Hotel ICON is a symbol of Hong Kong

The luxury hotel is owned by one of the city's universities - giving students hands-on experience of the world of work.

by Theo Gwyther
Last Updated: 13 Jan 2016

Everywhere you look universities are cash-strapped. In the age of austerity higher education has not escaped. So what’s the answer? The standard British answer is to squeeze students for higher tuition fees and accommodation costs. And then to cram more of them into each tutorial. (The UK now has the highest tuition fees in the industrialised world). But here’s a novel idea from Hong Kong - generate some hard-earned cash by opening a 5 star hotel.

Wholly owned by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and an extension of the university’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management, Hotel ICON is the first teaching and research hotel of its kind. Its approach is unique. The purpose-built luxury hotel integrates a working and profitable business model with a teaching, learning and research institution. The credibility of the school is measured by the reality of making the hotel commercially viable and all the hotel's profits are funnelled back into the university. What is there not to approve of here?

Each year up to 100 promising students from the school catch the lift up to work to train alongside the hotel's 360 permanent staff and learn the hospitality trade by interacting with guests. Surely better than spending the day slumped on the sofa in front of Countdown or repeats of the X Factor.

Founded in 2011 Hotel ICON covers everything you would imagine from a luxury hotel in the original city that never sleeps. On the subject of which….after a flight from London to Hong Kong what every traveller needs is to be greeted by the latest Tesla, ‘the all-electric, silent, smooth and emission-free vehicle.’

Arrival at the hotel reawakens all of your jaded senses. The largest vertical wall garden in Asia and the natural lighting makes it feel as if you have walked into a massive botanical garden. The fragrant lifts that took us to the 26th floor and our room even had their own distinctive odour. Or fragrance, as they say in the perfume game. This emphasis that the hotel places on the environment provides a great relief against the backdrop of a city that can feel quite divorced from nature.

The rooms are all individually specced and several notable designers, including Vivienne Tam, even have their own personally crafted suites. Unlike most rooms in the city, you can enjoy the spectacular vista within the confines of a spacious and bright room. There is a feeling that you are in the ultimate spot – the gaze across to Hong Kong Island doesn’t inspire you to ‘push forward’ and ‘earn more’, instead, it reminds you to appreciate your good fortune and go and try out the afternoon tea.

I met several students including one who was my waitress at lunchtime. I asked whether she enjoys her job working tables, and her response surprised me, when maybe it actually shouldn’t have. I got the sense from her that waitressing will do for now, but her ambitions stretch far higher than pandering to a wealthy international elite. Her true ambitions are to run a company herself, and this reveals a lot about the problems and wonders of modern day Hong Kong. The Chinese economy may be struggling but there is no lack of energy and drive to make it.

I asked the manager whether these problems were common and he nodded. ‘We find that a lot of students don’t enjoy the waiting aspect, they want to do more now.’ There is a sense that Young Hong Kongese people know their own minds. It doesn’t take hours of people watching to find unusual hair cuts, and there is a sense that whilst their identities retain some Chinese aspects, they are highly individualistic. They want to be the ones staying in Hotel ICON having run a business themselves.

Theo Gwyther is a second year History student at Exeter University looking forward to paying back his tuition loan at some point in the future

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