The hospitality student stutters nervously as she reads from the menu and trembles a bit as she pours our Cabernet.
She asks us repeatedly if we want more bread.
This is finals night in the service class at the International College of Hospitality Administration in Brig, Switzerland. Our server’s grades are on the line, and I can see her professor in the corner of the room, watching over our table like a hawk, grimacing and scribbling occasionally on his notepad.
His standards are high: Switzerland is known as the birthplace of hotel management, and many of the world’s most famous hotels are run by Swiss managers. A Swiss cook serves up the fare set before the Queen of England.
It was here in this small, picturesque alpine valley near Brig, Switzerland, where famed hotel magnate César Ritz was born and began his career in hotel-restaurant management, eventually working in some of Europe’s most prestigious hotels.
Just as rural Pullman, Washington, may be the last place one would imagine to find a world-class hotel and restaurant school, Ritz, the 13th child of a Swiss peasant couple, was an unlikely candidate to become “the king of hoteliers and the hotelier of kings.” But in this obscure alpine village where he took his first job as an assistant waiter, Washington State University students are learning the fine art of European hotellerie, and students from around the world are learning American business management methods from WSU, whose onsite faculty offer a bachelor’s degree in hospitality business management.
“We think it’s a very good mix,” said Michael Vieregge, director and assistant professor at the WSU School of Hospitality Business Management’s Swiss Center. “It’s the best of two worlds coming together.”
Lothar Kreck, a WSU hotel and restaurant administration professor who retired in 1997, helped negotiate WSU’s cooperation when the unique hospitality administration school in Brig was launched in 1985 by Swiss businessman W.D. Petri. Petri was looking for a way to modernize the Swiss hospitality system’s service-oriented education with American business methods. Kreck helped make it possible by convincing WSU to allow students from the Swiss school to finish their degrees in Pullman. Later, WSU began offering credits on-site through the extended degree program that was expanding rapidly under then-WSU president Sam Smith. In 1989, the Institut Hotelier César Ritz became the first Swiss hotel school with an American accreditation.
In fact, when WSU began offering its credits for a bachelor’s degree in Switzerland, it was the first U.S. hospitality school to do so in Europe, according to Vieregge. Other schools soon followed suit, including University of Massachusetts, University of Central Florida, and Virginia Tech. Today, Cornell University’s hospitality school offers a master’s degree in Paris.
But at the time, Petri was rocking the boat. In fact, he was kicked out of the Swiss Hotel Association for introducing English language programs.
“At the time it was seen as very non-traditional,” explains director of WSU’s School of Hospitality Business Management Terry Umbreit. “But looking back now, it was actually pioneering and cutting edge.”
That, despite an ancient alpine culture that at first seems anything but modern. Brig is the German-speaking capital of the State of Valais, gateway to the Matterhorn Mountain as well as elite resorts such as St. Moritz. A railroad town with about half the population of Pullman, it’s situated in a wide valley of achingly beautiful Swiss villages flanked by 12,000-foot Alpine peaks.
Housewives hang featherbeds to air out the shuttered bedroom windows of their half-timbered chalets. Enormous woodpiles stacked outside would last for five winters on the Palouse. The cows wear bells. And when spring break rolls around and Pullman students are heading off to Mexico or the warm dunes along the Snake River, these students are still knee deep in snow. (Although, they like to point out, it’s just a few hours drive down into Italy so they can hit a Mediterranean beach in less time than it takes Pullman students to drive to Seattle.)
But don’t let the alpine location and old-world charm fool you. The current school facility was built in 1991, expanded in 2000, and is fully wired for Internet access and videoconferencing. Each student is given a wireless connection when they arrive that allows them to carry their laptops to class and check their e-mail by satellite wherever they are, even though “where they are” appears cut off from the rest of the world by the surrounding mountains.
In 1997, the Swiss Center program was restructured to allow WSU’s School of Hospitality Business Management to offer its Bachelor of Arts degree on an accelerated basis to graduates of the already established hospitality program at the International College of Hospitality Administration, which offers two-year and master’s degrees in collaboration with other institutions.
Once students have completed the two-year degree, WSU offers the remaining two years, with students offering the same courses WSU students at the home campus in Pullman take—mostly advanced hospitality management and business administration classes. But there are other courses unique to the Brig program, such as specialty classes in casino operations and ecotourism.
“The American students benefit from the Swiss skill levels, and the international students benefit from the American business management courses,” says Vieregge. “The classes are small, there’s individual projects. It’s very challenging, and the European students give them a run for their money.”
The restructuring also synchronized the year into a U.S.-style system of two semesters and two summer sessions. Classes are taught by three permanent faculty and rotating summer faculty, many of whom come to Brig from Pullman.
“I’ve been impressed,” says David Sprott, an associate professor at WSU who came to Brig with his wife and children to teach consumer behavior for a semester. “The combination of a Swiss hotel school and an American system holds together very well.”
Germans make up the largest portion of the total 200 students, though about 40 different nations are represented at the school. Of the 200, approximately 50 are enrolled in WSU’s extended degree program in pursuit of their bachelor’s degree.
So far from home, faculty often double as surrogate parents for homesick students suffering various kinds of culture shock. One faculty member had to help a student from Israel inch her way down the mountain during a sledding party after she panicked—her first time on snow. When a blizzard canceled a planned glacier hike, another professor hurriedly threw together a fondue dinner at her home for two dozen visiting South African students.
“I feel like the faculty here really take students under their wing,” says Heather Tornow, 22, a junior from Seattle.
The family atmosphere is summed up by the way students affectionately greet Vieregge, their director, in the halls: “Hey, Dr. V!”
But the casual, friendly atmosphere does not mirror a lack of rigor or professionalism. Students abide by a strict formal dress code (male students are prohibited from wearing earrings and must wear ties during the day). And classes, say the American students, are more rigorous than back home.
“It seems people are more serious and motivated here,” says WSU junior Paige McDonald, of Laurel, Montana. “They have strong opinions, and you feel like you have to really be on top of it. Especially since everybody actually comes to class every day.”
“In Pullman there’s diversity, but it’s not as concentrated,” adds McDonald. “Here you learn a lot in class, but also just hanging out with people from all different nations and learning about their cultures.”
“We believe students who have studied here are changed for the better after this program,” says Umbreit. “They are more wide open, they interview better, they have a more global perspectiv
Take graduate student Stephanie Kroh, for example. Kroh, 24, first came to study at WSU from La Paz, Bolivia, where her mother was the chef at the American embassy. Since she began her studies several years ago, she’s started a family tradition. Brothers, sisters, and cousins have all come to Pullman to study, following in her footsteps. This semester, she’s working as a graduate assistant in the Swiss hospitality program.
“The advantage of being here is you are exposed to many different cultures in a small family atmosphere,” says Kroh. “Hospitality is a world industry, and you need to be able to adapt and understand other cultures.”
That’s never been more true than today. In 1999, there were 663 million international tourists according to the World Tourism Organization (up 4 percent from 1998).
“Globally, the industry had a tremendous year in 2000. It was a benchmark year for tourism internationally,” says WSU professor Nancy Scanlon, who teaches at the Swiss Center. But September 11 and terrorism concerns have wreaked havoc on tourism, which has triggered cutbacks in business and pleasure travel. Scanlon and others have responded by stressing the need to drive operating costs down while still maintaining value for customers.
When he’s home in Thailand, Ni Ti Pat Chimnam runs a small hotel. But this semester, he’s working full time on soaking up all he can from his WSU professors in Switzerland, including Scanlon, who this semester is teaching a class on hospitality and the environment.
“In this class I have learned things I just never thought of before,” says Chimnam, leafing through his text before class. And not just how to flambé, serve fondue, or set a French-style table, but practical tools he plans to put into practice in Thailand—ways to save energy, recycle waste, and save water—like faucet aerators, shower water reduction devices, and low-flush toilets.
Chimnam and Ben Gies, a 23-year-old WSU senior from Richland, Washington, strain to understand each other’s accents as they work on their joint assignment in Scanlon’s class. Now that he’s seen some of Europe and studied alongside other foreign students at the Swiss Center, Gies says he’s more confident about starting his job hunt later this year. He’s already setting his sights on Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.
“Studying here helped me understand how different cultures manage to come together with all our diverse beliefs,” says Gies. “I think I have a broader understand of things now. It has taken my small town American values and put them in a global perspective.”
Andrea Vogt lives in Bologna, Italy,
and Palouse, Washington.