On Monday, June 5, Anthony Rudolf of Journee and Will Guidara of Make It Nice will host the fourth annual Welcome Conference in Manhattan. The event has a new home this year – at Alice Tully Hall, a change (ahem) brought on by the hospitality pros prickling at having to say no again to 600 or more people. We chatted with them about the venue shift, what’s ahead, the seemingly prescient theme, and what they want attendees to feel at the end of the day.
I was very struck by the theme for this year – conflict and change. Seems eerily timely.
Anthony Rudolf: So, we landed on this before the election. We started working on it right after the previous year. So, obviously, there was a conversation going on, but, at that point, all the polls were pointing that it was going to be a landslide victory. So, the root of it has less to do with politics.
Will Guidara: It’s not a political conference, and I wish there wasn’t this much conflict in the world, and I wish the theme were not so timely. On the other side of this not being political, I think the role that I play as a restaurateur has become, in some ways, more important than ever because of how much anger or fear or disagreement there is in the world. Because at the end of the day, the thing that I love most about what I do is that we get to create escapes – little moments of magic in a world that increasingly needs more magic. If there were ever a time for us to make sure that our knives are sharpened in our ability to create places where people, regardless of what they’re walking through our door carrying, are coaxed into letting go of those if only for a few hours, this is it.
In your minds, how do conflict and change tie so closely to hospitality?
AR: Conflict and change have been around since the beginning of time. And the expectation of a hospitality professional in the dining room is that he or she will resolve it and resolve it before a diner leaves, right? My wife and I have a promise that we’ll never go to bed angry. And we never have in 15 years. And it’s that commitment to making sure things are okay and clean and better than you found them prior to the day being over or the meal being over. We sell food and we create experiences, but really it’s hospitality that people are expecting. And that means we need to resolve conflict, and I just think that hospitality professionals are uniquely built or formed to do that.
WG: I do think that is what so many people in our profession are uniquely gifted at: the ability to take someone who might be coming to us in not the most perfect place emotionally — and we can help restore them. And, so, if there’s one thing that I’d love to see come out of this year’s conference, it’s that we have an opportunity to put language to this thing that I think so many of us do intuitively so that we can do it even better.
What are your personal views on change and conflict?
WG: I think conflict is one of the most beautiful things when it comes to the creative process because, generally, conflict means there’s a problem to be fixed or limitations on what you have in so far as resources are concerned, such that you have to dig deeper and be more creative to come up with a solution. So many architects that we work with say that their greatest creations have come from the situations where there were the greatest limitations, and, so, specifically with our company – and Daniel and I will be talking about this on Monday — we’ve chosen to run our company from both sides of the wall: the kitchen and the dining room. Daniel and I are 50-50 partners. It’s not a restaurateur-driven company nor is it a chef-driven company, and that results in conflict. There’s a hell of a lot less conflict when one person gets to make all the decisions and has no one to convince, you know? But I do believe that very same thing has gotten us to where we are today.
AR: Once I realized that change is inevitable and, therefore, my reaction to it is, I got really positive about change. Because I’m now I’m going to get ahead of it.
I do not like conflict, but we have perspectives from people who love it — as in, if they’re not in the middle of conflict, they’re not thriving. So, I’m hoping to walk away with knowing how I can be more engaging of healthy conflict to make myself better.
You both had to deal with change and conflict around the actual Welcome Conference due to high demand from attendees.
AR: Last year, we sold out in minutes, and we started thinking, ‘Is this actually hospitable?’ We’ve now put ourselves in a position of saying no to more than at least 600 people, which was how many were on the waiting list. And, so, we thought about trying to change the venue last year but that would have been insane so we said let’s explore it for next year. So, that was a big change for the conference.
WG: We are, ultimately, in the business of saying yes, and it’s been hard for us the last couple of years to end up saying no to so many people. Last year, we also thought about moving, but we looked at a bunch of places, and as much as we want the day to feel inclusive, we want the day to feel intimate because that’s a big part of why it’s been so special. We couldn’t find a place that could accommodate more people but that still had that beautiful intimacy. This year, we gave it another shot and we had all but given up. The last place we looked at was Alice Tully. I think any change brings with it some amount of risk, but what I think we found is a place that finds a beautiful balance between the ability to say yes to more people without sacrificing the things that made it special to begin with.
As an attendee at the last two Welcome Conferences, I am always struck by the level of emotional intimacy. This isn’t about people just blowing off steam between shifts or tackling practical issues like tipping. It’s a day of real connection and sharing. Is this a need you intended to fill or was it happenstance?
AR: It was very intentional. When you look at a restaurant, there are three players – there’s culinary, there’s hospitality or dining room, and then there’s beverage. Chefs have conferences and farmers markets – a more natural way to connect. Sommeliers and beverage professionals certainly have a lot – wine tastings with reps every week at a central location together, they study for exams together. But a lot of this was born out of Will and I never spending time together – two people working at two of the greatest restaurants in the world at the time – and not having a means — unless we forced the engagement. And, so, we started forcing it, and, from there, we started to think about how it could be more impactful. Let’s create that forum where that could happen. That was really the intention.
WG: The day has become really important to me. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I am constantly nervous that we won’t live up to people’s expectations when they come back because I know that it’s important to a lot of other people. The beautiful part about the Welcome Conference is that it’s managed to revive the place where we can all share ideas and inspire one another and connect and kind of create community for a part of our industry that didn’t have that outlet before.
You have so many interesting speakers this year – including Will’s father’s and one of the SoulCycle founders, which makes wonder how you’ll get all those bikes into Alice Tully Hall?
WG: Alas, we won’t. But I’m a huge fan of everything they’ve built and I’m so curious as to their evolution and what they’re going through now. I can’t tell you how excited I am for Gary, the hostage negotiator. And, I am so lucky to have worked for and learned from some pretty exceptional human beings over the course of my career, but there is no one I have learned more from than my father. I think he is one of the most exceptionally inspiring human beings, and I think the greatest gift I could give everyone at the conference is the gift of him.
What do you want attendees to come away with this year?
AR: The same as every year. I want people to walk away with a different perspective. I think the industry is filled with a lot of smart people, and the more diverse perspectives they can be armed with the better decisions they can make in their business and their lives. And, so, with this, change is big with what is going on in the world but also the way we interact on a daily basis. How are other people dealing with conflict and change – and what perspective shift can I have for myself and my relationship to change and conflict?
WG: For me, the feeling that I want people to walk away with is the same every year – and that’s just energized. I think that what changes year to year is where you’re inspired to focus that energy, but that’s what it is for me each year. Regardless of what we’re talking about, I always want to leave inspired and re-energized to go back to work and try to be the best version of myself that I can possibly be. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
No ticket to the Welcome Conference 2017? No problem. You can stream all the action, insights, and inspiration here on Monday, June 5th, beginning at 10AM ET.
Photo courtesy of Chase.