Hospitality management school

Stern Stern Stern Stern Stern
Oliver Kerstholt Nicola Pitaro

The story stretches back five generations. Local mineral springs in Passugg were rediscovered at the end of the 19th century during the brief Alpine gold rush (though they had been first mentioned back in 1562). This gave reason enough to expand and convert the local inn into a spa house from 1883, and to add a spring house with pump room above the Rabiusa Gorge in 1896. Spa guests would walk between the five springs with taps set into pillars, and take the waters on doctor’s orders. The pump room provided cups with dosages inscribed on them and, even more importantly, personal room numbers.

Let’s move forward to the present day.

Shortly after leaving the road to Lenzerheide on the steep Araschgerrank, visitors who drive from Chur to Passugg today get a great view of the building complex with the former spa house at its heart. Since 1988, this has been home to the EHL Campus Passugg, EHL SSTH for short. 

Founded in 1966 and, since 2013, part of the prestigious Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne – the world’s oldest hospitality school – SSTH was based in Chur before being moved to Passugg. Visiting the school today, it feels just as international as it sounds. You arrive into a classical reception area with chest-high brass counters, behind which clocks display the time in Shanghai, Chicago, New Delhi, and other major cities. It’s early afternoon, and 90% of the people here are under 30. Two-thirds are wearing dark two-pieces or suits, with a few wearing uniforms indicating that they work in the kitchen. A quarter of those present appear to be of Asian origin. 

This last point is expanded by Michael Hartmann: “We are one of the leading hospitality management schools in the world,” the EHL SSTH director explains. He goes on to show me round the entire house, the facility run by around 380 people. 45 trainers teach around 350 students from 30 countries, giving them the skills to manage the accommodation and catering parts of the campus facility largely by themselves. The training here is practice-based. Around one-sixth of the students come from Asian countries – a steady trend, Hartmann tells us. The school is also very popular with German and American students, and indeed as we pass through the corridors we hear snatches of Mandarin and English. English-speaking “special courses” for international students were introduced back in 1972, and today, 28% of students complete their course in English. Around 66% of these are Swiss. “Effective communication across different cultures is more important today than ever,” remarks Hartmann, knowing that this is key on both sides of the classroom doors. The technical term is Managing Diversity.

Meanwhile, we are standing in a classroom on the basement floor, with students taking a break. From here, we can look out onto the thickly wooded side of the valley opposite. This is a great place to focus and study. 

When these young people come here from so many different parts the world, what are they looking to achieve at this former Passugger spa? “First of all, we are training specialists and managers for the hotel and tourism industry,” says Michael Hartmann. “As holders of Swiss professional Hotelier/Restaurateur HF degrees or bachelor degrees in International Hospitality Management, our EHL Campus Passugg graduates find challenging positions in hotels and catering businesses around the world.”

The Passugger institution also fosters new talent. “Students leave us as hospitality communication specialists with a Federal Certificate of Competence,” explains the director.

How does his school differ from others? “We train people who by and large remain loyal to our industry, whilst other training institutions often lose many of their graduates to other industries after a few years,” says the director, who originally hails from Munich.

The latest programme, called “SSTH Young Talent Traineeship” finally gives young people without any industry or professional experience the chance to learn about the hospitality world for the first time.

Hartmann proudly points out: “We offer Swiss expertise internationally. Trainees and students can benefit here in Passugg from a comprehensive programme of courses, from basic training to professional and bachelor’s degrees, which are held in very high regard by the industry.” In addition to the practical and theory aspects of the courses, the importance of values such as customer and service orientation are also instilled here. The courtesy and mutual respect with which students and staff alike are treated is immediately obvious even during a short visit.

Not least, the Swiss tourism industry also reaps the benefit. This is doubtless the reason why the Swiss Hotel Association, centre of expertise for quality-oriented and forward-looking Swiss hospitality since 1882, is also involved with the school.

Does the school’s history as a spa help? “Yes, of course,” says Michael Hartmann without hesitation. “Just look at the unique campus we have here,” he exclaims enthusiastically. 140 rooms which accommodate 160 students, five restaurants, the catering infrastructure, and of course, the ballroom. The perfect educational setting. “Apart from this, we also benefit of course from the long history of tourism at our site. The influence of tradition in our industry on all modern teaching methods should not be underestimated.”

As if to underline this, we arrive back at the entrance, and the gaze wanders once more towards the clocks behind reception. One of them shows the time in Passugg of course. After all, this is where the top hospitality managers of the future are being trained; where a history of international tourism, driven by the health-giving water, has already played a key role. It’s only a matter of time before someone comes up with the idea of engraving “Educated in Passugg” on a discreet pin, which will continue to appear on two-pieces and suits around the world as the mark of an education in a very special place.