[caption id="attachment_40516" align="alignleft" width="350" caption="Empire College hospitality students plan and produce fundraisers like the popular Chef’s Potluck Showdown."][/caption]

SANTA ROSA -- Empire College is expanding its hospitality program, offering a new specialized associate degree in guest services.

The 18-month program includes eight certificates and two certifications from the Educational Institute of the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

Empire’s wine and hotel hospitality courses have long provided trained tasting room staff, wine club managers and event planners and hotel and inn front desk and back-office workers, said Sheri Eachus, Hospitality Department head and instructor. Guest services-focused training includes front-office operations, convention management, sales and marketing, and destination tourism.

“The dedicated, innovative, intuitive hotel worker who makes your visit memorable and brings you back is the most valuable member of the staff,” she said.

The new program costs $3,325 a quarter and runs for seven quarters. Many hotels help with tuition for employees with good management skills.

“It’s a hard industry to get a foot in the door," said Tara Wood, whose previous courses helped her land jobs at Timbercove Inn and now the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn. "Sheri inspired me, and so many local hotels opened their doors to her and showed us all the workings, front to back. Now I’m ready to move into management and an AA degree would really help.”

Students are required to plan and produce a fundraiser. The 4-year-old hospitality program has raised more than $60,000 for local nonprofits.

Once a year, the department puts on a Potluck Chef Showdown, featuring 10 Sonoma County amateur cooks sponsored by their companies. The students find donating companies, set up a panel of judges and invite the public to taste and vote on a favorite.

Students are producing a Sept. 24 event to benefit the School Garden Network of Sonoma County. It’ll include compost demonstrations, wine tasting and children’s events.

For hospitality program details, call 707-546-4000 or visit www.empcol.edu.