Twenty-five years of working in the hospitality industry has firmly planted its roots in the very essence of my being. Service excellence renders me giddy and authenticity is perched high on a pedestal and vehemently exalted. My current home, Le Meridien Angkor, feeds into this passion, making both coming and going a supreme delight.
It is only in the staff that the gift lies to transform a hotel from a pretty box housing a lot of nice stuff into an exquisite locale in which you feel recognized and cared for. And this pretty box is filled with young men and women that exude genuine kindness and graciously bestow it upon each and every guest that passes through their doors. It’s during one such interaction that a lovely girl in the restaurant shares a bit of information with me. She is a student at Sala Baï and with a little research I discover a very special school with an extraordinary mission.
What I love about Sala Baï is not only the school’s tourism based educational focus; it is the methodology behind their execution. The program is exclusively designed to provide hotel and restaurant skills to youths from underprivileged families within Cambodia with a household income of less than $300 USD per year. One hundred students are accepted annually to participate in the eleven-month curriculum, with majors including Housekeeping, Front Office, Restaurant Service and Cooking. The scholarships include supplies, accommodation, food, bicycles, uniforms and medical coverage with absolutely no cost incurred by the students or their families. Because of this, the competition for admission is steep and involves a meticulous selection process including family visits, examinations and personal interviews.
Phort, one of Sala Baï’s young scholars provides me with a tour of the facility and also lives in the dormitory with Ek, the sweet girl that sparked my initial interest. The hotel consists of three deluxe rooms and a suite; the restaurant, open for breakfast and lunch, is run entirely by the students, who also receive instruction in both French and English. Phort seems impressed with my limited French vocabulary and neglect to tell her that after living in the country nearly three years I’ve only achieved the narrow linguistic accomplishment of interpreting restaurant menus.
In passing I’m introduced to Emmanuelle Dethomas, the school’s Communication Officer who has signed on for two years with the project. Emmanuelle describes the background the students and explains that a portion of the integration process often involves an introduction to electricity and running water before training even begins. She also shares that the school boasts a job placement rate of 100% and that along with several other hotels, Le Meridien Angkor provides internships to approximately five students per semester and in many cases continues the relationship after graduation.
In addition to local hotels and restaurants, the school is also supported by international partnerships, private donations, as well as, hotel room and restaurant sales; they even have a cookbook! My guide was superb and I absolutely LOVE what they are doing here. Not only are these young ladies and gentlemen being taught how to fish, they are learning how to prepare and then serve it up in grand style. Nicely done Sala Baï!