HEC Speaker Q&A: COVID-19

This Q&A includes Roger Hill SHA '87 (Chairman and CEO of The Gettys Group), Ron Swidler (Chief Innovation Officer of The Gettys Group), Mike Curtin, Jr. (CEO of DC Central Kitchen), Vaibhav Garg (Director of Talent and Culture at AccorHotels in the Maldives), and Barbara Lang SHA '78 MPS '04 (Founder of B. Lang Consulting).

Roger Hill SHA '87, Chairman and CEO of The Gettys Group

 Ron Swidler, Chief Innovation Officer of The Gettys Group 

Roger and Ron are always a positive source of insight and inspiration in our community. Read on for their perspectives on the industry amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, hopes for the future of hospitality, and advice for current students entering the job market in the coming months or years. You can also watch their HEC 95 conference presentation here!

Q. How has your business been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

We have seen some Interior Design projects go on hold, some suppliers we have relied upon in our Procurement group go out of business and the number of inquiries reduce drastically. But, our four Development projects are still proceeding. We are grateful for the projects we still have underway and hopeful that some of the new opportunities we are pursuing go our way.

Q. What are some ways we can support our fellow industry workers during this time?

We have restarted The Hotel of Tomorrow Initiative, an industry-leading think tank, including Cornell University, to consider and begin to solve the design and operations challenges ahead for our industry. We believe that, together, we can find solutions to changed guest expectations, operating standards and a new design reality.

Q. How do you believe the industry will bounce back?    

It will take time, and there are likely to be lasting challenges, but we believe in the ingenuity and durability of our industry. We may see changes to the use of some of the hospitality real estate, and a change in how guests use spaces, but, long-term we are optimistic. 

Q. What advice do you have for students entering the job market in the near future?

Find any way you can to make yourselves more valuable and be willing to, if you can, work for little or no remuneration to get some experience.

Q. What can we all learn from this moving forward and take with us in the long term?

This pandemic has taught us many things, including the need to be better prepared for the unexpected. It has reminded us that we are all connected and the importance of those relationships.

Mike Curtin, Jr., CEO of DC Central Kitchen

We had the pleasure of chatting with Mike Curtin, Jr., CEO of DC Central Kitchen and HEC 95 speaker, about his perspective on the industry amidst the COVID-19 pandemic as well as his hopes for the future of hospitality and advice for current students entering the job market in the coming months or years. Be sure to watch his HEC 95 conference presentation here!

Q. How has DC Central Kitchen been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

We have been dramatically impacted by the pandemic.  The largest segment of our social enterprise portfolio is school food.  This contract accounts for almost $6 million in revenue and employs about 70 people.  While we are still providing grab and go bag lunches and breakfasts at several of the schools, the total volume of business is down significantly.  While this was troubling initially, we've been able to weather the storm by looking across our business lines and repurposing much of our staff.  Part of this has been moving some of the school food team into our community meals production – meals going to shelters, halfway houses and other partner nonprofits. 

In normal times, we would have volunteers from the community as part of this production, but as we stopped having volunteers in the kitchen in early March, we need extra hands to be part of this work.  In addition, these meals are all now going out as unitized meals, where we used to produce congregate and family style meals.  This requires a significant amount of extra labor, giving us the opportunity to absorb many of the school food team without having to lay anyone off.  Some of the school food team, however, did choose to take an early summer break because of family, personal or health concerns.  We are maintaining the health insurance of all of these workers until they come back on line. 

Q. What are some ways we can support our fellow industry workers during this time?

We are exploring ways to use some of the displaced restaurant workers through Get Shift Done in the delivery of some grocery boxes we are providing.  We are also working with community support groups and ANCs to locate pockets of displaced workers and get them grocery boxes to help provide for their families.  We are sourcing about 90% of the product we are putting in these boxes from small farmers from the Delaware Valley to Shenandoah Valley, helping to put money in rural economies that have also been hurt by the reduction in restaurant traffic.

Q. How do you believe the industry will bounce back?    

It's really tough to see the industry coming back to where it was in January and February soon.  To get places open, it's going to take a concerted effort on the part of landlords and purveyors working with restaurateurs.  With margins already razor thin, how are restaurants going to survive with half the number of seats?  How many people are going to be able to be in the kitchens?  Will menus have to dramatically pare back and focus on streamlined ingredient lists?  

Q. What advice do you have for students entering the job market in the near future?

At DC Central Kitchen, our main line of business and purpose for existing has been training individuals who have faced significant barriers to employment, like histories of incarceration, addiction, abuse, and homelessness, for jobs in the hospitality sector here in Washington DC.  With thousands of cooks losing their jobs, how easy is it going to be to find jobs for our graduates once we can start training again?  We faced similar challenges in 2008, but I fear this is much worse and will have longer implications.  I think we're going to be reducing the number of students we train and training them to fill jobs as we try to expand our lines of business in the school food sector. 

So it's going to be tough for everybody, but we will get back to a version of normal and people will want to go out to eat and people will travel.  People who remain committed to providing the best experience in hospitality will always have a place to land.  

Q. What can we all learn from this moving forward and take with us in the long term?

We should all remember never to take anything for granted, and we should remember that if we build a better safety net, we'll all be better off in the future.  If there is a silver lining to this very dark cloud, I hope it is that we as a society have a better understanding of how tenuous life is for so many.  We've always said that poverty is expensive, and I think what we are experiencing as a country shows that.  If we commit to doing the right thing by taking care of our neighbors who are less fortunate, we all win in the end. 

Vaibhav Garg, Director of Talent and Culture atAccorHotels in the Maldives

We had the pleasure of speaking with Vaibhav Garg, Director of Talent and Culture of AccorHotels in the Maldives, about his perspective on the industry amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, his hopes for the future of hospitality, and advice for current students entering the job market in the coming months or years. Although he was unable to join us for our modified virtual conference, we are deeply grateful for his commitment to HEC throughout this past year and for always showing us his support. We are certain you will be as inspired by his perspectives as we are.

Q. How has your business/organization been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

As the world is facing an unprecedented health crisis that is having massive and unique impacts on the tourism industry, Accor Group has just published its first-quarter 2020 revenue down 17% as reported - expected results due to the spread of the epidemic and the enforced lockdown. Although the next months are shaping up to be the most difficult of the year, the Group can rely on a robust balance sheet thanks to its recent transformation. It will enable it to absorb the economic consequences of this crisis in the coming quarters. Regional initiatives are multiplying to fight the epidemic and support employees in need, government authorities, healthcare professionals and local communities. Mr. Sébastien Bazin - Chairman and the CEO - Accor salutes and applauds the Group's ability to organize, listen and take action, as well as that of our teams and partners around the world. Accor is also positioning itself as a key actor in the hotel sector, in order to prepare for the rebound, with great energy.

Q. What are some ways we can support our fellow industry workers during this time?

The health crisis we are experiencing is continuing to accelerate and have a strong impact on our Group worldwide. This is an exceptional situation for Accor and in order to help all those stakeholders who are in distress over this time period Accor has taken proactive measures to protect its business and support its employees and partners including the creation of the "ALL Heartist Fund".  Besides this, our businesses have had to implement some major cost saving measures to mitigate the financial impact in order to survive in the long term. Humility, Strength, Trust: this is the message Mr. Sébastien Bazin our Chairman and the CEO - Accor is sending to all employees to weather the storm together and prepare for the rebound.

At Accor, through "ALL HEARTIST FUND" we are assisting our employees, business partners and front-line fighters in four categories with a strong belief that we are all in this together and it important that we support our employees during this challenging period so that when the recovery comes, we will stand strong. There are two types of grants under this initiative: financial and non-financial and depending on the applicant's needs, financial grants are being offered in the following categories:  

Category One:  an employee who has been infected with Covid19 and needs assistance with medical expenses 

Category Two: an employee who is facing financial hardship and needs assistance for food and shelter 

Category Three:  An individual business partner who is facing medical or financial hardship on a personal level and needs support

Category Four: Local initiatives that support Frontline Covid19 Fighters (eg. Medical workers)

Q. How do you believe the industry will bounce back?    

With more than one-fourth of the world population is under lock down, the course of COVID-19 continues to be highly uncertain, affecting the very fundamentals of the world around us. Unfortunately, things will not go back to normal overnight and organizations would need to fundamentally revise the business strategy to efficiently function during the pandemic. Diversification is the key and business operators would need to strategize how they can take their products and services to customers in a way that will still drive revenue but be appropriate for the circumstances. Having said this, the current crisis is an opportunity for hospitality brands to reinvent and move forward with some breakthrough experimental ideas that had never been tested before, technology adoption is one of them. From a sustainability point of view, to minimize the social and economic consequences, the private sector must respond quickly with innovative solutions to support business continuity and protect the impacts on the labour market, this is where brands can also weave relevance and differentiation in their business contingency efforts.

Q. What advice do you have for students entering the job market in the near future?

Despite the downside this crisis may bring, it will most probably also provide fresh opportunities as when the economy comes back, there will be significant need for people who would be able to start up quickly with work being more flexible and innovation and creativity at workplace at the centerstage.  At this moment, my only advice for the students is to stay focused and be prepared for the future by developing and exploring new skills and while we are struggling to adapt to many new realities all at once; physical well-being is a priority, this is a stressful time, and mental health is just as important. So, it is vital to stay calm and positive while getting ready for the future with optimism and confidence. 

Q. What can we all learn from this moving forward and take with us in the long term?

We need to understand that the current crisis will eventually pass and a new normal will emerge—and there is plenty of reason to believe that the future will be bright. While for now, it may be difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel or hold a sense of positive outlook, but tomorrow will be improved only by the struggles we're facing today. 

Whether it's how our organization supports us, the way we work with others, improvements to our options and adjustments at workplace, how our organization approaches its solidarity commitments or our own expanded and revived career opportunities, the learning we do today will improve the years to come. Organizations of tomorrow will succeed with emotional relationships with their stakeholders as they include trust and humility in their corporate governance framework. 

Barbara Lang SHA '78 MPS '04, Founder of B. Lang Consulting

We were honored to have the one and only Barbara Lang SHA '78 MPS '04, Founder of B. Lang Consulting, join HEC 95 as moderator for our panel on Community-Based Organizations (CBOs). See below for her insight on the industry amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, hopes for the future of hospitality, and advice for current students entering the job market in the coming months or years. Be sure to also watch the HEC 95 CBO panel here!

Q. How has your business/organization been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

I work independently and when I thought all clients were cancelling, two clients requested I deliver my workshops virtually. The idea of being videotaped had absolutely no appeal – not having to wear make-up or mess with my hair that has taken a life of its own, was fine by me. However, these two clients direct programs that support underserved populations both at Cornell and in NYC, and I wanted to be of use to them.  So, with make-up on and hair glued down, I shoved myself out of my comfort zone and I've gone virtual, doing some of the best work I've ever done. Never would have imagined that.   

Q. What are some ways we can support our fellow industry workers during this time?

1. We can see if our places of employment are providing safe and positive work environments and providing healthcare for employees, especially those in low-level, low wage positions.  If this isn't happening at the workplace, how can each of us be a positive changemaker? This is an amazing opportunity for aspiring leaders to commit to making positive change that continues throughout your career and life. 

2. Identify nonprofit and service organizations that resonate with your beliefs and values and become involved with these organizations in whatever way you can. Seeing how you can be of benefit to others can help with well-being, perspective and creating a sense of purpose.  

3. Share your amazing Cornell community with others. Throughout life, grow your personal and professional community but also leverage that community in the direction of good causes and good people.

Q. How do you believe the industry will bounce back?

I wish I had that crystal ball. I just don't know. Owners and former employees may all have to re-imagine, re-define and re-calibrate how, and where, they work. I have watched webinars, read articles, listened to podcasts and am continually humbled and inspired by the generosity, creativity and flexibility of so many restaurateurs, hoteliers and other hospitality professionals. I hope the industry bounces back with new eyes and fuller hearts. The current vulnerability for so many employees has been because of low wages and lack of healthcare. 

Q. What advice do you have for students entering the job market in the near future?

Know what is in your control and what is not in your control. All that is not in your control stinks and is not fair. And (doubly stinky) you can't do anything about that. But you can control how you choose to behave. 

So considering choosing a behavior that seizes this moment as an opportunity. That behavior can include:

1. Imagining the personal story you want someone to know about you and then actively living that life. 

What do you want your story to be about this chapter in your life? What did you actively do that reflects your best character traits and values?  Do those traits include curiosity, perseverance, kindness, creativeness, resiliency or diligence? What have you learned? What changes or adjustments have you made? Think about people you admire and learn how they have moved through difficult times in their lives. Be open to growth even if you don't feel like getting out of bed. You will be talking a lot about the impact , and your response, to this life disruption. What life story do you want to tell? Live the life you want to tell. 

2. Appreciating and leveraging your Cornell resources. 

Think of the people during your time at Cornell who have been a positive influence in your life. Go through each college year and make a list of the faculty, staff, TAs, coaches, work supervisors/colleagues, friends, alumni, family members, etc. who you appreciated because of their kindness, generosity or support. Who resonates the most? Was it a small act of kindness or a seismic moment that changed your life? Both are valuable to recognize and appreciate Thank these people, sincerely, genuinely and specifically. 

How do you express that gratitude? Think about how that person would most appreciate the gesture. This is now about you, but about you being courteous to someone else's needs and preferences. Your expressed appreciation will be a gift to the recipient, which makes them all the more inclined to continue their role as a positive influencer in the future. 

3. Practicing resilience and perseverance - good news, these are learned skills.

Did I say this all stinks and it's not fair? I believe I have. If you don't feel resilient, don't despair.  Resiliency can be learned. The academic research is robust. Consider identifying someone who you find particularly resilient and ask them how they moved through difficult circumstances. If someone tells you what you "should do" run for the hills! People who share their own life experiences are far more helpful than those that judge and direct you to what your next steps should be. Don't let people "should on you." (Say that 3 times fast and you'll get the joke.) Perseverance occurs more far easily when resiliency is practiced.  Perseverance is the action of not stopping and believing that this action causes momentum. It does. 

Q. What can we all learn from this moving forward and take with us in the long term?  

Everyone deserves to earn a living wage, have access to healthcare and learn how to shift from financial fragility to financial well-being. The pandemic has exposed how vulnerable people become when they can't break cycles of poverty, don't have access to healthcare, and don't have $400.00 for an emergency. The issues are complex and the consequences devastating.  

But the pandemic has given us an opportunity. We can become more collective than individualistic in how we choose to engage in our workplace, our community and in society as a whole.   

The Hotel School is full of aspiring and successful leaders. The power of each of us individually and collectively can make positive changes personally, in our places of work and in the community at large. The pandemic has shown us, without mercy, the financial disparity  in our society. We can all become more useful to more people; we just need to look up and look around to see where we can make positive change. We can live better lives by truly serving all others and not just the ones that foot the bill. Isn't that what, intrinsically, hospitality is all about?  

One last thought – I am encouraged for the future and can't think of better evidence and proof for my optimism than by applauding the HEC 95 Board of Directors for producing Dare to Do – Impacting Society through Hospitality. If this reader had anything to do with HEC 95, please make it part of your story. Do you know the slogan "you can be the change?" Well, there is no letter place for this to be true than with Hotelies heading out into the world. Make it a better place – you'll never regret it.