Hospitality: it’s all about education and service
Excellent service and professionalisation in Portugal’s hotel sector are key to keeping its tourism industry competitive, according to Carlos Díez de la Lastra, CEO of Les Roches Marbella
Portugal is undoubtedly enjoying the best moment in tourism in its history. Over 20 million tourists visited the country in 2017 – 5.5 million to Lisbon and 1.6 million in Porto – and the government expects 30 million by 2020. But there are still challenges to be faced; not least at the level of education and professionalism in the Portuguese tourism sector.
“It’s a critical time,” reflects Carlos Díez de la Lastra with whom Essential Business met on the sidelines of the Les Roches graduates’ reunion of Portuguese hoteliers at Lisbon’s Ritz Four Seasons Hotel in late October.
“Portugal is being seen in a whole new light internationally in terms of a tourism destination,” he adds, pointing to the clutch of awards won at the World Travel Awards 2018, in which Portugal once again won the plaudit of being “World’s Leading Destination” while its capital Lisbon picked up the gongs for “World’s Leading City Destination” and “World’s Leading City Break Destination”.
Those awards highlighted just how much competition there is worldwide in the lucrative tourism market, with tough competition from currently trendy destinations like South Africa, Brazil, Spain, the US, Greece, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Morocco and the Maldives, to name a few, and which have upped their game and competitive edge over the past few years.
Portugal – a relatively young market
“Portugal is still a relatively young market in terms of room for growth and differentiation,” says the top hotel and hospitality expert.
“Up until now, Portugal had a secondary role in the tourism market, but that’s changing fast and the perception now is that it is a must-visit destination.”
The hotel management guru admits Portugal’s rise has been impressive and one of the most successful tourism stories in Europe, with an annual growth of 12% in tourism receipts and over 20 million tourists in 2017.
Díez de la Lastra is upbeat but cautious: “That growth is great! The problem is that this growth is happening at a time when strong competitors are re-emerging in North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt) offering products which are similar to those that Portugal and Spain currently offer: sun, sea, culture, security and cheaper hotel prices.
“Portugal has an advantage over Spain and other European countries, which charge higher prices for hotel rooms. But another way in which Portugal can compete and stand out from competitors has to do with the quality and professionalism of its tourism and hotel industry staff. It is in this area that Portugal needs to do some work,” he stresses.
Díez de la Lastra points out that compared to Spain, which had reached market maturity and even saturation in some resorts back in the 1980s, Portugal is still a relatively young market with room for growth.
The Chief Executive Officer of Les Roches – Global Hospitality Education, based in Marbella, Spain, explains that the insecurities and uncertainties surrounding the North African markets had, in part, been responsible for the exponential boom in tourism in both Portugal and Spain, which saw millions of tourists pass through airports, border crossings and cruise ship terminals in 2017.
He recognises that it is still difficult for the hospitality industry to meet the growing demand for highly-qualified staff, which is why Les Roches has regularly been in Portugal to recruit young Portuguese school leavers and entice them into considering careers in the hotel industry.
“If the people working in hospitality in Portugal now are not qualified to be the leaders in a sector which is enjoying an annual growth rate of 12%, then Portugal will not have the capacity to offer that excellent standard of service, which is expected. It will need to compete with other destinations offering similar products,” the hotel industry chief warned.
Díez de la Lastra admits the problem of poorly qualified staff trying to meet the needs of a booming industry is not confined to Portugal. It is a worldwide issue.
“This means that Portugal is faced with two challenges. The lack of solutions on the ground but also the lack of manpower to meet that demand,” he says.
According to a World Tourism Organisation (WTO) report, Portugal is in the top 25 countries in terms of tourism worldwide but, like Spain, does not have the necessary professionals entering the sector to meet projected demand for the next 15 years.
Says Díez de la Lastra, “the result is that when the sector needs people to work in the industry in future they may have to attract talent from overseas colleges and universities like ours.”
Portugal lacks sufficient hospitality colleges
While Portugal currently does have five good government-supported hotel and tourism schools in Lisbon, Estoril, Porto, Coimbra and Setúbal which train and turn out excellent professionals there are currently not sufficient students to meet demand and the best hotel management talent often, on graduation, goes overseas where they can command higher salaries in other countries.
The hospitality specialist adds that when the local economy is down in other sectors in Portugal and people want to retrain in the hospitality industry, he doubts that there is currently sufficient offer in terms of colleges or courses.
Portugal lacks sufficient hospitality colleges
Díez de la Lastra says that schools and universities in both Portugal and Spain, while making advances, are not making the grade, while the government/public sector is not doing the best it can to train the people the industry needs. This vacuum is being filled by private schools, like Les Roches.
“The growing success of the tourism sector in Portugal has boosted interest from young school leavers in Les Roches and the Glion Institute of Higher Education, which have various undergraduate and postgraduate courses and offer work experience in hotels overseas,” Díez de la Lastra explains.
“The fact that this year many new hotel projects have been announced for both Lisbon and Porto shows that the market has a lot of room for growth. But we are seeing changes in the market with a polarisation of five-star hotels at one end and cheaper accommodation at the other end, with fewer three- and four-star hotels.”
Díez de la Lastra stresses that with increased competition, greater demand and higher tourist expectations, many three- and four-star hotels were seeing the need to upgrade to five-star status, which was becoming the “standard”, while other smaller hotels were selling themselves on differentiation by becoming boutique hotels, often trading on a unique selling point.
The hotel management training boss also praised the quality of, and high demand for, Portuguese hotel managers worldwide saying that 11% of all students passing through the Les Roches Marbella Global Hospitality Education graduate and undergraduate programmes were Portuguese, mostly at their campuses in Spain and Switzerland.
“As an international school, we have many Portuguese students; they represent one of the nationalities that make up the largest slice from all our students worldwide. And they tend to stand out, when the time comes, for management recruitment and go on to occupy senior management positions in five-star hotels all over the world,” he says.
Referring to them as “dedicated” and “hard workers”, Díez de la Lastra notes that the Portuguese are prepared to “put in the hard work, and educational and financial investment” needed by the industry.
But the industry doesn’t just need high-flying managers. It needs other vital members of staff: reception, front-of-house, bar, kitchen and room staff, who are “not going to invest money in getting better educated privately because the salaries are too low,” he explains.
Díez de la Lastra admits that the Portuguese government is changing its policy on education investment in the tourism sector and gives the example of Portugal’s tourism bureau Turismo de Portugal, which is “doing a better job than (similar entities) in many other countries and has a more focused strategy”.
Investing in people
One problem that persists, however, is that hotel owners and tourism industry leaders running businesses in the sector don’t always give adequate importance to staff investment and training.
Says Díez de la Lastra, “money is the bottom line for them, but if they realised investing more in staff training would improve their image and service, and therefore revenues, they would perhaps change. Today, many sector business owners are starting to understand the importance of investing in people.
“Some important Portuguese companies are beginning to look at training and invest in their staff. This will have a knock-on effect as others will want to imitate the excellent service their competitors are providing and they, too, will need to up their game and invest in training.”
The hospitality expert says that what really makes the difference is not just educating and training future hospitality managers and staff, but moulding and transforming them, not just as professionals but as people.
“I’m really optimistic about Portugal. It still has some way to go and needs time, resources and effort, but it is on the right path,” he concludes.