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Hotel as classroom delivers Hong Kong PolyU school top rankings

University dean reveals how aspiring hospitality professionals take up frontline staff roles to build empathy and innovate to serve visitors and city

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 August, 2017, 3:33pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 August, 2017, 10:47pm

Learning how to make fresh salad and serving dishes as a waiter or waitress are among ways a Hong Kong university trains its hospitality and tourism students to better understand the industry.

A unique educational approach and innovating to stay competitive have propelled Polytechnic University’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management atop the world rankings.

The school was recently rated No 1 globally by Shanghai Ranking, which assesses universities around the world. It also took the top spot in the Centre for World University Rankings, while finishing among the first three in other lists such as the QS World University rankings.

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The school currently has about 1,800 students from 48 countries, spanning Switzerland to Singapore, in doctorate, master’s and bachelor’s studies.

Professor Kaye Chon, a Korean national who has headed the school for 17 years, said the breakthrough came when it built its own property called Hotel Icon for HK$1.3 billion in 2011.

The hotel doubles as a complex that includes the school and other amenities. The set-up encourages innovation.

While serving as a real-life classroom for students, the hotel is run commercially and stands as a role model for the industry, Chon said.

“With our own hotel, the school was able to innovate in a way that was impossible if it was sending its students to practise in other hotels,” he told the Post in an exclusive interview.

“But it took me seven years to turn the idea into Hotel Icon.”

While the school teaches leadership courses in financial management and marketing, it ensures that students pick up frontline skills to empathise with operational staff and customers.

“I also know how to cut up carrots and make a salad,” Chon said.

He described a student from Sri Lanka whose family owns a hotel. At the Icon, however, she works as a waitress.

“She wants to specialise in catering management and is gaining experience in our restaurant,” he said. “But when she returns home, she will be a hotelier.”

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Chon believed it was important to understand needs on the ground, especially from tourists.

“We want to help Hong Kong. If tourists can stay longer, it will be better, so we need to give them more reasons to stay longer.”

The school also works closely with its advisory board, headed by Dr Jennifer Cronin, president of Wharf Hotels, to stay in touch with the industry and informed of its developments and trends.

For Chon, innovation is key to the school’s value. One idea he came up with tackles a common problem facing travellers who arrive in the city on early flights and cannot check into hotels because their rooms are not ready.

With our own hotel, the school was able to innovate
Kaye Chon, Polytechnic University

“We have introduced a free lounge so that our guests can sleep, take a shower and enjoy some free refreshments like coffee,” he said, noting he gained inspiration from VIP lounges at airports.

Other hotel features include free bars and printer services in rooms. Even if visitors do not avail of the perks, Chon said, he expected them to leave their experience with a good impression.

The dean recalled a student asking him if he feared his ideas would be copied.

“But that’s exactly why we are innovating, so our industry will improve,” Chon explained.

His Hong Kong success story almost did not materialise. While teaching in Houston 17 years ago, Chon almost turned down the Hong Kong offer by a headhunter. But he was finally convinced by then president of the university Professor Poon Chung-kwong, who flew to Houston twice to invite him.

Nevertheless, the dean’s journey of building his school’s teaching structure was not easy.

“When I talked to my students in America and asked them what they wanted to achieve, they said they wanted to build a hotel group, or at least, become a general manager of a big hotel.

“But when I talked to my students in Hong Kong, they just wanted a job. When I pushed them, they said they wanted to be a manager.”

Chon thought this mentality stemmed from a tradition of Europeans, especially the Swiss, heading up big hotels.

“But now, Hong Kong has excellent local hotel and tourism talents,” he said, noting the general manager of The Peninsula is a local Chinese person.