Whether in the classroom or in the field, students of travel and tourism often find themselves at a crossroads: stick with longstanding tradition or embrace innovation? Dr. Perry Hobson, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Global Engagement at Taylor’s University in Malaysia, explains how this generation can find balance in an evolving industry.
Our overarching focus has to be on putting “hospitality” back into the industry.
The word “innovation” is very popular these days. Is travel and tourism an innovative industry?
I think we’re finally beginning to see some green shoots of an innovative culture. But sadly, over the last several decades the hotel industry really hasn’t been very good at innovating.
Ever since Kemmons Wilson opened the first Holiday Inn back in the 1950s, the industry seems to have been become completely fixated on standardization. Back then what he did was innovative: no two hotels— let alone hotel rooms — were the same.
Is the lack of innovation due to hotels trying to keep their brands consistent?
Let me be very critical and say that all the industry has done is copied and re-copied the idea of standardization, and built ever-larger hotels that seem to pile one nondescript hotel room on top of another. Yes, we need and should have standards – but that doesn’t mean the total standarization of hospitality.
How often have you woken up in the hotel room and had absolutely no clue where you are? Or which brand you are staying in?
The tide seems to be turning with the rise of boutique hotels and chain properties having different rooms styles. We are seeing a return to the fact that not everyone wants their hotel room to look or feel the same – whether you are in Bangkok, Bali or Brisbane.
What are some industry standards and traditions that you think the next generation should uphold?
We have to go back to understanding the fundamental concept of what we are in business for. Our overarching focus has to be on putting “hospitality” back into the industry.
Is there a middle ground between old and new?
Often, the only reason we do something is because we have always done it that way. We need to look around us to see how fast other service industries have adapted and changed.
Who regularly goes to their bank anymore? We use ATM machines or bank online. Who always uses a travel agent or checks-in at the airport? You can buy your ticket from the airline website, and then you check-in online or using your mobile phone.
Having said that, banks still have their local branches, and travel agencies still exist. This is because there are certain high-value and high-touch transactions that remain important. The trick is we need to get better at identifying what they are and then finding ways for technology to deal with the other ones.
What would you change about the hospitality experience if you could?
I get fed up with the routinized, scripted and boring “Welcome” as I check-in to most hotels.
This is then followed by the inevitable question on check-out: in my experience, over 95 percent of hotel front desk staff always starts with the question “Did you take anything from the minibar last night?” What ever happened to “Did you have an enjoyable stay?” Or perhaps, “Did you have a good night’s sleep?”
I believe this is because so many of the chains have pressured their GMs into becoming glorified bean-counters. Consequently, his or her major concern (and that of his front office staff) is how to get some additional revenue out of the minibar, not as to whether the guest had a good night’s sleep.
Get the staff connected to customers when they want it, and not when it suits the operation of the hotel.
What is the solution then?
My view is let’s embrace more innovation and technology but let the machines do the repetitive stuff. Get the staff connected to customers when they want it, and not when it suits the operation of the hotel.
We’re already seeing this as high-end luxury properties such as Ritz-Carlton introduce an app that allows self-service customer support – including check-in/out, folio review, and mobile F&B ordering. Meanwhile, the new budget Moxy chain is going to have wireless check-in, doing away with the traditional front-desk and allowing their staff to actually be hospitable.
What do you see as the biggest differences in hospitality and tourism education in Asia versus the USA, Europe or Australia?
Typically, and let me say that this is a broad generalization, European courses have been more skilled and operationally focused – often with significant skills embedded in the courses – even at degree level.
It’s fair to say that degree courses in the USA have typically been more managerially focused, though many schools had the “add-on” of a small (though often poorly equipped) training restaurant.
In Australia, there is not one public university that has so much as a training restaurant. Sadly, in Australia many of the schools of hospitality and tourism have now also been consumed by business schools within the university. Consequently, the courses have become increasingly generic and many students can no longer see the specific reason to study for a hospitality degree over business.
I think in Asia we’ve been able to keep a balance between the operational skills and managerial skills.
What advice do you give when someone is considering getting a hospitality degree versus learning the ground?
Some people are just not cut out for working in such an industry, no matter what or where they have studied.
My suggestion to everyone is this: Start working in the industry first of all to see if it suits you before you consider studying.
As a people industry, it means not only working alongside people as colleagues, but understanding them as customers. You not only need to understand the people but also the operational processes as well as the financial, marketing, human resource management related theories. It requires a balance between theory and practice.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions students have when they enter a hospitality program?
Typically, students have seen a hotel from the front-of-house and from a customer perspective, but they have not seen it from the back-of-house or an employee’s perspective. It can be a shock.
A number of students inevitably think that they are going to be the GM when they graduate (or shortly thereafter) and a lot of programs are guilty of peddling the illusion. Sure it happens, and I know of people who have become a GM when they are still in the their 20s. But hey, you can also be a math genius at age 12, too.
However, it’s simply not something that everyone does, and education providers need to be realistic to students about this. The trouble is that many of them are not, and clearly a lot of disillusion sets in.
Does this create bigger issues in the industry?
One of biggest problems I see is the drop off between completing a course and going into the industry. Around 30-40 percent of hospitality students do not go into the industry on graduation. Furthermore, I also see that about another half of those graduates will then quickly exit from the industry within 3-5 years. Why is this? After all, if the universities and colleges are producing such great students and the industry is such a wonderful place to work, how come so few stay on?
How can the hospitality industry improve to attract quality candidates?
We live in a competitive world, and many other service industries are only too happy to reach out to these students with better pay offers, more regular hours and better promotion prospects. The reality is, the hospitality industry has a less than great reputation for the “churn and burn”of its staff.
In many developing Asian economies, the hotel industry is relatively well paid and still has some stature. But I see that the hospitality industry quickly loses its appeal once an economy develops and other service industries get established and become more competitive. Consequently, in lesser-developed countries in Asia where staff has been cheap and plentiful, the industry is going to get some surprises as those economies develop.
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