Swiss School Aims to Raise Local Service Standards
Published: June 21, 2012 (Issue # 1713)
ALEXANDER BELENKY / SPT
Walter Spaltenstein, head of the SwissAm Hospitality Business School.
Despite the rapid development of the Russian hospitality industry in recent years, most visitors agree that there is still much to be improved. A large part of the problem is due to a lack of qualified staff who believe in and are willing to work in the industry, says Walter Spaltenstein, head of the SwissAm Hospitality Business School, which opened in St. Petersburg in April.
“Hotel chains train people, but once these employees have completed their training, they move on to somewhere else where they can earn a higher salary,” Spaltenstein explained.
“This is understandable, but not good for the hotel. We [SwissAm] hope to help this industry, which is in desperate need of qualified employees. As Switzerland has the reputation of having the best hotel management schools, we now offer the opportunity to get the same type of diploma that graduates receive in Switzerland, but in Russia.”
SwissAm believes the key to successful courses is to give students a chance to gain practical experience during their training, says Spaltenstein, as when a student whose hospitality training is based only on theory is faced with a real-life situation, they immediately become stressed and provide lower quality service.
“We’ll teach you how to become a personality in the industry, how you should treat a guest, how to present yourself to the guest without acting like a slave and teach you about the important role ethics plays in business,” said Spaltenstein. “We put you in a stressful situation so that when you actually start working, you do so without encountering problems.”
The school focuses on paying attention to detail, as it is often the small things that bring guests back — or drive them away. Such details include pouring wine the wrong way — a widespread problem in Russia — or playing loud music in restaurants, which can ruin a person’s impression of a venue.
“It makes the difference between professional and amateur service,” Spaltenstein said. “That’s not to say that amateur service is always bad. It’s no good if everything is perfect but the waitress is nasty. Cheerfulness and politeness also play a large role in a company’s success.
“The general manager should notice if something is out of place,” said Spaltenstein.
“I give students a test — I move the pictures in the dining room so that they’re out of place. Ninety percent of the students never notice because they are too focused only on the table setting. But it’s the room as a whole that creates the atmosphere, the whole combination, and that is what students need to learn in order to become a manager,” he added.
A hotel’s reputation depends a lot on its kitchen, and SwissAm has both culinary arts and restaurant management programs.
“Good chefs are usually artists, and in general, artists don’t make much money,” said Spaltenstein.
“They make money when they’re dead, and we don’t want that. We have to teach them that this is a business. Previously, being a chef was not a prestigious position, and we would like to change that. Mostly expats used to do this job, but now more Russians are doing it.
Spaltenstein joined the industry when he was 16 years old. By 25, he was the executive chef at one of Canada’s best hotels with 120 chefs below him.
He believes that his success is due to hard work and determination.
“Not because I was anyone special or much better than others, but I had the passion, my goal, I knew what I wanted and I worked very hard to achieve these goals.”
After building his career in hotel management in Canada, Spaltenstein moved back to Switzerland, where he first worked in hotel schools before finally opening his own, which was sold last year. Setting up a school in Russia was one of Spaltenstein’s childhood dreams.
“When you’re a child you have dreams, and one of my dreams was to go to Mexico, Canada and Russia. In Mexico I opened up a school with my partner, I lived in Canada for a long time and built a lot of my career there. Now I have come to Russia with this project.”
Spaltenstein believes the hospitality industry is an important part of a country’s economy and uses his native Switzerland, which has made tourism its main industry, as an example.
“Tourism creates jobs, not only in cities,” he said. “People often want to visit St. Petersburg for several days, but then would like to see other parts of Russia — you have beautiful areas. Tourism brings business to areas where money is most needed. People have nothing to do in these places, but they can develop various branches of tourism. Switzerland became very economically stable because it brought people jobs. Our unemployment rate is only two percent,” he added.
Spaltenstein believes Russians are often very critical of their country, and do not notice the good things about it.
“If you take an exam and you get 80 percent out of a hundred, you’re happy. This is like life. Nothing is one hundred percent, but don’t make that 20 percent bigger than the 80 percent. Maybe the coffee was not quite hot enough, but that doesn’t mean the whole restaurant is bad. You have to see the good parts.”