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Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management and Big Ears Music Festival Partner Up to Give Students a Unique Experience

Hospitality and Tourism Students Become the First Hospitality Ambassadors for Knoxville’s Most Eclectic Music Festival.

By Vanessa Slay, CEHHS Student News Reporter, Class of 2023

Knoxville, Tennessee, is home to the Big Ears music festival, which has been called “one of the most quietly earth-shattering, subtly luminous festivals the world over” by the Oxford American. Big Ears has been bringing musicians, poets, and other talented artists from all over the United States and several countries to Knoxville’s downtown area every year for almost 15 years.

A group of fair-complexion students, five female and two male pose on the steps in front of a brick building. The students are in two rows and are smiling in the photo.

Back Row (L-R) Dani Netherland, Sydney Hughes, Sarah Cornelius, Paul Vaughn Front Row (L-R) Rosemarie Poplin, Helen Johnson, Jack Babb (RHTM PhD Candidate)

This year, six Hospitality Tourism Management (HTM) students from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences (CEHHS) will be the first-ever hospitality ambassadors for Big Ears.

Big Ears gives music lovers and enthusiasts an unforgettable and unique experience across Knoxville’s Historic downtown with nearly 200 performances from over 140 artists taking place across multiple venues.

Big Ears is a non-profit organization that gives established musicians and artists an opportunity to connect with their fans and gives many new, up-and-coming artists an avenue to grow their experience. The festival offers the audiences opportunities to engage with multiple genres, including “classical and contemporary composition, jazz, rock, folk traditions from throughout the world, pop, drone, avant-garde, ambient and beyond.”

Portrait picture of Stefanie Benjamin

Stefanie Benjamin

In February 2020, Stefanie Benjamin, an associate professor in Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management, “worked on solidifying a partnership with Big Ears for some of our students to volunteer with them. Then the world stopped,” she notes.

As with many things, the pandemic put a hold on many festivals, including Big Ears. However, they returned in 2022 for “a full Big Ears Festival experience,” according to the festival’s website.

And what an ideal time for Big Ears to return. Benjamin recalls that she and PhD student Jack Babb were on a zoom call with the Director of Development for Big Ears, Casey Fox, when she once again pitched the idea of a partnership between The UT students and Big Ears.

Benjamin’s dedication to her students and desire to provide a unique, real-world experience resulted in three positions, two students per position. This is a learning opportunity unlike any other as the students experience working in VIP & Donor Relations, Artist Transportation & Coordination, and Artist Hospitality; they are also given the opportunity to “network with people worldwide,” remarks Benjamin. The students will also earn 1-course credit.

This year’s festival also gives Babb more opportunity to continue his research and gather data for his dissertation on connectivity and well-being at the festival. Benjamin hopes that this partnership will continue year after year.

“Big Ears is excited to welcome advanced RHTM students into our festival production for the first time,” said Tom Welsh, Managing Director of Big Ears. “They will get real-world professional experience in the fast-paced environment of one of the world’s most unique music festivals.”

This year’s Big Ears Festival takes place from March 30th to April 2nd.

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