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How’s the Hospitality Industry Doing? A Hotelie Weighs In

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By Beth Saulnier

A photo of Stephani Robson sitting in a hotel lobby
Robson in the lobby of an Ithaca hotel whose décor she helped design. (Photo by Jason Koski/Cornell University)

A senior lecturer emerita in the Nolan School, Stephani Robson ’88, MS ’99, PhD ’10, is a longtime expert on the hospitality industry, with experience in both academia and consulting. She’s an undergrad and a doctoral Hotelie—she wrote her dissertation on consumer behavior in restaurants—and holds a master’s in design and environmental analysis from Human Ecology. Cornellians asked Robson to put her finger on the pulse of the industry at this late-pandemic moment—speaking with her on the very day (November 8) that the U.S. finally reopened its borders to international travelers.

Is it safe to say that in hospitality and tourism, the COVID-19 lockdown was unprecedented?

I don’t even have words for it; it was off the charts. The economy goes up and down, but this took an entire industry based on people going from one location to another and interacting with other humans, and just about completely removed it.

What’s the current state of things?

Sales are climbing back out of a hole. Restaurants are getting more foot traffic. We’re seeing travel pick up. Allowing international visitors is going to be very happy-making for hotels in many markets. So we’re seeing improvements. Is it where it needs to be? No. There’s a lot of debate on the hotel side about when business travel will kick back in, which may not be until the second or third quarter of 2022.

We keep seeing headlines about labor shortages, particularly for restaurants. How serious a problem is it?

It’s the biggest challenge. And it’s extremely difficult, because a lot of people who lost their jobs in hotels and restaurants in 2020 decided they didn’t want to work in hospitality anymore. The industry has been trying hard to improve wages and working conditions, but it’s tough to get places staffed.

Besides raising wages or offering flexible schedules, what can restaurants do?

Try to create a welcoming and supportive environment, where the staff knows that management has their back. In many markets, restaurant guests behaved very badly, and there’s a long road back to where people feel comfortable working directly with the public. I’ve heard horror stories like, “I can’t get staff at any wages, because they don’t want to get yelled at by people who won’t show their vaccine passport or wear a mask.”

How can customers help?

Be a good citizen about COVID rules—and tip like you’ve never tipped in your life. For servers in many restaurants, it’s not the wages; it’s the tips. So tip like crazy, because that’s going to encourage people to stay in the industry. Tip like it’s going out of style.

How can a restaurant try to keep guests happy even if it lacks workers?

I like to go to restaurants where, when I walk in the door, I’m greeted by the owner or manager; that makes me feel fantastic and I want to go back. So managers having more of a presence is a good strategy. One simple thing is putting a carafe of water on the table; guests like it and it’s one less thing a server has to do. Overall, though, it’s tough, and I don’t have a magic bullet. The places that seem to be coming out of the hole better are ones that acknowledge there’s a challenge and ask patrons to be partners with them.

For servers in many restaurants, it’s not the wages; it’s the tips. So tip like crazy, because that’s going to encourage people to stay in the industry. Tip like it’s going out of style.

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Do you mean like the signs that have been posted in short-staffed places saying, “Please be patient with the people who showed up”?

No, that’s not how you do it; that’s like you’re making excuses or saying, “Be prepared for a lousy experience.” Instead, you welcome the guests and say, “We’re so glad you’re here; we’re a bit short tonight, but we’re going to make sure you have a great time. I’m going to send out something for you to nibble on. And if you need anything, let me know.” And suddenly, it’s okay. People will be much more forgiving of that than of a sign on the door.

Can technology help?

A lot of restaurants have gone to a QR code menu; it reduces the number of table-touches by a server, so if you’re short staffed, it takes a little pressure off. But you lose the opportunity to upsell—to say, “Would you like fries with that?” or describe that night’s special—and those things can really push up the check average. But one place where restaurants might want to investigate technology is at the end of the meal. When guests are ready to leave, they want to pay and go—and if you’ve got people waiting, you want to turn that table and get the next customers in.

Let’s talk about hotels. Will services like daily room cleaning return?

High-end hotels will go back to that, because they can afford to. Lower-end hotels, no. It’s the same as with airlines; in economy, you’re going to pay baggage fees—unless you have status like being a frequent flyer. Many hotels are going to say, “Everything is à la carte unless you’re a loyalty member with a certain status.”

In terms of tourist traffic, what markets will be the first to revive fully?

The ones with strong international tourism. There’s pent-up demand in Europe, Asia, and South America to come to the U.S., and the big markets for those have traditionally been New York, Orlando, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. They’re going to bounce back and do very well. The cities that will have a slower time are the secondary conference markets—places like Minneapolis or Denver—because it’s going to be a while before big conventions get going again.

We’ve heard a lot about the scarcity and high prices of rental cars. How is that affecting travel?

It’s a huge issue in some markets, like Orlando, where everything’s spread out and there’s little public transit. And because of supply chain problems, it’s going to be a while before it goes away; rental car companies got rid of inventory at the start of the pandemic and now can’t get it back. Also, they’re going to keep prices as high as they can, so you’re not going to see cheap deals within the next two years.

Do travelers need to book their car even before the airline and hotel?

It’s not a bad idea. And always book directly rather than through a third party. Rental car companies—like airlines, hotels, and popular restaurants—overbook and gamble on the fact that some people aren’t going to make good on the reservation. If you book directly, your chances are better that your car will actually be there when you arrive.

Overall, how optimistic are you about the hospitality industry’s future?

People love to travel and go out to eat; that isn’t going to change. And if we can make sure that our employees are treated well and show them they’re valued, and we’re transparent with our customer base, the industry is going to find its feet fairly quickly.

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University.

Published November 19, 2021

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