In 1994, Jim Ness was invited to a luncheon with several of his industry colleagues by Manny Cortez, the then-President/CEO of the Las Vegas Convention & Visitor’s Authority. As he looked around the room, he realized he was surrounded by familiar industry peers such as hoteliers, general service contractors and vendors to the Las Vegas Convention Center. What he didn’t know was that every individual in the room had been hand-picked by Manny, and it was unclear why each of them was there. At the end of lunch, he found out.
Manny announced to everyone in the room, “Now that I’ve fed you, you are all now members of the advisory board for the newly-formed Academy of Hospitality and Tourism (AOHT).” The Board was granted a $75,000 annual budget to enrich the curriculum and needs of the students enrolled in this new magnet program at one of the oldest schools in Las Vegas, Valley High School.
Under the guidance of the National Academy Foundation (NAF), magnet programs foster partnerships between the business and education communities to provide opportunities to underserved students. Nationwide, employees of more than 2,500 companies volunteer in classrooms, act as mentors, engage students in paid internships and serve on local advisory boards.
In the 28 years since that luncheon, the AOHT program has flourished thanks to numerous individuals committed to its success. Jim has been involved since that first day, sitting on various committees for the first 10 years, then becoming Treasurer in 2007. He was instrumental in forming a Nevada non-profit corporation, which enabled AOHT to disburse funds and provide additional funding to the students outside the purview of both the LVCVA and Clark County School District. After being appointed as AOHT Advisory Board President seven years ago, Jim established an annual fundraiser, “Golf FORE Dummy’s,” a nine-hole, par-three golf tournament. Students are required to plan the event, create a website and interact with participants. The monies raised are earmarked for up to four $1000 scholarships, with students having the potential to earn $4000 over four years. Funds also provide operating needs such as field trips, transportation, attire (branded blazers and polo shirts) and more for these students.
However, AOHT hasn’t been without its challenges. On September 1, 2018, Rossi Ralenkotter, successor to Manny Cortez, was replaced at the helm of the LVCVA and a year later, the program was defunded by the LVCVA and forced to become solvent on its own. Luckily, under Jim’s leadership, the program had a small but growing “rainy day fund,” and was able to sustain itself. Jim approached the AOHT teachers and asked them to build a program around a $25,000 annual budget without compromising its core purposes. The advisory board committed to funding half of that amount, with the students raising the other half via fundraising. (That’s a lot of candy bars!) SUCCESS!
The AOHT’s mission is to provide opportunities for every student to pursue their dream of becoming a hospitality professional, and it has accomplished that many times over. One such success story is that of Ericka Aviles, a 2000 graduate of AOHT and Valley High School, who now owns and operates Ericka Aviles Consulting, a multicultural marketing and communications firm focused on bridging gaps of language and culture between their clients and the audiences they serve. “The AOHT program was integral in my upbringing and helped me build confidence and acquire skills that I was able to implement in my career in the hospitality industry and now as a small business owner. The power of wearing a blazer, identifying mentors and other one-of-a-kind experiences really helped mold the person that I am today,” said Ericka.
Alba Correas, a 2012 graduate of AOHT and a 2018 graduate of UNLV with a bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management, also credits the AOHT program with preparing her for success and creating the foundation for her career. She reflected on one of the field trips she participated in, to the Las Vegas Convention Center to attend the CaterSource convention, which was her introduction to the world of events and trade shows. She remembers, “I was in awe of the size of the show, the number of people attending, the elaborate sponsor booths and the overall production. It really sparked my interest in the events industry.”
Alba joined the Edlen team in August 2019 after being referred by a former co-worker and fellow UNLV student, Liz Favaloro. Both Alba and Liz are Event Services Managers and have serviced large events in Las Vegas such as SuperZoo, PPAI (Promotional Products Association International), Surfaces, Supply Side West and MAGIC.
“It’s all about the kids!” has been Jim’s opening mantra each year he addresses the AOHT board members.
Jim fully believes that the Academy of Hospitality & Tourism is not just a community or industry outreach educational program. It is an institution crafted to educate both the student and the hospitality professional providing opportunities to mutually share ideas, dreams and values.
It is a privilege for each board participant to share their experiences and successes, and to listen to and mentor each student. Ultimately, our goal is to help mold the hearts and minds of our future hospitality industry leaders.”
"You can have everything in life you want if you will just help other people get what they want." – Zig Ziglar