Next month thousands of people around the world will be starting a new term and a new life at hotel school. What can they expect? Learning how to fold napkins? Polishing cutlery? Dealing with tempestuous guests?
Well, to an extent. While a good eye for the more traditional details of the hotelier's craft is still crucial, the senior professional's job is now a very much more complex affair. As a result, hotel schools have had to adjust to reflect the reality of the industry they are serving and, these days, teach students the theoretical lessons of business - from marketing and communications to revenue management strategy - as much as they do the practical nature of running a hotel.
Indeed, listening to Wim Dooge, the director of the Hotelschool in The Hague, Holland, you can be in no doubt as to the direction in which hotel education is moving. "We are not operation-focused but business-focused," he says. "I'm not here to be a vocational college or deliver great cooks; we are a management school."
The Hotelschool, along with the Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL) in Switzerland and the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University in the USA, make up the big three international centres of hotel education. All three are recognised around the world as beacons of excellence and have turned out many of the world's top-level hotel managers. But in the past there was also a recognisable distinction between Lausanne and The Hague on the one hand and Cornell on the other.
Founded in 1893, Lausanne is the oldest of the three and has generally been considered to be the most traditionally craft-based college (its four-year course is structured with cooking in year one, waiting in year two, reception in year three, and management in year four). The Hague arrived in 1929 and evolved equally strong practical credentials, not least through the Skotel, its functioning hotel in which all students live and work during the first of their four years of study.
By contrast, Cornell's School of Hotel Administration (there's a clue in the name) was set up as part of the Ivy League university, with a curriculum that was more business than craft focused. Its reputation was altogether more academic, with its own four-year course demanding less practical experience and more emphasis on research.
In the modern era, however, the gap has shrunk. In 1994 Lausanne introduced a new international hospitality management programme as its main undergraduate degree course. Then, in 1996, it became more internationally accessible by offering the same degree course taught in English. The Hague, meanwhile, styled itself primarily as a management school with practical elements. It also offered a degree course in English and is now introducing a fast-track two-year version of its undergraduate degree course for students who through working professionally or through earlier qualifications have already fulfilled the practical component of the curriculum.
A look at a sample of current course titles from the trio of hotel schools reveals that all three have curricula covering core areas such as financial strategy, restaurant management, property development, human resource management and marketing.
While there may be residual differences - Lausanne still has a course entitled Introduction to Fine Art against Cornell's Fundamentals of Database Management and Data Analysis - the differences are more about style than substance, meaning graduates from all three institutions are being armed with similar management skills.
"The guys graduating from Lausanne are a lot more focused nowadays on the reality of business and trying to make a career out of the hotel industry than we ever were," says hotelier Jeremy Goring, chief executive of London's Goring hotel, and himself an alumnus of Lausanne.
That said, Lausanne and Holland's Hotelschool both still insist on a large chunk of practical experience. At the Hotelschool the students work at Skotel in their first year, followed by the first of two six-month placements in the first half of the second year, with a focus on practical experience. The Lausanne structure also demands that students spend their first year in practical training, including a placement.
As far as the hospitality industry is concerned, that experience is vital. "If graduates are too academic they tend not to last," says Simon Casson, general manager of the Four Seasons hotel in Doha, Qatar. He adds: "When you join Four Seasons you will make beds and wash dishes, because we believe you can't develop into managing those functions unless you have done them yourself."
According to Casson's London colleague John Stauss, general manager of the Four Seasons hotel on Park Lane (and Caterer's 2005 Hotelier of the Year), graduates from The Hague come out on top in terms of practical experience. "Because they all work at the school's hotel and restaurants they typically have more work experience than students at other universities," he says.
In contrast, Cornell asks its graduates to complete only 800 hours of work experience before they finish their course, which, with a modest 40-hour week, equates to only about five months of hands-on know-how. As a comparison, back in the UK, the hotel management undergraduate degree course at Oxford Brookes University sets aside the whole second year (out of four) for its students to go on a professional placement.
The key, of course, is to get the right blend between practical and theoretical learning. The Hague's Hotelschool has tried to bridge that gap through what it calls "entrepreneurial learning". This method positions the teacher as a coach or mentor and encourages students to learn through problem solving and group work rather than more traditional teacher-focused techniques.
The embodiment of this entrepreneurial approach is a student's final project, completed during what the Dutch college calls the Strategic Hospitality Management stage of its degree course. In groups of three, students undertake a real-life project as management consultants.
It is their responsibility to approach a company - either through contacts they have already made or because a company has contacted the Hotelschool - identify a strategic problem and design a solution. It could mean devising human resources strategies or working out business plans or, for one group recently, creating a brand new franchising model for Golden Tulip hotels in France.
It is impressive stuff. The students act as fully fledged management consultants with responsibility to help an existing company, improving their management skills and proving they can apply the knowledge they have learnt. To the students' credit, the majority of the projects are actually implemented. "It turns us into professionals," says fourth-year British student Andrew Barker.
From here, the students take up their second and final placement, another six-month internship in an international hotel or, increasingly, hospitality industry-related, company. This time the placement has a management focus and, incredibly, some 70% of students have their contracts extended by the employer in question - a very smooth route into their first full-time position.
Improving their graduates' employability is a motivation for all the schools and gives another reason why they are evolving into management schools. By modernising their curricula, the top hotel schools are looking not just at preparing their graduates for hotel management but beyond hospitality too.
As the Western world moves away from a manufacturing-based to a service-based economy, the lessons traditionally learnt in the hospitality environment will be just as crucial in other sectors. "People say they want to study here because it is such a good management school, which we are pleased to hear," says Clemens Berendsen, a member of the Hotelschool's board of directors. "Because, as much as we would like everyone here to work in hotels, banking and finance are also becoming service-related industries."
Add healthcare and education management, to name but two sectors where customer service is becoming paramount, and you begin to appreciate how hospitality training and the hotel industry as a whole have more to offer society than immaculately made beds. Donald Sloan, head of the school of hospitality, leisure and tourism at Oxford Brookes University, agrees. "The three things we count as the most important are being relevant to the industry, giving attention to students, and teaching transferable skills," he says.
There is another result of the hotel schools' push towards business and management skills: the rise of hospitality-focused university research. Good research, says Sloan, helps to improve teaching. "I strongly believe that a vibrant learning environment rests not only on classroom activities but also on ensuring that staff are fully engaged with academic research and consultancy on behalf of external clients," he says.
Certainly, academic research means that hospitality departments are not just reflecting the industry, but helping to shape the knowledge and skills within it. Oxford Brookes is currently involved in researching areas such as environmental concerns, food-based tourism, financial management and overseas development - work, for example, that sees it chair the Considerate Hoteliers initiative in the UK. Sloan, however, admits that universities need to do more to make their research accessible for practical use.
Research projects don't just improve a school's teaching methods, they also add to its reputation and, therefore, its profitability. Cornell, for instance, has always been regarded as a strong research centre and, through publishing research, makes much of its findings available for industry professionals to reference. Consequently, it has authority - and international standing - within hospitality, and its lecturers' recognised credentials mean the university can charge a premium on consultancy.
International recognition for research also means that Cornell has an appeal as a postgraduate school and can offer lucrative training courses to those already working in the industry. Amanda Scott, general manager of the Hilton Waldorf hotel in London, recently attended a short course at Cornell for developing general managers - through the St Julian's Scholarship organised by
the Master Innholders (see www.caterersearch.com/scholarships for more details) - and is in no doubt as to its worth. "I used to think I was quite qualified, but if you mix theory and practice it ultimately leads to more wisdom," she says.
Scott's course focused on human resources strategies, distribution and revenue management, asset and financial management and value creation - all absolutely relevant to her professional life. "We concentrated on creating sustainable competitive business, which is crucial in London," she says.
Of course, there is a healthy sense of competition between the colleges - the Hotelschool and EHL are both now promoting their research credentials in addition to their more traditional merits. And that competition to remain on top is vital to their continuing success.
As the hotel industry expands, new hotel schools are emerging, not just in Europe and the USA but in countries where the hospitality market is developing. Western institutions, as a result, may have to fight harder to attract those international students who currently make up a significant number of their student populations - and, in some cases, provide significant extra revenue.
"At the Four Seasons hotel in Doha there are something like 43 nationalities," says Casson. "We are therefore watching closely the hotel schools emerging in places like Manila in the Philippines, because that's where we will soon need to recruit from. In the future there will be a lot of competition from students from there among the international chains."
However, for now there's no doubt that, at degree level, hospitality education is in good health. Hotel schools have changed in parallel with the hospitality industry itself, and although the picture may not be as rosy further down the academic pecking order, at Oxford Brookes, for example, Sloan can boast six applicants for every place he can offer. And that's not all down to wanting to learn how to fold napkins.
What it COSTS to be educated
If you are British and interested in enrolling for a hospitality management degree, the other issue besides the content and reputation of each of the courses is, of course, cost. Oxford Brookes has just raised its fees to £3,000 per year, and although that is still some way off the cost of going to Lausanne or Cornell, it puts it slightly above the Hotelschool at The Hague.
Laid out here are the fees and expenses you can expect to pay for each one. Some include living expenses and some don't. Some fees include accommodation and food, others just tuition fees. Costs can vary from year to year according to how much of the student's year is classroom-based. It should also be noted that living costs will vary according to individual means.
Hotelschool, The Hague
The school says that a student can expect to pay about €9,000 (£6,000) each year, including everything: fees, equipment, administration, some living allowance, and accommodation. Of that, about €3,800 (£2,600) is the average yearly cost in fees over four years from the university.
The fees are a little complicated, but total Sfr105,364 (about £47,000) for the four-and-a-half years on the course. This does not include accommodation, which might be between Sfr500 and Sfr800 (£220-£350) per month, but it does include food for the first two years. First-year students are encouraged to rent serviced campus accommodation for about Sfr4,300 (£1,850) per term.
The university says the costs are $45,877 (about £25,000) per year, which includes tuition fees, accommodation, extra costs and a nominal living allowance.
Oxford Brookes charges £3,000 per year for tuition fees and says that accommodation would cost about £4,000 per year as a rough figure, although that depends on many factors. It does not offer a living allowance guide.
Up against the big three
Against the big three, not to mention the private Swiss hotel schools such as Glion and Les Roches, British universities have tended to come off second best.
There is, however, a top tier of very good university hospitality faculties, which includes, among others, Oxford Brookes, Strathclyde, Bournemouth and Surrey. While Strathclyde adopted the business school approach some years ago, in recent years it is Oxford Brookes that has come to the fore.
But how does it compare with the big three? Head of department Donald Sloan is adamant - "without a shadow of a doubt" - that Oxford Brookes is now competing with the big three in terms of the quality of teaching and subject matter.
In the eyes of the wider industry, according to Bruce Harkness, senior vice-president for human resources at hotel group Kempinski, British students seem to be more practically orientated and quite flexible with what opportunities they are willing to explore. "In general, graduates from the top Swiss schools are intelligent, motivated, ambitious, but not always realistic with regard to the next steps," he says.
However, Jane Wright, HR director of north-west Europe for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, says that a lack of strong language skills can be a disadvantage. "We are increasingly finding that graduates from UK universities do not have a second language," she says. "For an international hotel company such as Starwood this is becoming more of an issue."
Jeremy Goring agrees, adding that the international spectrum of fellow students at overseas schools is fantastic for establishing a network of hotel industry contacts around the world. However, he adds that students studying in Britain have different advantages. "For instance, there is a much more interesting restaurant scene in the UK than Switzerland or Holland - which students can learn a whole new set of skills from. So it is a trade-off," he suggests.
For Simon Casson, Oxford Brookes's stock is definitely rising. "Oxford Brookes five years ago was not part of our plans, but we have been watching," he says. "Graduates there seem realistic about their careers, so we have picked it up and now it is part of our recruitment." He adds that this is the only school he recruits from in the UK.