EXCLUSIVE: Hilton CEO to Students—Get Into a Hotel

WASHINGTONEducators in hotel schools and industry executives have been on a quest to find more common ground. While approaches to understanding the market can differ, both sides want the industry to thrive and those part of it to flourish. Understanding what to take away from both worlds increases the likelihood of a hotel school graduate succeeding. 

Hotel Business recently joined faculty from Cornell’s hotel school on the institution’s faculty immersion trip in Washington, DC. (The full story on the event itself can be found in the 1/15 edition of Hotel Business.) In addition to sitting in on sessions devoted to informing the faculty of the latest research and conversing with educators, this publication threw some questions on the state of hospitality education to Hilton Worldwide President/CEO Chris Nassetta, who also greeted attendees on the school’s trip to the hospitality giant’s headquarters in McLean, VA.

Here’s what Hilton’s CEO said on strengthening employability skills, bringing academia and industry together and succeeding in and after hotel school. 

What skills are you looking for from hotel school graduates?

Of course industry-specific knowledge, including insight into the business of hospitality, is great for candidates to have, but the things that separate one graduate from another are often a willingness to learn and to live our values. Since joining Hilton nearly 10 years ago, I’ve focused on building a strong culture based on our values: hospitality, integrity, leadership, teamwork, ownership and now [operating with a sense of urgency]. Alignment with our values is critical. It’s what differentiates us from our competitors, and ensures we continue to deliver for guests, shareholders and our fellow team members. At the end of the day, it’s our secret sauce.

How can academia and industry come together to continue to develop leaders in hospitality?

One of the biggest challenges facing our industryand the entire global economyis youth unemployment. According to the International Labor Organization, as many as 71 million young people are currently unemployed.

As the world’s largest employerand one that’s expected to generate 86 million new jobs directly and indirectly by 2026the travel and tourism industry is in a unique position to open doors and create opportunities for young people. But just having the open positions isn’t enoughwe need to ensure young people are prepared for these jobs—and that’s where academia can help.

Even in developed economies, nearly one in five students do not acquire a minimum level of basic skills needed to be gainfully employed. And McKinsey [& Company] has found that only 43% of employers can find enough skilled entry-level workers. We need our partners in education to help ensure that young people have the right “hard” and “soft” skillsincluding communication, problem-solving and cross-cultural competenciesto be successful in our industry.

What things can academia do better in preparing students for working in hospitality?

I’d encourage hotel schools to develop and highlight skills outside of the traditional hospitality curriculum when training our future leaders. For example, in today’s digital society, all companies are tech companiesso we need our team members to be just as well versed in online engagement as they are in forecasting occupancy.

In addition to getting an education through schooling, what else should students be doing to better prepare themselves after graduation?

Get out of the classroom and into a hotel. It’s so important to get practical, hands-on experience; there’s nothing like getting on-property experience to keep your skills fresh andequally importantto stay connected to the energy that’s at the heart of this industry. At Hilton, that’s why we encourage our corporate team members to regularly participate in “immersions” at our hotels, where they experience firsthand the many different ways our hotel team members create exceptional experiences for our guests every day.

What advice would you give a hotel school graduate that you wish you had known when you first started in the industry?

My advice is simple: Soak up every minute and every experience. Hospitality is the best industry in the world; I got my first job in this industry as a teenager, and I’ve always known it was my true calling. I’ve found that every experiencefrom plunging toilets as a member of the engineering team, to taking Hilton public in one of the industry’s biggest IPOsoffers an important opportunity to learn and improve.