A Masters could help you stand out in the immensely popular travel and tourism sectors, says Nick Jackson

Ask the person next to you where they would really like to be right now, and most will answer in the sunshine or mountains, the savannah or a spa, and, above all, with room service. It is all too easy to understand the allure of a career in tourism, making pleasure your business.

And what a business. The events, hospitality and tourism industry employs around 1.8 million people and, both at home and abroad, tourism and hospitality are booming. The InterContinental Hotels Group alone is opening a new hotel every day. It is also bitterly competitive. Most jobs in the industry are operational, with little room at the top. One way to make yourself stand out from the crowd is a tourism and/or hospitality Masters.

Tourism and hospitality is a broad church, not just massive but often sprawling. The hospitality industry, hotels and restaurants, are mostly small affairs with a little over a dozen rooms. Tourism includes such odd bedfellows as transportation, resort management, the big travel agencies and smaller outfits, as well as government and NGO work.

More than 40 Masters programmes in the UK offer a variety of different takes on this leviathan. Many reflect the distance between hospitality and tourism businesses by offering separate programmes for each, although a few, such as Newcastle Business School, cover both together. Each course has its own flavour and direction, so it pays to look around and find out what fits your plans best.

The largest postgraduate programme in the UK is at the University of Bournemouth, with more than 150 Masters students joining courses each year.

"Tourism is very seductive," says Chris Hall, associate dean for postgraduate students at the School of Services Management. "There are fantastic opportunities to travel and work in interesting places. The problem is getting in. A better qualification ups your chances."

Is a tourism or hospitality Masters the best qualification? Hall admits that a generic business management qualification will give you better generic skills, in particular quantitative skills, but says that the industry focus of the course is invaluable.

What does that industry focus mean? "Academics bring a passion to the subject," says Nigel Jarvis, postgraduate course leader at Brighton University. As well as the basic management background you would expect from a business management course, with classes on strategic management, marketing, HR, accounting, and finance, students are exposed to the broader perspective. Several universities, including Bournemouth and Sheffield Hallam, also offer global placements.

The buzz at Brighton at the moment is the legacy of tourism, says Jarvis not just its short-term economic impact but its environmental and social impact, its sustainability. This insight is especially valuable in government and NGO work.

With the industries so in flux, say the course leaders, you need that broader perspective to keep ahead. "Tourism is changing so fast, it's turned the whole industry on its head," says John Swarbrooke, head of tourism at Sheffield Hallam. "Budget airlines, carbon offsetting, the internet, there are new things happening all the time. To manage these you need to be versatile."

Students on the courses are an extraordinary mix, with most coming from overseas. There are more than 30 different nationalities at Bournemouth at any one time, says Chris Hall. Some British students come straight from university, but for many it is a chance to get recognition of their skills and develop their understanding of the industry. For others it is the simplest route to a career change.

"I wanted to find out how tourism works," says Phil Rogers, 41, who left a career in government PR to do an MSc in international tourism management at Napier University. "I've always been interested in travel and tourism as a tourist and I wanted to get into the detail of the subject."

The tourism and hospitality industries have not always responded well to tourism and hospitality education, even at degree level, let alone for postgraduates. In the past you were expected to work your way up from operations, and industry experience commanded a higher premium than qualifications.

That seems to be changing. "The war for talent is our number one issue globally," says Leslie McGibbon, head of corporate affairs at InterContinental Hotels Group. Postgraduate qualifications are now more than welcome in hospitality and tourism, but not necessarily specialist ones. "We want to recruit the best in finance, corporate strategy and legal, whatever their background," says McGibbon.

As McGibbon points out, InterContinental's CEO did not work his way up in hospitality, but was recruited from Cadbury Schweppes. Although that is not to do down specialist Masters. "You're more than likely to go into the sector if you do a postgrad," says McGibbon. Just make sure your Masters has a solid business administration foundation.

Universities are increasingly conscious of the need for tourism and hospitality management postgrads to be fully business literate. When Greenwich University developed its new MA in international tourism management, set to start in September, they consulted an advisory group of business collaborators, including the Association of British Travel Agents, the World Travel and Tourism Council, Visit Britain, and tourism businesses.

At Sheffield Hallam, Professor Swarbrooke prides himself on his faculty's industry links and says students must demand that universities can demonstrate these before taking a place.

Another approach is to beef up quantitative business training. Northumbria University's Newcastle Business School is revamping its tourism and hospitality Masters, increasing its mathematical content, with a new MSc this September.

"It's become critical for tourism managers of the future to be more numerate than they have been," says Richard Gay, programme director for the school's new MSc in tourism and hospitality management. "You've got to be looking at trends to see where next year's target market is coming from, and looking at and analyzing the competition."

Dons say that some students coming on to Masters programmes can have unrealistic ideas of what the tourist industry means. Tourism may be the business of pleasure, they warn, but it is still a business.

'It lets you think about different ways of doing things'

Trisha Spencer is rural tourism and economic development officer at Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. In 2003, she graduated from Brighton University with an MA in tourism management

I decided I wanted to go back to university after working in Dubai for a hotel company, as a language training manager. Taking a year out is a fantastic opportunity.

When you're working it can be hard to think outside the box. That year at university lets you think about different ways of doing things, to rethink set ideas, so that you're building on the skills you already have, giving you different ways of doing things, better ways. And, from a job point of view, the Masters was a little added value to show employers, to demonstrate that I'm keeping up to date with what's going on. The course gives you that added confidence as well. You've moved on in the way you think. Employers see that you've invested in your career. My experience has been that employers are impressed by that.