A group of people dressed in lab coats ring the long table in SAIT’s kitchen classroom, all eyes on a rectangular plate. Under Master Chef Michael Allemeier’s hand, the white plate transforms from blank space to colourful appetizer: curled pieces of octopus, cucumber, roasted peppers and rough cubes of squid-ink brioche like black coral.
The group — WestJet trainers and executives — are taking notes, filming with tablets and phones, nodding as Allemeier points out the importance of negative space on the plate.
“It’s all about the details,” he says. The group murmurs in agreement.
The lesson is part of an intensive weekend for the group as they get ready for the airline’s Dreamliner jets to connect travelers between Calgary and London, Dublin and Paris. Among the preparations for the new additions to the fleet is this: learning the roles food and hospitality play in a business-class experience.
For an airline associated with fun and friendly, yet casual, cabin service, adding business class seats to their offerings has meant reimagining what service can look like.
“We’re still WestJet. That sincerity and genuineness is at the core of what we do. But when you have someone who has paid $8,000 for a lie-flat seat, they have different expectations,” says Louis Saint-Cyr, WestJet’s Vice President, Guest Experience.
“We have to recognize that and meet those expectations, adapt the WestJet approach to the needs of our guests.”
Part of that evolution, says Saint-Cyr, has been looking outside of the airline industry for guidance.
“The most critical decision we made is we would not go down the traditional service model. We had to do something fundamentally different to make everyone realize this is us competing in a different marketplace,” he says. “We would get our inspiration from external sources.”
They didn’t have to go far.
The destinations are international and the goal is a world-class approach to service, but the solution is all local.
Connecting with SAIT’s School of Hospitality and Tourism gave WestJet access to the expertise, training and industry connections they needed to set a new bar for cabin service. In turn, understanding the tight timeframe, the school was able to promptly create a five-day corporate training program that hit all the key points. It offered in-house expertise from SAIT instructors and leveraged connections with the Fairmont Palliser, Azuridge Estate Hotel, Hy’s Steakhouse and award-winning restaurant, Bridgette Bar — whose executive chef is a SAIT alum.
“They wanted us to inspire them with a level of guest service that is unparalleled — and that is the core of hospitality,” says School of Hospitality and Tourism Dean, James Overall (HRA ’01). “Given the expertise in our school is all rooted in service, we knew we could deliver on that.”
Consider it a hospitality boot camp — but with wine tastings, silver-dome lunch service and the chance to learn the art of plating from one of Canada’s five certified Master Chefs, along with the art of hospitality, fine dining and wine from Hospitality instructors Patricia Koyich and Alita Brown.
Few places beyond SAIT can offer the chance to train with chefs and hospitality professionals whose expertise combines knowledge, passion and resumés that list far-flung locations and award-winning restaurants. The ability to complement the school’s offerings through partnerships with area hotels and restaurants also known for gold-level service is icing on the cake.
“Their people come from the private sector who have international experience and exposure,” says Saint-Cyr. “They understand the nuances.”
Since that initial five-day session, training hasn’t stopped. Along with helping WestJet build their internal training program, SAIT has developed two-day sessions for the “boot camp” and will be delivering another five-day program later this year.
There are also discussions about getting students and instructors involved in creating a dish to be served on those international flights.
“We’re hopeful this relationship is the start of something,” says Saint-Cyr.
Overall echoes the sentiment, adding their partnership with WestJet is sparking more creative ideas on ways the school can help corporate clients.
“We are uniquely positioned to create programming and offer training solutions around all aspects of hospitality, service, food and tourism,” says Overall.
“Our work with WestJet has opened a door and now the sky’s the limit.”
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