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The Hogwarts of hospitality

No one does precision quite like the Swiss, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the world’s grandest hospitality school sits high up in the Alps, writes Sophie McIntyre

Hopping aboard a satisfyingly punctual train from Geneva, I sped along the edge of the misty lake on the start of a muggy morning towards the grand old town of Montreux. Belle Epoque buildings edged the neatly landscaped promenade and lacquered Rivas left frothy white trails across the still water. After dropping my bags in the lobby of my lakeside hotel, I began my journey up into the hills. The car swerved up the tight, winding roads from Montreux, past the elite Swiss boarding schools the area is famous for, towards a rather impressive establishment: the Glion Institute for Higher Education.

Nestled in the Alpine foothills is the institute’s larger Glion site. This lower campus began life as the grandiose Hotel Bellevue — in its day a fashionable Swiss Riviera hotel in its own right. In 1962 it was transformed when hospitality pioneers Walter Hunziker and Frederic Tissot opened the Institut International de Glion. The duo’s plan was to create ‘the best hospitality management school in the world’. Today, the Glion campus is home to both old-world opulence and modern design. Architectural accoutrements, including vertigo-inducing glass windows (the view of the boat peppered lake below and across to the snow-tipped mountains really is astounding) augment the building’s traditional features, such as the gloriously ornate salle à manger — which is still very much in use. This contrast sums up Glion. Tradition remains paramount, but modernity is essential in all areas, not least in education.

Since its inception, the institute has developed into a something of a global leviathan, with two campuses in Switzerland and others in London, Marbella, the US, Jordan and China. If you want to go into hospitality or a similar discipline, the degree programme at Glion will knock spots off a non-vocational degree at a mid-level British university. The programme doesn’t exactly sound boring either. For example, a hospitality management BA student could split their time in the following way: a year on Lake Geneva, the next up in the Swiss Alps (five minutes from ski resort Crans-Montana), a semester in Marbella, one in London, and an internship in Dubai.

The Glion faculty has taken time to analyse its students and potential students. According to the institute, this generation is idealistic and ‘dream-led’ but also eminently pragmatic, prioritising employment. But they also see travel as an essential part of the ‘good life’, particularly those interested in the hospitality sector. Glion’s research on Generation Y has guided the school’s growth and is one of the reasons why the institute is one of the top three hospitality schools in the world.

Having toured the majestic old hotel building at Glion, with its extensive professional kitchens, complete with a suitably eccentric German pastry chef who later gives us a very entertaining lesson in fruit carving, we climb the mountain and arrive at the school’s real gem: Les Roches campus in Bluches. We are 1,274 metres into the mountains by this point and the real magic starts to kick in — this is very much the Hogwarts of hospitality. Snow-topped peaks serve as the backdrop to clusters of quaint chalets dotted across the slope. The combination of this quintessentially Swiss mountain village setup and the old-school grandeur of the Glion campus is extremely impressive.

We dine in the French à la carte restaurant at Les Roches, where students cook, serve and dine on a daily basis. All students studying for the BA in hospitality management at Glion take the same courses in their first year. These cover the all-important practical skills, such as cooking, pastry work, waiting on tables, customer service, and even the exact sciences of cleaning and prepping rooms. Students then specialise in their second and third years, with module topics ranging from marketing and advertising to the luxury sector, entrepreneurship, finance or event management, among others. The range of specialisms is diverse and many students do not end up working in hospitality at all. The few students I get to chat to during my (heavily chaperoned) visit say they want to go into banking or start their own business. They know the ‘soft’ skills so important in hospitality training will stand them in good stead for other careers.

After lunch, we pass through the restaurant’s kitchen, where we encounter a mixture of international students (Glion had youngsters from a whopping 97 nations graduating this year) and tanned, jolly chefs, complete with their impracticably tall white hats. We move through the kitchen, catching snippets of French and English as orders are exchanged and the trainees are guided through the relevant culinary processes.

We are then led to a faux hotel reception setup. It is very realistic, complete with the classic push-button bell, where we are told the English are notoriously the most difficult customers hoteliers deal with (nobody explains why this is, but the French journalists and Swiss PRs I am travelling with laugh raucously at my expense all the same). It is here in this ‘fauxtel’ reception that the students hone their customer service skills, taking turns to role-play the different characters they might encounter. Having ‘checked in’, we are led upstairs to a spotless hotel suite, complete with stand-alone bath, super-high thread-count sheets and, unusually, two rows of school chairs running along the side of the bed. This is a sort of luxury laboratory, where the students master the art of perfection; heaven forbid a customer were to complain of a hair on the sink or a towel out of place in their £1,000-a-night suite.

After the fauxtel comes the faux (or not so faux) cocktail bar — a sort of Folie Douce Alpine bar-style establishment, with leather and cowhide stools in abundance — perfect for those evenings when you fancy a few cocktails after a tough afternoon on the slopes of Crans-Montana, perhaps.

Students do learn cocktail making here, and one gets the sense it might be one of the more popular classes. The room looks rather worn compared to other areas of the school. And I’m sure these guys like to party — over 1,500 undergraduates and postgraduates in their late teens and early twenties studying to be the best hosts and hostesses in the world? With Crans-Montana less than ten minutes away and the delights of Lake Geneva just down the hill? Of course they do.

Although the school taps into the Swiss boarding school market, it is very much a university. Multicultural groups of nineteen-year-olds roam around the campus in chefs’ gear, smoking roll-ups, as sleekly styled girls of about the same age clip past them in little heels on their way to class.

Eighty-six per cent of students have jobs lined up before they leave, but this comes at a price — fees are, as you can imagine, fairly steep. But what more would you expect when the institution shares a bank with the most expensive boarding school in the world: Institut Le Rosey, the school responsible for the education of the Duke of Kent, Sean Lennon and the Shah of Iran.

But parents of Glion’s students seem to enjoy the prestige, sending their offspring to the school from all over the world to give them the best possible head-start. We visit Les Roches on speech day and are given a real insight into the vast cross-section of cultures funding the next generation of hospitality professionals.

And they might, indeed, be giving their children a real head-start if the institute’s faculty is correct. The staff talk constantly about the importance of soft skills and cross-cultural awareness. If they’re right, then a few years in this microcosm of international relations could well be a fantastic bit of training for the cut-throat world of 21st-century employment.