Wivenhoe: Edge Hotel School aims to produce the hospitality leaders of the future
PUBLISHED: 11:14 21 August 2014
Located in the grounds of Wivenhoe Park next to the University of Essex campus is a Grade II-listed, four-star hotel called Wivenhoe House. But this grand building is no ordinary hotel − rather it is home to an innovative approach to training designed to produce the next generation of leaders in the hospitality industry.
Now in its second year, Wivenhoe House is staffed not only by professionals but also by students working their way towards degrees in hotel management and hospitality. The initiative is a joint partnership between the university and the Edge Hotel School – part of the Edge Foundation - an organisation that focuses on work-based learning environments and vocational training. It is the only one of its kind in the country – no other hospitality school in the UK runs its own hotel.
“It’s unique in that it is a commercial environment where students spend at least two-thirds of their study time actually working in the hotel,” says the hotel’s general manager Damir Terzic.
“The time in the class room is only 45 days over the two years of the course. Compared with traditional hospitality degree programmes, which take three years, the Wivenhoe House course is a compact one. It is a fast-track programme to employment in the industry and there are no summer holidays because the students work through them. This is an important consideration now that students are being asked to find tuition fees of £9,000 a year.”
Formerly a conference facility and office building, Wivenhoe House was converted into a 40-room hotel thanks to an investment of £11m – provided jointly by the Edge Foundation and the University of Essex. This money went into refurbishing the existing building and gardens, and constructing a modern expansion.
Currently, a total of 95 students and 40 professionals work in the hotel across all shifts. Students take turns working in all areas of the hotel’s operation from the kitchen, reception and housekeeping.
“I would never refer to Wivenhoe House as a training hotel - we are a four-star boutique hotel,” continues Damir.
“Students aren’t running the hotel - they are working in the hotel under the guidance of professionals giving them responsibility. But when they are in the hotel and they are in uniform, they are all part of the team and there is no real distinction made between the students and the professionals.
Damir adds: “But even though our students are degree level it’s important they get back to basics. They must wash dishes and clean bedrooms because it is important when running a hotel to know what this means. Without this experience how would they know how to motivate a kitchen porter, for instance?
“The modern day general manager is moving away from the office –based manager. It’s much more hands-on and technically you should be able to step in and help out whenever required.”
According to Damir, part of the school’s mission is to alter certain perceptions UK students, in particular, have about working in hotels and restaurants and to show them that satisfying, long-term careers can be found in the hospitality sector.
“We are educating the future leaders for the industry and there is a focus on growing British talent - the sector wants to see more home grown people working in hospitality,” he says.
“The number of jobs in the UK hospitality sector is predicted to grow over the next five years and we are trying get across to our students that this is a career path and a choice for life that they are making here. Working in hospitality can bring tremendous benefits and be really enjoyable but sometimes we need to see more passion about hospitality from the British - the French famously have passion for service as do the Germans. Visit other regions, such as South East Asia and Dubai and you will see great levels of customer service there. This is the level we are aiming for.”
There is no mistaking the passion Damir feels for this project He continues: “ The perception of the hospitality industry in the UK is that staff are seen as being a bit like servants. This is embedded and we need to move away from it. The sector is also seen as a transient industry that people work in for a while to save money before they go travelling or something like that. The industry suffers from not attracting the right calibre of staff and retention is also a problem.
“But it is a dynamic industry that allows people to move around quickly and offers them fantastic opportunities, and this course is a catapult for people to progress quickly in the industry. But high standards are expected because customers have become more knowledgeable and demanding, and the standards that are required are going up.”
The approach and ethos of the school and its aim of producing work-ready graduates has attracted a lot of interest from some of the industry’s most respected employers who have visited Wivenhoe House to give talks and presentations. A number of established hospitality brands have also come forward to sponsor bedrooms at the property including Hilton, Marriott and Essex-based Milsoms, as well as leading contract catering firm BaxterStorey.
“It shows that the industry is very interested in what we are doing,” says Damir, who, after graduating from university in Bournemouth, worked in a number of hotels in London and Europe before studying an MA and joining the Edge Hotel School.
“The focus is on learning by doing and we bring the theory from the classroom into the actual experience in the hotel where students interact with customers. They are learning on the job and receiving feedback on a daily basis, and getting the real, professional experience that is needed by the industry - this project would not be here of if there wasn’t a requirement from industry. Employability is key for us. While it is important they can analyse and reflect on their work and learn management skills what the industry is after is work-ready graduates who can go straight into an entry-level, supervisory level job.
He continues: “What they learn in the hotel are team-building skills, conflict management and time management skills and the professional code of conduct. What we are doing is less about the technical skills – each restaurant in London will have a different way to set up a table – it’s the softer, transferable skills that they learn, like discipline and time-keeping
It’s a lot about mentality and attitude and in a service industry these are the skills that differentiate the business.”
The first students to graduate from Wivenhoe House did so in July. Of this first group of sixteen, around two-thirds have gone straight into a job.
Damir says there has also been a positive response from the guests who come to the hotel be they business travellers or leisure guests or those who hire the venue for wedding parties or other private functions.
“We are transparent with guests about the fact that students work at the hotel because we are proud of it and it is a good selling point for us,” says Damir. “We are trying best practice - we’ve got students who want to be here and to be professionals in the industry, so we have no need to hide the fact.” Ultimately, the aim is to make the hotel completely profitable, something Damir and his team are working towards.
“Like all developing businesses we have a schedule to achieve this goal and we are happy with how things are going so far,” he concludes.