It’s been said that only someone who has worked their way to the top would be able to understand how important hard work is. Jennifer Ong is one such person. The Founder/Publisher of Hospitality Asia was already making a name for herself in the hospitality industry with a targeted, revolutionary industry specific magazine, but it took an unnamed waitress to spark what would become the regional hospitality industry’s audited recognition awards programme – HAPA Awards.
HAPA GROUP SDN BHD (Formerly known as WAP INTL SDN BHD) launched the HAPA Academy, a training and consultancy programme by the HAPA brand. At its core, HAPA’s objective was to give recognition to the men and women of the hospitality industry who strive to deliver extraordinary service and hospitality experiences. The HAPA Academy on the other hand, will focus on Audit, Review and Training services. HAPA sets service benchmarks for the hospitality industry and the HAPA Academy will play a role in providing comprehensive audits and reviews as well as the necessary training required as part of its consultancy services.
Most people involved in hospitality would argue that service is what drives the industry and that there has been a decline in service levels over recent years. While industry practitioners wax lyrically about warm hospitality and professional hospitality standards, those at the coalface of service delivery know that they can’t always live up to the hype. More importantly, many customers realise that service standards in some areas have declined with little prospect of improvement.
Jennifer reminisces, “I was on a business trip to Singapore in early 2002 and was sitting in a hotel when I noticed a waitress cleaning a table. There was a determined look on her face as she carefully placed the flowers and tidied the sugar bowl. That look reminded me of a young airline flight attendant named Jennifer Ong, who had the same look when tidying the galley. That look was one of satisfied pride in a job well done. It was a look that said, “There; it’s done perfectly!”
“So many times, patrons treat service staff like this waitress as invisible ‘elves’ who set everything just so and vanish. These hospitality ‘elves’ are often faceless and nameless. Right there and then, I decided that these people needed to know that they mattered, that they were important and, of value to the business,” remarks Jennifer.
It was this insightful moment in the hotel lobby that initiated the creation of the Hospitality Asia Platinum Awards (HAPA Awards) to recognise all the unsung ‘heroes of hospitality’ from every level, including the committed waitress through to the most enterprising entrepreneurs. Platinum, the most expensive precious metal in the world was chosen to mark the esteem in which all nominees were to be regarded. Unlike most fledging ideas, the inaugural HAPA was help in 2002 to give recognition to the men and women of the hospitality industry who strive to deliver amazing hospitality experiences and presented in a format which has been constant over the past decade.
Striving for Excellence
To this day, HAPA continues to champion the call to excellence via its lauding of individuals, departments, restaurants, and hospitality establishments, with special emphasis on the crucial but often unrecognised back-of-the-house departments.
From the first dazzling gala, HAPA has continued to grow in leaps and bounds, keeping abreast with the growth in the industry, and resolutely championing the cause of the men and women who work in the background to ensure that each hospitality experience is perfect.
However, while there are many in the industry who strive for service excellence, there are others who are frustrated with the current levels of service. So does the industry simple accept that the situation shows no sign of improvement, or does it do something about it?
Jennifer explained, “Five years ago, I had the idea of starting a HAPA Academy for the hospitality industry as I’m a true believer that good service standards are a must and people can be trained to deliver good service. After creating a hospitality industry awards programme for the purpose of recognising and rewarding establishments and individuals who deliver outstanding service, my ultimate dream was to build a service academy – not just any academy but an academy with soul. It’s about the right mindset and not just s set of skills.”
She continued, “After 15 years of running an awards programme in Malaysia and regionally, I witnessed the level of service in Malaysia was inconsistent and declining. It came to a point where it really irked me to be experiencing bad service and worst of all; nothing was being done about it despite many complaints. Some blamed it on lack of staff, and some said it was due to the language barrier of foreign employees. To me, it was simple – lack of training or, no training at all.”
The lack of skilled staff isn’t just Malaysia specific; Singapore too is facing a similar challenge due to government policies on foreign labour. “In my opinion, the service standards around the region doesn’t match standards of two decades ago. When I first started publishing Hospitality Asia in the 1990s, regional service standards were exceptional,” claimed Jennifer.
Staff can’t be expected to perform when they aren’t equipped with knowledge and skills. By the end of 2016, Jennifer realised that the situation had to change, so the opportunity to put her dreams into reality became possible. She started forming a team to work on designing the training programme and exploring collaboration possibilities with various parties. She also started working on the training concept that will ensure a far different approach from how a typical training is conducted. As part of the brand directions, Jennifer hand-picks her trainers to ensure that the programme is carried out by specialised trainers and coaches with the right expertise.
In March 2017, The A.R.T Lab by HAPA was born. The A.R.T Lab represents a workshop concept rather than a classroom as the programme incorporates the benefits of the audit assessment of the HAPA Awards, followed by a review with owners and operators to identify the gaps before crafting a dedicated training programme. As of 2019, in line with the HAPA brand, The A.R.T Lab is now the HAPA Academy.
Addressing Critical Needs
The main objective of this new project is to provide training workshops to address critical service standard issues such as managing and meeting customer expectations, bridging the gap of internal expectations, understanding the foundations of quality service delivery, effective communication, overall grooming and demeanour as well as the importance of leaving a lasting impression. It concerns the cultivation of a ‘commitment to excellence’ mindset amongst service staff and recognising the opportunity to make a positive impact in customer service.
The process starts with a consultation session with the establishment’s owner and head of operations followed by mystery and group audits to identify the gaps and challenges faced. This will be followed by a three-day training workshop and potentially more days based on audit performance.
Auditors, assessors and trainers are hand-picked from HAPA’s network of industry professionals who have the skill, knowledge and expertise in the world of hospitality.
The HAPA Academy is endorsed by the Malaysian Food and Beverage Executives Association and the International Food and Beverage Association. These associations have never endorsed any training programmes before, but they have agreed to come on board to support and work with the HAPA Academy for this programme. The Presidents, Vice Presidents and their committee members are industry professionals with decades of experience in the field of hospitality.
This is an industry training programme supported by hospitality associations. It is a HAPA-certified programme and hence it must meet the service benchmarks of HAPA. It’s auditors, assessors and trainers are from the HAPA Panel of Auditors who have been on the panel for the past 15 years, carrying out audits for the HAPA Awards programme regionally. This panel consists of over 40 industry professionals from various backgrounds and professions. It is also of worth noting that HAPA places great importance in the selection of our panel.
HAPA is the only awards programme in Asia to present each participating property with a report card containing the property’s scores to that management teams can benchmark achievements and set out more targeted Key Performance Indexes for their staff. The HAPA Awards programme is an audit system carried out by industry experts and corporate individuals who physically visit each nominee off on-site inspections, food tastings, as well as one-on-one interviews, regardless of the location of the nominated establishments.
All auditors have to adhere to strict audit guidelines where they must conduct their assignments as a ‘Mystery Guest’ and assess the nominees according to the benchmark standards set by HAPA. All auditors conduct their assignments based on a common criteria form issued by the HAPA Committee for each specific category. There is no voting exercise for the HAPA Awards programme.
Each auditor has to enter a score for every single attribute in the criteria form as part of their auditing process. The scores are then submitted to our audit server for tabulation.
The HAPA Group (formerly known as WAP) was established in 1994 to produce high quality hospitality, food and beverage, and travel publications for industry owners and operators, those in related corporate industries and, interested travellers. On this journey in the field of hospitality, the HAPA Group has expanded its portfolio to include awards and events management, and now training and consultancy services.
The HAPA Group now has five brand portfolios – Hospitality Asia (Publishing), HAPA (Awards), MAD (Events), No Address Society (Dining Club) and, the HAPA Academy (Training and Consultancy).
Jennifer believes with HAPA Group’s 23-years of experience in the hospitality industry, it can share its knowledge and know-how on setting high service benchmarks, applying the right mindset in delivering consistent quality hospitality experience, creating a service-oriented culture within an organisation, and raising the bar in achieving impeccable service standards.
If no one seeks to find a solution to fix the issues of meeting service standards, the industry will only get worse. With the escalating cost of running businesses, there will be many unhappy customers having to pay more but receiving less satisfactory service.
The HAPA Academy has been conceived in response to declining service standards but, with a mission to ensuring that this trend is reversed.
The following core services have been carefully curated by HAPA experts and the HAPA Academy for the service industry:
To evaluate compliance to best practices in the relevant service sectors.
To conduct comparative analysis in identifying gaps and preparing a detailed report.
To build skills and competencies for organisational and individual sustainability.