The road to the stars

Pupils at Les Roches Marbella learn to make beds to the standards demanded by the hotel sector.
Pupils at Les Roches Marbella learn to make beds to the standards demanded by the hotel sector. / Josele-Lanza
  • Wealthy young people, some with famous surnames, are training to run hotels at Les Roches Marbella, a school where strict discipline and uniforms are part of teaching them about service

Still chewing the last mouthfuls of their food, the stragglers start rushing out of the room where a buffet breakfast is served every day. It's time for the first class, and there is zero tolerance for bad timekeeping here. Today, time has caught up with them, and especially for their classmates whose turn it is to work in the kitchen and clear the tables this week.

It is nearly 9am at Les Roches Marbella, a top-level private hospitality management school whose mother campus opened in Switzerland in 1954. The second campus opened in Marbella in 1995.

The pupils are rushing to take their places, and the noise is raucous. Mr Djeebet is about to arrive, and the tension can be felt in the air. This British teacher is strict and imposes an almost military discipline. He may have taken on the role of 'bad guy', but he also happens to be one of the most respected and best-loved teachers among former pupils, with whom he maintains an affectionate relationship.

The class falls into an almost deathly silence as soon as he appears. Every day, this coordinator of the practical classes inspects nearly 200 pupils, carefully examining their appearance from top to bottom: from the head, where hair must not reach the shirt collar, to the feet, which must be in beautifully polished shoes. No piercings, no tattoos, no long or varnished nails, not too much make-up. Hassan Djeebet sets an example to his disciples, today wearing an impeccable dark jacket, white shirt and discreet tie.

A first group of students files in front of him, with smiling faces and apparently impeccable appearance; but nothing escapes the eye of this teacher, who orders several of them to take off their jackets so he can check that their shirt sleeves are also perfectly ironed. Two of them are reprimanded for having double crease lines and are told not to do it again.

He continues with a roll call: "Alejandro, Pedro, Elena, Karina..." "Yes, sir," they answer immediately, because a delay of even a few seconds can result in a penalty and lost points. All the pupils start off with six points. If the number drops to four, their parents are phoned and told that their children are doing badly.

On the Marbella campus of Les Roches (there are another two, in Switzerland and Shanghai) there is an air of refinement and exclusivity, reminiscent of those elite boarding schools in paradisiacal surroundings for the children of the rich. At this elegant and cosy facility, however, the heirs of foreign dynasties, aristocrats, children of ministers and others with famous surnames are being trained to manage hotels and restaurants.

At the moment about 30 per cent of the pupils are studying thanks to a grant, and some because their parents have mortgaged themselves to finance the degree in Global Hospitality Management, a course which lasts three and a half years and costs 120,000 euros.

Students have to be over 18 years of age, have completed their secondary education, speak good English (a score of at least 525 in the 'English as a Foreign Language' test) and demonstrate ample motivation during their personal interview.

However, neither a healthy bank balance nor a famous surname excuses these wealthy youngsters, who are accustomed to a comfortable life, from having to make beds, cook, clean floors, wash dishes or take the rubbish out. All, with no exceptions, take turns in different departments during the first six months to learn how every single task in a hotel is done and how to meet the sector's rigorous standards. Most arrive here without ever having fried an egg or picked up an iron in their lives.

Long hours

Alfonso de Borbón had to learn quickly. This 19-year-old had some help from his mother before starting at the school a few months ago. Nevertheless, he is finding it hard to get used to the marathon hours involved at times, starting to cook at 6.30 in the morning and not finishing his day until 10 o'clock at night.

Alfonso has learned to work in a team, to coordinate with his fellow pupils to get the plates out on time and simultaneously, to pile three plates at a time on his arm when removing them from the table and, above all, to understand the delays that can occur and the effort involved behind a service.

When cleaning rooms and bathrooms, they learn what each product is used for.

When cleaning rooms and bathrooms, they learn what each product is used for. / Josele-Lanza

"It seems easy, but serving in a restaurant is very hard," says this student, who avoids talking about the fact that he is a member of the Spanish royal family. "I'm just a pupil like all the others here," he insists.

However, the objective of this school is not to learn to cook or know how to clean bedrooms. "It's to learn how to supervise the work of someone else and how much time that work takes, in order to manage those resources well," explains programe coordinator Rocío Montero.

There, the school has recreated a luxury resort with four different restaurants, a bedroom and a reception area where the 752 pupils of 82 nationalities do their first practical classes. They learn the trade, discipline, strict compliance with the rules and, above all, humility.

They all wear the same working clothes and if anyone arrives with airs of grandeur, that doesn't last long.

"In some countries, a person with power and money can do anything they like, when they like, and almost without limits, and some pupils come with the feeling that if they want something they can have it, but that type of conduct is unacceptable here. If someone tries to impose their will because of their power or their financial status, there is an immediate penalty. However, in most cases they end up realising for themselves that this prepotent attitude, which may work well for them in their own country, isn't valid here and in fact it isolates them from the rest of the group," says Carlos Díez de la Lastra, CEO of Les Roches Marbella.

Carlos is exquisitely discreet, but admits that he has had to deal with the occasional difficult situation. He copes with all types of pressures in his day-to-day life, including the threat of legal action by someone who didn't want their son to have to share a room. However, living in the residence is an essential part of this educational model and it is evaluated just like other, more academic subjects such as accounting, digital marketing, economics and financial management.

The students take cookery classes so they learn how to manage the whole process.

The students take cookery classes so they learn how to manage the whole process. / Josele-Lanza

"There is always conflict in coexistence and from the time they arrive we want them to be exposed to those situations so they learn to resolve them," explains Mano Soler, director of Operations and Student Services.

Vocation for service

Nevertheless, the students' youth, lack of experience and cultural differences sometimes create unbreachable walls between the two beds in the same room, and that's when Sandra Becerra intervenes. She is a psychologist and pupils go to her with such trivial problems as someone using their shampoo without asking first, but there are also more serious matters.

"Some ask themselves what they are doing here; their parents want them to carry on the family business but have never asked them for their opinion. We had one pupil who recognised the huge effort his parents had made to pay for him to study at Les Roches, but he admitted to me that what he really wanted to do was train to be a pilot," says Sandra.

Every term, five or six pupils are expelled for different reasons. "We don't hesitate, where necessary," stresses Díez de la Lastra. The pupils are randomly woken up early for alcohol and drugs tests and, although it is "very rare" for anyone to test positive, it is treated very seriously. Others don't adapt and their frustration takes the form of rebellion.

"On one occasion, we suspended a pupil for a term because of discipline problems and his father, an important Syrian businessman, asked for a meeting to discuss the matter. We thought he was going complain about the decision but in fact he ended up in tears, pleading with us to reinstate his son because he had seen that this was the only place that had succeeded in changing him," says Soler.

All the pupils have the chance to spend a term in the other two Les Roches campuses, but for some the 'little United Nations' they have in Marbella is sufficient.

About 95 per cent of the pupils receive good job offers before they graduate. Hundreds of companies look to this campus when recruiting their future management, and not all are in the hotel or tourism sector. Apple, Qatar Airways, Louis Vuitton...

Students are reprimanded if their shirts, including the sleeves, are not properly ironed.

Students are reprimanded if their shirts, including the sleeves, are not properly ironed. / Josele-Lanza

"They are brands that sell experiences and they need professional staff with training in social skills, who are able to empathise and place themselves on the clients' level so they are satisfied," explains Soler.

The CEO of Les Roches is well aware that a high socio-economic level doesn't always mean that somebody has good manners.

"It's all well and good to aspire to run a hotel, but the pupils must not forget that they are there to serve the client. That position of humility, of understanding that you are working to make somebody else happy, is the key to our model," stresses Díez de la Lastra.

That philosophy remains imprinted in the minds of those who have previously assimilated the way of life at Les Roches.

One example is Sara González who, after graduating from Les Roches, now manages the Vincci Aleysa, a five-star hotel in Benalmádena (Malaga) where she has put into practice all the skills she was taught and where she never forgets that to be a good hotel manager you need to be, above all, "a good person".