UGA) have thriving hospitality programs, and HCA students have participated in programs at both institutions.”

Paul Cramer, The Classic Center

Students enrolled in HCA are offered a behind-the-scenes look at the industry through hands-on learning, guest speakers, job shadowing and leadership training, among other opportunities. According to Cramer, HCA has had an almost 40% rate of students continuing to a post-secondary hospitality program.

“Students listen to and interact with guest speakers in the industry, including UGA’s Hospitality and Food Industry Management Coordinator and HCA alumni professionals,” Cramer said. “To get an inside look at the industry, students tour The Classic Center’s state-of-the-art facility and shadow Classic Center professionals in the areas of marketing, event planning, stage production, culinary arts and more.”

The program culminates with an event for more than 200 guests planned and executed by the students, with guidance from HCA mentors. Job shadowing is one of the ways the students learn the skills needed to complete the project.

“Job shadowing comes about in two ways,” noted Cramer. “One way is that students pick a role for the week that supports the final project and fulfills that role with the help of a one-on-one mentor. The other way is that students shadow hospitality employees in a variety of roles for a few hours during the week, such as hotel front desk, tourism, marketing, event planning and operations, culinary and sales. “
He continued, “This gives the students an opportunity to spend time in an area outside their main interest, which broadens their scope of the industry and opens the door to future networks.”

Executives from nearby hotels have participated in the program, including the Hyatt Place Athens Downtown, Cramer noted, adding, “In the past, team members from the sales, front desk and food & beverage departments have spent time with various students. Representatives from the Holiday Inn Express Athens-University Area have also been guest speakers.”

Cramer named Arianna Castillo, a graduate of Mountain View High School in Lawrenceville, GA, as a success story of the program. She is currently pursuing a major in Hospitality and Food Industry Management at UGA.

“In addition to being currently enrolled in UGA’s Hospitality department, Arianna’s journey through HCA has paved the way for her achievements in Athens’ premier educational programs and her role at The Classic Center, where she supports operations and event planning,” Cramer said.

Castillo recalled hearing about HCA from her high school marketing teacher. “She encouraged me to apply, and I am so grateful I did,” the native of Buford, GA, said. “Ever since childhood, I knew that I wanted to be in the hospitality industry. As I admired hotels, restaurants and amusement parks, I’d imagine what changes could be made to improve their services and appeal. I can’t wait to continue growing in this industry.”

Working on the annual event gave her insights on “all the intricacies that come with planning and executing an event,” Castillo, now 18 years old, said, adding, “My favorite part of HCA was meeting and working with amazing people. I gained very valuable friendships and connections while having a great time working on the event with them. Through HCA, I also met one of my closest friends, who is now also a hospitality major at UGA.”

Castillo is on track to earn a bachelor of science and arts degree in hospitality and food industry management in spring 2026. She said she’s also planning to “earn a certificate in entrepreneurship and complete her masters in agribusiness.”

She added, “By learning the ins-and-outs of the hospitality industry and business, I hope to one day establish my own business. My dream is to own and manage a family-operated hotel or venue—and perhaps even both.”

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