Homing In On Hospitality
An institute in Kerala, India, delivers short courses for candidates eager to join customer service in the Gulf tourism sector
By Maria Elizabeth Kallukaren, June 09 2016
When Dubai-based Binu Bharathan first spoke of his project, the swelling of pride in his voice was unmistakable. On the outside, the initiative might not seem like much. ASHOT or the Advanced School in Hotel Operational Training is a family-owned business, focused on hospitality training, in the small town of Mavelikkara located in Alappuzha district in Kerala, south India.
Set up in January 2016, it currently offers a short certificate course in housekeeping administration and operations, with the training being largely practical, and aimed at getting students into housekeeping jobs in the GCC (Gulf Cooperative Council) region and beyond.
The minimum qualification to enrol is grade 10 certification - although grade 12 is preferred - and basic communication skills. Following an initial whetting, candidates can enrol for a three-month course, which includes a month of work experience in a five-star hotel in Kerala.
A shorter, 100-hour course - roughly 15 days - targets those who already have experience working in the hospitality industry and are looking to hone their skills to get better positions, preferably abroad.
Cutting the middleman out
So how is this enterprise different from the dozens of teaching institutes out there?
“Most people in need of a job [in Kerala] either have to pay to get a job, or have to study a long time before securing one. That again involves a lot of money,” says the founder and managing director of ASHOT Binu Bharathan, who works as Executive Housekeeper with a well-known chain of hotels in Dubai, UAE.
Binu is talking specifically about the poorer strata of society in the state, with many willing to pay huge sums of money to middlemen to secure job visas to go abroad. Kerala is known for its sizeable migrant workforce all over the world, but specially in the Gulf region - 14,26,740 according to a 2013 survey conducted by the Kerala Government Department of Non-Resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA).
“What I have done is to introduce a course, where the time is less and they can be assured a job within 2-3 months, which means they get their return on investment within that time. If they take a loan, they can repay it within a short frame of time,” Binu says.
With the combination of a short duration course, and job interviews lined up at the end, which in all probability result in firm offers in the GCC, Bharathan feels he has worked out the perfect formula to get the less educated and the less well-off onto the first rung in the job ladder.
Housekeeping, he says, is a good entry-level point for those eager to work in the Gulf region. “Our communication skills may initially not be good enough for customer-facing jobs. However, into a job, six months down the line, employees in the hospitality industry get a chance to cross-train and work themselves up to higher positions.”
Most students passing out of ASHOT typically secure jobs as room attendants, and can expect a take-home pay cheque of at least AED1,000/- (Rs18,250/-), accommodation and food being taken care of by the employer.
They then move on to become self-checkers, and then supervisors, senior supervisors, assistant housekeepers, assistant executive housekeepers and finally the executive housekeeper.
Arun Chandran, 21, arrived in Dubai 2 months ago to work for a 5-star hotel in Dubai. Although he joined as a room attendant, his ambition is to become housekeeping manager.
“The ASHOT programme is very good if you want to get a good job opportunity abroad,” says Arun who is from Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala. “Since it focuses on housekeeping, it gives you all the details about the role. Even if you have to suddenly face an interview, you are prepared.”
A sense of social responsibility guides ASHOT although Binu is very clear that the institute has to bring in revenue in order to grow, be financially viable and sustainable. While on its path of social commitment, the emphasis is on transparency when it comes to the collection of fees and arranging interviews.
The institute charges Rs40,000/- for the 100-hour course. The 3-month course is Rs80,000/- of which Rs20,000/- is charged for hostel facilities and food.
Job interviews are conducted via Skype, with Binu tapping into his network of housekeeping contacts acquired over a 22-year career in hotels. “I find out if there are any vacancies, and let my acquaintances know that I have a student ready.”
Offer letters and visas go directly to the student.“We are just a referral for them; we take no monetary benefit from either party[the hotel or the candidate] for helping fill the job vacancy,” says Binu.
ASHOT trainee learns to fold the laundry right
Seventeen students have completed courses in ASHOT since January. “All, except one, have an offer in hand,” says Bharathan. Three candidates have already entered the UAE workforce, joining reputed hotel chains such as the Anantara group in Dubai.
While two candidates declined job offers due to personal reasons, the others are awaiting the completion of visa formalities. In all likelihood their offer letters will materialise into jobs as soon as the economic outlook in the gulf region looks up, and the need for manpower in the hospitality sector increases.
Practice makes perfect
According to Binu, the training provided is of the level of a supervisor, although candidates usually begin their careers as room attendants. Given his industry experience, he has drawn up course material that brings together standard operating procedures as followed at some of the world’s top hotels.
He has combined this with health and safety requirements; municipality rules and regulations in the GCC countries; protocols to be followed in the event of a fire or bomb threat, or in the event of the death of a hotel guest.
"This kind of information too is passed on to students who typically begin as junior most staff, but I am sure his manager will quickly recognize his potential and move him up,” says Bharathan. Given the intent to keep the course highly practical, much of the training is through role-play and simulation exercises.
Selvam Lakshmanan, 23, worked for 4 years in the laundry and housekeeping department of a hotel in Coimbatore, a city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. He was among the first to join ASHOT, hoping to improve his prospects and move up a level. After completing the course, he joined a well-known hotel group in Dubai.
Selvam spoke about his experience at ASHOT. “Everything was explained to us,” he says. “How to clean the room, bed-making, how to use a polishing machine; Dubai municipality regulations, even how to go around in Dubai.”
Selvam works under Executive Housekeeper Ashok Poojari, who has himself worked his way up from being room attendant around 23 years ago.
"The first thing I noticed about Selvam when he came, was that he was very comfortable with the work he was expected to do, and to mingle with the rest of the team,” says Poojari. “He has been trained well, and it is obvious in the little details. I had to spend very little time in grooming him; so this was very beneficial for me.”
In the envious position of being an employer, Ashok can probably have his pick of candidate from the many who have done full-fledged hotel management courses. “The difference is that they get an overall training there, with the concentration on each department being very low. Housekeeping is very detailed work and ASHOT is grooming candidates in this specific area.”
Set up for success
Technology has proved to be a tremendous boon for ASHOT. Although Binu is in the UAE, his institute is fitted with cameras that allow him to check in on what’s happening at ASHOT institute in Mavelikkara from time to time. Via Skype, he speaks regularly to the candidates. “I show them the bigger picture to motivate them. I provide them success tips that will set them apart from their peers. Being a service-oriented job, it’s crucial to know how, at what time and when to speak, and when not to. I tell them how important this is.”
Binu has a degree in hotel management from the Asan Memorial Institute of Hotel Management in Chennai, India. However, he feels education contributes only 15 per cent to a candidate’s success once he gets a job. The remaining 85 per cent is from experience.
“I am trying to reverse this, by giving my students as much as 95 per cent through practical course training, with the 5 per cent coming through experience.”
Although a timeframe hasn’t been set, ASHOT will be rolling out three more courses - Front Office Administration and Operations, Food and Beverage Administration and Operations and Stewarding Administration and Operations.
The institute is currently in pursuit of Indian government certification from the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE). “This is a low salary, but high income job,” says Binu, referring to the tips that guests give staff in recognition of good service. “Treat them [guests] like you would your own family members when they visit you at home, and everything will come your way.”