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It was not long ago when people in the travel industry simply grew into their roles, climbing the ranks by virtue of their experience. And while the need for practical experience in this industry cannot be emphasised enough, the sector's growing complexity, the ever-increasing demands of customers, radical changes in the source markets, and the growing role of technology - all require an unprecedented level of preparedness.
"Our industry is more competitive and complex than ever," says Professor Kaye Chon, dean and chair professor of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management (SHTM) of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). "It is important for managers to allocate time for learning to keep their knowledge relevant."
He adds that the hotel school not only teaches innovation, but also walks the talk: it is an industry pioneer and torchbearer for change.
Last year saw the opening of PolyU's integrated training and research hotel, Hotel ICON, and the launch of its master of science in international tourism and convention management (ITCM), spun off from the existing masters of science in international hospitality management (IHM).
This year, SHTM is launching the executive masters in global hospitality leadership to its portfolio. "In 2011, we split the MSc programme into two, and now we have far more applications than before," says Chon. "We created more demand as the programmes are more appealing [to different segments]. We also have far more international students."
Chon explains that long-term career aspirations should define which programme an applicant should choose.
IHM is more practical for those who want to pursue senior positions in the hotel industry or with chain restaurants, or hotel design and development. In contrast, ITCM is better suited to those working in tourism planning and tourism infrastructure development with airlines or travel agents, or in the fields of convention, exhibition, event and business tourism.
Taught solely in English, the IHM courses have an international focus and cover all the basics, addressing management, human resources, finance, marketing and revenue management.
In addition, there is a whole range of elective subjects. The courses in the ITCM programme also cover the basics but, in addition, make it compulsory for students to study the workings of conventions, meetings and events.
"These two programmes are very successful. They are more like an MBA programme, and they prepare mid-level managers to become industry experts," says Chon. "Some industry experience is necessary. The minimum is actually one year of work experience."
Vida Chow, director of human resources with the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, thinks a master of science is very useful for personal and career development, but she says it is more beneficial with a few years of work experience under one's belt. "On-the-job experience is very important. Qualifications alone do not help you to understand the operations. You still need practical experience," she says.
Chow says a postgraduate degree is appreciated, and would help the candidate to get onto the Grand Hyatt's corporate leadership training programme.
"Leadership positions certainly need someone who can manage a team, manage change and inspire. They should have good qualifications, communication skills and be equipped to think strategically," she says.
PolyU's executive masters in global hospitality leadership has been designed for hotel general managers and executives in corporate offices. It requires a minimum of 10 years in a management position plus a first degree, or at least 15 years in a management position for those who are lacking a first degree.
According to Chon, the 11 compulsory structured courses in the programme are unique. They teach strategic thinking, innovation, leadership skills, decision-making capabilities, problem solving and research competencies. "Although the basic management principles remain the same, there is a higher level of complexity," says Chon.
The courses are taught on Friday evenings, Saturdays and Sundays, and students can finish the programme in two years. The maximum length of study for the course is four years.
The hotel school also offers two research-based programmes leading to a master of philosophy degree or a doctorate, with a growing number of foreign students. "The world is looking at Asia as a model of excellence for hospitality, and students want to learn the Asian way of doing business," Chon says.
The integrated training hotel offers opportunities for learning not to be found elsewhere in the world. "Having a hotel simply for internships is no justification; we can send students to other hotels. We use the hotel in teaching 40 courses and integrate it into our curriculum," says Chon.
Hotel managers are involved in teaching. For example, the general manager is also an adjunct associate professor. And the hotel is used as an incubating ground for teaching and experiments, as well as research carried out by professors and postgraduate students.
For instance, understanding customer behaviour patterns when using technology, and research on how customer satisfaction relates to staff satisfaction, are all crucial. "We expect the master's degree thesis to contribute new ideas to the industry," explains Chon.
Long-term job opportunities in the hotel and tourism industry are very good. Chon says in the past 10 years, overseas visitors to Hong Kong increased from 13 million to 42 million estimated for 2011, which shows the potential of the industry.
Chow agrees. "There is tremendous growth in China and India. There will be lots of demand for talent," she says.
She encourages young employees to get experience away from Hong Kong - in China or any other country - to get an international flavour, see how things work elsewhere and be dynamic.
"It shows you are open to possibilities, courageous and committed to your career," she says.