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Trainees learn to smile, smile, smile

TRAINEES in Shanghai's booming hospitality industry are learning all aspects of the business, hands-on, as well as taking classes on cultural sensitivity and how to handle picky guests. Tan Weiyun reports.

Hotels are rising all around Shanghai due in part to the World Expo factor. For the past few years the city has been a battleground for both high-end and more affordable hotels. Everyone wants to grab a share of the city's hospitality market.

And young professionals want a part of the action.

With impeccable suits, professional (and genuine) smiles and a ready-to-help attitude, hotel trainees, while being low profile, are also the foundation of a hotel.

"I am interested in social interaction, discovering new cultures and traveling, so this is a perfect industry. It's like hitting three birds with one stone, imagine that!" says Andreas Hahn, a food and beverage management trainee at the InterContinental Shanghai Expo.

The 23-year-old Swiss national has been a trainee for nine months, since he arrived in Shanghai.

From the outside, smiling all day might appear to be a tiring job, especially when one is in a bad mood, but Hahn doesn't think so.

"A smile, believe it or not, uses fewer facial muscles than a frown," he says. "I really enjoy smiling. Besides, it can always cheer people up when someone smiles back at you."

Even confronted with fussy, rude guests, the young man has never lost his temper. "I must be blessed by the gods of the service industry," he says.

A hotel job often involves dealing with different people - nice, picky, weird, all kinds. The trainee says a colleague was once asked by a guest whether she would pose naked for a life-sized art sculpture.

"I personally haven't encountered such a weird request. But in any case, the idea is to remain calm, listen, be polite and use positive body language - that's a very effective way to communicate with angry guests and solve complaints," Hahn says.

"Anything that is beyond my capacity I can relay to my direct superior."

Being a hotel trainee means being totally integrated into the hotel's corporate culture and its history.

The first four days of Hahn's traineeship were orientation. He and four other young trainees were introduced to the history of InterContinental Hotels Group as well as the company's core values - "Do the right thing. Show we care. Aim higher. Celebrate differences, and work better together."

He went through various training programs and courses and learned about guest serving standards in different departments.

The food and beverage training includes role playing, understanding standard operating procedure, using the Infrys POS (point of sale) system, learning about menus and food tasting.

Unlike an ordinary white-collar professional who works from 9-5, Hahn never has a routine day.

When he started working at the Liquor Factory (the hotel pub), he started at 5pm and worked late. Other 24-hour outlets such as Cafe 1188 and In-Room Dining require overnight shifts. Banquets have a varying schedule that depends on functions and events, a trainee can work extra hours to manage multiple events, removing and setting up for new ones.

Hahn is ambitious.

"I hope one day I can manage a successful five-star hotel, casino or resort."

Wearing a brown suit, white shirt and gray tie, 21-year-old Edouard Eyglunent has been a Front Office management trainee at Sofitel Shanghai Hyland for three months since he arrived. He has already learned a lot about Asia and its people.

"Hospitality is a young sector in Asia. The Western way of welcoming is totally different than the Eastern way. I found that the eye contact and the greetings are often not the natural first step to start a conversation between two Chinese," the Frenchman says.

"Serving an Indian, a Chinese, an American or an Egyptian is totally different. For example, the sequenced way of eating in Western countries (starters, then main courses and others) is unknown to a lot of people in Asia," he adds.

He decided on the hospitality industry because he enjoyed welcoming his friends and sharing a warm experience with them at home when he was a boy.

"Being a foreign trainee in a culture such as the Chinese culture enhanced my capacity of integration," Eyglunent says. "Working in an international luxury brand such as Sofitel means working to international standards; these standards enable us to provide good service without intercultural mistakes."

He admits that smiling all the time can become a bit tiresome. "But by choosing a business of services, such as hospitality, we chose a job of generosity," he says.

Training has included role playing, diversity management, team management and in particular case studies to help them control their tempers and stay calm when confronted with picky guests.

"When dealing with complaints, honesty and fairness are the keys to management," he says. "Trying to listen to them and understand the complaints are important," he says.

To vent his work pressure, Eyglunent is training for the Shanghai Marathon next September.

Sometimes he plays football after work.

"Shanghai is a good city for going out. There are lots of nice places to have a drink or dance."


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