NACOGDOCHES, Texas - Students and faculty members in Stephen F. Austin State University's hospitality administration program have partnered with the Texas Forest Trail Region organization for a semester-long project.

SFA students in instructor Brittany Fish's destination management course are developing family-friendly itineraries with the Texas Forest Trail Region organization to help promote tourism in the area, while Drs. Chay Runnels, Lisa Mize and Jennifer Newquist, SFA professors of human sciences, are examining family travel itineraries in the research portion of the collaborative venture.

Last summer, Runnels and Newquist learned that family travel in the U.S. was on an upswing, which encouraged them to investigate travel and tourism agencies in East Texas.

"Research shows families use vacations to help improve communication and create opportunities for improved connectedness. Families who vacation regularly or engage in leisure activities also report having an increase in their satisfaction with family life," Newquist said.

Therefore, many of the learning objectives in Fish's destination management course are geared toward developing students' abilities in understanding the role of convention and visitors bureaus, chambers of commerce and other destination marketing organizations in promoting tourism to families.

"This project will allow students to relate course content to real-life objectives within the hospitality industry," Fish said. "By evaluating a destination marketing organization's current marketing strategies and outreach programs, students will be able to utilize their findings in designing multigenerational itineraries to hopefully increase tourism to chosen destinations."

Additionally, students will create one-day trip itineraries with photos for use in a brochure and on social media. They also will develop marketing initiatives and promotional ideas to endorse these itineraries to capitalize on tourism.

"While the students are conducting in-depth research, they also are building relationships with current employers in the hospitality industry," Fish said. "This allows students the opportunity to not only network for their futures, but to truly develop a realistic understanding of the challenges and opportunities the tourism industry faces."

Recently, Runnels, Mize and Newquist conducted a focus group to begin their research portion of the project. The focus group involved partners from the Texas Forest Trail Region who represent destination marketing organizations from 35 East Texas counties.

"The focus group went great. We had good participation from group members," Runnels said. "It is exciting to bridge the gap between academia and industry professionals."

The next step in the research process is conducting follow-up interviews with focus group members to determine the marketing efforts being utilized to target multigenerational families, Runnels said.

Marty Prince, executive director for Texas Forest Trail Region, said she is excited to be partnering with SFA again and to be working with Fish.

"The two organizations have worked closely on projects that have had a positive economic impact on East Texas," Prince said. "These projects have brought statewide praise and attention to SFA's hospitality program, provided needed assistance to Forest Region communities and given SFA students hands-on learning opportunities directly related to their field of study."