The funicular that ferries tourists up the side of the hill to Lucerne's Hotel Montana makes one other stop three-quarters of the way there. Strangely, this stop is not for the public's benefit, even though at first glance it looks like an ultra-chic café-bar with million-dollar views across Lake Lucerne. It is, in fact, part of the Lucerne hotel management school; and the poised, confident and well-tailored staff and customers are actually students.
Equally inspiring are the first impressions of the Lausanne hotel management school, which is on a large campus. There's not a pair of jeans or trainers in sight and very little to distinguish student from teacher. Everyone looks professional.
According to Natalie Nussli, dean of study at Lucerne, it's this maturity that gives Swiss hotel management schools such a good reputation. At Lucerne, for instance, students have to be at least 20 years old, forcing the average age of graduates up to 27-28.
As a result, most students are looking for a career. "We have adult students who know what they want," says Nussli. "A hotel management school that takes students at 16 is a high school. The industry needs maturity."
But although Lucerne has a two-and-a-half-year waiting list and Lausanne never needs to tout for students, neither school is complacent. Lausanne's chief executive, J Maurice Zufferey, for instance, is conscious of growing international competition. He cites Oxford Brookes and Surrey universities as potential rivals in the UK, but singles out US schools, where commercial reality and marketing are given priority. "Lausanne is perceived as being one of the best hotel schools in the world," he says, "but some areas need to be improved."
With typical Swiss efficiency, some of these areas have already been tackled. In 1996, in a bid to win more international students, Lausanne decided to offer all courses in English as well as in French. It worked, generating a 50% growth in student numbers. And there are now more than 60 nationalities among the 1,300 students on campus - although there are only 17 Brits.
The courses themselves have been revamped to keep abreast of changing trends. Zufferey notes that the growth of profit-driven international hotel chains means managers have to be commercially astute. To equip students, about 70% of the four-year degree in hotel management focuses on general business principles.
Going one step further, the school sought vocational university status, and was the first to be granted it by the Swiss government, in 1998. But the school also awards internationally recognised BSc degrees and has plans to introduce a Masters degree.
It all sounds very highbrow, but Zufferey knows that not all students are aiming for the sky. In 1999 an intensive 18-month course was introduced to train operational managers for small to medium-sized hotels and restaurants. "Operations management is not new, but it helps you to fulfil the task and make a profit. If you don't deliver on the operations side, you are out," says Zufferey.
Zufferey's work is never done, however. One of his most important tasks is bridging the gap between academic theory and industry reality, which he reckons few schools achieve successfully. At Lausanne, where the list of old boys includes Jurgen Fischer, Hilton International's president of Europe, Middle East and Africa, this is partly being addressed through an advisory board made up of representatives from hotel chains. The school's consultancy and research departments are also becoming more active.
And, as at other schools, industry professionals are being brought in to give lectures at the college, and teachers are being sent "back to the coalface" on sabbaticals. Likewise, the degree course has been given a more practical slant, with students being sent out on two six-month stints in the industry, for which by law they earn Sfr2,000 (£761) a month.
Practical experience is a hot issue at Lucerne - students spend five months a year in the workplace. This means they will already have worked in the industry for a couple of years by the time they finish the four-year course.
Like Lausanne, Lucerne is forging links with industry to remain competitive. In a postgraduate course introduced a year ago through a joint programme with Lucerne university, teachers are sent back to the workplace - although 40% are part-time and already run their own businesses.
Long waiting list
Keeping up with new trends is expensive, however. Nussli says Lucerne invests about Sfr500,000 (£190,135) on computers every five years to keep up to date. Looking ahead, she says the school may reduce the length of the four-year course - because of the long waiting list, it can take six to eight years to graduate.
This underlines how much commitment is needed from the students. On average, only 65% of students at Lucerne pick up a diploma in hotel management at the end of the course. Some students drop out early; others just don't come up to scratch - and there's no second chance if they flunk their regular assessments.
"Failure means it's over. Even at the end, if you don't fulfil requirements there's nothing we can do. It's very dramatic," says Nussli, adding that the final diploma exam is controlled by the Swiss government.
Entrance requirements for both Lausanne and Lucerne are similar to those at other further education colleges, although Lausanne is reviewing its criteria. At Lucerne, some 30% of the 630 students have worked in the industry; 30% have an international baccalaureate or equivalent, so are study-oriented; and the rest have commercial diplomas or have served apprenticeships in other fields.
Tuition is in German, although other languages are included as part of the syllabus. "You could say anyone could attend. You don't need an entrance test," says Nussli.
Potential students do have to be able to afford it, however. Lucerne, which is run by a syndicate, is financed 50% by grants and 50% through student fees. Swiss nationals, who are entitled to grants, pay Sfr19,530 (£7,427) and foreigners pay Sfr29,980 (£11,400). Tuition alone at Lausanne, a state-approved, non-profit-making foundation, is Sfr9,300 (£3,537) per semester.
As for jobs at the end, both schools benefit from having old boys in high places, which means many students find jobs in international hotel companies such as Swissôtel, Hilton, Hyatt and Sheraton.
Lausanne's research shows that last June 55% of its students found work with salaries between Sfr30,000 and Sfr70,000 (£11,408- £26,619) a year. Records also show that 54% of past students are now in general management, 13% in catering, 12% in accommodation and leisure, and 21% in other sectors such as banking, finance or tourism.
But the prestige that is attached to Swiss hotel schools has its price - it's become a business. Nussli warns that there are no controls over who can start a hotel school, and only 12 of the 40-or-so schools are accredited by the Swiss Hotel Schools Association.
Zufferey has the last word: "All over the world, the industry is considered to be low-paid and not inspirational," he says. "We are a management school, so 90% of our students are well educated. But our graduates do go back out into an unskilled world."
Further information on schools complying with Swiss Hotel Schools Association standards is available from the association at Post Box 4943, CH-6002 Lucerne, Switzerland (Web site: http://www.aseh.ch).
Why a Swiss management school?
When German-born Renate Maurer was trying to decide on a career, she dithered between law and genetics. Her parents, however, came up with a better suggestion: the hospitality industry. They reckoned it promised travel, glamour and an opportunity for their daughter to one day manage her own business, a hotel. With this in mind, they sent her to the world-renowned hotel management school at Lucerne.
This is not a family scenario that would be common in this country, where hospitality is regarded by some parents as akin to slave labour. The Swiss themselves see their hotel industry as a tradition. In fact, about a third of the 630 students at Lucerne come from families who own hotels.
But Maurer, 30, who three years after graduating is now marketing communications manager Europe for hotel group Swissôtel, sees hotel management as no different from any other business career. "When you make a move into corporate management, it is no longer hospitality - it's business, and the wages are fine."
Admittedly, wages in Switzerland can work out higher than many European countries because Swiss workers pay less tax. A receptionist gets Sfr3,400-Sfr3,700 (£1,380-£1,534) a month and head of reception would get about Sfr4,700 (£1,909) a month.
As for fast-tracking, Maurer had to start at the bottom again when she left Lucerne. "But then you start going up," she says. "I realised I had far more advantages over other people as I started working."
Even so, hotel management schools aren't a passport to success, she warns: "You can't just rely on going to a school and then think, 'Now I'm a manager'; you need to find a company that will promote you. A school opens doors, but you have to go through them."
Schweizerische Hotelfachschule Luzern
Tel: 00 41 410 19 52
Web site: http://www.shl.ch
Director: Kurt Imhof
Students: 630 (230 in school per term)
Students per class: 23-37
Fees (including board and equipment): Sfr19,530 (£7,427) for Swiss nationals; Sfr29,980 (£11,400) for foreigners
Course details: conducted in German only, diploma recognised by Higher Institute of Hotel Management
Failure rate: 12% in kitchen; 20% service; 25% reception; 10-15% term four; 5% term five
Careers: a minority of graduates take on a hotel straight away; about 30% take over a family hotel; 20% start in the front office and work up
Ecole Hôteliäre de Lausanne
Tel: 00 41 21 785 11 11
Web site: http://www.ehl.ch
Chief executive officer: J Maurice Zufferey
Annual budget: Sfr35m (£13.3m)
Students: 1,300 (920 on campus per term)
Nationalities: 61 - 43% Swiss, only 17 Brits on current course
Fees (in English): Sfr9,300 (£3,537) per semester
Facilities: nine kitchens, five restaurants from coffee bar to gourmet dining room, two wine cellars, 500-seat auditorium, library
Failure rate: 20%
Careers: 54% in general management; 13% in catering; 12% in accommodation and leisure; 21% in other sectors such as banking, finance and tourism. In June 1999, 55% of students found work with salaries between Sfr30,000 and Sfr70,000 (£11,408-£26,619) a year
Courses taught in English at Lausanne
Diploma/associate degree in management of hotel operations
This 18-month course (in French or English) is aimed at students who want to manage a department in a small or medium-sized hotel.
Degree in international hospitality management (Haute Ecole Specialisée [vocational] degree and BSc)
This four-year course can be taken in English or French.
First and second semester: basic skills in food and beverage management at operational level (kitchen and service).
Third semester: students work in the industry in food and beverage (kitchen or service).
Fourth semester: teaching in rooms management. The students work in the operational sectors of the school (purchasing, production, food and beverage and stewarding).
Fifth semester: work experience in the rooms division or administration department of a hotel.
Sixth semester: teaching on management of various departments of a hotel and management practices.
Seventh and eighth semesters: focus on business management, including a dissertation.
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 16 - 22 March 2000