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The school that sets the standard

Interview - May 8, 2012
Patricia Butcher, Executive Director of the Trinidad and Tobago Hospitality and Tourism Institute (TTHTI), is proud of her island nation’s warm and hospitable people and of the school’s leading role in supplying the Caribbean region with top hospitality and tourism human resources

If you had to brand Trinidad and Tobago, what would you communicate internationally?

I would say that T&T is a multiethnic, multiracial and very diverse society where we live in harmony. We have a number of religions; there is religious diversity and we all live in harmony. We celebrate each other’s festivals – for example, we have Divali, Eid and a lot of Christian religious festivals, and everyone gets an opportunity to celebrate. From a very young age, in the schools, the students get information about the festivals. We really appreciate our racial and ethnic diversity. I think we are fun-loving people as well – we love to party and we are very sociable. We like to entertain and we like to invite you to our homes. We are warm and hospitable. I think T&T is a melting pot of races. We also have a mix where people inter-marry, so you have a different kind of look amongst our people.
I would like to invite people to come here. I told people last year when I was away that the mix of the people and the fact that we are so warm and hospitable makes us unique in the world. I think we are very unique; we are a melting pot of races, so we have something special and different to give to the world.

How is the Government’s goal regarding education coming along? What is the education strategy doing here for the economy here in the country?

We have had a major focus on education by offering free education to our population. I benefited from the program – I was able to go to university without having to pay the fees, and my parents could not afford to send me to university because my brother was studying abroad. I can say that when we go abroad, we tend to stand out in universities abroad so that the level of education that is delivered here is outstanding.
Over the years we have made strides in the areas of primary and secondary education, but I think that the focus now is on tertiary education. We need to develop our people more in this area. That is why the Government is focused on building more tertiary institutions and developing more infrastructure across the country. If we continue this program, I think it will contribute to increasing our global competitiveness. If you look at the competitiveness index, we are not where we should be – Barbados is much higher than we are, but I think if we strengthen the area of tertiary education, our competitiveness rating will really increase.
More people need to be exposed to technological development. I think information and communication technology is of major focus in the world. People must have Internet access. The world is becoming smaller, so T&T needs to get on board as far as technological developments are concerned. That for me would be a major area if I had the power to influence the government in terms of where we need to prioritize and how we should train our people. Another area would be innovation – we need to be more innovative. We need to focus on R&D and look at new areas in terms of development. 

Speaking about the workforce, what advantage is there for a Trinibagonian working in the global tourism industry?

I think it is our ability to adapt, because of that racial and multiethnic exposure that we have had since we were born. We can adapt to any culture very easily and very quickly. Because of our hospitable nature, I think our people would have an advantage in the global economy in this particular sector.

You are really concerned about human resource development. What programs do you offer to students who would like to come and study here?

We offer a variety of programs. We try to cover all aspects of the hospitality and the tourism sector. We offer certificate programs (short courses, diplomas and associate degrees and bachelor degree programs). We offer them in the areas of hospitality, tourism, culinary arts, sports tourism, and food and beverage management. We offer many short courses in tour guiding and culinary arts; the latter is an area of great interest. We offer events and conference management, which are areas of focus for development as well.

Training and Development Specialist): We also offer on-demand programs, which we call master classes. We look at cultural tourism and events management. I think some people do not realize that hospitality affects all sectors. So you are able to work in other areas as well.

A major focus is customer service, because we think that customer service cuts across every aspect of hospitality and tourism and how you treat customers will determine the quality of the experience. That is a core program that cuts across all of our offerings. We recognize the need to develop our attitude towards service. Although we are hospitable, in the working environment we look at service in a different way. It is almost condescending, like we are too proud to serve in the working environment. That is something that stems from the colonial times. We have to keep working on this area, so that people understand that you have to provide the same service in the workplace. We have introduced a Self Enhancement series that exposes students to the psychology of behavior and service. The program cuts across all of our offerings as well. We want to strengthen that area so our people will love to serve in any environment.

Why do you think students decide to come and study here?

We are the only institution in the Caribbean that offers a BSc in Culinary Management. We think because of the exposure of our people to Food Network and those kinds of channels, we are seeing a lot of students applying to study to become chefs. Because we are so creative and talented, students enjoy Garde Manger where they learn to make creative pieces to complement the food served. I find that we are getting a lot of male students coming in to do this program, which is good. Culinary management is special. We are the leading hospitality tourism education institution in T&T, so a lot of students want to come here to pursue hospitality and tourism education and training.
We have many articulation agreements, and I think that is an attraction as well. Students realize that they can come here and they can complete an associate degree in two years and go to UWI (University of West Indies), complete another two years and get a BSc degree. They can also go to universities like Florida International University and a range of universities across North America for instance. They also get an opportunity to do some internships. For example, right now we have a Canada–CARICOM exchange agreement where our students can go and spend one academic year at Lambton College in Canada. That is wonderful for them and we have had positive responses from the students. About 10 students have gone out already and there will be four more going out this semester. We are also reviving the Walt Disney program. Students are very interested in our programs because they know that they can obtain internships all over the world. We have contacts abroad, where they can go to hotels and restaurants and do their practical training.

You also offer an exchange program.

Yes. We have had discussions recently with Lambton as they are interested in sending their students here. Years ago we had an exchange with Assiniboine Community College in Canada, and we are looking to revive similar type exchanges.

Are you looking to expand at the moment?

Yes; we are bursting at the seams. We have about 700 full time and part time students, and we cannot accept any more because we do not have classroom space. This building was not purpose-built as an education facility; it was initially an American hospital. Because of the demand, we are looking at east and central Trinidad, where we feel we can have two centers that would make access easier for people coming from the Far East and the Deep South. That is our focus; to get two additional centers to complement this facility. Expansion is definitely on the cards for us.

Are you looking for partnerships?

Yes. Right now we are in a public-private partnership – we are not strictly a public institution. In fact, we are managed and controlled by the private sector. Our Board of Governors is made up of private sector people mainly, so we work very closely with the private sector.  I sit on the Board of the Trinidad Hotels, Restaurants and Tourism Association, so I am in touch with their needs. Then because of the internships for our students, they get exposure internally and then we send them to external properties in industry to be trained. When they complete this practical training, they will be more ready for the world of work than if they were only trained internally at TTHTI. We also have industry players coming in to do guest lectures. For example a Hilton chef came recently and spent a whole day in the kitchen with the students, exposing them to practical skills. We are going to be doing a lot more of that.
Government does give us a subsidy to assist us with operational expenses as well as infrastructural development. I think that relationship makes us unique as an institution.

What do you think is the current level of tourism in Trinidad and Tobago compared to the other islands of the Caribbean?

I think we are special and different, so we should not promote sun and sand only. There is a place for leisure tourists who would like that aspect, but there are also tourists who would like to enjoy the culture, the cuisine, our events, and eco-tourism. Our carnival is a major event that can attract music lovers. We have a lot of talented people in this country; God has blessed us tremendously, and if we market those areas, we will be able to attract a different type of visitor. Those are the niches that we need to focus on.

How are you pushing tourism forward, despite the challenges?

I am a member of the tourism standing committee, so I get an opportunity on a monthly basis to meet with the Minister of Tourism and I can project my ideas there in terms of how the country should move forward as far as tourism is concerned. At TTHTI, because of the range of offerings, we do offer all I have discussed, because we deliver the important aspects of tourism. We talked about cultural tourism, culinary tourism (we are strong in that area because of the diverse cuisine that we have to offer) and meetings and events. Conference tourism is very important, and we can focus on religious conferences here as well as business conferences. We can attract people to come here and at the same time, promote our country when they visit.  We are developing people for the entire industry.

How are you applying your personal experience to your role here?

I have been exposed in a real way in my working career, starting off with the energy sector. I worked for about five years in the energy sector, in finance, and after that I worked in the airline industry for about 15 years at the managerial level – first of all in human resources and then in marketing and customer service, where I actually had to apply what is being taught here but in the real world scenario. Then I moved out of that environment into an education and training environment, where for 15 months I was heading a youth training and employment partnership program (YTEPP). This gave me a whole different perspective with respect to education and training. I was dealing with school leavers, whom we had to develop for careers in different occupational areas, including hospitality and tourism. Then I moved into this environment and continued to prepare people for the world of work. This experience is very important.
Sitting here now at the helm of this organization, I am now able to apply my real world perspective and experience to an education and training environment. I think that the broad range of experience I have had gives me the opportunity to influence and direct education and training in T&T in the areas of hospitality and tourism.

What are your ambitions?

I am at the final stages of a doctoral program in Business Administration, and my dissertation focuses on labor turnover in the hospitality industry in Trinidad and Tobago in particular. I did not realize that this is a phenomenon across the world. I have written the first three chapters, and I am now doing the data collection. I am talking to my graduates to find out why they have left the hospitality industry. Some of the factors relate to human resources practices in the industry, and I am also looking at the phenomenon from an employer perspective. I am very excited to share the information with industry, so that they can appreciate areas of weakness that need to be strengthened. I want to be part of that development, because I come from a human resource background as well. I am very interested in motivating people and in activities that we need to perform to keep people motivated in the working environment. I will probably look at consultancy within the hospitality and tourism environment, where we can strengthen private sector companies from an HR perspective and develop the smaller properties in the area of technology.  Smaller properties need to understand that they need to market themselves using information and communications technology.

How would you like T&T to be perceived in the world?

That is an interesting question. I would like T&T to be perceived as a model country that people would want to emulate, because of the way we live in harmony with each other and for our hospitable manner. I want people to perceive us as being intelligent as well, and as a place where they would really want to live.