The best of both worlds by QHotels' Emma Norbury

Emma Norbury QHotels graduate

If my first-hand experience has taught me anything, it's that traditional university isn't for everyone.

I started studying at university straight from college. I'd always wanted to get a degree and I did well in A-Levels too, so why not?

When the time came to start my new life as a student, I was excited. The thought of being independent and self-sufficient was amazing, but the reality was different.

I soon realised that my student loan didn't cover my rent, let alone other living costs, so I'd need to get a (well-paid) part-time job to work around my studies. It was near impossible to find paid work in any position that related to my studies. I wanted to go out and have the uni experience, but I simply couldn't afford it.   

After much deliberation, I decided that it just wasn't working for me. I dropped out of university, moved back home and ended up working full-time at a local hotel. I enjoyed some of the aspects of my job, the hospitality and events management side of the business had always interested me, but I wasn't sure how to progress from my role as a receptionist into different positions.

After some research, an opportunity with QHotels caught my eye. It was a development programme, working and studying at its conference and events dedicated hotels to gain paid experience and a bespoke Foundation Degree in Professional Hospitality Operations Management within two years. It looked like the perfect way to overcome the previous problems I had faced when it came to getting my degree. It was also the first qualification of its kind to be offered by a UK hotel group so I'd be one of the first people to get such a degree, even better!

I left my job and moved to my new position at The Midland in Manchester, excited by the prospect of working in such an iconic venue. It took me a while to get used to the fast-paced lifestyle, moving from one department to another and working with new people on a regular basis. I can honestly say that the only time I had second thoughts was when I ran to replace a delegates missing fork and sent a whole service station (full to the brim with hot coffee and sugar cubes) noisily crashing down over myself with 400 conference attendees staring. - It's OK, we laughed it off.

Moving from team to team had major benefits. I gained a greater understanding of how the hotel worked as a whole, how each team impacted one another, learning the practicalities of each role. It also allowed me to experience everything and to choose the specific field I liked the most. This led to a permanent position in events and reservations, and a focus on that area in my degree work too.

The two most obvious benefits were apparent right away:

  1. I had a full-time income. 'Earning while learning' means you don't need to get into debt and you can rely on your own hard work to pay your bills, not on getting your student loan on time.
  2. More importantly, I was learning practical things on the job. How to manage events and the planning process in real life, putting my theoretical learning into context.

I think I'm one of the few people I know that actually uses their degree at work! When it comes to planning events you need the experience of working with different clients, delegates, conference sizes and all the other crucial elements of events, to really put any written theory to use. This combination of knowledge and experience is what made me so confident in my role.

I also had the support of the educational development team at QHotels, including my mentor that worked in the same hotel and was always available to answer my questions regarding work or study. QHotels set up workshops every 1-2 months that allowed us to get our head around our assessments and meet with the other students. The assignments I worked on were immediately applicable to my everyday life at work, and I think everyone will agree that's pretty useful.

Fast-forward two years in my role and I've been promoted from management trainee to reservations and events supervisor after graduating this month. I love my role at QHotels, meaning I already have my job secured, which is more than can be said for most graduates. More importantly, I'm already two years into my career.

The range of ages and educational backgrounds of each student on the QHotels course differed, but the advantage for all of us was that we'd already started earning and working. Our degree, or lack of, never held us back. Work never clashed with our studies because it was all part of the same venture.

So what advice would I give to anyone considering a vocational degree like mine or the other 15 colleagues who graduated at QHotels? If you want a practical qualification and don't want to lose out on experience or income then it's for you. The main challenges will include getting used to working and studying at the same time, so never underestimate the importance of time management. It's something that will help you keep your work life balance in check, and let's face it, it's a skill you need in events and hospitality!

There is no doubt in my mind that this was the right path for me, and while I understand that some occupations need years of academic and theoretical work, vocational degrees like mine are perfect for careers in hospitality and events. While it was challenging, more than anything it was rewarding. I felt like I was getting somewhere.

There is, and there's always going to be hundreds of students with events management, hospitality and business management degrees. If they're up against people with real experience and a qualification to back it up, which do you think is more impressive?

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