Karyn Wiliams-Sykes is quite an indomitable force in the hospitality industry. When you meet her or sit in a training session with her, you get a glimpse of the complex measure of bold strength and soft skills that it takes to really do well in her role. Hailing from the twin island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, she is a a lively and rather engaging trainer. The Director of Training and Professional Development at Emirates Academy (a subsidiary of the Jumeirah Group) has worked tirelessly to the top of her profession, earning the respect and high regard of her colleagues in the field. Last year Karyn was featured as one of the leading women in hospitality in the UAE by Hospitality Business Middle East and she has since been appointed to their Editorial Board this year. Hers is a rather captivating interview and she shares solid solid experience-based advice for those considering a career in Food & Beverage and hospitality.
This is part of our I Work in Food series where we interview indusrry leaders in the hope of motivating you towards your own dreams.
You started out in the industry pretty early in your career. What made you decide to pursue a career in Food & Beverage?
From a very young age, I was in ‘in charge’ of entertainment in our home. Anytime we had visitors over (I’m Trini so that happened quite often by the way), I was the one responsible for decorations, setting the table, cutting fresh flowers, arranging the furniture etc. As I got older (teenager), I started taking over the cooking too. I learnt mixology on my father’s knee! Hospitality was always in my blood, even before I knew its name.
We live in a world where the restaurant world seems ultra fabulous. Walk us through the reality of your first on the job experience in F&B…
I did my BSc in Hotel Management at the University of the West Indies’ Centre for Hotel and Tourism Management, Nassau Bahamas. My first on-the-job experience was with the Sheraton Grand on Paradise Island – this was a BUSY, popular hotel at that time, with one of the hottest discos in Nassau. But my first F&B experience was the Breakfast Buffet in the main restaurant. I had to man the live egg station, doing eggs on order. I LOVED IT!! The interaction with the guest; the live cooking; all of it made me giddy with joy. Eggs are fairly simple, but the perfect omelette first thing in the morning will bring such a smile to people it will totally make your day worthwhile…and the next day, if you remember what they ordered before they ask you – that feeling is why I wanted to be in this business.
What were the first years like after you received your Bachelors in Hotel Management?
My first ‘real’ job was lecturing at the Trinidad and Tobago Hotel School. This was not really the ‘dream job’ I was hoping for, but it was excellent for solidifying my foundations and gave me confidence in what I knew. I was also in charge of Outside Catering, where we would get contracts for the students to cater and serve private functions. I guess you could say that was my first ‘F&B Managers’ job. Imagine having to pull off a wedding for 300 people with students?!! And we had to be perfect because the reputation of the School was on the line! Very challenging and I certainly learned as much as my students did. Wonderful experiences and some fun memories.
Is owning or running a restaurant as glamorous as it looks?
NO!! It’s is HARD work. You work when everyone else is partying; you work long hours; you can never make everyone happy and YOU have to be happy all the time. But if it is your passion then you must do it.
What would you say are the critical ingredients for a successful restaurant?
You have to LOVE it; you have to be fully COMMITTED to it; you have to live and breath time management in all aspects of your life; and you have to do all it while giving the appearance of everything being smooth and easy. On top of all that, you also need a great location and an amazing committed Chef!
What made you switch from operations to training?
Did you hear my previous answers?! I came to a point where I just needed to have time for ME. I wanted to have a job where I could still be involved in the hospitality industry, but also get some sleep.
You have an impressive array of degrees and certificates under your belt. Why the focus on training in your own career?
I come from a very academic family, so I was raised to believe in the value of books and doing ‘book work’. When you understand HOW and WHY things are done, you are able to DO it so much better and you are also able to look for better ways to do it. When we only train people on-the-job, we run the risk of teaching them ONE way to do things. When we truly educated people, then we release their creativity and change their perspective. The hospitality industry is so dynamic and competitive, you have to constantly be reinventing yourself and tweaking what you do in order to keep ahead of the game. It starts with the man in the mirror.
How has your operational experience contributed to your current role?
I don’t just have the academic (book) information to share with my trainees, I have the ‘what really works’ too. Real life examples – what worked and what did not work – brings it to life for my training sessions. It is also important that my participants believe me and what I say; my operations experience gives credence to the information I’m sharing with them.
What are your areas of expertise?
Customer Service and Guest Relations; Communications; F&B Service; Wines and Cocktails; Hospitality Trainer Training; Training Needs Analysis; Presentation Skills; Leadership Skills; Designing and Developing Training Material.
You have lived in Trinidad and Tobago, Bahamas, Jamaica, UK, Turks and Caicos and now UAE, what impact has that had on your career?
I’ve lived in and worked with so many different and diverse cultures, it has really shaped my ability to communicate, and I believe that is one of my greatest assets as a learning & development practitioner. It is one thing to have knowledge, but to able to effectively share that knowledge takes a different skill. You need to change your perspective, throw off your preconceptions; recognise that there really is more than one way to view and do things. I really try to live this now and I bring that with me to work every day. I am adaptable, I genuinely like people and I LOVE learning; this gives me a real passion for training that is reflected in every session I facilitate.
Having joined The Emirates Academy as a Training Manager, you took over the training department as Director of Professional Training and Development. What are your current responsibilities?
My department has two main functions: 1) providing Professional Development Programmes for the public and 2) working with individual clients to analyse the training needs of their department or organisation, and then working together to develop and deliver comprehensive L&D programmes to raise the skills and/or knowledge of their colleagues. We work primarily with hospitality based organisations, but we work on soft skills development in a range of industries including government entities, educational companies and banks.
What are some of the highlights of the role?
Working with different clients from all over the world and continuing to LEARN. I’ve done work with (and travelled to) Sri Lanka, India, Papua New Guinea, The Ukraine, The Maldives to name a few. New cultures and peoples and always discovering new perspectives, skills and knowledge to add to my training kit.
What are the range of courses that are covered at Emirates Academy?
We offer quite a wide range of programmes, stemming from Operational Management courses like: Front Office Operations and Housekeeping Management; to a full suite of Finance Programmes: Finance for Non-Financial Managers, Budgeting for Better Performance, Cost and Control for F&B Operations etc. We also do soft skills that can be adapted to most industries and businesses: Customer Service, Leadership Skills, Conflict Resolution, Strategic Thinking. As well as a few interesting personal development programmes like: Dynamic Food Photography, Administrative Skills, Training Techniques, Presentation Skills and Career Management.
How important is training in hospitality? Does it provide a good enough return on investment for hoteliers and restauranteurs?
One of the complaints I hear all the time from managers in this industry is: “Why should I train and invest in my staff? I train them and they leave!” So I ask them: “What do you think would happen if you don’t train them? Well, they will leave anyhow, but before they do they will tarnish your name and reputation. ” In this business, your reputation is EVERYTHING! You get just that one chance to make a good impression or to mess up. This responsibility is carried on the shoulders of every single member of your team. So…how can you afford to not train? How can you think it is ok not to have an on-going, comprehensive learning and development plan for every single member of your organisation? How can you think that this is not worth investing in? When you invest in your team, you are investing in your business in a very tangible way, as they are the persons meeting your customers face to face on a daily basis. And yes, the hotel industry has one of the highest turnover rates for any industry, but all the statistics show that when you invest in your people they are more likely to stay with you longer than if you don’t.
What advice would you leave for the young hopeful looking for a career in hospitality or training?
First do a self-assessment:
- Are you a people person? Are you genuinely interested in meeting people – all kinds of people from all different walks of life, cultures and backgrounds?
- Are you the kind of person who can take an unwarranted insult from one person and then immediately turn around and smile to another person and say “Good morning, how may I help you?”
- Can you be happy and cheerful on 4 hours sleep?
- Are you your own worst critic? You seek perfection in all you do and making others happy is easy because you could never please yourself?
- Are you looking for a career that could lead you to just about anywhere in the world?
Then sign up today and commit yourself to an exciting and wonderful life, full of unexpected adventures and unpredictable challenges, that would lead you to discover strengths in yourself that you could not have even imagined. This is a demanding business, but never dull or boring, and greatly rewarding for those who persist with passion!