20 years of fighting poverty in Cambodia through hospitality education

20 years of fighting poverty in Cambodia through hospitality education | Torrens University

In 2005, Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School at Torrens University, in partnership with Friends of Sala Bai Australia, pledged a yearly donation of $60,000 to Sala Bai Hotel School in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It is an annual pursuit that has been going strong for nearly two decades.

Max Player, Fritz Gubler, and Gavin Faull - founders of the internationally recognised Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School (BMIHMS) discovered the Sala Bai Hotel School program while they were travelling in the area when it was launched in May 2002 by French NGP Agir pour le Cambodge (APLC).

Sala Bai Hotel School program

The objective of Sala Bai is to train 150 underprivileged young Cambodians per year as hospitality and tourism professionals to provide economic security and independence, as well as improve the living conditions of their families in rural Cambodia. The motive behind educating this population of young rural Cambodians is to fight poverty and human trafficking.

Priority is given to young females, who equate to approximately 70% of the school’s students, because of their greater vulnerability and difficulties in accessing education and stable employment.

At Sala Bai, students gain kitchen, restaurant, housekeeping and front of house knowledge and skills that they can then put into practice through industry placement before launching their careers. The course is completely free for students, with Sala Bai covering the tuition fees, training, supplies, books, uniforms, as well as living expenses including housing, food, bicycle, insurance and medical expenses for all students.

A shared belief that everyone has the right to education

Torrens University Australia is committed to creating opportunities that fulfil its belief that education should be a human right. By taking local action within a global framework, our students are working towards fulfilling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring quality education for all.

“Our founders felt that the work Sala Bai wanted to achieve, and what they were addressing, warranted support from the Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School, and they decided that they would do what they could to contribute in the early days,” said Associate Professor Simon Pawson, Associate Dean, at BMIHMS, Torrens University Australia.

BMIHMS’ ethos, born from the founders’ beliefs, requires students to look beyond themselves and consider what they can do to create meaningful change in the world.

20 years of fighting poverty in Cambodia through hospitality education | Torrens University

“Support came in many different forms. We were sending pots and pans, second hand uniforms, equipment, and our chef went over and spent some time there,” explained Simon. “Some of their trainers came here and the relationship continued to go from strength to strength.”

Over the last 20 years BMIHMS has supported Sala Bai in many ways including leadership short courses run by Associate Professor Simon Pawson and other faculty and alumni to develop various programs and enhance curriculum. 

“Our founders were very passionate that as a fully established hotel school, it was the right thing for us to do, and we are very passionate to ensure that continues,” said Simon.

Sala Bai Hotel School is highly regarded in the Cambodian hospitality and tourism landscape, with the qualifications recognised by the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training and the Ministry of Tourism. The success rate is high with 98% of young graduates finding a job within 4-6 weeks of graduating.

Sala Bai now boasts 2,000 alumni which equates to lifting 10,000 people out of poverty. Simon explained that due to the strong reputation of the school, the students are so highly sought after that there is a waitlist for Sala Bai graduates.

“The Sala Bai graduates can hit the ground running and they make very, very good employees. Given the growing hotel industry in the tourism industry in Cambodia, qualified labour is still in very, very short supply,” explained Simon.

BMIHMS are looking forward to hosting three Sala Bai lecturers later this year for a two-week professional development program to strengthen their teaching practice.

20 years of fighting poverty in Cambodia through hospitality education | Torrens University

The secret to the 20-year ongoing education partnership

Associate Professor Pawson believes the secret to the success of their partnership is the valuable trusted friendships that have been formed over the years, and ongoing commitment and dedication to the cause.

The Friends of Sala Bai Australia (FOSBA) was formally established in 2010, by BMIHMS founders, as the official fundraising arm of Sala Bai in Australia that has contributed $1 million to Sala Bai Hotel School.

“Sala Bai excels at what they do,” said Suzanne Stanton, spokesperson for FOSBA. “The students arrive without any experience and the results are immediate. Our donors see that their contributions lead to real change for the graduates, and their siblings who often encouraged to study at Sala Bai also.”

BMIHMS has always been a primary contributor to FOSBA through various fundraising events and efforts, and its passionate staff and students whose volunteering is major part of the magic that ensures each event is a success.

“The relationship with Sala Bai is now 20 years old, so the longevity is quite astounding,” said Simon. “We've certainly established credibility and recognition that we do make such a considerable difference.”

“Trust has been built over many years and certainly it's that trust that we are here for the long haul, rather than two years and moving on to another cause,” said Simon. “We have invested in making a positive difference in the lives of many students less fortunate than ourselves through this particular institution, and the proof is in the pudding.”

“We can't save the world, but we can make a considerable difference for one particular organisation with significant runs on the board. We teach our students as part of leadership, that if you want to be an effective leader, you have to essentially invest and believe in something,” said Simon.

BMIHMS was established in May 1991, celebrating 32 years of operation this year. The ethos of contributing to its local and global community is entrenched.

“From the very first day we talk to our students about our relationship with Sala Bai, because we believe this is ethically and morally the right thing for the school to do,” adds Simon. “We teach leadership, that's what we do.”

“I'm particularly proud of this fact where we've made a conscious decision for the last 30 years not to diversify, but to focus on hotel management and leadership, to do it well and to also win a global reputation of excellence around what we do,” said Simon.

“I think that's a huge kudos to our founders and Torrens University Australia for ensuring we've really stayed true to our founders’ vision, which was to provide outstanding hotel management education here in Australia to create the world’s best hoteliers. With over 8000 alumni and numerous in very senior hotel roles, we've delivered on that in spades and buckets,” said Simon.

20 years of fighting poverty in Cambodia through hospitality education | Torrens University

Students are the key to the BMIHMS’ fundraising success

The students contribute to key events including the mid-year charity dinners for 100 plus donors on BMIHMS' Leura Campus. The Student Representative Council (SRC) also run fundraising activities on campus throughout the year with all proceeds going to FOSBA.

Last month BMIHMS raised a phenomenal $37,500 at their annual mid-year charity dinner where undergraduate students provided the chefs and service for free. Funds are raised through ticket sales and auctions with donated luxury items including wine and accommodation packages from elite Sydney and Leura based hotels.

“BMIHMS students are amazing,” said Suzanne. “The mid-year charity event is presented as 5-star dining. The menu is incredibly considered, and the creative flair with naming the beverages,” said Suzanne. “You really get the idea that Sala Bai is built into their curriculum, they know a lot about Sala Bai.”

BMIHMS students also assist Suzanne at FOSBA’s end of year charity dinner in Sydney.

“They’re wonderful, they are so helpful, and invaluable in assisting with setting up our end of year charity dinner,” said Suzanne. “They interact and speak with the guests in a very informed way about the merits of Sala Bai.”

Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School bringing the true spirit of hospitality

Last year BMIHMS students raised a grand total of $90,746.27 for charities in Australia and across the globe.

“We are proud that our footprint in the Blue Mountains has made a difference to the Cancer Wellness Dinner, Medlow Park AIDS Memorial Restoration Dinner, Leura Gardens Festival and Blue Mountains District Anzac Memorial Hospital, in addition to Sala Bai Hotel School in Cambodia,” said Simon. 

“This work we do comes from the heart and values of BMIHMS. It is very much part of our B Corp ethos,” said Simon. “We educate and graduate amazing hotel management students with a global mindset, and we also want to inspire them to have a deep sense of care and service, that comes from giving to others.”

To create a new stream of fundraising, the BMIHMS founders, Sala Bai Consuls and BMIHMS staff and students have united to launch contemporary luxury accommodation on the Leura Campus to ensure the continued support of the critical work Sala Bai Hotel School undertakes. This accommodation was launched at this year’s mid-year dinner and hosted its first guests late August with students involved in the daily operations. This further embedded the importance of social enterprises and leaders leading with a higher purpose, a fundamental trait of BMIHMS leadership courses. All proceeds of the Sala Bai Cottage and Studio will go directly to FOSBA.

If you are planning a trip to Cambodia, BMIHMS recommends you stay and dine at Sala Bai Hotel and Restaurant.

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