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Which is more important in hospitality, education or experience?

Education will be important at the start of your career, but your recent employment history will be the crucial selection criterion for high level jobs.

Perhaps you’ve set your sights on a career in hospitality. Now you may be asking yourself what is the best career path to follow in order to maximize my chances of success in the field of hotel or gastronomy management?

In any case, your value to a potential employer or, indeed, your ability to be a successful entrepreneur will depend essentially on your education and past experience – which may not necessarily be in the hospitality sector.

Industry with unique career opportunities: from dishwasher to CEO

You’ve probably heard tales of successful hotel managers and even CEOs who started out peeling potatoes in the kitchen or as a bellhop and subsequently rose to commanding positions in the industry without having acquired a higher education.

Such is the case of Eric Danziger, the former CEO of Wyndham Hotels, the biggest hotel group in the world by number of properties, and presently head of Trump Hotels. Right out of high school, Danziger landed his first hotel industry job, as a management trainee at the iconic Fairmont hotel in San Francisco. There, Danziger got a thorough grounding in all the practical areas of the hotel business —from bellman to front desk to catering. Once he had gained a certain amount of experience, he heard about an opportunity at a hotel in San Diego and went off to pursue his highly successful career in hospitality.

However, a lot has changed since Danziger entered the hospitality industry almost half a century ago. The sector has become much more professionalized and the job requirements far more specialized and compartmentalized. For instance, to be hired as a ‘revenue manager’ or a ‘digital marketing expert’, you’d better have had some good formal training in statistical methods and IT.

Education will get you in the door

Rather than trying to determine whether either experience or education is more important than the other, it’s perhaps more useful to think in terms of a career timeline. Education will be particularly important at the start of your career and a diploma from a recognised hotel school like the EHL Swiss School of Tourism & Hospitality (SSTH) in Passugg, Switzerland will definitely give you a leg up when applying for interesting jobs offering a career path in the industry, such as Hilton’s Elevator Program,  which prepares graduates to become general managers of the chain’s properties.

Nevertheless, it’s important that the hotel school programme you choose includes plenty of practical training and internships which allow you to put into practice what you’ve learned in the classroom. A good compromise for those who are not sure they want to go the full route of obtaining a bachelor degree is EHL SSTH’s Swiss Professional Degree programme. Nevertheless, students, who may change their mind after completing this degree qualification, still have the option of going on to obtain a bachelor’s degree from SSTH’s parent organization the prestigious Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL).

The networking advantage at a hotel management school

Another good reason for attending a reputable hotel school is to become part of the alumni network. This is clearly one of the most valuable aspects of attending hotel school. Hospitality is a worldwide industry, so if you have attended a well-known institution like SSTH, you will have a ready-made set of contacts in key locations around the world - wherever the hotel industry is active. Indeed more so than for hotel education programmes in Anglo-Saxon countries, Swiss hotel school graduates can be found sprinkled across the world.  

Education to become a lifelong process

In any case, education is evolving towards being a lifelong process. If you get a degree in the next couple of years, this will likely not be end of your education for the rest of your career. Rather it’s more likely that you will be updating your skills on an ongoing basis in order to keep up with the changes and new requirements of the job market, as it is impacted by advances in technology and societal trends. As opposed to the more general education one receives in a diploma or bachelor programme, there will be mini-courses targeting the acquisition of specific skills and competencies.    

As you move up the career ladder experience is what counts

While education is important to get you off to a good start in the industry, experience becomes the crucial criterion as you move up the career ladder. If you are being considered for a top job (like regional vice-president for a major chain), your education will no longer be of any great significance in the selection process. Rather, it will be your most recent employment history that will determine whether you get the job or not. A future employer wants to see what you have accomplished professionally and what you are capable of doing. Networking skills are also of prime importance in climbing the career ladder - whether inside the same organization or outside.