The hotel industry: how realistic is the media view?

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The Independent Online

The catch-line for the BBC's current modern-day bodice-ripper, Hotel Babylon, is a simple, but exquisite, play on words. "The hotel with no reservations," runs the knowing voice-over, and the highly-strung and highly-sexed characters lose their cool and get their kit off with unhealthy regularity.

Perhaps surprisingly, the programme appears popular with those close to the industry. "We quite like it," says Stephen Ball, who chairs the Council for Hospitality Management Education (CHME), "because so many of the storylines give an authentic impression of the hotel trade." This is a reference more to the diversity of the guest relations' issues depicted, including the perennial overbooking problems, rather than the frequency of hot-bedding situations. Although, admits Ball, "some of the seedier things do go on, as well."

Ball lectures at Sheffield Hallam University, one of about 70 higher education institutions in the UK offering qualifications with a hospitality theme, ranging from HNDs and foundation degrees to postgraduate courses, usually for those who've already acquired some practical experience.

Sheffield Hallam's main undergraduate course, a BSc in hospitality business management, attracts between 60 and 70 entrants a year, and, like nearly all such degrees, includes an optional, although in career terms near-essential, work placement in the third year.

The content of college-based study includes finance and accounting, marketing, law and people management, together with the technical aspects of food and drink handling and health and safety.

Anthony Poppy, 23, graduated with a first from Sheffield Hallam last summer and is now six months in to a graduate management-training scheme at the five-star Bath Spa Hotel, something he's sure he wouldn't have achieved without the degree.

"The course was invaluable, particularly the practical elements and the third year module, where we were running a virtual hotel," he says. His ambition is to run a real one in the not too distant future.

Bath Spa is a member of the Macdonald group (no fast-food connection) who have 60 hotels around Britain, all at least four-star. They're currently recruiting 25 graduates for the second intake of their 18-month graduate scheme.

Many groups have an international reach, of course, and graduates with English and a fluent foreign language might be attracted by the Hilton Group's general manager "elevator" programme, an 18-month scheme split between two countries. It's designed to fast-track recruits to general-manager positions at international hotels within five to eight years of joining.

Domestically, one of the longest-established schemes is run by the Whitbread Group, whose 460 Premier Travel Inns are the UK's biggest hotel chain. Every year up to 15 graduates are taken for the 12-month scheme, each individual based at a hotel, but also taking part in group activities and encouraged to share experiences with each other. During the year, trainees work in each of the three main hotel departments: reception, housekeeping and food and beverages. Three projects are undertaken, overseen by a senior manager, and usually implemented in the real context of their own hotel. A hospitality-based degree is preferred, but not essential. People skills and management aptitude are seen as equally important.

But there are two other key ways in which the group fills management positions. First through its "designate" programme, which targets experienced managers from other job sectors, such as retail, entertainment or health and fitness, and places them in senior hotel positions after a three-month induction programme; and second, promotion from within the ranks of existing staff, who may have started work in junior positions but shown ambition and potential.

"We just love to develop talent," says Ailsa Goodyear, a regional human resources manager for Whitbread, "and there are numerous examples of people who've started with us as barmen\, kitchen assistants or receptionists rising to become senior managers."

The hotel and catering sector accounts for about 10 per cent of all UK employment, and with around 60,000 hotels, of all sizes and types, there's a huge variety of opportunities out there a dynamic, customer-orientated industry.

But hotel work is not a job for anyone afraid of rolling up their sleeves or expecting to get rich quick, something that Stephen Ball stresses to all his students at Sheffield Hallam. "When they start their first job, they'll find high expectations of long and sometimes unsocial hours for relatively low pay. However, if they can get through this for a year or two, the opportunities can be tremendous."

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