INTERVIEW: Hospitality internship in The Congo

A student’s account of work experience at the Kempinski Fleuve Congo, Kinshasa

By Fernando Guardia O’Kelly

Many would tremble at the idea of working in the country known as The Democratic Republic of Congo. Not former Glion student Sebastian Koch, who right after finishing his Postgraduate diploma in Hospitality Management, jumped on a plane to jazz up his hospitality internship experience in the heart of Africa.

I’ve had the chance to meet him while on a short break back to Europe, and sat down to discuss his experience.

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Fernando Guardia O’Kelly: First of all, could you talk a little about your background and why you decided to change your career into hospitality?

Sebastian Koch: I have a Bachelor in International Management with an emphasis in Finance. I’d worked in an advertising agency as well as in a private recruitment firm before attending the Postgraduate Program in Hospitality Management at Glion. I decided to study hotel management as I enjoy working and managing people from different backgrounds, and it gives me the opportunity to travel around the world.

FGO: You had many options for your internship. Kinshasa is a very attractive place but not many people would go there to start a career. What made you want to go to The DR Congo?

SK: I wanted to get back to the basics of hospitality. You know, in developed countries it’s been around for a long time and things work out very well already, there isn’t a lot of space for improvement. Furthermore, I wanted to challenge myself and I believe that Africa is the continent of the future.

FGO: Could you explain briefly how a normal day goes by in your life?

SK: This is a hard question, since not one day is the same. As Management Trainee, I have to make sure that all operations run smoothly, which is not always easy but in the end it works fine. In particular, the banqueting outlet is sometimes a struggle since we have a lot of last-minute events with 100 to 200 people, which requires a lot of improvisation. In the end, I can attest that you need a lot of patience, be good at improvisation, understand Congolese clients and be empathetic with your staff. At the end of the day, you need your staff more than they need you.

“In the end, you need a lot of patience, be good at improvisation and be empathetic with your staff.”

FGO: Living in a city with almost 10 million people must be very challenging. What is the most difficult or challenging aspect of working in a place like this?

SK: There are many challenges. The most challenging comes from the communication within the hotel; understanding your staff, their background, their education, making them understand what hospitality means. It also comes in the consistency of the service and making sure that all our products are always available.

FGO: Despite these difficulties I’m sure there are positive aspects in working in Africa. Can you explain the best part of your job?

SK: The people are fascinating, to me – their willingness to learn and work, despite so much misery. As for my job, I enjoy being able to decide what I want to do and doing I’m interested in. There’s no big hierarchy here. This way I get to know the insides of every department and the decision-making methods.

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FGO: Have you lived any unbelievable or surrealist experience during your four months here?

SK: I could write a book about this! There’s one surreal experience happening at present. The protests again the current president’s reluctance to step down in this period of presidential elections have resulted in riots and the death of more than 30 people. I’m not just a hotelier; I’m also trying to solve the issue of whether the staff can sleep in hotel room. The hotel is pretty empty right now, we don’t know how the situation will evolve.

FGO: Any message or tip to the students who are going to graduate soon or those that are searching for a hospitality internship?

SK: One tip – choose a job or a country that will separate you from everyone else.

What is happening in The DR Congo?

Kinshasa streets have witnessed bouts of violence in the last few weeks, following President Josef Kabila’s attempts to postpone the presidential elections. Kabila has been the country’s Prime Minister since 2001 and according to the constitution, cannot stand for election. Several prospects have been organised in the Congolese capital to ask for his resignation. However, the government has reacted to the protests with brutal repression, leading to hundreds of people being arrested and a dozen dead. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) has advised not to travel to Kinshasa and other cities on certain dates due to the current instability. Click here for more information.

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