“In my 30 years of experience in the hospitality industry I cannot remember ever meeting a manager who wasn’t simply a smiling, charismatic, friendly, agreeable, good-looking, outgoing person,” says Prof. MSc. MEd. Beverley Wilson-Wünsch, doctoral candidate in the Department of Educational Research and Development at Maastricht University. “These personality traits were central success factors in the sector. But today that’s changing and that’s the basis of my current research.”
Wilson-Wünsch was born in the “small, quaint village” of Orange Bay near the Six Mile beach resort area of Negril in Jamaica at a time when the island had moved from an agriculture based economy to a service economy dependent to a great extent on tourism. “Perhaps that’s what’s triggered my interest in becoming a hospitality expert,” she smiles.
An industry in change
From an early age, Wilson-Wünsch had a clear sense of the transformation taking place in the industry and was prepared to take the necessary steps to stay ahead of the curve.
Upon high school graduation, she started working as a trainee assisting the manager of the personnel office in a large government run flagship hotel in Montego Bay.
Two years later, she contacted the Ministry of Tourism to enquire about scholarship funds to study tourism and hospitality. “My sense was that the industry was changing and that it was going to change very fast. I wanted to go into higher education because I wanted to know more about what hospitality actually was, and I wanted to be a manager because I knew I could do more. I spoke to a civil servant who told me about an essay competition that would close in a week’s time.”
The theme of the essay was the role of tourism in a country such as Jamaica that was struggling with its balance of payments and candidates were asked to come forward with ideas on how they would be able to contribute to the future of the industry if they were given the opportunity to do so.
Wilson-Wünsch lets another smile as she remembers how she raced against time to complete the essay meeting deadline. “People think Jamaica is a very small country but the Ministry’s offices in Kingston were four hours away from my hometown. When I finished my paper, I took the day off, woke up early, got on the public bus, travelled up there and hand-delivered the envelope with my essay to the person I had talked to on the phone.”
Wilson-Wünsch grew up with a strong belief in the value of education: “I think that people have the wrong perception of Jamaica. We have one of the best educational systems in the world, because education is people’s way out of poverty and up the social ladder. There’s an element of pride in education.”
Her scholarship took her to the Bahamas where she obtained an associate degree in hospitality management. “I spent two years in college learning the basics of the industry, how to manage people and deal with all practical aspects, food and beverage, operations, recreation parks and tourism…”
Immediately putting her knowledge into practice, Wilson-Wünsch spent the next six months at the historical park of Sturbridge, Massachussetts, getting acquainted with all areas of the resort. There too, she was guided by her sense and vision of what was important. “I went to my boss and asked to be moved from the dishwasher because I wanted to learn more about other aspects of the park. At first, he was shocked that I even opened my mouth and was in total disarray,” she laughs, “but he kept his promise.”
Wilson-Wünsch worked hard for seven days a week and used all the money she earned to pay the first semester of college fees at the Florida International University. There she found a way to complete her education without further costs: “I made sure that my academic performance was such that I would get my tuition waived every semester. That’s how I made it through college, scoring 3.5 – 4.0, making the Dean’s list and keeping a good grade point average. I had many sleepless nights and pushed myself hard!”
After a long career observing the hospitality industry, both as a practitioner and a certified instructor, Wilson-Wünsch decided a few years ago to take up her studies again. “The industry is caught in a paradigm shift and we see that there is a certain hard business knowledge that is absolutely important for the success of hospitality managers today,” she explains. “My research aims to look at how expertise is developed in the hospitality industry and to examine what has been the classical view and what is necessary to live up to the market demand of hospitality today.”
Just like most industries, the hospitality industry today is led by business results. “The need for knowledge is propelled by the fact that those who are investing in the hospitality product are people who want to make sure that they will get their money back,” says Wilson-Wünsch. “We’re talking about banks, insurance companies, investors who are no longer caring whether or not you are smiling. All they want to make sure is that they are going to be able to make their profit.”
She illustrates her point with a personal anecdote: “A regional Hilton hotel director admitted to me that he would never hire a manager today who would not have a bachelor’s degree in hospitality or in business.”
“We live in a new era where it is important to know what is happening down the road, where in order to be successful managers need to be forward looking, competent, vigilant, capable of processing information and use different types of knowledge,” she explains.
Wilson-Wünsch hopes that her research will also contribute to changing the image of the hospitality industry: “In every university I have been, hospitality faculty students are not seen as academics. They are often taken only for the show. People see hospitality managers as different from say a manager of an insurance company or managers in the medical profession. It is expected that a doctor who manages a hospital should have certain knowledge base, but in hospitality it is the right personality that matters most. We are not measured with the same yardstick and are not given the same kind of respect as other managers in other professions. Yet, there are excellent business managers in the hospitality industry and that’s what triggered my research.”
The challenge, she says, is that hospitality students and even managers are not conscious of the need for business knowledge. “Their motivation in entering the industry is based on the frills they experienced while staying at a five-star hotel during their travels, the feeling of being pampered and catered to,” Wilson-Wünsch explains.
“When they realize that they also need to understand the back stage processes and learn about budgets, bottom lines, financial statements, statistics, managerial accounting, return on investment, they are shocked. That’s when the reality sets in.”
She tells her students: “In order to provide that suite that is so pompous, the spotless lamp, the soft feathered pillows and sheets as white as snow, there are people that you will need to pay to clean them.”
Hotel staff at Hotel Portosoller (some rights reserved)
Wilson-Wünsch started her research in 2006 in the Department of Educational Research and Development (ERD) and travels about once a month to Maastricht from Bad Honnef, Germany where she now lives, to discuss her progress.
“Maastricht came into my life because it’s close and it is perhaps one of the few universities that is doing research as strongly in the area of cognitive psychology and expertise development. I am lucky to have found one of the most challenging, intellectually stimulating supervisors in the name of Wim Gijselaers who has just kept me on the ball, and screams when he has to,” she laughs.
Interestingly, Wilson-Wünsch says that her investigations have raised new, “troubling” questions: “I am hoping that my research will help to close the gap in the industry that says that personality is more important than hard knowledge, but once that gap is accepted in the industry, I think that we will need to find out where this knowledge that is so important for success in the industry should be taught.”
This question, Wilson-Wünch believes, will be a crucial topic for further research, because the second question that derives from it is where the training budget for hospitality managers should be spent: “Is the money better spent on universities providing theoretical education or should we work a lot closer with the industry and give more importance to the apprenticeship period?”
Wilson-Wünsch is eager to complete her research this year because the industry is under pressure: “Without the hard business knowledge, I do not think that hospitality managers will survive today.”
By Sueli Brodin