"Inspiring", "fascinating" and "much more than I could ever have hoped for", are some of the words Kathryn Gray used to describe her week's study at the famous Swiss hotel school, Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne. Ask anyone who knows her and they'll tell you she doesn't hand out superlatives like Smarties.
She does not work in the hotel industry, but as a catering training officer with the Metropolitan Police she was keen to win the competition. "I knew the reputation of the Lausanne hotel school and I wanted to compare the training here to what we're doing in UK schools. I also wanted to meet people from other cultures."
The setting and facilities, she says, could not be more conducive to study. The school is surrounded by pastures for dairy cattle, 850 metres up in the Swiss Alps overlooking Lake Geneva. "The accommodation is excellent: showers, safes, a fridge and computer links are in every room and the food is terrific.
"But I was even more impressed with the cultural aims of the school. They think of the whole person, not just the training side of things. The programme included trips to the Olympic Museum [Lausanne is the world headquarters for the International Olympic Committee], a barbecue off campus and films every night. We used the sports facilities, including the gym and tennis courts. They practise what they preach in the ways of hospitality."
This encourages the sharing of ideas and experiences among the summer programme students, who come from 18 different countries. "It was interesting to have informal talks with people from other cultures and realise problems are the same the world over. I didn't think Asian countries would have the same staffing problems we have, for instance."
Gray is exactly what you'd want in a catering training officer for the Met. With responsibility for 1,100 full- and part-time staff at more than 200 locations, feeding 40,000 employees daily, she's level-headed, impartial, enthusiastic, decisive and has insight. She's also totally involved in her work, and this was the one aspect of the Swiss hotel school she responded to most.
She already has more than a dozen diplomas, certificates and qualifications from organisations relevant to the catering industry and will begin a diploma course at the Institute of Personnel and Development in October. The Met is sponsoring her course, which is relevant to her career goals. "I want to get to personnel management level," she says.
Her department was the first in the Met to win a service level agreement on the free market and it is half-way through the first year of a three-year contract. "I was euphoric when I won because it gave me a challenge. Having to live up to a contract makes you more responsive to change and new requirements," she says.
Of the five one-week modules offered in the summer programme in hospitality management, human resources management suited Gray perfectly. Two seminar courses make up the week's course of study, human relations training and market-driven human resources.
Gray was buzzing from the market-driven human resources seminar, taught by Ron Hilvert, president of Portfolio International/Asia Pacific. Portfolio is a worldwide recruitment and consultancy firm for the hospitality and leisure industry. Hilvert has extensive experience in training. He is also a former student of the Lausanne school and recruits from it.
"I'm a firm believer in market-driven human resources," Hilvert says. "I'm one of few human resources guys who has been a general manager, and my approach is to try to make people appreciate that human resources is bottom-line driven."
Personnel departments should not be static and inward looking; they are only successful when addressing customers' needs, he believes.
His teaching method is like that of a pro-active manager. "I try to affect the students' thought processes. I want to start a change in their way of thinking, to let them understand the merits in every theory," he says.
With students from 18 different countries with varying levels of English language skills, Hilvert relies on interactive teaching. "You'd lose them with more than a half-hour lecture."
He sets out an issue and then gets students into smaller working groups to devise their own answers and solutions. This method reinforces his idea of getting people to agree on "ownership" of a problem or issue and is a way of putting his theories into practice.
In a typical morning class, Hilvert asks what are personnel managers' greatest concerns and how should they prioritise their time. After a short lecture, the students are split into two groups: those with human resources experience and those without. He challenges them to come up with the priorities.
Gray is in the former group and is a natural group leader who is sensitive to other people's abilities and needs. "Many of the students have good ideas, but they're not as quick in discussions because they have to translate to and from English," she says.
At first, the students draw up extensive categories of issues, but when this becomes unwieldy they take a more lateral approach and discuss basic functions. One suggests their time is divided among listening, advising and control; another says all human resources functions can be divided into planning, organising and implementing.
"Ron is inspiring," Gray says. "He's made me more commercially aware. Some sectors of the civil service are partly profit-oriented and we're trying to become more aware of broader concerns."
The summer programme is just one of the school's new initiatives under its consultancy and training division. Philippe Delaquis, director of the division, is also working on distance learning, using the Internet, as well as tailor-made consultancy programmes. n
For further information contact Ecole Hôteliäre de Lausanne, Le Chalet-à-Gobet, CH-1000 Lausanne 25, Switzerland (Tel: 00 41 21 785 11 11).