09/06/2011 11:18 am ET | Updated Nov 06, 2011

Back To School At Hong Kong's New Learning Hotel (PHOTOS)

This week, the nearly 2,000 faculty and students starting classes at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's School of Hotel & Tourism Management (SHTM), are getting a whole new $100 million "lab" to play in. For the first time, courses have been redesigned to incorporate the school's brand-new Hotel ICON into students' learning experience.

General Manager Richard Hatter explained that they didn't want to throw the usual lavish hotel grand opening party. Instead, in keeping with the mission of the hotel as an integral part of hospitality teaching and research, the ICON is celebrating with a Hospitality Design Conference on the 21st of this month. "Boutique & Lifestyle Hotels: Creating a Brand Icon through Design" will bring together the designers of the hotel -- architect Rocco Yim, interior designer William Lim, vertical garden designer Patrick Blanc, restaurant designer Richard Doone, branding expert Tommy Li and uniform designer Barney Cheng -- for a day-long sharing with the hospitality industry.

The concept behind Hotel ICON is visionary. When I was teaching a marketing course at the school last year, before the hotel had even opened, the media had a field day criticizing the project's cost and reason for being. Now that the hotel is averaging around 80 percent occupancy in only its soft-opening phase, the naysayers have suddenly jumped on the praise-lavishing bandwagon.

"As the saying goes, 'Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan,'" Professor Kaye Chon, Dean & Chair Professor of SHTM, said with a self-satisfied chuckle.

While there have been other university-owned or affiliated hotels, none have tried to integrate school and hotel on the scale that SHTM and Hotel ICON have. Chon explained that most universities simply contract out to a hotel management company.

"There are certain brand recognition and advantages in terms of managing and marketing the hotel [when using a management company] and it's much easier to manage the hotel in that way. At the same time, there will be other liabilities. As an example, my former university, University of Houston, had Hilton hotel on campus. Recruiters from other hotel brands were reluctant to recruit students, because they thought we are a Hilton college, training students for Hilton or training students by the Hilton way using their training manual. Most importantly, companies are interested in profits, not necessarily interested in investing in education and training," Chon said.

Since the university owns Hotel ICON, profits go back towards education and training for the industry as a whole. Another area of integration is in research. The hotel has three, experimental rooms where in-room design, technology and lifestyle innovations can be piloted with hotel guests. On check-in, guests will be given the option to stay in such a room provided they are willing to participate in the research.

Hotel ICON has been in its soft-opening phase for several months now. Already, it has piqued the interest of other hoteliers. Recently, architects and interior designers from Marriott visited the hotel. Unlike industry norm, Hotel ICON's rooms have a free minibar and a 24-hour Timeless lounge, where guests arriving before check-in time or departing much later than check-out time can relax and enjoy complimentary wifi and snacks as well as freshen up in the adjacent fitness center. These are just two of the hotel's successful (i.e. cost-effective and guest-appreciated) innovations.

The school and hotel share a space, but they have separate entrances on opposite sides of the building. The school occupies nine floors, of which four floors connect to the hotel. It minimizes disruptions on both sides, while allowing students to seamlessly move through the hotel when they observe various back-of-house operations whether it be facilities management, housekeeping or F&B. The school and hotel share meeting room facilities. From Monday to Thursday, the school uses the rooms as classrooms. Come weekend, the hotel monetizes the rooms by holding events and meetings. The kitchen labs are also shared, allowing the hotel extra food production capacity.

Facilities sharing aside, the greatest benefit for students, in addition to the sense of pride, has been the structured internship program. Up to 200 interns will have the opportunity to participate in 10, 12 and 48-week internship programs. The school and hotel are also launching an elite management program, where six specially-selected students will be given one-year managerial training, shadowing directors of different departments. Chon hopes that Hotel ICON's internship programs will set the standard for the industry.

"Last year, I got placed at another hotel where I was a waitress for the whole 10 weeks. This year, I was placed in Hotel ICON's Human Capital department where I got a detailed training plan before the internship started so I'd know what I was going to learn and who will be teaching me. I had no knowledge of this function, because I'd never had a class on it. So after the internship, I know what the department does. The experience means a lot to me, because now I have lots of ideas about how the department can better manage its people," said Joey Lo, a summer intern.

Hotel ICON has already gotten many rave reviews, and a lot of it has to do with the culture of the hotel.

"A lot of the guest reviews all talk about young, enthusiastic passionate people," said GM Hatter. The average age of non-managerial level staff is 23 years old, making it easier for students to bond and work with the staff.

While guests experience Hotel ICON as an innovative, design business hotel with enthusiastic staff, it's much more than that. Having worked for many years at Shangri-La, Hatter was well aware from day one that Hotel ICON would be like no other other.

"When I arrived on the university campus (as employee no. 1 before the hotel had a physical form) and I went to buy a coffee at Oliver's and there were all these young girls dressed up in cosplay. I suddenly looked around me and realized this really is all about education," Hatter said.