Pierre Fenech
Executive Director of ITS and CEO of the Mediterranean Conference Centre
The Institute of Tourism Studies was founded in 1987 and focuses on high-quality training for tourism sector employees. Pierre Fenech, its director, spoke to The Report Company about tourism in Malta, and also discussed the Mediterranean Conference Centre, a 16th century building which has been converted into Malta's largest conference venue.
The Report Company: What are the current activities of the ITS and what has been its story so far?
Pierre Fenech: The Institute of Tourism Studies was set up nearly 30 years ago, because with the development of tourism as a major pillar of our economy, there was a need to educate and train our young people to be able to manage the tourism industry in the future. That future is today, and it succeeded in its aim; indeed, I was one of the Institute's first students. Many of the top people in the industry today are alumni of the Institute, not only in Malta, but all over the world.

Around two or three years ago, we thought that it was time for the next step and to start thinking about the next 25 years. The tourism industry in Malta is thriving. We are seeing growth like never before, and because the industry is very dynamic, we have to change the way we are operating. We need to up the standards, not only by building new properties, but we need to actually man these properties as well because the human element in the tourism industry and hospitality is very important. Without the human element, you don't have hospitality.

As a result, in the 2015 Budget, the government announced one of the biggest human resources investments in tourism and hospitality, with €74 million going into the ITS.
TRC: This investment entails a new campus for the ITS in Smart City Malta. What are the details of the transformation?
PF: The transformation process is not only moving from one campus to the other. However, the campus we are in today takes a maximum of 700 students. Because the demand is so high for employees in the sector, our aim is to boost this figure to 2,500. To do that, we definitely need to move. So this is why the government decided to embark on this ambitious project. The project will consist of a state-of-the-art campus, including bars and restaurants and kitchen training areas for the students.

We are going to have a full-blown facility, because we need to train people to run a spa, to run sports facilities, to run conventions and conference centres, so all of these facilities are going to be in this campus. To make it more practical for students to train, the project will also include a 280-bedroom training hotel which will be run by students, and there will be also office space above the campus, so that it will accommodate both the needs of the Institute and those of other entities.
TRC: What is the long-term vision for this new building?
PF: Our final aim is to have a centre of excellence in tourism and hospitality education, here in the middle of the Mediterranean. We are targeting our neighbours, which span from European countries to North Africa and the Middle East, because Malta is strategically located in between these regions. We plan to have around 1,500 students who will be coming to Malta to study from abroad because we cannot simply rely on local talent to man the industry. We need talent from abroad.
The tourism industry in Malta is thriving. We are seeing growth like never before.

Pierre Fenech, Executive Director of ITS and CEO of the Mediterranean Conference Centre
TRC: What is your appraisal of the potential impact of Brexit on the ITS's operations?
PF: We are already open to countries from all around the world, so I don't foresee any issues with people visiting Malta from the UK. I believe that Brexit can impact ITS positively because a lot of non-EU countries are very keen to send their students to train in English within the European Qualifications Framework. We are part of the European Union, we have adopted everything according to the European Qualifications Framework, and we are an English-speaking country. So that will give Malta an edge.
TRC: What makes Malta attractive to international students?
PF: First of all, our security. We are the second safest country in the world. We also have a favourable climate, with 300 days of sunshine per year, but with tolerable temperatures. And apart from that, we are partnering with major universities and institutions from the rest of the world.

In recent years, we have initiated talks with a lot of potential partners. With some, we have actually signed agreements, including the Haage Helia University of Applied Science in Finland, the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management, and DAN Europe. We are in advanced talks with some of the top specialised institutes in the world in the area of culinary arts, gastronomy and aviation. These are huge institutes and all of them are realising the potential of this project. Our idea is to get the best of all of these institutes and universities concentrated in one place. We are open to whoever would like to approach us. We are also in discussions with certain institutions in the UK.

The most important aspect is that the courses that we are going to deliver, especially to the international students, are accredited courses. And some of them will be dual accredited. That means that if you get a degree which we are delivering in conjunction with an institution in the UK, the degree will be accredited from Malta and from the other institution as well. That gives it much more weight for the students and future graduates.

The language also plays a big role. In fact, most of the partners we have in Europe use us as an extension to their campuses so that the international students that would be hesitant to go to their institution because of the language barriers come to Malta.
TRC: What potential exists for knowledge transfer between Malta, the UK and other countries?
PF: Aside from the common language, there are very strong ties between the UK and Malta. In the UK, there are extremely good institutions, but we are trying to be very, very selective. We want to choose the best. Because our vision is to create a centre of excellence, and to create a centre of excellence, you need excellent institutions.

We have excelled in the way we have built our tourism industry and the way we are managing it, so it would have been a pity not to export that experience, especially to developing countries that are building up their tourism industries from scratch.

One of the strategies of the present administration is to turn Malta into a hub for education. We are part of that overall vision.
TRC: ITS has recently launched a medical tourism course. What is the strategy for this niche?
PF: We are changing the way we build our curricula. We are involving industry more than before. We have set up a scientific committee, including all stakeholders in the industry, and we discuss the courses with them. They then come back to us with areas that they think that we should include, areas which they think are not relevant for today's world, and gaps that they might see in our graduates. We will constantly amend and adjust the curricula accordingly, year after year. I believe that this is the way to do things.

I believe that you cannot have an educational institution working separately from the industry. They need to work hand-in-hand, because at the end of the day, we are preparing our students for the world of work. We cannot prepare students to build a career in the industry without feedback and input coming directly from the industry.
Our vision is to create a centre of excellence, and to create a centre of excellence, you need excellent institutions.
Pierre Fenech, Executive Director of ITS and CEO of the Mediterranean Conference Centre
TRC: How does this approach work in practice?
PF: Last year, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, and we launched the first nationwide sponsorship scheme for students. We have students who are being sponsored from year one, and they begin working in the industry straight away, putting into practice what they learn with us. We have seen that this year the take-up is going to increase drastically.
TRC: In light of Malta's upcoming EU Council presidency, what role do you see the Mediterranean Conference Centre playing?
PF: The Mediterranean Conference Centre is the largest conference centre in Valletta. It was built 450 years ago and has a lot of history. Since the 1980s, it has been part of all major events in Malta, ranging from being used as a media centre to actually hosting the events. With the EU Presidency, a lot of the meetings are going to happen there, and it will be practically full from January until June. It is located within walking distance of all of the palaces, which also makes it easy.

It is government owned and it is a magnet for conferences and events in Malta. All the destination management companies that operate through Malta use the Mediterranean Conference Centre as a lure to bring major conferences to Malta. Not all conferences are held there, because some of them are actually done in other centres, but then they decide to hold their gala dinner there, for example. The Mediterranean Conference Centre complements the private industry that we have around, such as the hotels, and the transportation companies, because when a big conference comes to Malta, it leaves a lot of money in our economy.
TRC: What are your plans for the Centre?
PF: The Centre is magnificent, and when delegates come they are amazed by the place. But now we are taking things a step further. We managed to secure €5 million in EU funding to transform the centre into a virtual museum. It will keep its current mission to serve conferences and events in Malta, but we think that it is time that all of our visitors got the opportunity to see what used to happen in this building 450 years ago.

We have a new project, called "Reliving the Sacra Infermeria". We are going to use the latest technology to recreate the history of the centre, varying from augmented reality and holographic technology. The target is to have it ready by 2018, which is when Valletta will be the European City of Culture. We will be opening the closed parts of the centre gradually, because what we are doing, which is very challenging in a building built 450 years ago, is making sure it is accessible to people with disabilities, and that poses a big challenge.

In some of the areas we are restoring we have agreed with Identity Malta, who take care of civil marriages, to provide the opportunity for people to actually marry inside the Centre, in a small 450-year-old chapel. We are then going to do some structural work to enable the roof of the Sacra Infermeria to be used by the public. The views from there are magnificent, because you can see practically the whole harbour, providing a spectacular view for a wedding celebration.
TRC: What does Malta bring to the tourism sector?
PF: Malta really is a unique place. We have so much to offer on such a tiny island. The challenge for those of us working in the industry is to always find new ways to wow our customers. And in Malta, there are so many opportunities to do that because the product is so varied and so elaborate. Visitors should consider coming to Malta because it will have an impact on their memories.
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