Enjoying the sights along the seaside boulevard in Cannes, Richie Karaburun took in a view of turquoise water and umbrella-studded beaches. Recognizing the restaurant his family had eaten at the previous summer, he could almost smell the day’s fresh catch basting in butter mingling with the salt air.
Yet this was no return to France for the New York University professor — it was an assignment for his destination marketing and branding class. And Karaburun wasn’t strolling La Croisette — he was in his office, wearing an Oculus virtual-reality headset and watching a YouTube 360 video.
He’d tasked his class with comparing one of the immersive videos with a recent experience to make a point about the technology’s potential for travel destination marketing organizations. Imagine how easy it could be to choose your next vacation if you could all but smell it virtually?
We’d been talking about the need for this for years, but COVID just expedited the digitalization [of hospitality education].
Richie Karaburun - New York University
“You actually want to touch certain things” while wearing the virtual reality headset, Karaburun said. “It gives me that feeling. There’s no strict line anymore between what’s real and what’s virtual.That line is gray now. It’s going to disappear soon.”
As Karaburun’s example makes clear, whatever line once separated the latest travel tech from hospitality schools has also faded. Gone are the days when students learned hotel property management systems on DOS. A classroom tech revolution, accelerated by COVID and partnerships with industry leaders, means more of today’s students are exposed to the latest cloud-based systems and learn to be entrepreneurs as much as hotel or restaurant managers.
Karaburun said the difference in the approach to tech at hospitality universities is so stark he speaks of the demarcation in terms of BC and AC, a dating system that has nothing to do with the traditional Christian calendar.
“It means ‘before coronavirus’ and ‘after coronavirus.’ We’d been talking about the need for this for years, but COVID just expedited the digitalization [of hospitality education],” he said. “How we started, by default, was with online learning. In one day, just a snap of the fingers, oops, everybody’s going online.”
Partnerships drive tech innovation at hospitality schools
The transition to more tech at hospitality schools accelerated as those who continued traveling during the pandemic demanded more. Touchless check-in and check-out. Keyless entry. Mobile apps to control in-room televisions and air conditioners. The advances found their way into schools.
Matthijs Welle, CEO at hospitality tech company Mews, recalled a conversation seven years ago with a student at a hotel school whose teacher declined his internship offer at Mews because it wasn’t considered a traditional hotel company.
“I could not comprehend how schools were not embracing technology and teaching students how technology can enable better hospitality,” Welle said.
Now, however, all the major hotel management schools in his native Netherlands teach the Mews cloud-based platform in their classrooms and training hotels. While acknowledging the pandemic’s role in forcing the change, Welle also credits students with demanding what he calls a “changing of the guard” among managers in the travel sector and the teachers at universities.
“They can no longer ignore it because [technology] is such a core part of life for the students,” Welle said. “A lot of the teachers can’t shy away from it at this point. They have to embrace it.”
They can no longer ignore it because [technology] is such a core part of life for the students. A lot of the teachers can’t shy away from it at this point. They have to embrace it.
Matthijs Welle - Mews
While a guest lecturer earlier this year at a school in the Hague, students peppered Welle with questions about subjects like venture funding, fintech and artificial intelligence.
“The level of questions I got, I was blown away by it,” he said with a laugh. “They research deeply about technology and how you run a startup. I went to that same hotel school 20 years ago, and no one ever considered leaving our industry to go to a startup or using technology in any way.”
Welle believes when this generation of students become leaders in the sector, they won’t stand for the inefficiencies of antiquated management systems that were considered too deeply integrated to change, insisting on change for what he sees as the benefit of consumers as well as the industry.
“We feel there’s this inertia in our industry, this ‘nothing’s broken’ attitude,” he said. “We genuinely believe it’s been broken for a long time, and somebody needs to come in and fix it.”
Mews’ commitment to hospitality education extends to a new partnership with pop-up hospitality school pioneers Saira Hospitality. Under the deal, Saira will create five new hospitality schools, starting in London in June and Amsterdam later this year. Students will be trained in the school’s curriculum, and after completing the program they will be employed at properties that run the Mews property management system.
“Our two companies are passionate about challenging the status quo and innovation, Mews with technology and Saira with people and education,” said Harsha L’Acqua, Saira’s founder and CEO. “After just one discussion, it became clear that our graduates would benefit immensely from harnessing Mews’ tech platform to elevate hospitality training and service and ultimately re-inspire the industry.”
In another partnership announced this week, Hotelbeds, a B2B hotel and travel ancillary distribution specialist, will bring its TravelTech Lab to work with the NYU start-up program Karaburun directs. The partners will provide support and mentorship to help new companies explore tech-based solutions to improve travel.
“Innovation has always been part of our DNA and is a key focus on our goal to reduce friction across the travel ecosystem,” said Hotelbeds CEO Nicolas Huss. “Bringing our two innovation hubs together is a powerful combination. We’re looking forward to seeing what initiatives the start-ups in the program develop and how we can work together to bring them to market.”
Choosing the travel tech that works best
Partnerships also motivated efforts by Cloudbeds, the cloud-based hotel management platform, to get involved with hospitality instruction after COVID forced schools to change everything, said Sebastien Leitner, vice president of partnerships for the company.
“During the pandemic we had a few universities that called us, frantically, and said our entire technology infrastructure is on-site,” he recalled. “We’re moving the classes into the cloud, moving from in-person training to Zoom classes. We need infrastructure that works in the cloud so students can learn to manage technology in hospitality.”
Cloudbeds provided the tools needed by their partner schools, including EHL Hospitality Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Les Roches International School of Hotel Management, while also partnering on what would be taught about their systems.
“I would definitely put the pandemic as a catalyst factor” to the embrace of technology at schools, Leitner said. “Certainly, an accelerator to a trend that was already happening.”
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He, too, found a receptive audience among students who’d been raised on technology — and were impatient with old ways such as hotel reception.
“The traditional hotel receptionist takes data from a customer and enters it into a database,” Leitner said. “What this pandemic has taught us, this task can be moved to the customer themselves, who is happy to do that and be contactless and with higher accuracy. The role of the receptionist over time can move to having a natural conversation with the guest, rather than just becoming a data entry specialist.”
Leitner derived great satisfaction in the “complaints” he heard from some instructors. When students did exercises like creating a special offer with a unique access code and publishing it on the hotel website, those using cloud-based systems were finished in a few minutes — much quicker than those working in the older systems.
Leitner recalled the conversation: “The instructors came to me and said, ‘Sebastian, your tool is too fast. We need more content because they’re finishing these exercises much quicker than they used.’ I said, ‘Look guys, that’s the best compliment you can give me.’”
The instructors, in their defense, were having to make a lot of adjustments during challenging times. Julia Krebs, a lecturer at the Les Roches campus in Marbella, Spain, recalled the transition in March 2020 when the country announced on a Thursday that all schools would be closed by Monday.
“This was a major challenge for us,” she said. “We are very practical schools. Hospitality has a lot to do with service and procedures.”
In addition to absorbing lectures and taking tests, students practiced the routine of checking in hotel guests. They went into kitchens to cook. They learned table settings, the proper way to serve wine — every component of the business so that even if they didn’t perform the tasks themselves, they could supervise the activities with enough credibility to manage their teams.
“That was a big challenge,” Krebs said. “How do you teach practicals online? You don’t.”
Administrators, instructors, students — all adapted on the run, Krebs said. The difficult days of COVID made hospitality schools stronger in ways both big and small.
“It accelerated the process,” she said. “Now all our students have [Microsoft] Teams accounts. And we still use them, to an extent, even now that we’re back to face to face on campus.”
With many classes scheduled in the morning, for example, students might “join” a professor for a tutoring session online in the afternoon, when it might have been impossible before due to scheduling issues.
Access to cutting edge technology — like cloud-based property management systems and demo versions of things like in-room tablets for use by hotel guests or bathroom body dryers that help save on the use of towels — give students a taste of the industry’s future.
“We can still use technology now to complement the experience at the end of the day,” she said. “We have three years of experience, so now we can choose from the tools that we have on hand and use whichever ones work best. We can diversify that and enhance the experience.”
Phocuswright Europe 2023
Ready to discuss and debate the future of the industry and where we go from here? Join Phocuswright Europe in Barcelona, June 12-14.