Forbes Middle East

Business

The Perfect Host

Hannah Stewart
The Perfect Host
As a rapidly developing region characterized by towers that touch the sky, and bustling trade centers that prove their host cities worth as global financial hubs, the GCC has become synonymous with construction, real estate and banking prowess. But while the countries that border the Arabian Gulf are potent economic forces to be reckoned with, they are also some of the most hospitable, and with hospitality comes five-star rewards. According to GCC investment bank Alpen Capital, hotel room revenues in the region are expected to rise to around $27 billion in 2015, growing at a rate of 11% since 2010. In such a scenario, the need to raise a new generation of hospitality and tourism professionals is more important than ever.

Preempting the hospitality boom by establishing itself more than a decade ago, The Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management (EAHM) continues to rise to the challenge today. Ron Hilvert, Managing Director of the unique academy owned by the Jumeirah Group, has high hopes for the future of his industry, “For the whole region the next decade will be very, very exciting,” he remarks. Hilvert’s Dubai-based academy, which counts as the first hotel school in the Middle East to offer internationally recognized degree-level courses, sprang to life back in 2001 in light of growth in hospitality and tourism in the emirate that the managing director regards as nothing short of unbelievable. Now, with both bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in International Hospitality Management on offer, coupled with the opportunity to study at internationally acclaimed hotel schools including Ecôle Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland and Cornell University in the United States, EAHM is setting the standard and proving that warm hospitality recognizes no boundaries.

Today, EAHM, which also stands as the first institution to be accredited by the UAE Ministry of Higher Education, is educating almost 300 students spanning more than 50 nationalities. But despite sourcing 70% of its student body from overseas, the academy also boasts significant Emirati representation. “We were so proud that last year we graduated 9% Emirati students, which is 1% below our target,” enthuses Hilvert, adding that Emiratis studying hospitality management were nowhere to be found ten years ago.

Attesting to both the potential of locals in the realm of hospitality management and the solid foundation that the academy offers budding professionals, 23 year-old Emirati national Rafia Al Ameemi turned her experience as an EAHM student into a promising career as assistant operations manager at one of Dubai’s top hotels, Burj Al Arab. “The academy opened a lot of doors for me and placed me on the right path to start my career,” explains Al Ameemi. “Thanks to the academy, I was able to better understand how the operations of hotels run from front office to housekeeping, kitchen and even restaurant,” she adds.

Regardless of nationality, EAHM survey results reveal that 96% of graduating students across the board secured employment within six months of leaving the academy last year. Hilvert explains that on completion of one of their challenging business-focused degree courses, many graduates are recruited by world-class hospitality companies to undertake corporate management trainee positions. Indeed, the academy attracts head hunters from over thirty world renowned names in the industry from Sofitel to Four Seasons—all seeking the best talent to build management teams for the future. “Whilst we’re very proudly part of the Jumeirah Group…this is not the Jumeirah training school…we are here for all of industry,” asserts the managing director whose career spans more than three decades and 17 countries. “That’s one of the advantages of studying at the academy–we are such a good industry connection,” he adds. Now, as a new year gets underway, Hilvert hopes to cement the academy’s reputation and attract a further 100 students while maintaining a ‘boutique’ approach.

One advocate of this boutique approach is South African-born Vaughan Sears, who counts as one of the early graduates to pass through EAHM’s doors back in 2007. Reflecting on the advantages of studying at the academy, Sears, who now works at Ronai, a company which specializes in supplying uniforms and table top products to the hospitality industry explains, “The interaction that you got with lecturers and the hands-on experience was really good. Rather than being in big groups, you were in much smaller classes.” Conrad Sokolnicki, a second-year student on the BSc program in International Hospitality Management agrees, citing EAHM’s small yet diverse student body as a great advantage. “It allows you to get to know many of the students and build contacts, support each other, and learn together…As I hope to be a future leader in a very people-oriented business these skills are essential for success,” he remarks. Adding to the benefits of studying at the academy, Sokolnicki explains that the concepts taught at EAHM are often applicable to all business sectors, allowing students to be flexible in their career choices later on in life.

The success of EAHM, which also boasts a professional training and development department, coincides with increased momentum that has gripped both tourism and hospitality—two industries which are inextricably linked as business travelers, tourists and sun seekers flock to sample Middle Eastern luxury at its best. For the Gulf at large, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) anticipates tourists numbers to reach 64 million by 2020, with tourist receipts stacking up to $187 billion.

More than prepared to accommodate this influx of visitors, Dubai alone boasts over 577 hotels according to the emirate’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, with dozens sporting the seemingly commonplace five-star rating, from the iconic Burj Al Arab (which is in fact referred to by some as the world’s only seven-star hotel) to international brands such as Hilton and Radisson.

Neighboring Abu Dhabi’s hotel count stood at 51 in the summer of 2011, according to the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, with a number of new luxurious additions such as Etihad Towers adding to the emirate’s portfolio in 2012. Meanwhile, Ras Al Khaimah is bolstering the UAE’s contribution, investing $500 million in tourism development projects until 2013, which will bring the emirate’s total hotel and resort room inventory to around 10,000 keys by 2016. In 2011, revenues generated by the tourism sector in Ras Al Khaimah reached almost $108 million—a figure which is set to rise as development projects continue. The signing of a contract in 2011 between the UAE government and Rakeen Development to finalize the acquisition of Banyan Tree Al Wadi and the development of the $1.8 billion Al Marjan Island (the first man-made island project in the emirate) count as just two of the latest projects.

In a context of growth and expansion, not only in the UAE but across the region, the motivation for establishing educational institutions specializing in hospitality and tourism today requires little justification. Ten years ago, however, a higher dose of vision and foresight was needed. Explaining the rationale behind the establishment of EAHM, Hilvert, who joined Jumeirah Group back in 1997, explains, “it was pretty clear in those first three or four years that with the projected growth of hospitality in this country, there was no university or high quality academic institution preparing people for this future.” Committed to fulfilling this need, Hilvert and the Jumeirah team turned their attentions and expertise to developing a world-class academy intent on shaping the future of a burgeoning industry.

Add to these promising employment opportunities a clearly defined path for progression and comparatively shorter academic routes for entry next to other industries such as law, medicine or engineering, the appeal of a career in hospitality makes sense. However, the industry is not for everyone; long, anti-social working hours and zero tolerance for sloppy standards make hospitality management and tourism tough industries for the faint hearted. Nonetheless, Hilvert believes that students embark on their career paths with eyes wide open. “When you are in a professional program, most of these people have made the decision before they come that hospitality is going to be their career,” explains the former worldwide vice-president for Hilton International and Hyatt.

Combining strong academic grounding and practical experience across disciplines and borders, the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management is helping to nurture a new generation of hospitality and tourism executives. However, despite occupying a secure place amongst the region’s economic growth engines today, the hospitality industry is still young. Hospitality and tourism, like so many industries in the GCC, are still in the early stages of growth compared to their European or North American counterparts, but combining an international outlook as well as expertise and experience to deliver on the region’s growing demands, the graduates of tomorrow look set to play the perfect hosts.

For Hilvert, only time will tell the true measure of success for his academy. “The test would be, in a decade from now, to go around the world and see where our graduates are,” asserts the hospitality veteran whose love affair with the industry began at Ecôle Hôtelière de Lausanne. “If a number of our students are very senior executives and general managers, then we will have succeeded—and we are well on that path.”
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