Hospitality industry touts study, pushes back on scaled-down Palm Springs College of the Desert campus

A commissioned report addressed during a news conference Tuesday recommends a hospitality and culinary program more than double the size of COD’s current plans.
Visit Greater Palm Springs President and CEO Scott White speaks during the unveiling of a study of hospitality industry needs in the Coachella Valley.

Against the backdrop of the bustling Il Corso kitchen in Downtown Palm Springs, leaders from both Visit Greater Palm Springs (VGPS) and the city on Tuesday made their case for more robust hospitality and culinary programs than those currently being planned by officials from College of the Desert (COD).

At issue: During the initial planning phase for a future West Valley campus in Palm Springs nearly two decades ago, the thought of a significant portion of the campus dedicated to training future hospitality leaders was a no-brainer. But during a virtual community forum earlier this summer, COD officials showed plans so scaled back that they shocked both government officials and industry leaders.

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  • COD’s plans once called for up to 180,000 square feet of space dedicated to training hospitality and culinary students – including a full-scale learning hotel. They now show about 13,000 square feet of space and no hotel. 

  • When asked during the forum in August to explain the discrepancy, officials at the college replied that “The learning hotel would be in a future phase.”

Driving the news: A report commissioned by VGPS, addressed during a news conference at Il Corso Tuesday, recommends the hospitality and culinary program should be more than double the size of COD’s current plans — about 30,000 square feet. That would make it competitive with similar programs offered at nearly three dozen other colleges studied by consultants.  

  • COD officials were given a copy of the report Tuesday, but had no immediate comment. 
  • A spokesperson for VGPS would not disclose how much was paid for the report, saying, “It was a very reasonably priced study.”

Why it matters: Hospitality represents one of the largest industries in the Coachella Valley, providing more than 37,000 jobs in 2021 with a total economic impact of $7.4 billion. Local restaurateurs and hoteliers want to hire local management-level talent, but instead they have to recruit people from the East Coast or cannibalize each other’s staff. 

  • “Tourism Economics [a peer-reviewed industry journal] surveyed 35 local businesses who say they have 700 management-level positions available, and those salaries range from $50-$150,000,” said Scott White, president and CEO of VGPS.

Current conditions: Patrick Service, managing partner of Las Casuelas Terraza, and Kelly Steward, general manager of the Ritz Carlton in Rancho Mirage, both spoke Tuesday about the difficulty they’ve had in finding qualified staff. 

  • “I can’t even open one of my restaurants right now because I don’t have enough culinary staff,” said Steward, “We’ve been waiting a year and a half to get this restaurant open.”

  • Added Service: “We used to close the restaurant only two days out of the year, by choice. Now we’re forced to close two days out of the week because of staffing issues.”

Zoom out: Multiple speakers pointed out how many new restaurants, hotels, and resorts are opening soon, along with the Acrisure Arena and several planned waterparks. 

  • “All these establishments will take staff from everyone else in this room,” said Peter Smith, director of food and beverage for the Renaissance Esmeralda Hotel in Indian Wells. “A good hospitality program helps us invest in local personnel and stops the cannibalization from each other.” 

Bottom line: Palm Springs City Councilmember Geoff Kors raised questions about a sudden and unexplained increase in cost for the West Valley campus. Of particular concern for Kors:

  • On July 21, COD presented an update on construction projects that showed the Indio and West Valley campuses had roughly the exact cost per square foot — $1,000 per square foot.  

  • “Shockingly, 14 days later, COD released a new plan that shows the West Valley campus is 60% smaller than before with a price per square foot of $2,400,” Kors explained. “It just materialized out of thin air. The Council has repeatedly asked for an explanation of the cost increase, but COD has continually put off answering them.”

Up next: Additional answers may come on Sept. 15 at 9:30 a.m. That’s when the COD Board of Trustees next meets. Many local tourism and hospitality professionals said they planned on attending to ask questions.


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