As the UK's first hotel school opens its doors, Elizabeth Mistry takes a tour and hears how a leading British university is teaming up with industry and the private sector to revolutionise the training of future hospitality leaders
Behind the front desk in the lobby of Wivenhoe House hotel, just outside Colchester, there is a small plaque on the wall which reads "Who Dares Wins" .
Anyone glancing at it while checking in to the UK's first full-time training hotel - staffed by hospitality management students and supervised by former industry professionals at the new £11m Edge Hotel School - might be forgiven for wondering if the SAS is still headquartered here as they were during the Second World War. But the Special Air Service checked out several decades ago and now there is a focus on a very different kind of service.
The school welcomed its first cohort of students last month. When it was originally mooted the concept was so unusual that it was hard for some in the industry to grasp, says Sir Garry Hawkes, chairman of the Edge Foundation. The foundation put up half of the initial investment to realise Sir Garry's dream of "building a school where people would learn the art and science of managing a hotel".
Traditional academic route
Recognising that the UK hospitality sector has an insatiable hunger for skilled staff, but that potential managers might not always come up through a traditional academic route, Sir Garry was determined to create a centre of excellence with an emphasis on learning by doing.
It is a testament to Sir Garry, who got his first job in the industry at 14, that a project that has been bandied around for so long has come to fruition. After leaving Gardner Merchant, Sir Garry became chairman of Edexcel which he later sold to Pearson, the publishers of the Financial Times.
With the proceeds, he established the Edge Foundation, an educational charity which supports vocational, skills-based training at colleges throughout Britain.
The practical experience gained by the students dealing with real guests will form a crucial element of the two courses currently on offer; a one-year foundation degree or a two- year fast track BA Honours degree in hotel management or culinary management accredited by the University of Essex.
After years of negotiations over a number of venues including a site in central London and the defunct Bretton Hall college in Wakefield, Sir Garry found himself at a lunch sitting next to Paul Milsom, owner of Milsoms Hotels and Restaurants, who mentioned that he knew somewhere nearby which might fit the bill.
Milsom is now one of the project's most dedicated supporters. He sits on the advisory board and has taken on an unofficial role as a brand ambassador. "This year is our 60th anniversary," he says. "But if we are to continue for another 60, it is in our interest, in all of our interests and I mean the wider industry, to support this school because we will all benefit from highly trained, high-calibre staff."
Alongside school principal Alan Jenkins of Kaplan, the private sector partner which is responsible for the academic content of the course, and director of studies Louise Gill is a formidable team of industry professionals led by Stephen Mannock, who was recruited from the National Skills Academy for Hospitality where he was programme director.
He has assembled a diverse management team who all bring recent industry experience of branded and boutique properties, ranging from London's Park Plaza and the DeVere Group to the Feversham Arms in Helmsley.
It will be these professionals who will oversee the groups of students who will be on rotation at Wivenhoe for four days - or a minimum of 27 hours - a week. A further compulsory study day is also required - if tutors feel that the students can manage, they will also be offered the opportunity to work extra shifts at the hotel on the current minimum wage.
Each student will be assigned to a "butlers team" and will, over the duration of the course, work in every department, including housekeeping, front office, food and beverage and systems, including sales and revenue management.
Because the course is condensed - and because the hotel will be open all year round - the aim is to stagger the student intake so eventually there will be a new group arriving every few months.
The university owns the building which was originally built as a grand residence in 1759. It previously functioned as a varsity guesthouse before closing three years ago. Since then, about £11m has been spent on totally rebuilding the old two-star offering in order for it to be reborn as a 40-bed property.
In the main house there are 16 bedrooms and suites, several of which have been sponsored by the school's industry partners including BaxterStorey, Exclusive Hotels, Hilton, Marriott and Milsom Hotels and Restaurants. They have each put their stamp on their room while remaining sympathetic to the original period features, which in one room includes a Chippendale fireplace which was only discovered after painstaking salvage work.
The building's Grade II-listed status meant that historic building specialists were required to advise on some of the restructuring. Then, a colony of bats was discovered which delayed work for several months.
Where the extension once stood, there is now a new "garden wing" which will offer a further 24 contemporary-style bedrooms. The link between the two buildings will house flexible, multi-use conference and events space equipped with state of the art technology and a 110-seat brasserie which will provide an alternative to the 40-seat fine-dining restaurant in the main house and the private dining option in the wine cellar.
Reflecting the current trend towards theatre style eating out, the Brasserie kitchen will be open. The fine-dining kitchen in the main building, is at sub-basement level, along with a staff room.
Both kitchens will be under the direction of executive chef Paul Boorman, who previously opened the restaurant at Lifehouse Spa in nearby Thorpe-Le-Soken.
Boorman has brought in some of his old brigade including sous Richard Chenery, who has stints at Maze with Jason Atherton and Foliage under his belt.
With almost everything in place in the hotel - including a brand new oak staircase - it is beginning to consider its external marketing strategy.
"We don't know quite what our initial business mix will be but there are 10,000 in the university community alone, with people coming from all over the place as well as families who may be looking for somewhere special at graduation time," says front-of-house manager Jennie Hirst, who set up the reservations department at the Feversham Arms. "There is a good market for business meetings in the area. There is just so much potential here that we are planning to capitalise on."
"Not that we will be marketing it as a hotel school," says Mannock. "We will be running as a commercial business. That is what makes us unique and is why the students will leave us ‘work-ready'."
SUE IVORY, 40 Sue Ivory is one of the first two students to join the Culinary Management degree course. She is funding herself.
After following her husband's career around the world for 20 years, Ivory recently found herself back in the UK. Having plenty of experience as an expat hostess - sometimes in quite challenging conditions - she reckons the course will help her develop her skill set and lead to a new career.
"I was attracted to the school after attending an open day and seeing that the place had had a lot of money spent on it, so I could tell they were serious," she explains. "I could tell they were prepared to go the extra mile and I felt they would encourage us to go the mile as well."
Like all the students, she is enjoying getting to grips with the shiny new PDA issued to facilitate e-learning; all the lectures and materials will be accessible online and tutors will be able to log in to individual accounts to check on each student's progress.
"It's such a privilege to be here," Ivory adds. "I'd be very interested in shaping the development of the industry in this country and abroad."
ALICE HOLAH, 19 Alice Holah has had a part-time job at a hotel near Cambridge since finishing her diploma at Cambridge Regional College. She is one of three students selected to receive the first Savoy Educational Trust scholarships awarded to students at the Edge worth £3,000 each.
After a work experience placement where she enjoyed "getting to meet different customers, although a lot of the time they don't realise the pressures the staff are under", she decided a career in hospitality was for her.
"My tutors at Cambridge Regional College, Jane Newnham and Tina Adrienne, who really inspired me, told me about the new course at the Edge hotel school," she explains.
By chance, someone from the Edge was dining where she was working and encouraged her to apply.
"When I told my previous employers I was coming to study here, they thought it was a joke. They don't think so now," says Holah, who organised a five-course charity dinner at the Cambridge Regional College restaurant to raise funds for the East Anglia Children's Hospice while still a student.
Sponsors get a stake in the industry's future
Danny Pecorelli, managing director of Exclusive Hotels, says the group has spent about £50,000 preparing its suite and he expects to put more into a project he considers a unique proposition. "We are making an open-ended commitment," he says. "I wish more of our industry would get involved with the Edge. We will have access to some great students. It is the right thing to do because if the colleges get stronger and attract a wider pool of talent, the whole industry benefits."
Each room is individually tailored by its sponsor. So, among other features, Exclusive Hotels' suite on the top floor has the company's signature Aquavision TV in the bathroom, while Hilton's look is elegant and has classic black-and-white Marilyn Monroe pictures on the walls.
Milsoms Hotels and Restaurants room is perhaps the quirkiest in the hotel, with specially commissioned wallpaper and occasional furniture to match the overall monochrome colour scheme. Paul Milsom clearly has a sense of humour - you'll need to stay in his room and read the writing on the wall (literally) to see if you agree with what it says about the perfect hotelier.
Meanwhile, tableware specialist Churchill has a deal to collaborate with the hotel on its new ranges which will be tested first by students, and Laurent Perrier, the Champagne house, sponsors the Sommeliers Table private-dining concept in the wine cellar.
A selection of Hospitality Management Courses in the UK
There are more than 230 hospitality and catering courses offered across Britain according to the Professional Association for Catering Education.
The University of West London
Started life as Ealing Polytechnic and now offers a range of degree and diploma-level courses - as well as training butlers for Buckingham Palace. Students get their real life experience on placement and in the well-respected Pillars restaurant. Alumni include Kiaran MacDonald, Charles Prew and Brian Turner.
Hosted the final heat of Young Chef Young Waiter last year and is about to launch a new molecular gastronomy course aimed at professional chefs who wish to broaden their skills. Later this year it will team up with Fred Sirieix to launch The Art of Service.
Oxford Brookes University
Last year it was ranked top hotel school in Europe by a survey in the Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research. Also offers degrees at Master's and PhD level and is one of the few hospitality schools in the country to have a dedicated faculty specialising in sustainability and responsible business.
University of Strathclyde
Runs BA Honours degree-level courses and an Executive Master's in conjunction with Cornell and the Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne.
Coleg Llandrillo Cymru
The largest hospitality education provider in Wales. A recent winner of the Queens's Anniversary Prize for Further and Higher Education and the Craft Guild of Chefs' Hospitality College of The Year award. Llandrillo offers NVQs, diplomas and degree-level studies in hospitality management.