Business students prepare for hard-hit hospitality sector
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From researching hospitality masters degrees during lockdown deep in the French countryside to beginning his career in Dubai’s towering, sail-like Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel, Thibault Dumas has been on a steep learning curve.
Now a revenue management executive at the hotel — at 1,053ft one of the tallest in the world — Dumas (above) graduated last year with a masters from the EHL Hospitality Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland. His programme — an MSc in Global Hospitality Business — is one of several courses worldwide preparing students for a sector hit particularly hard by the pandemic.
Covid-19 affected Dumas’s studies and continues to cast a long shadow over the industry. “Starting a masters in global hospitality during a pandemic might seem crazy,” he admits. “In 18 months, we had to study on three continents, including Asia, which had strict sanitary measures, and apply for three different visas.
“Our European field trip had to be cancelled, but in Hong Kong we were able to experience and meet executives from some of the most iconic hotel brands, including the Shangri-La, Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula and Rosewood.”
Dumas’s programme is run by EHL in partnership with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) and the University of Houston in Texas.
In his current role, he uses data analytics to understand customer behaviour and optimise hotel revenue by what he describes as offering the right room for the right person at the right time. “The revenue management courses we took on the masters have been of enormous help,” he recalls. “[We] were divided into teams and competed against each other using revenue management simulation software to generate the best results. Knowing the situation of the hospitality industry at that time — and the shortage of job opportunities — pushed me to study even harder.”
Few sectors have suffered more in recent years than hospitality, from lockdown closures and staffing crises to inflation and crippling energy bills. “Every day feels like you’re walking uphill, on glass, barefoot,” Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge said recently of the challenges.
Average costs incurred by restaurants and hotels have surged more than 80 per cent in the past year, according to a survey carried out by four hospitality trade bodies in the UK, as bills for energy, rent, borrowing, food, insurance and even cleaning materials have soared. Continued homeworking means city and town centre footfall remains below pre-pandemic levels, a particular challenge for hotels and restaurants that rely on business customers.
As a result, some young people see hospitality as a riskier career choice. Many businesses are struggling to recruit, with staff shortages reported globally, not least in Britain following post-Brexit restrictions on the movement of people from Europe. Inflation and labour shortages are expected to cause disruption to the hospitality industry for another three years, according to the latest European Hotel Industry Survey by Deloitte.
There have been consequences for specialised masters in hospitality business and management. Cohort sizes have only just returned to pre-Covid levels, says Eric Vogler, director of the MSc in International Hospitality Management at EMLyon business school in France, where enrolments fell 10 per cent in 2020 and 25 per cent in 2021.
“Finding jobs or even internships for our 2019-20 and 2020-21 cohorts was a tough challenge,” Prof Vogler concedes. “We had to offer other ways to give students their six months’ professional experience, through research projects tutored by the Institut Paul Bocuse Research Center and entrepreneurial projects tutored by the incubator at EMLyon.”
And while there has been some kind of return to normality, the post-pandemic landscape for hospitality businesses means students must be prepared for new challenges, says Vogler: less long-haul travel, more fragmented stays, greater mixing of work and leisure, and fewer business trips and events. “Revenue management is now more complex because there’s a higher mix of leisure and business,” he says. There’s new thinking in marketing about customers as tourist-business people, with restaurants becoming co-working spaces, and hotels being more welcoming to non-guests.”
In response, EMLyon student projects now include launching a real restaurant, starting a new hotel brand, and running a consulting mission for a real hotel.
Masters courses in hospitality business and management must not only prepare students for these new challenges, but also accommodate their changing tastes, says Kentia Gallet, director of the MSc in Hospitality Management at Essec Business School. “We’re seeing a growing interest in areas such as entrepreneurship and sustainability . . . Students want to have an impact on the world — and they are looking for professional opportunities in line with their values.”
The MA in Tourism and Hospitality Management at GBSB Global Business School in Barcelona is putting greater emphasis on entrepreneurial skills, according to Ariel Castillo, a professor who teaches on the programme. “We’ve also incorporated more digital tools and digital teamworking, because flexibility and digital interaction in the work environment is here to stay,” he says.
“Combining digital and physical experiences allows students to gain a broader understanding of global hospitality practices and cultural agility,” agrees Achim Schmitt, dean of EHL’s graduate school. “Virtual meetings and interactions with industry leaders from around the world have become more accessible, and the pandemic has also helped us rethink our field trips.
“For anything that can be done remotely, we use digital tools to better prepare students and provide deeper insights during physical visits to different countries. With more job openings available, and fewer people pursuing careers in this market, there’s a golden opportunity here for ambitious students looking to fast-track their careers in the sector.”