Preparing graduates for the essence of our industry, human interaction, and more with EHL CEO Markus Venzin

Professor Markus Venzin, EHL Group’s Chief Executive Officer

We speak with Professor Markus Venzin, EHL Group’s Chief Executive Officer, about what brought him to EHL and explore his thoughts for the future of business education intertwined with the hospitality industry. Here’s what he had to say:

Please could you introduce yourself…

I am Swiss-German by nationality, but after more than twenty years of living in Milan, I must admit to having become quite ‘Italianized’, hence my love of Barolo wine and riding around in a scooter. I was a former Professor of Strategy and Dean of Innovation at Bocconi University, and I advised large corporations on how to support corporate entrepreneurship through a venture builder whilst also advancing innovation as a subject at Bocconi. A year ago, I accepted this unique position at EHL Hospitality Business School, which heralded the start of an exciting new chapter, surrounded by many talented people with whom – thanks to my background in innovation – I’m repositioning the world of hospitality education.

As a prominent figure in business education, could you tell me what the outlook for the sector is like? How does the future of EHL sit within this landscape?

According to QS rankings for the 5th consecutive year, EHL Hospitality Business School has been ranked #1 worldwide in Hospitality Management and #5 in Switzerland in Business Management. The EHL Group has a large portfolio of academic programs ranging from apprenticeships and bachelor degrees to master degrees, as well as professional and executive education. Encouraging the investment in and development of hospitality business education is where we sit within this landscape.

Since 2000, the average share of 25–34-year-olds with a tertiary degree increased from 27% to 48% in 2022 across OECD countries. The demand for high-quality business education is on the rise, boosted by the labour market advantages, population growth from developing markets seeking tertiary education internationally, and by the increasing importance of lifelong learning amongst individuals and companies.

As we progress further into Industry 4.0, technology has highlighted the importance of people in jobs that are difficult or impossible to automate. According to Deloitte, the future of work will be human.

In the shift away from work that requires ‘hands’ to work that requires ‘heads’, a renewed focus has also been put on ‘hearts.’ At EHL, we aim to teach the human side of business; being the reference point for human interaction and affective hospitality underpins our future in the hospitality business landscape.

This is particularly true for our Graduate programs which aim to provide students and professionals with leadership models based on human-centricity and kind leadership. EHL Graduate School’s education portfolio aims at engaging people’s minds, hearts and hands to orchestrate human-centric strategies that create, capture, and share value in a collaborative ecosystem framework.

And how does EHL Hospitality Business School contribute to the growth of the hospitality industry?

EHL was created in 1893 as the world’s first hotel school to answer the industry’s needs for trained professionals at a time when tourism started blooming. For 130 years, we have been shaping the contours of the hospitality industry and training the next generations of leaders with hospitality competencies.

Nowadays, about 50% of our graduates are pursuing a career inside the hospitality sector stricto sensu andare true ambassadors of our hospitality expertise around the world.

Our education model based on experiential learning reflects the Swiss dual approach, which combines theory and practice alongside soft and hard skills. The hands-on, practical aspect of our programs naturally means that we have a very close relationship to the industry with whom we collaborate over internships, career fairs, conferences, business case studies and faculty research.

At EHL, our faculty take great pride in gathering data and analyses from industry practices, knowing that their findings will directly impact what is being taught in the classroom. In turn, EHL graduates enter the workplace armed with the right balance of factually current theory and practice. It’s a virtuous circle where industry and education work in tandem, one constantly informing the other, and in turn, helping to establish a strong sense of reputation fueled by thought leadership.

We contribute to the industry’s growth by training caring and innovative leaders with excellent hospitality competencies, by providing valuable insights to industry professionals via faculty research or research institutes, by being close to our alumni network of 30,000 members, by offering professional and student consultancy on real-world projects, by integrating compulsory internships in our curricula, by organizing field trips and industry conferences, etc.

In short, EHL adds to the growth of the hospitality industry by championing the importance of its transversal skills in today’s increasingly digitalized society – we are ever more in need of human-centricity and emotional intelligence. Lastly, we strive to be known for our commitment to innovation in hospitality and lifelong learning attitudes to how it’s taught – where else can an apprentice actually leave school with a university degree?

How does the school balance its focus on traditional hospitality skills with emerging trends and areas of expertise, such as digital transformation and data analytics?

Our roots in hospitality management and soft skills provide a distinctive approach to our teaching which can be found in all our courses from management, finance, marketing and real estate to wine management. What makes hospitality so complex and rich is also what makes it so compelling; it isn’t just one skill, and today one needs to know as much about cooking as about algorithms. We believe that this balance between theory and practice is exactly what makes our graduates so special and sought-after. We like to think of our graduates as “plug and play”: immediately able to perform their job effectively, whether it’s coding algorithms or handling guest requests at the front desk.

In terms of hospitality business 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 labour market value;
  • offering skilling and upskilling opportunities for professionals of all levels;
  • maintaining the emphasis on transversal soft skills;
  • developing Gen-Z-inspired human-centric leadership models;
  • promoting decision-making based on AI, data collection and analysis;
  • using innovative start-up mindsets to address sustainability needs;
  • integrating online formats.

Human-centricity plays as big a role as tech advances; the key in hospitality business education is knowing how to balance the two. Yes, the hospitality industry is increasingly relying on data analytics to make informed decisions about customer preferences, pricing and marketing strategies, and yes, hospitality business schools must feature these technologies to collect and analyze data for providing tailored experiences and recommendations – but the role of human interaction should remain central to all programs.

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.

As an expert on growth strategies, innovation and entrepreneurship, what are your thoughts on technological changes disrupting business education?

“Disruption” – a key concept in innovation and entrepreneurship – is an interesting and exciting word that can be equally positive or negative depending on the context. To say that tech advancements are a trigger for invention is an understatement. In terms of opening up the educational spectrum, technological changes have essentially democratized and facilitated access to learning to an extent that’s nothing short of revolutionary. 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 – and this includes the way education is designed and delivered.

Business education has certainly been made more accessible, personalized and immersive thanks to online learning platforms that allow students to study at their own pace and to their own tailored schedule from anywhere in the world. This accessibility to education, in general, has helped develop the mindset of ‘lifelong learning’ – a concept very close to EHL’s heart since our future vision is based on providing continuous training to ensure the hospitality business sector stays buoyant, relevant and attractive throughout the entire career span of its professionals.

Disruption cannot only be seen in the way we provide education, but also in the subjects we teach. Business students nowadays need to understand technology to stay competitive. But not only digital technology is key – think about the quest for sustainability in the hospitality industry. To advance this topic, executives need to master aspects of material science as well electronics and mechanics.

Increasingly we are moving from learning before doing to learning by doing modes. Instead of teaching how to make a business plan in a classroom, we ask students to work with startups or create their own venture to experience what it means to define the “what, how and who” of a business. Innovation does not stop in and around the classroom. If higher education organizations want to stay competitive, they need to find new ways of accelerating their decision-making speed and their effectiveness of implementing changes effectively.

Can you discuss any recent initiatives or programmes that EHL Hospitality Business School has launched to address specific issues in the hospitality industry?

We are constantly vigilant with regards to trends and ways in which our hospitality competencies can be transversally extended to other industry sectors, (for example, teaching CHUV healthcare professionals the art of reception management or IMD business entrepreneurs how cooking can unleash the innovation mindset). Our BA program includes elective courses where industry professionals share insights on real-life practices and niche areas like, for example, the role of sensorial design in hospitality spaces. Our Preparatory Year for our Bachelor’s Degree in International Hospitality Management features short courses taught using VR and gamification techniques specific to hospitality.

In terms of research, we’re currently exploring experiential tourism, where creating offers based on emotional outcomes is being seen as a way of combatting the rising issue of societal loneliness and isolation. Sustainability is clearly an initiative that we are committing a lot of time, teaching and research to (a third of our research is led on CSR topics) – worth mentioning is a nationwide EHL faculty research project into the implementation of regenerative tourism practices in Switzerland.

We have launched a two-day summer program on Luxury Hospitality Management with HEC Paris and a luxury module on our Lausanne campus as part of Bocconi’s executive master program EMILUX. For many years, big names in fashion, watchmaking, jewellery and even the automobile industry have been drawing on the extensive knowledge of the hospitality industry to immerse their clients in a world where the human experience is key while extending their brand images beyond products. With these programs, we aim to analyse this growing trend in-depth and join forces with our respective expertise.

What are your ambitions for EHL and hopes for the future of business education?

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 is 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. EHL aims to continue growing as the world’s reference point for hospitality business education. We believe in preparing our learners for the new global economy based on 21st-century skills: a strong work ethic, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, multiculturalism, innovation, creativity and leadership, to name but a few. Hard skills, also, like the latest competences in IT and data-driven technology, but never at the expense of what is the essence of our industry: human interaction. 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 are seeking the human-centred 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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