Simon Mahon is the general manager of Park Plaza County Hall in London, a four star luxury hotel on the capital’s vibrant South Bank. The hotel has 398 modern guest rooms, L’Italiano Restaurant and six meeting rooms. Simon introduced the hotel’s award-winning student placement programme in 2010, which has since evolved into a brand-wide initiative across the London Park Plaza hotels, called the You:niversity Plus programme.


I joined Park Plaza County Hall as general manager in August 2009 and decided to set up the hotel’s student placement programme the following year. At Park Plaza Hotels & Resorts, general managers are given the freedom to grow the business as they see fit. In the face of rising youth unemployment and young people struggling to gain vital work experience to kick-start careers, I used this opportunity to develop a programme which would offer hospitality students a real insight into the industry and equip them with the essential foundations for building a successful career.


As recruiting the right people is vital both for the hotel and the student, we work with Springboard, an industry charity which helps young, unemployed and disadvantaged people into jobs in the hospitality, tourism and leisure industry. Springboard liaises closely with the universities in order to find the right students for the hotel. Following the application process, we run a rigorous assessment day which involves two sets of interviews, a group exercise and a presentation, all of which are designed to allow the students to demonstrate their creative abilities and guest-focused approach. We usually accept between four and six students each year and offer a 12 month programme which starts in June or July. We do encourage our intake to stay on for the following summer until they return to university for their final year, as it is up to Park Plaza County Hall to provide the students with the opportunity they need to progress in the industry, but up to the student to make the most of it.


My interest in launching a student placement programme was sparked by my own positive experience at the world-famous Old Course Hotel in St Andrews, which was without a doubt the most important part of my course in terms of the opportunities I was presented with and the knowledge I gained. The traditional placement structure at this time meant being exposed to just one area of the business, but by luck, I was able to move around different departments and benefit from crucial front-of-house exposure on reception which taught me the art of hospitality – meeting guests and making them feel welcome. 

Knowing how important it was for me to experience different departments, the programme at Park Plaza County Hall also offers students this overview of the business, so they can learn the challenges and pitfalls of the hospitality industry as well as identifying the areas they love. Students rotate through every department in the hotel including reception, f&b, accounts, asset management, HR and housekeeping, to gain valuable understanding of the inner workings and how every member of the team contributes to the successful running of the hotel. As management insight and commercial awareness are especially key, the students attend management meetings and business reviews, work closely with the executive team and also spend one week shadowing me. The aim of my student placement programme is to shape the next generation of hoteliers and not to simply hire an extra pair of hands. While I may not reap the benefits immediately, the industry as a whole will in the future.


To reinforce the fact that the students are fully-fledged members of the team while also honing their project management skills, they are required to complete a project that will have an impact on the hotel and improve an existing function. After the students have scoped out their projects, worked out the costs involved and conducted a critical path analysis, they receive feedback from the senior management team to ensure the project will be valuable to the hotel and will give the student real understanding of the department the project is designed to improve. These projects have proved highly successful for the hotel, with one student focusing on search engine optimisation which helped to massively increase Park Plaza County Hall’s internet reach.


The senior leaders at Park Plaza County Hall take a proactive role in the development of the students while they are on their placement, but this support and advice also continues when they return for their final year at university. This maintained contact is really important and is evidenced by the recent promotion of a student from the first year of intake. After finishing university, Dana David was offered a job as food and beverage team leader at Park Plaza County Hall and is now assistant food and beverage manager, with a team of 45 reporting to her and a budget of £3.5 million. Her positive experiences of the student placement programme have also led her to become a Springboard ambassador. She is a real success story from the placement programme and demonstrates its success in shaping the hospitality leaders of the future.

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