Chefs have food festivals, sommeliers have wine panels – but how do the experts in the dining room share insights and create community within their profession? That’s the hole Anthony Rudolf, founder of creative agency Co.Create NYC, and Will Guidara, co-owner of Eleven Madison Park, sought to fill when they created the Welcome Conference, a one-day forum for ideas and exchange centered on hospitality. Since its start in 2013, the event has drawn expert voices not just in food and beverage but across industries to explore how care and compassion can build business and change lives. The booming audience and influence of the Welcome Conference has made the event one of the most influential and powerful in the space.
As proud sponsors of this year’s Welcome Conference, we spoke to Will and Anthony all about this year’s event – stories and storytellers, tactical tips, social good, and the possibilities of tech. Keep reading to learn why hospitality is like parenting, how AI can make us more human, and why when it comes to restaurants and conference, one size fits one.
2019 marks the sixth anniversary of the first Welcome Conference. How has the event evolved since its birth?
Anthony: It’s evolved quite a bit, from number of attendees to format to the demographics of attendees and speakers. The very first year was in its purest form hospitality and hospitality folks, probably 99.9 percent of the people in the audience. We’ve evolved in size; we went from 200 to now nearly 1,000.
The speaker range has also varied. We started branching out to bring outside perspectives in that could both enrich the community and broaden the audience. This year we have a clinical psychologist closely related to food; in the consumer package world, we have Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani. We’ll have a performance from an experience creator in Spiegelworld in Vegas. All of these things seem a bit outside hospitality, but they’ll thread the needle that hospitality is much larger than the restaurant world. A restaurant is really part of the food and beverage industry.
Hospitality really isn’t an industry so much as a way of life or thought process, a way we engage and interact with each other. Hospitality is as simple as letting someone who has their turn signal on merge in front of you instead of speeding up to the car in front of you.
Will: I was at Eleven Madison Park the day before yesterday, and there’s a pre-meal every day leading up to the conference about one of the speakers. It’s pretty remarkable that this thing that started as a random fun, idea has become this incredible bonfire of community that people look forward to every year. One of the things that’s so inspiring is to watch how three servers who work at some restaurant in Arizona come to the conference so they can be surrounded by other like-minded people.
With all of those changes – audience, industry – do you feel like your mission has changed at all?
Will: I don’t think so. We started it because we wanted people who were not in the kitchen – the people in the dining room who didn’t have the food conferences available to them – to have an opportunity to share ideas, inspire one another, and connect to form community. That’s the only way a craft can truly evolve. I think that mission remains the same.
Anthony: The mission to inspire, share, and connect hasn’t changed; it flexes as our interest flexes. We’ve been very good at inspiring. As we’ve grown, we’ve gotten better at creating ways for people to meaningfully connect, finding new ways to keep people off of their phones. We incorporated music, and we’ll have some fun activations on site this year.
Tell us about this year’s theme: Person, Place or Thing. What kinds of insights are you hoping to glean from speakers?
Will: Every theme has had its strengths and weaknesses. The year we did being present, so many people came back to us saying, “We were so much better at being present this year.” The weakness was, there wasn’t too much in terms of opposing viewpoints. Everyone agrees: you should be present!
This year we wanted a theme that would allow a range in terms of what ideas were tackled onstage, and to give each speaker the gift of being able to use that stage to celebrate someone or something else.
We’re asking people to share the greatest lesson they’ve ever learned and, in doing so, honor the person, place, or thing where they learned it. People can lean into the thing they are most passionate about and pay tribute to someone or something that’s been important to their journey.
Tell us about coming up with this year’s panel of presenters. What were you looking for? Why these folks?
Anthony: One thing we always ask of the speakers is to make sure there’s one central thing you can focus in on. The day is so overwhelming in an emotional context that we try and keep the takeaways simple and clear. We think about the general arc of the day and different moments of storytelling – some more tactical, some emotional or magical. You’re running this gamut of emotions throughout the day. At the end of the day, hospitality is all about emotions. Everyone on the team brings some people and we all talk through them and ultimately craft the entire day.
Dr. Wendy Mogul, a clinical psychologist specializing in children – she will naturally bring her work with parents and their kids and their relationship. (Usually it’s the parents’ fault, whatever’s happening!) She’ll relate that world in a way that it will be impactful to restaurateurs and hospitality folks. We often treat our staff and customers like our family, and some maybe like kids. The newest generation of parenting is holding on so tight to the kids that it doesn’t allow them to flex and grow and evolve. Most restaurant people can relate to that.
Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani brings so much joy into the world and so much compassion, just through being a leader. Sometimes it’s easy when you’re a mom and pop to take care of your staff, and it’s much harder to do when you’re a multi-billion dollar consumer packaged good.
Will: Terry Coughlin runs Maialino, Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, and he has a daughter who through illness has been going to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, an institution set up by Paul Newman. He was so inspired by the impact it had on his daughter that he started doing fundraising dinners for it. I’ve been to a couple, and they are inspiring because of how passionate he is about the cause. This camp makes his daughter feel included and cared for and “normal” in a way she ordinarily doesn’t. He refers that back to what we do in our restaurants every day – it’s unbelievably emotionally inspiring.
We started this conference to make sure that dining room people had a stage to talk about what’s important to them. In addition to running one of the great resorts on the planet, Post Ranch Inn, Gary Obligacion is one of the great dining room operators.
We want to make sure they are also good public speakers. The ones that have an amazing message that are not yet necessarily amazing speakers, we get speech coaches to help them prepare.
From themes to speakers, how has the state of the industry today (including issues, challenges, trends, etc.) shaped the Welcome Conference?
Anthony: We think more about the conference as the focal point – what is the state of the Welcome Conference. And probably very little of what is the state of the industry and what role does the Welcome Conference have in that. We certainly want to have programming relevant to the deeper things people are experiencing, but it’s not a State of the Industry conference.
Last year’s theme was Restoration, addressing the #MeToo movement and the restorative power of service. Do you think the industry has healed over the past 12 months?
Will: I think the industry is healing, but I don’t think it’s healed. I do think that there’s a general awareness in that people are trying harder to be better versions of themselves now than ever before, both as individuals and as organizations. That’s pretty cool.
Each year you’ve shared videos of speakers on your website, in addition to a live stream (which you can find on Open for Business on Monday, June 3rd). How do face-to-face and digital interactions work together, and why are both important to your work?
Anthony: First and foremost, energy and effort goes into the nearly 1,000 people who will be there that day. We believe there is power in the videos and power in the content sharing, but we believe there is more impact in that the people there are mostly leaders who have authority over other employees. They’re fired up and are going to take that human connection and teach and preach and push things forward. We see the videos mostly used from people within industry as pre-service content, like Will was just talking about. We’re not digitally native – that’s not our focal point right now.
Will: It’s fun for us to get notes from people at other restaurants who have just finished a pre-service and watched Bill Golderer’s talk from four years ago. It’s an area of growth for us for sure, but it’s fun to see that it has a certain amount of impact.
Which presentations from past years have you received the most feedback about, and why do you think they resonated?
Anthony: We can take credit for programming a diverse day that will touch people on some level, but some more than others. One that often gets talked about from people that are very tactical is Christina Tosi’s keeping everything inside of her rooms, and never physically being able to be in two rooms at once. A lot of people that are very block-and-tackle talk about her talk in that regard. Bill Golderer – people weighted to social good bring up how that has inspired them to look at the work they do to impact the lives of people less fortunate. Will’s dad, Frank Guidara, gets a fair amount, too. That hit a lot of people because it was both, here’s a roadmap of how you can do it, but then you just got walloped with emotion.
Will: Thank you for saying that. There have been a couple of talks where people will come up to me and say, “My least favorite was this one, but my most favorite was that one.” And someone else will say the same thing in the exact opposite order. One of the beautiful parts about the hospitality profession is that, as my old boss used to say, “one size fits one.”
In our approach to serving people, we need to remember that everyone’s different, and people respond to different things. It’s been interesting to see how that is true in the conference format.
What’s your current perspective on tech in hospitality? What opportunities do you see?
Will: I used to have the perspective that tech flew in the face of hospitality. At Eleven Madison Park, I wanted people to call and hear a voice and have an exchange. Then Uber came around, and for a while when you would Uber a car they would be a block away, and they would call you. I found that I was so irritated when they would call me – I know you’re there, you don’t need to interrupt whatever moment I’m having. Then I thought about somebody trying to make a reservation at the restaurant where they’d call at 9 a.m. 30 days before reservations went live, be put on hold for 30 minutes, and be told there were no reservations available. I still do not believe that technology should be front and center, but when placed behind the scenes and used to enhance hospitality, it’s an unbelievably powerful tool.
The OpenTable Guest Notes – I know when you come in that you like sparkling water and this is your favorite dessert. I don’t think any human being has the memory to do what that does, and the opportunity that it affords to serve people in a more personal way is extraordinary. As many of those things that help make the in-person interaction stronger as opposed to replacing them are ones that I love and can get behind.
Anthony: I’m bullish on tech and the impact it will have on hospitality – automation, AI, process things that tech can do much better than a human. If I had a way to pour water and put silverware down on the table and remove that from a human, I would do it in a second and empower the people that are now pouring water to do things that are more human and be more emotionally aware. That’s the separation of the food and beverage industry and the hospitality industry. Hospitality is prevalent everywhere. When I think 20 to 30 years out on the impact of tech, ultimately our role is to be more human with each other.
An example of where AI is going to have an impact is in hours of operation. Restaurants are notoriously bad at outwardly communicating digitally things that are happening: special events, closures, etc. If you saw the Google Assistant demo, they can have AI calling around, talking to people and figuring out their hours of operation. There’s nothing worse than Googling hours and going to a place, and it’s closed. The gesture of making information more readily acceptable and accurate is hospitable to the other person looking to get that information. I’m worried that labor will be impacted, of course, but I think the overall product and growth of hospitality will ultimately be a very good thing for humanity.