‘Hospitality industry at exciting crossroads of reinvention, paradigm shifts’

Dr Markus Venzin, CEO, EHL Group, says hospitality’s next generation will be looking to lead the sector in a new way with a fresh set of values

From a small Swiss hotel school in 1893 to today, EHL has evolved involved into an international group that offers a large and complete range of learning and business solutions, with campuses in Switzerland and Asia. The Group is supported by a worldwide alumni network of 30,000 professionals and several thousand industry partners. Over the last 130 years, the Group has provided educational programmes through the EHL Hospitality Business School, the world’s best hospitality management university, as well as advisory services for companies and learning centres around the world. 

In September 2022, Dr Markus Venzin took over as the new CEO of EHL Group, at a time of incredible transformation in the hospitality industry as the sector adapted to post-Covid19 resurgence in travel and changing consumer preferences as well as the emergence of revolutionary technology such as generative AI. In his long experience as a former dean of innovation at Bocconi University, a professor in global strategy, management consultant and entrepreneur, Dr Venzin is poised to lead EHL and its campuses in Switzerland and Singapore in the next phase of growth as it prepares the next generation of leaders to succeed in hospitality as well as in other industries such as luxury, business and consulting. 

Excerpts:  

In your opinion, what changes institutions already have or are likely to make to prepare the next generation of leaders for the hospitality sector?  

The hospitality industry is today at an exciting crossroads of reinvention and paradigm shifts. The societal signals are clear: VUCA (Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) environments are here to stay, and as a consequence, preparing future hospitality leaders has to focus on agility, innovation, sustainability and a healthy balance between AI and human-centricity. In brief, 21st century competencies that match the demands of the times.  

In terms of hospitality education, institutions need to adapt their teaching methods and curricula to suit the fast-paced ways the new generation and the market are evolving. This means expanding the learner journey to include: stackable units to stimulate the education continuum while earning credentials of labor market value; lifelong learning opportunities throughout a hospitality career; transversal soft skills; decision-making based on data collection and analysis; innovative start-up mindsets – to name a few examples.  

Most importantly, hospitality’s next generation will be looking to lead the sector in a new way with a fresh set of values. Gen Z’s expectations for purpose, sustainable practices and a decent work-life balance mean that old-fashioned leadership models are on the way out. If the hospitality industry is to be made more attractive and effective in retaining its talents, leadership models have to include modern-day business acumen alongside emotional intelligence and a strong sense of collectivity, (i.e., adopting ecosystem frameworks that interact with local communities, competitors and all hospitality stakeholders).  

How can hospitality reposition itself as an attractive, tech-savvy, sustainable and innovative sector in the face of today’s shifting times and changing customer requirements?  

Prior to my role at EHL, I advised large corporations to support corporate entrepreneurship through a venture builder whilst also advancing innovation as a subject at Bocconi University in Milan, where I served as Dean of innovation for several years. The precondition for driving innovation is making sure everyone understands that innovation leads to higher customer attraction and retention and consequently higher profitability.  

Unfortunately, many managers in the traditional hospitality industry don’t see this link because they’re too focused on daily operations, overall costs and short-term results. However, good ideas lead to innovation and profitability – it is a virtuous circle! So once a firm has accepted this, the next challenge is to actually develop the innovations, either by adopting another firm’s ideas or by creating an internal system for employees to identify new ideas, nurture them and let them develop.  

Before you start: think about incentivising people to take risks and help them free up the creative mindset. A similar argument could be applied to sustainability and its successful implementation. The hospitality industry needs both a paradigm shift and visionary leaders who do not shy away from taking risks, changing mindsets, adopting new leadership methods and, above all, harnessing technology as the gateway to finding solutions. 

What role do you see EHL playing for the hospitality sector across the world and India in particular?  

As the world’s best hospitality management school with 125 nationalities among its student body, we aim to walk the talk and continue shaping the hospitality industry globally. For this, we provide top-quality Swiss education to our students on our campuses in Switzerland and Singapore, whilst also partnering with industry bodies, institutions and governments to raise the standards of service excellence worldwide via training and certification schemes. 

Staying true to our Swiss dual education heritage, we have established partnerships with industry bodies such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), ITC Hotels, and IHCL (Taj Hotels) to create a robust talent development pipeline for the Indian hospitality industry. Our approach includes delivering vocational education and training programmes (VET by EHL programmes) through an apprenticeship framework to both new and existing workforce, with the training being provided both within and by the industry. 

CII Institute of Hospitality currently offers VET by EHL programmes across seven licensed partner hotels or training centres. It is projected that by the end of 2023, 750 students will be enrolled in the VET by EHL Professional Diploma Programme. Raising the standards of service excellence in India represents a real chance to attract more tourists, enhance the country’s reputation as a hospitality destination, and contribute to its economic growth. This is even more relevant in the post-Covid environment and with India currently hosting the G20 Leaders’ Summit in 2023 when domestic travel and hospitality will strengthen further.  

On a personal note, I’m looking forward to this event since I’ve been invited to be part of the G20 task force to discuss ideas on the future of work, upskilling and mobility. 

What are your thoughts on technological changes disrupting the hospitality industry? 

One of today’s key industry challenges is for technology not to get in the way of the human touch – often seen as the heartbeat of our industry. Hence, it is up to us as hospitality leaders to define the right balance and know how to adapt tech advancements to the specific need and context. What can be seen as a negative disruption by one customer, such as a contactless check-in, can be seen as a welcome innovation that adds speed and efficiency by another customer segment with different needs. 

Where these advancements enable performance gains in back-of-house operations via AI and virtual reality with unparalleled speed, hospitality will continue to hold its ground with social interactions and soft skills like empathy, EQ and creativity. This is a chance to highlight the one attribute that sets humans apart from the machine, namely ‘emotional intelligence’ and ‘human centricity’ - the essence of what is taught at EHL.  

Indeed, our increasingly digitalised world has made isolation, alienation and loneliness a bigger societal problem than ever before, yet this could be seen a growth opportunity for innovation in the industry to find ways of solving the issue, (e.g., bringing human exchanges and themed experiences to the forefront of offers). In many ways, human interaction in hospitality actually looks set to increase thanks to many of the dull, repetitive tasks being taken over by machines and tech, leaving room for a more personalized, human-centric level of service between provider and guest. 

Post-pandemic, talent acquisition has been a challenge for the hospitality industry. Any solutions…  

The hospitality industry is facing a shortage of skilled professionals due to a perception that it is less attractive, innovative, and lucrative than other industries. Yet at the same time, the global travel and tourism industry is back on a growth path. Ultimately, there is no real labor shortage: the problem is that there’s not enough profitability within the operations or willingness among the industry leaders to invest in people. We have a lack of hospitality businesses that can afford to invest in talents and see a return on that training investment. This is a mindset problem that needs to change. 

Young professionals are looking for a shift away from rigid hierarchy systems and towards more innovative, transversal and dynamic environments allowing them the potential to grow and develop their know-how. Ideally, graduates today should be entering the industry excited by the fact that they are part of a lifelong learning cycle where professional training is considered a valuable investment throughout one’s career.  

Some solutions to the current staff shortages include new leadership models (empathetic, transversal, purpose-driven); better salaries and benefits; schedule flexibility; labour mobility and remote working; safety nets; investment in upskilling and reskilling via continuous training; organisational innovation; better career growth opportunities and people analytics used in HR decisions.

What’s holding back hospitality companies from progressing faster in their sustainability journeys? Are there any solutions and what is EHL’s role in contributing to this change in the industry?  

Becoming sustainable is not just the “right thing to do”, it is the “smart thing to do” as it provides businesses with a competitive advantage. Sustainability is the biggest economic opportunity and necessity of our times; however, the service sector has been slow to adopt sustainable practices because they are often deemed non-economically viable and difficult to implement throughout all the steps of the supply and value chains. Again, the lack of investment and innovation mindset plays a crucial role here. Approaching the problem with a bold, start-up mentality (e.g., harnessing digital technologies and tech start-ups) could be a way of progressing faster along the sustainability journey. Essentially, innovation and sustainability go hand in hand: from renewable business models to data-driven waste disposal systems, smart innovation is required so that production, operations and delivery are optimised to meet hospitality’s sustainable goals. 

Since achieving sustainable outcomes implies profound, fundamental transformation of both the economy and society, organisations must not just aspire to being sustainable but firmly activate implementable practices that can be clearly communicated to and measured by the customer. Greenwashing is an anathema to the intelligent consumer, so a small green gesture like re-usable towels or paper cups will no longer cut it when a hotel is clearly burning up its electricity bill with unnecessary air-con. The courage to be transparent and authentic with one’s practices along the entire chain is what wins over the committed guest. 

Some solutions include adhering to circular economy practices; investing in research into regenerative hospitality; working with competitors to share the solving of common problems; optimising sustainability in hospitality via supply and value chains; partnering with tech startups to develop radical sustainability innovations; taking a purpose-driven approach; providing sustainability training to leaders & staff members – what is taught at EHL; educating consumers globally – education is key and everyone’s responsibility and investing in innovative sustainability start-ups. 

What’s your vision for EHL Group for the next five years?   

EHL Group’s profound ambition is to provide the students on our campuses in Switzerland and Singapore with a unique, innovative, and caring educational ecosystem that bridges academia and industry practice, enabling them to acquire the right hospitality competencies and further thrive as human-centric leaders. EHL plans to make the concept of lifelong learning a possibility for all types of learners no matter their age, geography or professional level. EHL: a place where one falls in love with learning through doing. 

For almost 130 years now, the entire EHL community — teachers, researchers, consultants, interns, and alumni — has served the hospitality industry and shaped its contours. Today, our graduates are highly valued in other industries like luxury retail, real estate, consulting and private banking, especially because of this unique hospitality heritage and the soft skills acquired throughout our experiential education. 

This evolution explains our new identity, from Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne to EHL Hospitality Business School. The fact that our scope has expanded shows that a diverse array of industries is seeking the human-centered expertise that hospitality provides. In the years to come, we will continue to place emphasis on human centricity, which is key to having a positive impact in an increasingly digital, uncertain and fast-changing world. 


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