Inside the world’s first integrated hotel and university

In Hong Kong lies the world’s only fully integrated hotel and university, which provides a unique space for learning, innovation and luxury accommodation

In Hong Kong lies the world’s only fully integrated hotel and university, which provides a unique space for learning, innovation and luxury accommodation
The lobby of Hotel ICON, the world's first fully integrated hotel and university

Major international events, such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo in 2010, together with China’s vast economic growth and various government-led initiatives, have ushered in a new era for the country’s hospitality sector. As a result of this exponential expansion within a relatively short period of time, it became quickly evident that a shortage of skilled and experienced individuals had transpired.

Although the region’s abundant workforce could make up the numbers, there have been few institutions dedicated to providing hospitality and tourism training. Programmes that do, meanwhile, do not do so to the highest international standards. In response to the region’s mounting need to impart the niche skill and knowledge set that ensures the smooth running and profitability of a top class hotel, a unique model has sprung up in Hong Kong, which is not just teaching trends: it is creating them.

Model for the future
Hotel ICON, an incredibly modern and dynamic establishment with 262 guest rooms and three hugely popular restaurants, opened in 2011. This hotel, however, is unlike any other in the entire world; opened and run by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), Hotel ICON is not-for-profit, with its main purpose being to educate and train a new generation of hoteliers.

Hotel ICON is not-for-profit, with its main purpose being to educate and train a new generation of hoteliers

When walking through the expansive lobby of Hotel ICON and admiring the lush vertical gardens that stretch along its walls, it would be easy to remain unaware of what goes on behind the scenes. Fully integrated into this highly successful hotel is a leading teaching and research facility, where more than 1,000 20-somethings are taught in lecture halls and classrooms. These rooms can be reached from a separate entrance away from the hotel’s reception, leaving guests undisturbed while allowing students to seamlessly flow between the two sides of the building.

“We envision ourselves as a ‘learning centre’ to inspire and train future hoteliers”, Richard Hatter, General Manager at Hotel ICON, told Business Destinations. “The major rationale and inspiration behind the whole idea is to create an environment for the future hoteliers to first step into the industry, and at the same time provide guests with the most unique and memorable experiences not found in other hotels.”

The school provides students with an invaluable grasp of how a high-end hotel operates, which entails a deep understanding of the functioning of individual departments as well. “For us, as a training hotel, we focus more on hands-on experiences and real life exposure. We empower our interns to serve our guests, to read actual financial figures, to go through every part of the hotel; we make sure everything that they learn is genuine and realistic”, said Hatter. “We are confident that once they walk out of our hotel, they are very much prepared for their career and the real world.”

Aside from such vital technical aspects, there is also the invaluable human element, which is what makes visitors both return and recommend. According to Hatter: “We strongly believe [in] the idea of ‘service from the heart’, which is the essential core value to providing the best service. We are here to deep-root this idea in our next generation.”

The idea of teaching the next generation in this manner is truly remarkable, as the one thing that sets both businesses and entire industries apart is talent. As Hatter explained: “[It is] not merely restricted to the hospitality field – all industries are focusing on talent acquisition. It’s a phenomenon. Every company wants to attract the best candidates to work for them, therefore our hotel is helping to explore the potentials and introduce more talent into the industry.”

By merging a world-class training facility with a first-rate hotel in one single centre, Hatter and his team tap into the very resource that enables them – and the entire market, in fact – to thrive.

Industry innovator
Being an institution that is not chained down to the demands of shareholders or profit-making, Hotel ICON is in a unique position to experiment and innovate. With a forward-looking philosophy at its core, the Hong Kong-based establishment is introducing new ideas and trends that are sending waves throughout the entire industry. One such concept, introduced in 2014, is to provide a smartphone completely free of charge in each room. Guests are able to make international calls, stay connected with social media, and roam the streets of Hong Kong with ease throughout their trip – all for free.

Although a costly experiment, at around $1.2m per annum, it has proven to be hugely successful so far; not only in terms of customer satisfaction and boosting return visits, but also because it enables guests to share their experiences of the hotel instantly by uploading pictures to social media, or writing positive reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor. Other industry firsts include a complimentary minibar in all rooms, as well as a 24-hour ‘timeless lodge’ that allows guests to relax and enjoy free snacks and drinks or freshen up, should they need to before check-in or after checkout.

Such new initiatives, which are offered to visitors upon check-in, are initially trialled via guest rooms that are dedicated to trying out new ideas, designs and technology. ‘Tomorrow’s guestrooms’, as they are aptly called, enable the university to conduct comprehensive and invaluable research into modern concepts, making Hotel ICON a true trailblazer in the region.

Hotel ICON's unique vertical garden was designed by Sir Terrence Conran

Hotel ICON’s unique vertical garden was designed by Sir Terrence Conran

Local vibes
Hotel ICON is situated in Hong Kong’s famous Tsim Sha Tsui quarter, a buzzing district filled with restaurants, shops and museums, including the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the Hong Kong Space Museum and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Given that its enviable location on Victoria Harbour was unavailable to other, more conventional hotels, Hotel ICON’s positioning is a strong indicator of the importance it plays in a rapidly developing industry.

Within a short period of time, the establishment has become a lifeline in Hong Kong and a champion for the city’s well-known artists and rising stars. “Hotel ICON takes a new look at Asian hospitality where we emphasise individuality and we are passionate about Hong Kong’s local culture – cosmopolitan art, design, fabulous food and outstanding services, all in all”, said Hatter.

The magic and modernity of Hong Kong are displayed throughout the hotel, which takes a great deal of inspiration from a burgeoning art scene that has become Asia’s finest. Hatter explained: “We’re passionate about local culture because it’s irreplaceable; it’s our very own culture. We focus on showing our guests real Asian hospitality, therefore you can see local elements in every corner of our hotel. There are a lot of hidden gems in Hong Kong waiting to be explored, hence we grab the opportunity to share local arts with our visitors around the globe.”

In line with this celebration of Hong Kong, the Hotel ICON building itself was designed by one of the city’s most celebrated architects, Rocco Yim, and boasts bespoke suites designed by renowned fashion designer and PolyU alumnus Vivienne Tam. The touch of award-winning designer, hotel curator and fellow alumnus, Freeman Lau, is also evident throughout, as is that of Hong Kong style guru Barney Cheng, who designed the staff uniforms.

Along with a celebration of Hong Kong’s best, there is also space for the city’s emerging artists, whose work is displayed throughout the hotel. Adding to the hotel’s super-stylish image are the likes of Sir Terrence Conran and Dr Patrick Blanc, who created the hotel’s vertical garden and designed Above and Beyond (one of the city’s most popular restaurants) respectively.

The greater good
“In the future, we envision ourselves to further improve and train up more and more professionals that contribute back to the entire industry. For a clearer roadmap in the future, there will be two major criteria we would like to stress: education and sustainability. Since we are a training hotel, education has always been inseparable for us, extending from students to staff”, Hatter said. In that respect, Hatter hopes to bring in more experts and professionals from the global hospitality industry to share their ideas and experience, in order to inspire new innovations and new generations.

He continued: “We will be hosting more conferences and forums targeting various hotel divisions. We just presented our first hospitality human capital forum, and it was a great success. There will be more to come.”

Hotel ICON heralds a new era in the hospitality industry. Its unique way of operating provides necessary support to a rapidly expanding industry by feeding it much-needed talent and its most important resource: human capital. At the same time, it helps young people learn, develop and embark upon fruitful, lifelong careers. Significantly, not only is this unique model altruistic, it is incredibly successful too: Hotel ICON achieved profits aimed for year 10 in just its third year, while it is currently rated as the second best hotel in Hong Kong on TripAdvisor.

The hotel’s position as an educator and research facility is one that has hugely appealed to visitors, as evidenced by the establishment’s mounting popularity. Nowadays, travellers want more than mere accommodation, and they want more than just luxury: they want to experience something different, and they want to engage with their environment. Helping to train a new generation of hoteliers offers both of these in abundance. Hotel ICON therefore provides a rare opportunity for guests to give something back, and this form of social contribution adds huge value to what could be just an ordinary hotel stay elsewhere.

The institution continues to implement new concepts and ideas that guests are eagerly responding to, pushing boundaries and, with them, the industry forward in exciting new directions. All the while, Hotel ICON shies away from a bottom-line-driven, faceless corporate stance in its decision to embrace the local culture – yet in doing so, performs better than many of its corporate peers.

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