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Interview – Max Behesht: ‘Swiss Education Group Aims to Shape the Future of Hospitality’

Since the onset of the coronavirus (Covid-19) global pandemic, all five schools under the umbrella of Swiss Education Group (SEG) acted quickly to respond to the unprecedented situation, adapt accordingly, and ensure the safety and well-being of all staff and students.

Prior to the start of the autumn semester, the Academic Dean of César Ritz Colleges Switzerland, Max Behesht, talks to GTP Headlines about the challenges SEG faced after the outbreak of the pandemic and refers to the measures taken to ensure the safety and health of students.

“With the safety, health and well-being of our students, as well as of our colleagues, being a top priority, SEG has gone the full extent of ensuring a safe learning environment is provided to all our students,” Mr Behesht says.

Moreover, he gives details on the specialty courses offered by the schools of SEG and underlines the Group’s focus to deliver high quality education.

“We do not simply want to see our students meet the expectations of the industry, we would like them to develop the skills and mindset it takes to shape the future of it,” Mr Behesht highlights.

  • GTP: Mr Behesht, let’s start the interview with an introduction of the Swiss Education Group in your own words.

Max Behesht: In a country that is described as the birthplace of Hospitality Education, and importantly has topped the list of 100 safest countries in the world in the times of COVID-19, the Swiss Education Group, SEG in short, is the largest private Hospitality Education Group, going beyond the traditional definition of it. Each of our schools has a unique location with an academic and operational style across 6 campuses in the German and French speaking parts of the country. These are:

César Ritz Colleges Switzerland, which specializes in Entrepreneurship and Leadership in the spirit of legendary luxury hotelier and innovator César Ritz.
S.H.M.S, Swiss Hotel Management School, which focuses on excellence in hands-on Hospitality Operations.
IHTTI School of Hotel Management, which specializes in Hotel and Design Management.
Hotel Institute Montreux (HIM), which strongly focuses on the Business of Hospitality.
Culinary Arts Academy Switzerland (CAAS), which is the school of flavors for culinary and pastry chef entrepreneurs.

Our purpose is to deliver high quality education and experiences that transform lives, as clearly stated by our CEO Mr. Yong Shen. What also impresses me is that we welcome more than 6,000 students from over 100 countries to our campuses every year. So, in the words of one of our engaged lecturers: “when you walk through the door of a SEG campus and into a classroom, the world comes to you”.

  • GTP: What does the Group offer that is different for the hospitality industry and how does it excel in the sector?

Max Behesht: Overall, SEG offers a wide range of Business and Hospitality education programs and solutions. The full board on-campus living experiences range from summer camps for teenagers, short certificate and diploma courses, as well as complete programs in partnership with US and UK universities. They are all suitable for aspiring future professionals and leaders in an increasingly broader range of industries and sectors. SEG also offers tailored professional and executive training and consulting services.

When it comes to being a leader in the world of Business and Hospitality Education, I very much like our aspirations to resemble that of a leading group that continuously learns and helps others learn and grow. The intentional and careful exposure of our students to academic theories and the practical side of life, along with their mandatory internships and practical classes, prompts them to continuously ask how they can combine both to deliver better value to all stakeholders. We do not simply want to see our students meet the expectations of the industry, we would like them to develop the skills and mindset it takes to shape the future of it.

Let me also mention here a recently announced SEG partnership with Flywire, a leading education-focused global payment provider, which will be now offering paid internship opportunities to our students within their relationship management team. I find such news greatly encouraging, as it confirms the value of business programs going hand in hand with knowledge and experience in the Art of Hospitality.

  • GTP: Could you share some of the specialty courses you offer and why should students choose Swiss Education Group for their studies?

Max Behesht: The main César Ritz Colleges program I of course proudly often speak of is the Double Degree Bachelor Business and Hospitality program that we offer in partnership with WSU (Washington State University). With on-campus studies in at least two regions of Switzerland (Lucerne or Le Bouveret, and Brig), two mandatory internships of 4-6 months each (one in Switzerland and one globally), our students have the opportunity to secure a solid education and a full year of relevant work experience in just 3 years, making them immediately employable by some of the most prestigious brands in the industry. This long list would start with the likes of Marriott International, particularly Ritz-Carlton with its legacy and connection to César Ritz, Hilton Worldwide, and ACCOR.

Having said that, we have recently launched a few excellent short programs, such as the Certificate in Wine Business Management officially accredited by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), which allows students to become Taste Experts, learn to pair wine with food, and explore many aspects of the wine business including how to start their own company. Another course is the Diploma in Vegetarian Culinary Arts, which welcomes students to explore the health benefits of the vegetarian cuisine, create vegetarian fine dining meals and master their preparations in new and sensational ways.

Apart from educating our students, we also welcome them to a global Hospitality Family of tens of thousands of alumni across the world. SEG also supports the career aspirations of its students via dedicated career teams, but also with a bi-annual international recruitment forum (IRF), which brings leading industry partners to our students. We simply want our students to join, learn, and excel in every aspect of their lives.

Speaking of Hospitality and Business, I also have to mention that I am a true fan of the Greek “Philoxenia” (Φιλοξενία) when “welcoming a stranger” and have many excellent experiences of the Greek Hospitality, both within Greece, but also via the Greek students we have the pleasure to welcome to our campuses.

  • GTP: What challenges did you face after the outbreak of the pandemic? To what extent was the operation of the courses affected?

Max Behesht: We felt and experienced the same level of concern and immediate sense of urgency as our students and their families across the planet did. Particularly, since many of them directly or indirectly make a living within the heavily impacted travel and tourism industry.

I also still clearly remember the Friday back in March, intriguingly enough a Friday 13th, when following the decision by the Swiss authorities, it was decided that SEG would discontinue physical in-class teaching. So, in that sense, the educational impact was total, but only for a brief moment, as the entire group was getting prepared with nothing but an impressive speed, agility and care for going live online. Of course, it had become impossible for us to teach key practical courses and would have to wait for the easing of restrictions, but everything else went online within a matter of days.

Still today, I remain impressed by how quickly colleagues across the group managed to deal with the situation and how well all our campuses looked after the health and well-being of our students as well as their own teams. At the same time, as many of our students were forced or chose to leave their internships around the world, the career and internship teams have displayed great resilience in looking after every single case with special attention and professionalism.

  • GTP: You recently announced the rollout of a Virtual Learning Environment. Could you share with us some details about this e-learning process? What is the experience of the students using it so far?

Max Behesht: VLE with SEG, the virtual learning experience that the faculties across the group helped design and brought together, had the aim to optimize every aspect of learning and to enable our students to feel the key elements of Hospitality, while being online on Zoom, as well as those of Excellence and Care. There was a clear understanding that the solution was to not simply bring online the same teaching method that takes place in a classroom on campus, but to re-design every necessary aspect in detail in order to efficiently welcome the students online. The teams have been using a wide range of delivery and assessment tools to create an engaging and entertaining learning environment for our students.

As for the VLE experience of our students, I have to credit their openness, understanding and appreciation of all the efforts that went into the creation and delivery of the SEG VLE by our faculties. The greatest majority of them have clearly welcomed this as a temporary solution to see beyond the pandemic. One clearly positive aspect of this scenario has been, as we can now see, that many of our students have gained enough knowledge and experience by using VLE to be able to take much more responsibility of their own learning experience and discipline.

In July we were again able to open the doors to most of our campuses, and as our students have returned, some are still taking their courses online and the SEG VLE continues partially in combination with special broadcasting of our live and recorded on-campus classes.

  • GTP: How are you dealing with the COVID-19 situation? What measures have you taken to ensure the safety and health of your students?

Max Behesht: With the safety, health and well-being of our students, as well as of our colleagues, being a top priority, SEG has gone the full extent of ensuring a safe learning environment is provided to all our students. Every campus has a daily temperature check routine and we expect from everyone to wear their masks when in the proximity of others and in classrooms, while additionally all visitors have to complete a health questionnaire. The campuses have been carefully prepared to adhere to all requirements for social distancing, while disinfectants can be found across the campuses and in all classrooms.

Furthermore, SEG is complying with every situation in which a quarantine would be necessary for a student or staff member. Even though Switzerland is now considered one of the safest countries to reside in, we still do our best to go above and beyond the recommendations in order to keep our campuses safe.

  • GTP: You call it “SEG Cares”. What is the purpose of this initiative?

Max Behesht: “SEG Cares” has been an important part of “walk the talk” in terms of care and support to our students and their families. After all, every educator in Hospitality and Business should clearly display the core values they are teaching to their students. As a group, SEG stands ready to support the financial well-being of its students, as well as of their families and sponsors, and to help remove some of the heavy load the pandemic has placed all of us.

Additionally, registration and administration fees have been reduced, admin fees have been waived and there is now a range of flexible payment plans offered to students wishing to pursue their careers and education through our programs and courses. This plan goes as far as offering specific full scholarships for families experiencing additional hardship during such extenuating circumstances.

  • GTP: What are the prospects opening up to your graduates through your schools and what is the first and foremost lesson that you pass upon them in order to prepare them for their careers?

Max Behesht: Many of our students, and particularly the César Ritz Colleges alumni continue their journey via Management Trainee positions with large Hospitality brands across the industry and quickly grow internationally in their roles and responsibilities. Others join or take over and expand their family business or start a brand new business as entrepreneurs. Others find fulfilling opportunities, as their unique blend of Business, Hospitality, and Life skills and experiences offered via SEG schools open exciting doors for their future growth and success.

I encourage our students to simply become better each day by competing against who they were yesterday, making sure they are better professionals and human beings tomorrow, no matter how incremental the improvement is. The first step is to get to know themselves, then to build their confidence and grit to discover and speak for their special skills, and to not shy away from standing on a stage to tell their own story. They will know that perfection does not exist, but that it is the pursuit of perfection that helps them become the best version of themselves.

We do not want our students to just find a job, as a career has a much higher potential of growing and offering fulfilling roles and responsibilities. But fundamentally, I would like every one of our students to find a purpose or “the music in them” and recognize the unique value proposition of what they are able to and keen on offering to the marketplace, their community, and the world as a whole.

For me, meeting alumni who have discovered their personal why and perform at their best in all they do, combining Excellence with Empathy, is an inspirational moment that tells me they are making the world a little better each day. It took me 40 years and 25 relocations over 20 years to discover my own purpose and why, and seeing our students focusing on their personal growth at a very young age is nothing less than a pure inspiration. That tells me SEG is being a true School of Business, Hospitality, and Life.

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About the Author
Nikos is Greek-American born in New York, USA, and has lived in Greece for over 30 years. He is the managing editor of Greece's leading monthly travel and tourism guide, the Greek Travel Pages (GTP) since June 2008 and of news site GTP Headlines since its launch in September 2012. Nikos has also served as international press officer for the City of Athens and for the mayor. He has a degree in Mass Media and Communications, specializing in Journalism. Nikos is a native English speaker and speaks Greek fluently.

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