x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Schooled in hospitality

Slideshow One of the most sought-after places to stay in Amsterdam is also where students go to perfect their service skills.

Robert Noya, the young sales director of The College Hotel points to the shiny black door of my hotel bedroom. "Put your finger on it. See it leaves a print," he says, pleased as a small smudge appears. We walk along the corridor, smudging other surfaces as we go until there is a trail of evidence. We try it again on the mirrors in the art deco lift before walking through the bar area. A well-known Dutch television personality is sitting in a booth on a podium. The challenge for the waiter (who is so young I don't think he has started to shave) is to step up gingerly, tray in hand, without spilling the contents all over the celebrity. Cruel? Yes, deliberately so. Let me explain: in the past few months I have stayed at rather a lot of glamorous hotels. Ha, my commissioning editor thought, when she heard about a hotel in Amsterdam run by students. "Let's see what our five-star correspondent makes of this one," she wrote to me. I duly packed a pair of jeans and scruffy jumper. I realised my mistake the minute I walked through the door. Although The College Hotel is run by students, the clientele includes businessmen in suits and the city's cool crowd in designer gear. The hotel might have been born out of a serious desire to educate but it is also a boutique hotel (rare in this city) in a prime location with architectural similarities to the world-famous Rijksmuseum just down the road; both were built at the end of the 19th century. It is also a hotel which aspires to provide a world-class service. Surfaces that require constant cleaning and podiums that invite accidents are designed to teach high standards. The interior designers were given a brief to make things difficult and at the same time aesthetically pleasing. The College Hotel was established in 2005 by the Regional Education Centre of Amsterdam. Known as Roc, it provides quality work experience for those studying hotel management and tourism. About 2,000 students have passed through its doors in the intervening four years. A new batch of first-year students at Roc arrive at six-week intervals and are given housekeeping, reception and bar duties. In the second year, they return for five weeks in the kitchen and restaurant, and in the final year, the management students come in for five months and are responsible for supervising the younger students.

Eight other catering and tourism colleges in the Netherlands also send their students here for placements. On any one day the hotel is staffed by 80 students, led by a few young professional managers with experience in the hotel industry. "You have to have eyes in the back of your head here," says Pepijn Schut, the executive chef. Right on cue there is a loud crash as a stack of plates falls off a trolley full of dirty crockery. He pauses until the din dies down. "That's a noise I will never get used to," he says, shaking his head. Four years ago, Schut was asked by the then executive chef Schilo van Coevordon to join him in a new venture. "He told me there was this brilliant new hotel opening - that was the hook. Then he said it would be run by students and I thought he must be mad. But he convinced me and I have never regretted it. It's a different sort of hotel. We have to do everything you do in a normal restaurant but there is the extra dimension. "Working with very young, inexperienced staff requires patience. I am more like a father than a teacher. They need to know how to behave in a four-star hotel; they can get good marks in college but it's different here. They can be good at theory but not at practice. "You can tell within two or three weeks whether someone is not going to make it just by the way they carry themselves - they look so stressed. Then are those that take to it like a duck to water and that is a real lift. The students have so much energy and enthusiasm that it is fun to work with them. "We lose a lot of crockery, though. There are a lot of breakages and spillage. We started with show plates that cost ?100 [US$138; Dh500] each but a student carrying 10 plates can drop the lot. Now we have to balance between the chic and the affordable. But that's the challenge - you can't learn without making mistakes. It's easier in the kitchen because you can see it and rectify it, but in the restaurant area there is nothing you can do. When the place is full and something happens, it's not too bad as the noise is absorbed, but if there are only two or three tables there then everyone looks round and it's really embarrassing." Are the clients more forgiving knowing the background? "Yes, I think they are, although many of them don't even realise that it is a training school. At the beginning they came because they heard of the project and were interested; now they just come because it's a beautiful hotel with good food and good service." It became so popular - it took me a month to get a room - that a property developer took it over from the government last year. The new owner loved both the hotel and the concept and the Dutch government, accepting that running hotels was not part of their expertise, was happy to part with it. "It is the best thing that could have happened to us, the government did a brilliant job in founding it, but they would not have made the sort of investments the new owner is doing. He has put in new lighting and made a beautiful terrace outside with lovely furniture - it was only finished three days ago," says the hotel's general manager, Isabelle van Ouwerkerk, herself a graduate of Roc. "He has a passion for this hotel." It's not hard to see why. There is a wow factor as you walk through the front door past the inscriptions dedicated to past headmasters. The paintings, the colours and the detail were all chosen to evoke the era of the nation's Golden Age in the 17th century when it was a world power in trade, science, art and military might. My room is big and gorgeous with an expensively comfortable king-size bed. The bathroom is also roomy with a pretty curved bath jutting out between the shower and the loo. It looks out over a quiet street although I am only a five-minute walk from the main museum area and two minutes from the canal. I ring housekeeping for an ironing board and iron; they appear within two minutes with an iron that works properly (so many good hotels have old irons that barely heat). I ring for a converter plug and that, too, appears almost instantly. I can't find the control for the television so I ring again and the receptionist is with me in less than a minute; she opens a drawer and there it is. But the best thing of all is that all three staff members wore smiling, sunny dispositions. They reminded me of my daughters' friends - full of energy and enthusiasm and a joy to be around.

I can't think of anything else to test them, so I head for dinner. I am placed by the window with a view of the new courtyard with its stylish black furniture on which Amsterdam's movers and shakers are talking animatedly. I reflect how unusual that is; a single woman eating on her own is so often shoved to the back. The dining room is in the school's old gym. The rafters where the climbing ropes once swung dominate the high ceiling and there is a feeling of light and space. The kitchen is on view behind a raised bar. I'm given an appetiser and almost laugh out loud. There are three little dishes; one holds cucumber ice-cream, the other a cheese lollipop and the third, crushed apple; only a chef training students in an old school building could make that one up. All three are delicious, as is my starter of scallops on a bed of lentils and the main course, a fillet of sea bass local to the region, on a bed of spinach. Pudding is rhubarb with tarragon ice-cream, and all of it is served by a tall, pretty student with a delightful smile. Sophie Campagne, 23, is a student at the Hotel School in the Hague and this is the final year of her degree course. She has been here for four months and works directly with the general manager, having been given responsibility for HR. There is no trace of the student about her. "We are working on our strategy in the light of the credit crisis and my role is to be the contact between HR, the students and the staff. The vision is to provide a five-star service. It is a challenge when you are working with orientation students but we have a very good team of professional staff and they know how to train. "The students are eager and want to learn so they have the right attitude. We make sure we give them plenty of information and check lists and there is a lot of repetition. We have to cater to our guests and at the same time educate the students. For me, the students come first but for Isabelle it has to be the guests." Most students receive $344 (Dh1,264) per month as a government grant. The younger ones are not paid for their placement but the hotel pays the management interns, like -Sophie, between $410 (Dh1,515) and $550 (Dh2,020) per month on top of that. "I would do this internship even if I wasn't being paid - it's about learning, not about the money. I am still at school. That is something we try to teach the students: self motivation, and that it's important to learn rather than think about the money. This is a route to earning more money later." Marcus Nieuwenhuis, 22, is spending his three-month placement as a management trainee with housekeeping. It would have been his role to make sure my trail of fingerprints was removed. "I always carry a little towel around with me," he says, even though his role is really to supervise the students and room attendants. He says cleaning the rooms out and making beds in his first few days was the toughest part of the training. "We have a cleaner at home and I found it really physically hard but it is good for me that I know how hard it is - it's good learning. "This is a really hot hotel. I used to come here as a client and now I see my friends here in the bar, but they know I am working and so it's not a problem." As well as attracting local stars, they have had their share of international celebrity guests, including Beyoncé and the English chef Jamie Oliver. "He asked if he could eat in the kitchen with the students instead of in the restaurant when he came," says van Ouwerkerk. "He wanted [dishes] like salsa wraps - the students were so full of his visit." Before checking out, I head off towards Amsterdam's museum area for lunch. When I get there I realise that nowhere else is quite so nice as The College Hotel, so I return to the terrace and its new black furniture. I order soup and the house salad, which comes in a wafer-thin pastry case, and then get up to find a magazine to read from my suitcase. The young man who took my lunch order scurries after me. "Where are you going?" he asks. "If it's to the toilet, it's the other way." And because he is trying to be so helpful, I can't feel annoyed.