Industry  |  1 September 2020 |  by Tom Brown

Lessons from COVID-19: teaching hospitality during a pandemic

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In a recent blog, we interviewed a group of 2020 hospitality graduates to see how the next generation of hoteliers view the state of the industry. But how do things look from the other side of the desk? 

We spoke to Ian Millar, who teaches at the prestigious Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne as a Senior Lecturer in Hospitality Technology and manager of the Institute of Business Creativity (IBC). Ian specializes in hospitality technology and is expertly placed to engage with students about new developments and where the industry will develop. 

Here’s what he had to say about the experience of teaching, adapting the content to reflect the changing landscape, and likely hospitality trends in the coming months and years. 

 

How did you find teaching remotely?

"It actually went better than I thought it would. Having the right tools provided by EHL helped of course, and being very clear on the class rules was important. Even though it's now all online, having the students on time and engaging with questions is vital, which meant stopping every now and again to ensure the students can still hear okay and that the pace is okay."

 

What were you teaching, and did you find the content had to change in order to reflect what’s happening around the world?

"The module was a hospitality IT course and yes, there was some course modification. This was to take into account COVID-19 but also to reinforce some aspects that had already been covered. For example, I had previously covered remote check in and mobile keys, something that wasn’t hugely used in hospitality, and suddenly COVID-19 comes along and it’s the hot topic. The same goes for using QR codes and contactless payments. So in a way – and this will sound horrible – but from the perspective of accelerating technology usage, COVID-19 has been helpful."

  

Was it easy to make all these changes?

"When this started it was an unknown for all of us. However, from our experience at EHL over the past months I think we can be very proud of what we have achieved, how we have done it and how we will move forward. To quote Ray Bradbury: “Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” That was what moving from classroom to online teaching felt like. With all the benefits of digital education, there is a downside as a teacher: you miss your students. Yes they can drive you crazy at times but that human aspect so vital to our industry was missed."
 

How well do you think this next generation of hoteliers are prepared to handle the changing landscape?

"Very well. They are the digital natives; they get how to use technology. Okay they have no idea how it works but they know how to apply it, what is important, and they are used to using online collaborative tools. For me, the problem lies in antiquated tools and procedures from hotel companies, and hotels having to adhere to brand standards and star rating systems that hold them back. 

This is where we also need our industry as a whole to move. One more thing is that we will be frustrating future employees if we keep working this way. A procedure that requires ten excel sheets to be completed manually as opposed to RPA (Robotic process automation) is going to be a hard sell."
 

How have you prepared your students to join a hospitality industry that is rapidly changing?

"I’m 100% a hospitality person – I have spent my entire life in hotels (we lived in our family hotel until I was around 12) so I will always promote hospitality as number one choice. That said, I have also been telling my students that now may be the time to go into another industry, learn new skills and then bring them back into hospitality. Unfortunately, they don’t have the luxury as the current job market is horrendous and I think it will also get worse before it gets better. But I have always told them to come back to hospitality."

  

What’s the sense that you get about our industry when talking to other faculty members?

"I’ve spoken to many industry people and colleagues, and one thing we all agree on is that we cannot – and we must not – go back to normal! Normal was not working very well anyway: HR costs were crippling hotels, there were recruitment and retention issues... all these things we complained about beforehand and some people want to go back to that! 

This is the perfect time to reinvent a lot of things in hospitality. This pandemic has proved that we are not resilient enough, and too many businesses are running on low cash flows and reserves. So please, no more normal – we have to look forward."
 

Have you seen any new industry trends appear? What do you think will happen in the future?

"Contactless everything! From QR code menus and contactless payments, mobile applications and self-ordering, all of these can be enabled by technology. Going forward I think we will see more data driven applications. For example, COVID-19 has propelled so many new cleaning norms and certifications of cleanliness coming out – with all due respect, some are complete rubbish and not one of them is using data to prove that the hotel has respected the cleaning protocol. As well as more use of data, I think technology like facial recognition (for check-in) and voice recognition (for room control) will become prevalent."
 

Do you think that guest expectations for hotels have changed? If so, how can hotels adapt?

"Yes, for the moment guests who travel are still cautious. In the short-term, hotels MUST keep a clean and safe environment, not just for guests but their employees as well. They need to ensure their guests see them cleaning, which will reassure them. After that we’ll see more examples of tech allowing the guests to have more interaction with the hotel but on a digital basis. Guest communication apps mean there's no need to go and stand in line with 20 other people for concierge."
 

Why would you still recommend hospitality as an industry for people to get into, particularly young people?

"Because it is an amazing industry! It has so many possibilities for people. You can travel the world with hospitality as a career, you make lifelong friends, you see new things every day. That said, I think we can do better with promoting our industry. Look at all the corporate recruitment videos for hotels and you see staff serving champagne to smiling guests, fluffing pillows and carrying luggage. 

What about the people who do social media? Or revenue managers and technology managers? These are great jobs but we don’t promote them. Two new positions I think we’ll see are firstly a CHO, Chief Hygiene Officer based on COVID 19, and then also data scientist positions. With all the data we're creating, hotels need to make sense of it all. Would you go to a hotel school to recruit a data scientist? No, but go to a technical university and get a whizz kid with data – that’s where we should be going."

 

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Tom Brown
1 September 2020