Tourism contributes up to 10% of the world’s work force according to UNWTO, explaining why many undergraduate and graduate schools are offering hospitality degrees. However, unlike engineering where practical skills taught in universities are essential for the profession, hospitality is in a gray area, inviting debate on the practicality of pursing hospitality degrees. This brings about the question, “Does one need a hospitality degree to become a hotelier?” had the opportunity to talk to hoteliers with hospitality degrees, hoteliers without hospitality degrees, and hotelier hiring managers. We discussed their early careers in the industry, the benefits of having the diplomas and their practicality, the possibility of becoming hoteliers without the diplomas, and the skill sets hoteliers should acquire.

Work Experiences in Other Fields prior to Being a GM

Prior to becoming General Manager at Marco Polo Hong Kong, Dalip Singh worked various jobs. From joining the police force to becoming a flight attendant, Dalip has done it all. “Command and control are fundamental in the uniformed public services,” he explained. “I learned what to do as a leader, and was well trained in operations, event planning, and security management.  In addition, working in the airline industry equipped me with the knowledge of food and beverage, as well as the needs of customers. The intense training and demanding standards allowed me to be more alert to the needs of every customer so we can anticipate and personalize the service.” Dalip clearly believes that the skills he acquired prior to his hospitality career have benefited him greatly.

On the other hand, Ronan Henaff, General Manager of Capella Shanghai, discovered his passion for hospitality from an early age. His very first job in the industry was a stewarding role, and today he still values the skills he gained from his first position. “Personally, I feel that dedicating my career to hospitality has enabled me to gain hands-on, practical experience, working my way from the bottom up, ensuring a concrete understanding of the running of the hotel at all levels,” he said.

Hospitality Degrees and their Practicality

Ronan earned his hospitality degree at the Hotel Management School of Lausanne. His diploma helped prepare him for his GM position. “In my personal experience, it was very useful as I started to get some knowledge of our industry in hospitality school. At that time, we had to do three different six-month internships – culinary, service, and administration – which helped me tremendously when I started my first job, as I already had hands-on experience,” he observed.

While Ronan argues that he benefited greatly from his hospitality degree, Dalip graduated with a management practices diploma, and believes that real life experience and knowledge of other industries gave him an advantage in his hospitality career. “Look at me!” he proclaimed. “I’m the living proof that experience sometimes matters more than paper qualifications.” However, he did also note the importance of pursuing the diploma. “It would be good to have as it will form the base knowledge and understanding in today’s ever-changing world of hospitality,” he added.

Back in the day, a bachelor’s degree was not as sought after as today because much of the teaching was highly theoretical. Douglas Glen, General Manager of Carlton City Hotel, Singapore, does not believe that a hospitality degree is necessary to become a GM. “If one has the hunger, drive and passion to succeed, I believe the degree will assist in helping someone go far, but it’s not something they need,” he said.

Rocky Road to Becoming a GM

Becoming a general manager is not an easy or straight-forward path; it requires long experience, attention to small details, and the ability and willingness to learn. On these points, Douglas, Dalip, and Ronan were all in agreement.

Douglas made sure that he gained experience in “a variety of areas such as front office, banquet, and back of house. I wanted to learn as much as possible, and delved into commercial environments to keep ahead of the curve.”

Ronan concurred, noting that he “put in a lot of hours to learn as much as I could, remained humble, and always remembered that the service of our guest is at the heart of all that we do. This stood me in good stead to rise through the ranks.”

A Glimpse at Hiring Managers’ Perspectives was also interested in hiring managers’ opinions on hospitality degrees, so we interviewed a number of managers to get their input.

To decide whether a degree is practical or not, one can look at job requirements to find the answer. Shamala Krishnan, Director of Human Resources at Hilton, listed what she looks for in her general manager candidates. “The GM is the ambassador for our brand, and has to ensure that the good name of the company is safeguarded at the property he or she is entrusted to,” she explained. “With that in mind the GM has to manifest the following values and abilities:

credibility, strategic thinking, good people skills, result oriented, and leadership skills.”

When asked if there were any general managers without hospitality degrees, Christophe Lejeune, Vice President of Accor Upper Southeast & Northeast Asia and the Maldives, said absolutely. “The traditional hotel school degree is no longer a requirement – we have general managers who have graduated from business schools, as well as general managers who may have worked their way up from operational positions. Many business schools offer a very strong curriculum which is a good match for our industry. For such candidates, we would often require a “fast track” exposure in a hotel in order for them to get familiar with the basics of the service industry, guest experience, and product knowledge.”

So back to our question, how practical are hospitality degrees? Rujapa Hamnilrat, Vice President of Human Resources at Centara Hotels and Resorts told us that “having degrees is always better.  However, I don’t think it always has to be a hospitality degree. The person may take a short hospitality program which tells how they have developed their hospitality standard.   The most important thing we want to see is proven work experience and achievements, which I think are a combination of hospitality knowledge and other skills like business, financial knowledge, managerial skills, planning, problem solving, and so on.”

Another consideration when weighing up the value of a hospitality degree is that graduates might succeed without ever entering the hospitality industry at all. As James Mabey, holder of a PhD in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Hong Kong Polytechnic University observes, “it is common for non-industry companies to seek out hospitality graduates for their skills in customer service delivery and recovery. For example, in recent years, banks and other financial sector companies have recruited heavily out of hospitality programs.

For the final word, however, Craig Cochrane, Senior Vice President Talent and Culture at Accor, gave us a clear and concise recipe of what it takes to become a GM. “Passion for service, passion for people, passion for quality. Did I mention passion?!”