Forty college students got a real taste of work experience when they took over the running of a 148-bedroom Hampshire hotel for the weekend. Joanna Wood reports
It's a bracing, greyish Sunday at the end of May on the south coast of England, on the northern tip of Hayling Island, Portsmouth. It's nippy with no sun - making the allure of the island's Langstone hotel overwhelming. Inside, guests are checking-out and, in the hotel's two-AA-rosette brasserie, Sunday breakfast is in full swing. Staff are skilfully dodging toddlers and guiding guests to their tables. It's a friendly, brisk, professional occasion.
All-in-all, a pretty normal hotel scene. Only, it's not quite normal. Because the staff are actually 40 students from South Downs College in Waterlooville. They've been running the 148-bedrom hotel since Friday as part of a work experience project, writ large. The brainchild of Gerry Shurman, head of catering, hospitality and travel at the college, the exercise has spanned the whole weekend and is due to finish at 3pm today, Sunday.
Shurman and the Langstone's general manager, Clint Marsh, are sitting in the hotel foyer, beaming, professing themselves more than pleased with the project, work on which began in earnest about six months ago. "It's been a massive success," says Shurman. Marsh agrees. "It's surprised me how well everything has gone. We haven't had one negative comment from any guests - but we have had a lot of positive comments back from people."
The principle reason for the takeover exercise's success is thorough planning. About 80 to 90 hours has been spent by each side setting up the event.
Initially, those hours were used discussing in fine detail the structure and timing of the project, looking at health and safety issues that would be involved and pinpointing which jobs were and were not suitable for handing over. In the end, only the skills of the Langstone's maintenance department and night porter were deemed too specialist to be up for grabs.
Once a shortlist of catering and hospitality students from South Downs College had been selected, they were put through a rigorous professional interview with Marsh and his managers. "The interview process was very useful," confirms Sandy Lowe, 19, who netted the operations manager role for the weekend. "You had to get your CVs spot-on and research the role you were applying for."
Not everyone was as diligent in their preparation as Lowe. And though most under-prepared interviewees fell by the wayside - as they would in real-life - one was able to impress the interviewers enough by successfully projecting his potential, even without gemming-up. Third-year student Ryan Humphrey, 19, the acting general manager during the takeover, admits, "the interview was a shock," and a salutary lesson for the future. "I didn't research the hotel, so I was just honest and told them - and once I got the job I really sat down and did my homework. I won't make that mistake next time!"
Part of the reason for Humphrey's lack of initial preparation was due to the fact that his part-time waiting job with an outside caterer took up much of his spare time. But his air of confidence clearly impressed Marsh enough to offer him one of the most important jobs in a hotel. Watching him patrol the hotel, you can see just why he was given the role. He walks with purpose and a certain measured jauntiness - it helps that he tops six foot in height - and when he shows people around he is spot-on in his sales pitch about the property's function rooms and other facilities: the phrasing is always, "we have… we do…", as if it is, indeed, his real job.
The secret of his assurance? According to Humphrey, it's the fact that he had already completed a two-year drama course at South Downs before switching to catering and hospitality. "When you're up on stage as the pantomime dame, you don't worry about making a fool of yourself!" That confidence has clearly been underlined by the weekend's responsibilities - and given him food for thought as to his future career. "I've never been too interested in hotels before, but seeing how many areas there are in the hotel and how closely they work together has been intriguing," Humphrey adds.
The confidence that comes with taking on responsibility is one of the most important things that the students involved in the project will be able to take forward with them in to the initial years of their careers. Some of them, like Humphrey, already had a certain reservoir of assurance through part-time industry jobs. But taking on total responsibility for a hotel with 80% occupancy - not to mention two wedding functions, a funeral wake and normal restaurant service, plus a leisure club to run - has bred authority in those occupying managerial roles during the takeover weekend and brought others with less self-belief out of their shells.
One student, Katie Edwards, part of the restaurant team, tweeted that she'd talked to a guest for 10 minutes and been amazed at herself. "She struggled with eye-contact at first - that moment will be life-changing for her," believes Shurman. "Knowing the situation is for real makes you learn to take on responsibility," agrees another student, 18-year-old Ignace Govere, housekeeping manager for the weekend.
The competence with which the students have dealt with everyday situations over the weekend has impressed Marsh and his staff - all of whom were on standby at the hotel, but generally superfluous to requirement. "They've got as much of a buzz out of the weekend as the students," says Marsh.
In the kitchen, 18-year-old Sean Williams - like Ryan and Lowe, also in his final, third, year and with a part-time job in the industry - has been as commanding as anyone. "He bossed the hotplate last night, he really did," says Duncan Wilson, the hotel's head chef. "I was very apprehensive when the project was first talked about because we are due for an AA inspection in the brasserie," Wilson explains, "but I've been amazed at how Sean and the others have coped, I've pretty much left them to it, particularly today."
Just for the record, over Friday and Saturday the kitchen put out about 200 breakfasts, two sit-down wedding meals (90 and 55 covers), a buffet (for the funeral party), 65 covers in the brasserie on the Saturday evening. Today, Sunday, it's dealt with 180 breakfasts and has 70 lunch covers waiting. "Pick up - table nine," calls Williams from the pass, hardly looking up from slicing a sirloin of beef.
The plates are sped out to the restaurant where fellow student, Charlie Sturgess - nicknamed "Charming Charlie" by some of the hotel guests - has recently solved the seating problem posed by a large party of diners who have demanded a window view: by swapping some tables around to accommodate the request. Sturgess is walking gingerly, having made the mistake of wearing the wrong footwear during the weekend and ending up with aching feet as a consequence. But he is still clearly charming his customers.
Adroit problem solving, from slapping a £100 fine on a guest persistently smoking in a non-smoking bedroom, to solving a faulty bedroom TV and misbehaving heating system - overseen by Ryan and Lowe, respectively - coupled with providing customer satisfaction - "the funeral party were blown away by their professionalism" says Marsh - seems to have been a defining mark of the students' Langstone project. They have repaid the faith placed in them with added interest - Lowe has even landed himself a job as assistant operations manager at the Langstone when he graduates in the summer. And incidentally, hosting the project, March estimates, has cost the hotel about £800 - the expenditure mostly taken up by staff wages covering extra working hours setting-up the project.
Would he host a similar exercise again? "Yes, but probably with less of my staff on call over the weekend," he says. "The students have done themselves proud. I sit on the Hospitality Employers Focus Group at South Downs and this project, I'm sure, will set a new benchmark for teaching systems."
A glance at his watch reminds him it's nearly 3pm and he strides off to help hand out some well-earned participation certificates and back-slapping to the students as their weekend takeover comes to an end.
why student takeovers?
â- Putting something back in to the industry.
â- Showing students the variety of job opportunities within a hotel - marketing, leisure, food and beverage, rooms, and so on - not just dining and rooms related work.
â- Potential future employees - spot the star performers, get in there first with job offers.
â- Students experience a "live" job with responsibilities, rather than short work placements shadowing mentors who call the shots.
â- Student exposure to a rigorous interview process.
â- Confidence boost for students taking part.
â- Good on the student's CV - gives them advantage over competitors.
â- Underpins a college's professional reputation if takeover is successful.
â- Involves a wide-range of college departments - catering and hospitality, health and beauty (in gym and spa) - even media students (documentary filming the event).
south downs college takeover: the participants
South Downs College in Waterlooville, Portsmouth, has established itself in recent years as one of the South's leading colleges of further education, particularly in the field of hospitality.
A proactive catering, hospitality and travel department, led by curriculum head Gerry Shurman, has built up strong and fruitful links with the industry both local and national, regularly holding functions and gala dinners with big-name guest chefs in the college's 80-seat restaurant. The restaurant trades professionally, and offers lunch and dinner cooked and served by students to the general public on a daily basis, with food being sent out from three all-singing, all-dancing modern kitchens, including one with a Charvet range.
Student work placements are part of the hospitality curriculum (which offers City and Guilds, NVQ and BTEC courses) but the decision to push the practice one stage further and takeover a local hotel - the Langstone in Hayling Island - with 40 students for a weekend was a new one for the college.
Key personnel involved in the Langstone project were: Gerry Shurman - head of catering hospitality and travel; Amanda Percy - deputy head of student services and marketing; Jacqui Smith - business and industry link co-ordinator.
The Langstone hotel
Hayling Island's 148-bedroom Langstone hotel is a busy local conference and wedding venue with a two-AA-rosette brasserie restaurant, bar and health and fitness centre. Overlooking Langstone and Chichester harbours, it is eight miles from Portsmouth's town centre and its 12 conference rooms are well-placed to net the city's corporate business and family celebration functions.
The Langstone is owned by BDL Management, which also manages operations across a variety of hotel brand groups including InterContinental, Wyndham, Best Western and Ramada. It also owns and operates independent hotels, such as the Langstone, within the company framework.
Key personnel involved in the South Downs takeover were: Clint Marsh - general manager; Gemma Glover - human resources manager; Alexandra Knowles-McNab - operations manager; Duncan Wilson - head chef; Mary Parnell - head housekeeper; Aimee McNiven - restaurant manager; Sophie King - reception manager; Paul Eite - bar manager.
keys to a successful hotel takeover
â- Establish a genuine link with the partner hotel, then set clear aims and objectives to support both college and hotel. Make sure timelines for the exercise are clear and achievable.
â- Remember work shifts may start early and end very late so schedule takeover in spring and summer terms because of longer daylight hours - it's safer for students.
â- Maintain high levels of open communication between college and hotel. One person in each establishment to co-ordinate the event helps.
â- Gain full support for the project from hotel staff and college colleagues - establish links and exchange visits between counterparts to enable comprehensive understanding of job requirements for students.
â- Don't forget to thoroughly risk assess and observe legislation and standard operating procedures at all times.
â- Recruitment and selection is critical. Enthuse students with the vision, but select the right level of candidate for each job according to hotel requirements. This is especially important at management level. Do proper interviews.
â- Ensure all students - and possibly college staff - undergo a proper induction period in both health and safety requirements and specific job roles. This should be done in the weeks leading up to the event.
â- Maximise marketing and publicity opportunity with local and national press.
â- Put in the hours setting up the project. Success is rooted in preparation.
â- Always give feedback to students - even those who fall short in interviews and don't make it on to the project. And afterwards seek feedback from them and the hotel via forms.
â- Manage the project throughout. Have senior lecturers and hotel staff on hand at the hotel for emergencies but have faith in the potential and capability of students.
the "acting" students
General manager Ryan Humphrey
Operations manager Sandy Lowe
Housekeeping manager Ignace Govere
Housekeeping supervisor Natalie Harper
Head chef Sean Williams
Sous chef Will Kelly-Lord
Breakfast chef Tom Humphrey
Pastry chef/demi-chef de partie Joanne White
Chef de partie Natalie Bowers
Commis chef Tom Peters
Food and beverage manager Charlie Sturgess
Food and beverage assistants Jess Williams, Jordan Wiltshire
Restaurant supervisors Vicky Alden, Oliver Browning
Food service assistants (aka waiting team) Alison McLoughlin, Jamie Stocks, Johnny Harris, Jordan Ward, Katie Edwards, Kit Lauder, Matthew Essery, Ellie Bateman, Emil Szoma, Katie Folkes
Bar manager Karl Giles
Bar assistant Jaz D'Souza
Receptionists Megan Penketh, Natasha Tindale
Day porter Steven Newton
Beauty therapists Coral Horn, Sophie Read, Sofie Bailey, Jasmine Bartlett, Megan Craig, Rachael Kilduff, Megan Trinder.
Club Life manager Moudood Hassan
Club Life consultants Rowan West, Molly Legge