Hospitality workers trade resorts for classrooms

CAY HILL–It’s early evening. Valina Albert has settled in at home after a day’s toil. Before her sit all of the things she needs for her usual night in.

That scene may spark the imagination of a woman sitting down, perhaps, to dinner in front of the television. But, it’s not.

Valina has no cable connection, so there is no television in her home. That flickering screen is the farthest thing from her mind; she has all eyes on her books.

Valina is one of some 720 hospitality sector employees who are not sitting still because the resorts for which they worked are under reconstruction due to the ravages of Hurricane Irma. They are all enrolled in Hospitality First, an initiative developed by St. Maarten Training Foundation (SMTF).

Hospitality First is an academy for professionals of the local hospitality industry to acquire international hotel hospitality certification in service standards, culinary arts, public health, food safety, leadership skills, customer service and personal development through theoretical and practical hands-on experience.

SMTF has received a grant of some US $4.5 million from the Governments of the Netherlands and St. Maarten. It is anticipated that additional funding will come from the 470-million-euro trust fund administered by the World Bank. That fund is financed by the Government of the Netherlands to assist with the reconstruction and recovery of St. Maarten.

Valina has worked in the hospitality industry for almost three decades and was housekeeping supervisor with Royal Islander in Maho when Irma struck. Among her first thoughts after the initial shock of the hurricane wore off was “how would the resorts recover?”

She is happy to have shifts in the hotel three days a week and to be able to devote time to her classes.

Today she is more optimistic and is in the classroom soaking up knowledge. “We all want to learn,” she told The Daily Herald.

Striking for Valina are the simple tasks she performed daily without the theoretical knowledge of their harm. “I am learning about dealing with cleaning chemicals like bleach. We use bleach for everything. I have learned to limit the use for all of our safety,” Valina said.

Classes are held in Hillside Christian Schools’ Asha Stevens Campus and National Institute for Professional Advancement (NIPA). All courses run throughout the week from 3:00 to 9:00pm to fit in when the two institutions have completed their classes.

Academy Instructor Carmen Peterson said her students often share their experiences with their immediate family. “The public health course was a real eye-opener. Many persons said they did a lot of the actions covered in the course but didn’t know the reasons behind them.”

Armed with the new knowledge and techniques learned in the classroom, hospitality workers are passing them on at home.

Learning foremost

A significant number of the academy’s students have learned their trade and skill on the job. For most, this is the first time in a classroom.

“The majority of our students has no formal training,” Serge Artsen, an administrator at the academy, shared. He sees opportunity in Irma’s destruction. “There is a 70-year-old man following the course. He is as eager as the others to learn.”

Hospitality First is one avenue via which the private sector has responded to Government’s call “to build back better.” It was created with the sole purpose of upgrading the skills of the country’s hospitality workers, starting with those of the Maho Group.

The academy’s classes cover three curricula: Hospitality Operations, Culinary Arts and Customer Service.

Instructors are working at a pace that best suits their mature students. It is a “no person left behind” approach, said Peterson and Artsen.

Some students are struggling to learn in English, which is not their first language. “They are determined. Some have gotten people close to them to help them understand the material,” said Peterson.

She told of students she assists in the classroom by translating the work into Spanish. “I do what I can to help them along the way. I speak to them in Spanish. Their response must be in English. I told them no matter what, reply in English even if it is broken. This is how we learn.”

The English language is critical to the local tourism sector with the majority of stayover and other visitors coming from English-speaking markets.

At the end of their journey spurred on by the worst Atlantic Ocean-spawned hurricane, the successful mature students will receive several certifications and professional diplomas through Hospitality First’s partners: Guest Service Gold Certification from the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Institute, from South-Sea – Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) Certification, Norovirus Awareness Diploma, Legionella Prevention Diploma; First Aid Certification from Samaritan’s Purse and American Heart Association, Professional Diploma from Royal Indian Butlers, Hospitality First Training and Education Course Specific Diplomas.

Admission to the academy is via hospitality companies and not directly by students. Companies can enrol active status employees. Unemployed applicants can apply through the Labour Office.


SMTF was established in December 2017 by a group of concerned business executives, including representatives of the Maho Group, Sunwing Group, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Lexwell Attorneys, with the immediate task to activate the island’s first hospitality training programme for professionals. The founders initially contributed to its start-up fund to cover operating cost and students’ attendance allowance.

The grant from the Dutch and local governments was critical to the success and survival of the initiative, Successive Finance Ministers Richard Gibson and Michael Ferrier and Minister of Labour and Social Welfare Emil Lee were instrumental in amending Government’s budget and securing the necessary liquidity for the grant to be funded.

SMTF has recently expanded its board of directors to include a representative of the Ministry of Tourism and Economic Affairs, a representative of the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, and a representative of St. Maarten Marine Trade Association. St. Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association (SHTA) was already represented on the board since SHTA appointed the president of SMTF.

Hospitality First currently expects to run its programmes for two years, but may expand and extend its mission depending on circumstances. Plans to extend its mission beyond the hospitality sector are also projected.

For more information on Hospitality First, visit or e-mail .

Source: The Daily Herald