Paul Dubrule School’s Post-Pandemic Pedal Back to Vitality

With twenty years of building futures under its belt, the hospitality training school at Paul Dubrule is keeping its eye on the road ahead, for its students, and for Cambodia…

This December, Paul Dubrule School will celebrate its 20th anniversary, so we took the opportunity to have a look back at the history of this emblematic establishment for professional training in Cambodia’s tourism and hospitality sector which has helped almost 4,000 graduates from all walks of life find their path in life.

We took a lunchtime tour with director François Schnoebelen along laughter-filled corridors and among well-equipped classrooms. As we wander, delicious aromas are already wafting out from the kitchens where tomorrow’s chefs are hard at work preparing to feed this year’s intake of almost 200 students.

The school’s exceptionality was baked in from its very inception. A co-founder of Accor, the name behind a suite of hotel brands from budget to luxury including Sofitel and Raffles, Paul Dubrule first visited Cambodia in 1998 and quickly spotted an opportunity in the Kingdom’s tourism potential and the lack of training in this sector. He decided to finance a hotel school aiming at the highest standards of teaching and, on the heels of an eight-month 15,000km cycle-ride from Fontainebleau to Siem Reap, he officially opened that school on October 24, 2002. Sixty-seven students graduated that first year, and immediately found jobs in the sector.

Since then, the school has evolved and grown in step with Cambodia’s fast-changing context. The premises have expanded, as have the number of students and teachers, as well as the courses offered. “At the beginning, we were starting from scratch,” says François. “Basic skills were not there, and teaching them was a priority. Today, as levels have risen more generally, the aim is to offer solid professional training in the hospitality sector, which still needs more attention in the country. This training is intended to be as comprehensive as possible, addressing all aspects of the many professions that touch this vast field.”

Most recently, thanks to the pandemic, the school was forced to adapt its teaching approach and set up online classes so that students would not fall behind. “Everyone was involved in setting up these distance learning courses, both students and teachers. More generally, the involvement of everyone at the school, whether staff or students, is paramount in the spirit of the institution,” says François.

“A very large part in decision-making is given to the students, both in the courses and in daily life. To give a few examples: clubs have been created to promote sports and cultural activities. The same is true for environmental issues, such as growing our vegetable garden or making an inventory of the plants and trees on our property. Everyone showed great enthusiasm and we counted 70 plant species, all duly listed, described and mapped with great care. It was also the students who thought about different ways to save energy and then put them into practice.”

Ecology, moreover, will be a prominent topic in the coming years, as the school aims to achieve Eco-Campus status. “When we applied for the certification, we realised that it had not yet been created for vocational schools. This turned into a remarkable opportunity to become a pilot school and set the future global standard. We are all very proud of this, even though it will take many months, if not years, of effort.” As a first step towards achieving the Eco-Campus label, an organic garden was created in partnership with Agrisud.

A student at Ecole Paul Dubrule
A student at Ecole Paul Dubrule

François took up his position on a five-year contract in September last year, adding another chapter to a career that reads like a novel. Born into an Alsatian Catholic family, he originally intended to become a priest and spent two years at a seminary in Bavaria. However, he came to question his vocation and finally left to study philosophy in Paris.

“I had no help from my parents,” he says, “I had to manage on my own. I was 19 years old, just out of the seminary, with little experience of life, and suddenly I found myself in the heart of the capital. It was quite confusing, but also exciting. I enrolled at the Sorbonne and the Institut Catholique d’Assas, which gave me radically different perspectives. Oddly enough, the most progressive professors were at the Catholic Institute, and the most conservative at the Sorbonne!”

At the time, he lived in the then quite degraded but now fashionable Marais district in Paris. It was an eye-opening time for him, but also where he started out in hospitality in order to finance his studies. The experiences gave him a thirst for the business, and also for travel.

With his studies completed, he opted to move into human resources for the interactions, connections and potential for knowledge that it offered. “When you’re curious, you get what you want”, he says. His work has since taken him to the four corners of the planet. In the course of those journeys, he met a Cambodian woman who became his wife and encouraged him to learn Khmer. From there, the idea of moving to Cambodia became an obvious next step.

“I’m 50 years old and I’ve been involved in the non-profit sector for a long time, but this is the first time I’ve been a salaried employee and worked full time in this sector. It fills me with an immense satisfaction, which I feel every day when I go to the office. It’s a job that allows me to work in several fields, education, management, computer science, relational skills, human resources. All of this in the service of an NGO that is, and I sincerely believe it to be, the best hotel school in the kingdom.”

After a slight drop in attendance due to the pandemic, the school is back on track, welcoming 185 students this year. The students receive the public in real conditions, thus refining their reception skills. All of them find a job after their studies. Some choose to stay at the school as administrative staff, others find their place in the hotel industry, whether in Cambodia or abroad. Open for lunch, the training restaurant serves up an excellent opportunity to discover their wealth of talents.

“We are close to our previous level, but we expect to have an enrolment of 300 students in the next few years for the five courses offered. The health crisis forced us to think about new financing models, as previously the majority of donations came from abroad.” Mindful of the need to shore up their sustainability by increasing their visibility in Cambodia, the school will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a gala dinner in Phnom Penh.

“We want to keep our social vocation,” says François. Thirty percent of the students receive scholarships, and for the others, tuition is paid, but the amount represents only a small part of the real cost of education. This model requires us to find a substantial budget each year in order to guarantee a bright and smiling future for all these young people. A future in their image.”

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