Young people in Asia are embracing hospitality for the chance to travel and work their way up. But in Europe, trying to attract new undergraduates to the other side of the reception desk has proved challenging. Poached by other industries, convinced that there won’t be enough room to grow, or unhappy with a reality that doesn’t match their ambitions, young Europeans increasingly see no future for themselves in the hotel business.

The situation is particularly fraught in the UK, where nearly a quarter of the hospitality workforce is made up of migrants from the EU – and speculation continues on the ultimate effect that Brexit will have on their numbers. Ufi Ibrahim, CEO of the British Hospitality Association (BHA), confirms that the industry has an image problem.

“For many people in the UK, a career in hospitality does not have the prestige that it does, say, in Switzerland,” she says. “It is unlikely that young UK people, when asked what they would like to be when they grow up, would mention wanting to be a hotel manager, as opposed to being an astronaut or firefighter.”

No barriers

Because of its high turnover and reputation for employing new migrants, ambitious young Europeans might see hospitality as unskilled work with little opportunity to advance. Travelling and learning new languages don’t hold much extra appeal for young people who have grown up with the open borders of the Schengen visa region. For them, hospitality is a career of last resort with uncivilised working hours. Fixing those misconceptions may be partly a matter of better communication at a younger age. Those looking for financial security, for example, may be encouraged to learn that the Institute of Hospitality found that, six months post-graduation, just 7.7% of UK hospitality graduates were unemployed.

“[Hospitality] is one of the few industries where there are no barriers to entry; 80% of leaders in the industry achieved their position by working their way up,” says Ibrahim.

Changing perceptions

The UK Government has plans to introduce a high-school level qualification in hospitality, but it’s currently delayed until Brexit negotiations are scheduled to be completed in 2022. The BHA has presented a ten-year plan to the UK Government for increasing the number of hospitality workers in the country, and is hoping for a more supportive approach.

“We need to make a concerted effort to change the perception of the industry in the UK,” Ibrahim says. But for those that take enough interest to choose hotel school for their post-secondary education, there’s no guarantee that they’ll stick around after graduation.

“Only 35% of students will stay in hospitality. Not because they didn’t like hotels, but because they were tempted away by other sectors,” says Gerald Lawless, chairman of the World Travel and Tourism Council, former CEO of Jumeirah Group and founder of the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management, the foremost hotel school in the Middle East.

Hotel schools offer training in IT, marketing, human resources and revenue management, which makes their graduates highly valuable. This is an advantage for the schools, which can attract a wider range of students, and a clear benefit for industries like banking and finance, which can add to their talent pool from the ranks of hopefuls – not to mention for the graduates who are now in demand by high-paying industries. To capture their attention, the hospitality industry will need to put as much effort into understanding young people as workers as it does into finding out what makes them tick as customers.

Hotel guests aged below 25 are known for two things: a love of gadgets and a yearning for authenticity. They like to see technology used to keep things interesting and to avoid unnecessary interactions, and they flock to brands that let them feel ‘like a local’. Happiest when given the freedom to make their own choices, they refuse to believe that things should be done a certain way just because they always have been.

Max Merkx, interim president of the Netherlands’ Hotelschool The Hague, says young people’s search for authenticity comes across clearly in their career ambitions.

“They expect to do something really meaningful. They’re not only aiming at the material side of the hospitality business but [also], for example, things like sustainability,” he says.

Make it meaningful

The school is incorporating this with projects that tackle food waste and discarded coffee cups. But although Hotelschool The Hague has recently added an advisory board of hospitality leaders to communicate with students and make curriculum suggestions, Merkx says he would still like to see more buy-in from the industry.

“They’re not in the forefront in these types of developments, I think they have to change that to be attractive for our students,” he says.

Lawless says newcomers to the workforce are also discouraged when risk-averse employers avoid giving them meaningful responsibilities. While graduates were once placed in junior assistant manager-type roles where they would look after day-to-day hotel operations, they can now often be found doing the same jobs post-graduation as they did during their undergrad internships. Fully qualified and eager to lead, they nonetheless find themselves labelled as trainees.

“We should trust them more,” Lawless says. “If we talk about having a shortage of management and managerial executives for the future, we want to equip our young people at an earlier age, and we’ve got to motivate them to save the business, rather than to leave.”

Merkx and Lawless agree that for many who are on the fence about a hospitality career, the sticking point may be the long and unsociable hours: get a job in a hotel or restaurant and you’ll forever be at work when your friends and family are relaxing. Merkx’ students often come back from work placements exhausted. While it’s unlikely that Saturday night peak hours will ever go away, Lawless says employers with hardline attitudes should rethink their approaches, particularly if they want to keep young women on the track to senior management.

“We need to be more cognisant of the fact that at least 50% of our intake is female,” Lawless says. “We must make sure that we’re building in real flexibility, particularly with regard to flexible working time, what we can do about provisions of crèches – just making it possible for women to work in the business.”

These are some of the top priorities for students and employees, but do they match up with what employers want? Merkx says operators are looking for highly motivated applicants with self-belief and clear career goals to be breaths of fresh air in their businesses.

“They expect our graduates to understand themselves, to see what their strong points are and what their weak points are,” he says. “The other thing is that they are able to see the business in a holistic way, not only focusing on sustainability but also being aware of what the value of that can be for the business.”

Merkx says the digital skills of Hotelschool The Hague’s graduates are also highly prized, but that “it’s almost a non-issue” because students already have a great deal of technological knowledge. The school’s research centre puts staff and students to work investigating apps and platforms like Airbnb and incorporating the results into the curriculum; a recent working paper looked at measuring customer experience by analysing the emotions expressed in online reviews.

Learn to learn

Graduates will need more than an affinity for apps if they’re going to succeed at a time when just a few years can make an enormous difference in the hospitality landscape. They avoid becoming too reliant on technology by picking up practical and customer service skills through their work placements, but Merkx says incoming students don’t just need to absorb information – they need to learn how to learn.

“They really have to be able to quickly adapt to new situations and to cope with all the new information they get; to realise that once they’ve learned something, the next year or even five years from now, it will be different,” he says.

Hotelschool The Hague is taking on the challenge by ‘flipping the classroom’ and using an educational model developed by University of Oklahoma professor Dr L Dee Fink called Significant Learning. Traditional lecturing is blended with a student-centric approach involving individual instruction, online courses and having students take on the role of teaching their peers to cement what they’ve learned, while teachers become “facilitators of the active learning process”. The 2018–19 courses are set to implement Significant Learning practices while linking the theoretical parts of the curriculum with the students’ practical experience.

The school is also working on toughening up its students with the Adversity Quotient (AQ) programme, the brainchild of US-based consulting and research outfit Peak Learning. Used as a leadership and development tool across a range of industries, AQ is intended to “measure and strengthen human resilience. The students find it very attractive; it complies with their ambitions,” says Merkx.

A heart for hospitality

Of the school’s student body, 60% are Dutch and 40% international, from Europe and further afield. Merkx observes that, while some new undergrads understand the basics thanks to family backgrounds in hospitality, others arrive with a ‘romantic’ view of the business. They may be eventually disillusioned, but it’s encouraging to note that students are still applying to hotel school with stars in their eyes.

“They like it because it has a dynamic character and it seems very international. It’s the world’s largest industry, and so that makes it interesting. And I think they have a ‘heart for hospitality’,” he says.

Lawless agrees that, above all, today’s graduates are committed and hard-working.

“I’m very positive about the young people coming into the business. They take their careers a lot more seriously nowadays, and they really have the desire and the willingness to get on,” he says.

Moving into 2018, the focus for hotel schools is no longer on the millennial generation, but on ‘generation Z’ – also known as the iGeneration, or postmillennials. Born around the year 2000, they’re just beginning their postsecondary- school education. By the time they begin to graduate, the industry may have changed beyond recognition yet again. As these young Europeans weigh their career options, it will be up to those who have gone before to understand what they can bring to hospitality. Whatever their talents happen to be, they’ll provide a glimpse into the future of the industry.