28.08.2013. Despite a love for guests, Georgians have struggled to overcome their Soviet past and create efficient, professional -- and civil -- hospitality staff for the growing number of tourists coming to the country. A new program by Tbilisi City Hall, however, hopes to increase standards and create a warm welcome for tourists and locals alike.
Being a gracious host is an art form in Georgia, where being hospitality is a considered a birthright and nurtured from childhood. But despite the priority placed on hosting at home, in the commercial sector, Georgians are still struggling to create a culture of hospitality.
Hotels that lack basic amenities, boring tour guides, and cafés with surly wait staff that serve more snark than sandwiches may mar otherwise fabulous trips to gorgeous Georgian destinations.
A 2011 Value Chain Assessment report from USAID's Economic Prosperity Initiative (EPI) found several reasons for these problems, including the fact that workers are undertrained, young people are uninterested working in the service industry, and employers are reluctant to hire potential employees over the age of 40.
The problem is not due to a lack of demand: GeoStat, Georgia's official statistics body, reported that the number of jobs in the hospitality sector has jumped over the past nine years, from 7,920 in 2004 to 23,630 in the first quarter of 2013.
Rather, it is more likely that poor salaries and low prestige associated with jobs in the service sector have exacerbated the lack of quality. While the average monthly salary in the hotel and restaurant business increased from 155 lari ($93) per month in 2004 to 462 lari ($280) per month in 2013, it is quite low compared with the average monthly salary in the trade sector and in the transportation and communications sectors, at 676 lari ($409) -- and 991 lari ($600), respectively.
However, Eka Ketsbaia, a manager at Piano, an Italian restaurant in Tbilisi, said that a good waiter should earn 50 lari ($30) a day. Good, she noted, is more about service with a smile than know-how.
"Bringing a fork in a timely manner is not the main thing, more important is that a waiter is nice to our guests so that they want to come again," Ketsbaia said. "Even a smile has a huge role."
But experts in the tourism and hospitality fields note that education is also necessary. While there are management schools providing training in the hospitality industry, specialists like Tbilisi City Hall's Arianna Briganti believe modern training — and higher standards — are vital to improve the level of service available in Georgia today. Tbilisi City Hall, together with the German Development Cooperation (GIZ), the Italian Embassy in Georgia, and Ingrao Tradizione e Innovazione, is working on a project to strengthen Georgia's tourism industry, particularly its culinary sector. The multifaceted project, which tackles the development of occupational standards in line with EU regulation, capacity building, and the Vocational Education and Training (VET) Center development, started earlier this year.
"The aim of the project," explained Briganti, the Integrated Expert of the Centre for International Migration and Development and an advisor in economic issues at the City Hall, "is that the labor force acquires the experience and capacities —both professional and ethical skills — sought by national as well as international employers..."
Management schools and vocational training centers for tourism and the hospitality sector already exist.
Lika Vashakashvili, the manager of programs and quality at Icarus, a vocational college in Tbilisi specialising solely in the tourism industry, noted that of the 369 students who graduated in 2012, all the chefs are already employed.
Students like Nino Ajiashvili, 23, praise the school for its practical approach. Ajiashvili, who graduated with a degree in tourism management from a Georgian university, turned to the vocational school to increase her skills and, hopefully, find a job.
"I realized I needed more practical training; I would like to start from housekeeping — the lowest position — and pass through every stage in this profession," she said.
Vashakashvili said the school prioritizes feedback from potential employers: she noted that when research indicated employers needed staff with strong English language skills, the school increased English classes in the curriculum.
But Briganti believes that the existing VETs (vocational education training centers) are not doing enough to prepare their students. Graduates from state and private VET centers "fall below the requirements of [EU] standards, lacking those professional skills and general abilities required to be appropriately employed in both the local and international tourism sectors."
The Tbilisi City Hall project will create the first Academy of Tourism and Gastronomic Science in Georgia. The academy's curriculum will focus on the hospitality sector with a special emphasis on gastronomic science and food culture. The study program will be based on the ISO 22.000 Food Safety Standard.
Better prepared students, noted Briganti, will not only increase service standards in Georgia, but could lead to more jobs as improved services develop the tourism and hospitality sectors.
"Tourism is labor-intensive and therefore has the potential to impact a large number of lives through the generation of employment," she said. "It produces considerable potential linkages, especially with the rural and agricultural sector and communities through the food and wine industry. It creates initial demand for goods and services that can themselves develop into growth sectors."