Recap of the 2017 Cornell Hospitality Research Summit (CHRS)


This year marked the fourth annual meeting between academics and industry practitioners at Cornell University in beautiful upstate New York (CHRS). Like past years the October conference was well-attended, and the speaker slate was varied albeit markedly skewed toward hotel and lodging. Despite this, there was enough general content that was applicable for businesses across the spectrum of hospitality.

Conferences are usually dominated by topical subjects, such as Leadership. Millennials, Social Media or Technology. This time the overarching theme was “Disruption” and the inevitable opportunities for innovation, brand differentiation and competitive advantages that can accompany it. However, this year’s agenda felt skewed in other ways, too. Most notably, many speakers represented outside vendors or consultants eager to pitch their perspectives, skills or tools.

This is neither an inappropriate nor bad thing per se, but the presentations I attended often talked more about purported effects and outcomes versus the methods and analyses used to justify the claims. This is understandable to an extent when you consider that presentations were timed to function more like TED Talks. Yet, presenters at academic forums should balance this with attention to critical details on approach and methodologies.

The Cornell faculty and support staff did well in keeping the proceedings lively and the momentum going. There was also ample social and business networking time, which is always the highlight of events like this. CHRS is a highly recommended event for all. In case you missed it, below are the key learnings that stayed with me.

Key Takeaways

(A) HR’s evolving role: The vernacular for human resources (HR) functions always seems to change, and in most respects, is being upgraded. There seems to be a realization that HR drives enterprise value by aligning people practices to business practices across the organization to support all employees and functions in delivering on brand promises. This process of creating and maintaining awareness and alignment to branding was consistently positioned at CHRS in terms of “Talent & Culture” versus the traditional “Human Resources.” Therefore, common HR issues of retention, engagement and diversity are being imagined in business and operational lingo of market differentiation and ROI. This means that HR pros will likewise need to become increasingly informed and savvy about all the internal business and outside market forces that impact financial and value creation key performance indicators (KPIs) that most capture and hold the attention of senior leadership and owners. In short, HR leaders must think and act as business leaders, and not simply functional heads.

(B) Leveraging “big data”: In our worldwide executive search practice, we have seen in recent years a marked uptick in organizations wanting to find superstar asset and revenue managers. This makes sense, given that these individuals offer some of the greatest short-term and long-term opportunity for value creation. But, whether for asset management or marketing and branding, several presentations touched on the tremendous potential of so-called “big data” in driving the most valid and profitable business decisions. Indeed, the amount of data available to businesses is immense – everything from consumer value sets, attitudes and behaviours to market trends and financial metrics across the globe. 

However, obtaining data is not really the problem anymore. The new challenge all functions have – from asset management to HR – is mining it. This means properly understanding and actioning big data, which is easier said than done. To this end, several presentations addressed analytical techniques or new applications to mine business data. This is a promising start, but the potential and promise of big data must successfully assuage Meehl’s caution and criticism that “everything correlates to some extent with everything else” (p. 204). In other words, with enough data one can find an endless supply of “meaningful-looking” patterns – some real (i.e., “signals”) and some that artificially capitalize on chance (i.e., “noise”). Separating the signal from the noise is the new name of the game.

This is why presenters at conferences like CHRS must take time to explain their methods and not emphasize their proposed results. It is difficult for attendees to know the trustworthiness of specific claims without appreciating how the claims were derived.

This latter point is perhaps the most important lesson for readers to take away from my recap. All people have thoughts, so opinions and views are not inherently insightful or otherwise meaningful. Practitioners and leaders, similar to academics and researchers, should be more curious at first about how others think and what process or logic drives subsequent conclusions. With the wealth of media attention and business books devoted to popular topics such as talent, curiosity, emotional intelligence (EQ), personal branding and social networking, it would seem that less emphasis is being placed on the fundamental skill of “critical or logical reasoning.” In my view, this is the core ability that will drive success in both HR’s and big data’s growing roles in the business world.