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  • Writer's pictureCharlie McVeigh

School of thought to help tackle the sector’s recruitment crisis

What do the founders of Shake Shack, Dunkin’ Donuts, the Lyft taxi app and the creator of the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder have in common? Here’s a clue, it’s a school, and the two co-founders of Burger King met there. As did the billionaire co-founders of Duty Free Stores, Chuck Feeney and Bob Miller.


No idea? Okay, here’s more – the current bosses of Intercontinental Hotels, Loews Corporation and Harley Davidson also attended – as did the man who owns the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood and the Mercer Hotel in Manhattan.


The answer? The Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. A little further clarity for us parochial Brits: Cornell University is an “Ivy League School”, the American equivalent of Oxford and Cambridge universities. Think about it, there is a faculty at one of the most prestigious colleges in America that teaches hospitality.


The Cornell School was originally set up a century ago in 1922 by a group of enlightened New York City “hotel men” to address a crisis in recruitment. Sound familiar? One of these hoteliers, Edward M Tierney of the Ansonia Hotel, summarised the pitch: “There is a dearth of competent hotel employees, and such a course at Cornell would have the endorsement and co-operation of the hotel men generally throughout the country... The war brought a great change in the hotel worker, and the old-time attitude of servility has been replaced by efficient service giving and courtesy. Young men now enter the hotel business just as they would banking, railroad or commercial life, to find a future in it, and the hotel man must offer the same attractions of commensurate pay and advancement.”


At the heart of it is the remarkable Statler, the university’s official 154-room hotel, which is run by Cornell School students. The Statler group of hotels started life as the brainchild of Ellsworth Milton Statler, who launched his entrepreneurial career with the building of a temporary wooden hotel containing a mind-boggling 2,084 rooms for the disastrous Pan-American Exposition of 1901 (it is said he was the only man to make a profit). Statler grew a large collection of hotels in the succeeding years and eventually sold up in 1954 to Conrad Hilton for $111m, then the largest real estate transaction in American history. Statler’s will stipulated the founding of the Statler Foundation, which created the Cornell location and funds the ongoing participation of Cornell students in its management.


I was alerted to the existence of the Cornell School by UK hospitality investor Ian Edward at a round-table event in April. Ian had sat quietly through much of the discussion as operator after operator unburdened themselves on various topics, but principally the horrendous challenge of recruiting and retaining good staff. Chatham House rules preclude me from further specifics other than to say that – with Ian’s permission – he enlightened us all with a passionate disquisition on the abject failure of the UK to educate our hospitality workers at the highest level, citing the Cornell School as the model.


I was inspired, did a little desktop research and have had a few chats with Ian since. The (very) early summary is, there must be room in the UK educational establishment for an equivalent school or faculty. Couldn’t our world-famous roster of chefs inspire future generations of teenagers to compete for places on an under-graduate business and hospitality course at a “name” university? Wouldn’t our large (and small!) operators kill for the opportunity to send their best and brightest teams to do a Master of Business Administration (MBA) at the same place? Is it possible that the crisis in UK hospitality recruitment which, let’s face it, long pre-dates the pandemic, find a significant part of the solution with this? Might the mythical parents who don’t think hospitality is a suitable career for their hot-housed offspring be persuaded by such an establishment?


Meanwhile, catering colleges and apprenticeship schemes appear to be in crisis, with student numbers in free-fall. The proposed addition of catering and hospitality as subjects for vocational T-Levels for 16- to 19-year-olds offered some hope. But, after promising-sounding announcements at their launch in 2020, they are still not available.


Last month, I met up with James Dare and Florian de Chezelles, the founders of The Salad Project, an excellent next generation salad bar concept with four locations in central London who met at the EHL Hospitality Business School in Lausanne. It goes to show how poor our hospitality education system is in this country that I was astounded by this.


There is an honourable tradition of working your way up from the bottom in our sector. Ask anyone who has had a job in multiple small to medium-sized hospitality groups and they will tell you that the systems, and even KPIs, are often completely different – because they were made up on the hoof by founders with no practical education or training who learn each lesson the hard way, at the coalface. Nothing wrong with that, we say. Or is there? Watch this space…


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