Institute for Tourism Studies grooms talent to meet boom in Macao tourism

2 May 2014

When Fanny Vong joined the Institute for Tourism Studies (IFT) in 1999, it had 200 students and a dozen faculty. Now, as president, she runs an institution with 16,000 students on degree programmes, 19,000 participants of professional programmes and 108 teachers from 16 countries and regions.

This rapid growth mirrors the dramatic changes in Macao’s tourism industry over the last 15 years. In the first 11 months of 2013, it received 26.74 million tourists, more than three times the 7.44 million in all of 1999.

The Institute’s mission is to develop human resources to meet the enormous demand for skilled personnel from mega resorts, hotels, travel and aviation organisations, events planners, food and beverage establishments, shopping centres and malls, spas, and other tourism-related facilities. Despite increasing student enrolment eight-fold, the Institute cannot meet the demand of the employers.

The IFT is an important part of the city’s ambition to become an international tourism and leisure centre.

Former army barracks

The IFT sits on a hill that from the 19th century was a barracks for soldiers of the Portuguese colonial army, many of them from the African colonies. After the revolution in 1974, the army left the site; it became desolate.

In 1979, the government turned the building into a hotel. In February 1982, it established a tourism and hotel school, with the hotel used as a place for students to practice their skills. In 1995, the governor established the IFT, to train young people for the hotel and tourism industry.

The hotel, the Pousada de Mong-Há, was opened to the public. Its staff  includes both professionals and IFT student interns. It has 20 rooms. Its long-serving guest is a Portuguese engineer in his 90s who goes to work every day at a local construction firm; he has lived there for more than 20 years and returns to Portugal once a year to see his family.

The Educational Restaurant encourages Macao’s future hoteliers to put theories into practice and supports their endeavours to serve guests to international standards. It offers a unique selection of traditional Macanese and Portuguese dishes with a modern flair.

Today there are three entities under the IFT, besides the two training units. One is the Tourism College with bachelor degree programmes; it has 1,600 students, of whom 85 per cent come from Macao. Another is the Tourism and Hotel School, which caters to the general public and organises courses developed both in-house and by international institutions, with 19,000 students last year, the majority of them from Macao.

The third is the Tourism Research Centre which is a think-tank for the tourism and hospitality industries and advises the government.

Even the eight-fold increase in students since 1999 is not enough. “The tourism industry has asked us for more output,” said Vong. “We want to ensure quality and do not want to expand unless we have sufficient equipment, staff and facilities.”

In 2000, IFT became the first teaching institution of its kind to receive the TedQual certificate from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation. TedQual means ‘tourism education quality’.  It has also received the Pacific Asia Travel Association Gold Award for its “education and training”.

The IFT is constrained by a lack of space. “We have a second campus in Taipa. But our campus is too small. We are open to all alternatives. The government is very supportive. Land in Macao is very scarce and expensive.”

Heritage and Fine Dining

The Tourism College offers four-year bachelor programmes in six areas of management — culinary arts: tourism business: heritage: hotel: tourism events: and tourism retail and marketing. During their third year, all the students do a six-month internship programme, in Macao or abroad.

The Tourism and Hotel School offers programmes at foundation, intermediate and advanced levels in hospitality and catering: heritage and tourism: retail: business and management: IT and creative studies: health: spa and beauty: language and culture: and personal development.

It also offers courses developed by international institutions, including the Confederation of International Beauty, International Bartenders Association, Le Cordon Bleu and Wine and Spirit Education Trust.

Gaming is not on the curriculum. This is offered by the University of Macau and the Macao Polytechnic Institute, so IFT does not provide it.

On graduation, some students go to do Masters and PhDs abroad, at institutions like the University of Hong Kong, University of Surrey and University College London in UK, as well as Glion Institute of Higher Education in Switzerland.

“Currently, our graduates can find jobs quite easily,” said Vong. “They have many choices. Those who do well in their six-month internships are often invited by their employers to return and work there. Look at the growth on the Cotai Strip alone. You can see the magnitude of demand.”

Competition is fierce too. Macao is an international market place, with employees from all over the world. The graduates must compete with people from the mainland, Hong Kong and Chinese Taiwan as well as many countries in Asia and expatriates brought in by the international hotel and casino chains.

“This is healthy,” said Vong. “In international tourism, you need people from other countries, to provide new perspectives.”

She hopes the foreign firms will hire more Macao people to management posts. “From the company’s perspective, hiring an expat could be time-consuming and requires approval from different government departments. They must pay more compensation as well as the cost of their family.

“The hotels could provide more training targeted at local residents and to make them feel valued.”

The IFT courses also have a moral dimension. “We want our students to be open-minded and have a sense of responsibility as global citizens. What they do may have a ripple effect on the rest of the world. When they start work after graduation, they must be patient and humble and start in a modest position.” They encourage students to take part in charity events.

Design New Courses

Tourism is a fast-changing industry; IFT must adjust its courses to keep pace with demand. In 2012, the government decided to promote the cultural and creative industries; IFT was on the official committee that launched this initiative.

“We felt programmes were needed in this area, so we developed an Arts Administration Certificate programme. We are happy to take the challenge, acted fast to meet demand and found partners. These students are sponsored by the Macao Cultural Affairs Bureau. They are hired by arts associations.”

Another new course, started in 2011, was a four-year bachelor degree in Culinary Arts Management, to equip students to manage a five-star restaurant and kitchen and work in different kinds of culinary-related professions.

These innovations are in accord with the government’s ambition to turn the city into an international tourist and leisure destination and reduce dependence on gambling.

“Macao is very reliant on one market (the mainland) and one product. This is dangerous, just as it is in personal investment. The government and private sector are working hard to diversify.”

Hotels like the Venetian are developing MICE – meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions. There are new up-market restaurants and boutique hotels that provide an individual touch to visitors.

“The future outlook is good. I recently visited the new theme park of Chimelong in Hengqin island. It includes the world’s largest aquarium, a circus and stunts. Visitors can be close to rare species. It is different to Disney World.

“When Hengqin can attract other tourism projects, we will complement each other,” she said.

She said that Macao is working hard to reach the status of an international tourist destination. “We need a very high standard of management, product and service. We are working hard and bringing in the best of talent. We are getting there slowly.

“Macao has to improve its infrastructure, in roads, accessibility, services, among other areas,” she said.

Outstanding Student, Unexpected Promotion

As a child, Vong was an outstanding student. “My parents did not attach or impose a plan for me. They let me set my own path. It was very good for self-exploration.”

She took an MBA degree at the University of Macau. “Marketing and management was my area of study. Working for a big company would be a good choice after graduation but there were not many choices in Macao.”

She obtained a scholarship at the university that enabled her to study for 18 months in Europe – six at the ISCTE – University Institute of Lisbon (formerly known as ISCTE) in Portugal and 12 months at the University of Stockholm. Her thesis was in human resources management; she earned a PhD.

“Those 18 months were a very good experience. I saw other people and other things. When you live abroad, your senses are sharper and you are more alert. You have time to think about things. I was very well treated as a Macao person.”

Her Portuguese was limited; she used English to study and communicate. She did not consider staying in Europe because she wanted to rejoin her family in Macao.

She returned to work at the university and was invited to be Vice-Director of the Tourism College in 1999. “It was easy to decide. I was less than 30. There were 200 students and 10-11 faculty.”

The then President was a Portuguese, Dr Virginia Trigo. “She was a very good leader and brought me on step by step. My colleagues were very welcoming.” In 2001, Dr Trigo decided to resign, after 22 years in Macao, and return to Portugal. She recommended Vong as her successor. “I did not expect to be chosen.”

Her management style relies on working together. “Team work is very important. One person working alone cannot achieve much. Anyone can initiate a meeting. The achievements of the students are the foundation of our progress.”

( Macao Magazine-Mark O´Neill)