Faculty Spotlight: Michelle Millar

Michelle Millar lived in Las Vegas while working on her Ph.D. in Hospitality Administration. During our conversation, we discussed sustainability and greening in the hotel industry, the relationship between academia and industry, and her recent research.

Michelle Millar

How did you first become interested in sustainability?

I grew up conserving because we had to, which is the case for a lot of people, but I really began to focus on sustainability after I took a trip to Costa Rica and stayed in an ecolodge. I didn’t go with a research agenda, but I came away with a completely different perspective of what travel could be. Since the ecolodge was such a tiny place, I was able to meet other people from around the world. One couple was very conscientious about the environment and their impact on it, and they really struggled with the fact that they flew from England on a really long flight to get to this place that is so caring for our environment. That thought stuck with me.

What I quickly learned was that, in the hotel industry it is referred to as “greening” the industry, not ecotourism, which really implies only environmental awareness. Sustainability is bigger, however—it’s about the planet, it’s people, and also making a profit—yet very few people were approaching it that way in the hotel industry-related research. Sustainability is a concept that changes depending on who is giving you the definition. When I started my research in the greening part of sustainability, no one else was doing it. It’s evolved, fortunately, and has become more popular in our industry and in research

After that trip to Costa Rica, I started digging into the literature about ecotourism, but because the ecotourism world is so vast, I honed in on hotels and what they can do in terms of being green—what they can take from an ecolodge like the one I visited and bring to everyday hotel life. It started with what consumers want in a green hotel and a green hotel room. Do they want low-flow water shower heads and/or dispensers in the room instead of individual amenities? Do they want recycling? Do they care about whether the sheets are organic or bamboo? I ended up with a model that identified what consumers would be willing to stay in and pay for since there’s often an extra cost for a greener hotel—or at least there is a perception that there is an extra cost.

Describe your recent work.

I teach classes in the Hospitality Management program about managing meetings and events. I’ve written two papers about whether or not hospitality industry managers want students to learn about sustainability in college. The interest has grown exponentially in the past few years as colleges offer degrees in meeting and event management. I’m trying to understand what the industry wants from our students in terms of sustainability and if they even believe it’s a skill students should have. We can then report to schools that this is what the industry believes is important to know in terms of sustainability and keep our curriculum relevant.

What was it like switching from the hospitality industry over to academia?

I was a travel agent for sixteen years, and I came to a point where I was ready for a change and decided I would go get my Ph.D. I had a friend who was a professor who   told me to go for it, and if I didn’t like it, then I could do something different afterwards. I loved it, especially the teaching and would never have thought I would be going in this direction in my life. For me, it was a pretty easy transition going back to school, partly because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but actually earning the Ph.D. was the hardest thing I had ever done.

I lived in Las Vegas for five years when I did my Ph.D., and the industry down there is effective at conserving for cost savings. For example, in Las Vegas, they recycle all water—the water you see in the fountains in Vegas comes from reclaimed water. They’re taking water from the laundry and cleaning it to a certain degree and putting it back to the fountains. You can’t drink it but you can use it. The gaming industry of Vegas uses less water than the entire community of Las Vegas because of water-saving measures. Their laundry facilities are state-of-the-art and use less power. Some properties have their own electrical co-generation plant or they have solar panels in the desert that they draw from. On the Vegas Strip, many of the larger properties have people in the back sorting trash. Another example of how the Las Vegas community attempts to conserve is through farming. There is a pig farm outside Las Vegas where all the food waste goes to feed the pigs. Then the farm sells the pigs back to the industry to use locally. All of these practices opened my eyes further to the role that sustainability can play in the industry—and it was Las Vegas!    

When you initially started down this track, were you always very conscious that you wanted your research to be applicable to industry?

I did because the hospitality industry isn’t going to change the world in terms of research—it has to be applied—and that’s why it became important for me. Since I came from the industry, it was very important for me to have the connection between the two because industry doesn’t necessarily read our research journals, but I can share research with them via other avenues. It’s a good way for me to maintain the connection to industry.

I’m involved in industry associations such as the Green Meeting Industry Council. Being an educator on that committee allows me to share what we’re doing in academia and in hospitality and sustainability. The people in that association are executives or they own their own meeting/planning company, but they’re all in it because they care about the environment. An association such as the Club Managers Association of America is completely unrelated to sustainability, but being a part of it affords me the opportunity to talk to managers of golf clubs and country clubs about sustainability about what they can do and what they need from us in terms of research. Those are important avenues to reach the industry.

How do you bring your knowledge of industry and research into your courses?

The industry part is easy because students like to hear your experiences in it. So whoever you are, if you’ve worked and you teach, you can marry the two easily. For me, it’s more about sharing that I have a passion for sustainability. There aren’t just one or two lectures devoted to it, it’s infused throughout from Day 1. I can bring it into my classes and say that this is what I’ve found or this is what the industry believes you should know about sustainability.

Do students have a passion for learning more about these things, too?

Over the past seven years, the interest is rising. Students recognize the ethical side of this work. I have definitely seen a change with this generation—they do seem to care and they want to make choices that incorporate that ideal. San Francisco in particular is exceptional. Some of my students are from different parts of the U.S. and the world, and they understand that we’re uber-exposed to issues of sustainability here. It’s not the norm, however, and they recognize that when they go home they have the opportunity to educate others about these ideals.

What brought you to USF?

They had a job posting for a hospitality professor with a research focus on sustainability. It was very specific, and I felt it was written for me. All my friends who saw the posting told me I needed to apply. I grew up in Concord, California but lived in other parts of the U.S. for several years, so this job brought me back home.

I didn’t know about USF growing up, so even when I applied for the job, I didn’t know a lot about this campus. Reading about USF and teaching to the whole person resonated with me. When I came here for a pre-interview, I really hit it off with the Deans of the program and the faculty. All of that clicked together, and here I am today!

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