At Bellevue, a fine dining restaurant nestled in the mountains overlooking Lake Geneva, the clientele are enjoying the veal fillets, salmon and smoked trout ravioli and other delicacies. They are being attended to by students of the nearby hospitality management school Glion. Some of them are MBA students who are there to learn front-of-house and people-management skills.
The Swiss pioneered formal education for the hotel and restaurant industry, setting up training institutions as far back as 1893. The aim then was to train staff to serve British aristocrats in luxury hotels while on the European Grand Tour.
Today the growth opportunity for these schools is training students for a much broader range of service industries. Demand for staff who are adept at handling demanding customers and empathising with their needs under pressure is growing in most sectors.
Soft skills in demand
These “soft skills” often top employers’ list of requirements. Whether their staff are managing clients at a real estate business or running a team of coders at Google, employers want their employees to provide outstanding service.
Half of Glion’s 14,000 alumni work in sectors other than hospitality. They have roles in finance, real estate and luxury goods, according to Georgette Davey, the school’s managing director.
“Recruitment is a very important part of what we do for our students,” she says, adding that JPMorgan, Bloomberg and Cushman & Wakefield were among the biggest hirers of the school’s graduating students last year.
Inez Baranowska, a business development manager at American Express, became a management trainee at the Grand Hotel Kempinski after graduating from Glion’s full-time MBA programme in 2011. From there she moved to a business development executive position at InterContinental Geneva before being headhunted by one of her clients, a senior executive at American Express.
“I told her that I did not have a very strong knowledge of finance,” Baranowska recalls. “She said that they can teach me about how to deal with figures but they cannot teach me the soft skills I had to offer.”
She has just been headhunted again, this time by Citigroup, for a similar role to her current one at Amex. Opportunities to move in the financial services industry are plentiful because there are so many jobs demanding good interpersonal skills and so few people able to offer them, Baranowska adds.
From luxury hotel to luxury goods
Clotilde Fonteny, a trainee in the HR department at Richemont, the Swiss luxury goods group, came to study at Glion for a masters in international hospitality business administration and management, hoping to make a career in the hotel industry.
However, her first job, at a luxury hotel in London, lasted just three weeks. She left the role, on the advice of Glion’s careers team, after suffering what she felt was harassment by more senior staff.
“I thought, ‘oh my god, what have I done’,” Fonteny recalls.
However careers advisers at Glion then suggested she look at other sectors and Fonteny, 24, then found her current role where she was pleased to find that her people skills were highly prized.
“When you are in HR you need to show empathy, just as you would in a hotel,” she says.
Generalist masters degrees such as the MBA are a relatively new concept for the Swiss hospitality management schools.
MBA accreditation body the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD) has not yet bestowed its EQUIS quality mark on any Swiss hospitality management school, although Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL) is a member of the organisation.
But the schools are increasingly seen as both a competitive threat and potential partner for leading MBA providers, according to Eric Cornuel, EFMD director-general and chief executive.
“We see a hybridisation of management teaching with specialist MBA courses now provided for various sectors, such as healthcare and engineering,” he says.
“Hospitality is a particularly good partner for business education because caring about others is at the centre of it, and these are skills all sorts of businesses are looking for.”
EHL was the first hospitality school to create an executive MBA programme, launching the course in 2001. Two years ago it signed a partnership with Shanghai-based China Europe International Business School to create a joint Hospitality Executive MBA, which it launched in May last year.
Only 15% of the students on this course are from the hospitality sector. The attraction is the focus on customer service, applicable as much in banking as in hotel management, according to Achim Schmitt, associate dean of graduate programs at EHL.
“Soft skills are part of the DNA of our teaching programmes because we have been preparing students to be good with people, even under pressure.”
Another advantage of a school like EHL, which has more than 120 nationalities on its campus at any time, is the diversity of views students will experience.
“Everybody wants to employ diverse workforces,” Schmitt notes. “Here the students experience it from the first step they take into the building.”
Former lawyer Saar Sharon completed an MBA at EHL in 2005, choosing the Swiss institution because he wanted to switch to a career in hotels.
After graduation, however, the only hotel management job offered to him was a A$25,000 (CHF16,600) a year graduate trainee post for the Hyatt group in Australia.
“I couldn’t afford it,” Sharon says, noting that his wife was pregnant with their first child at the time. “I had to be a responsible adult.”
Instead he accepted a corporate advisory role at the hotel industry division of real estate group Jones Lang LaSalle, about which he has no regrets.
He notes that many hotels, particularly in the budget market, have been decreasing the amount of human interaction with guests with innovations such as the ability to check in and out of a room online.
“The irony is that the industry seems now to have moved from being about service to providing a product,” he says.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019