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Spark 2019: Re-Imagining Hospitality for the Restaurant Industry

The 2019 Spark conference, presented by HotSchedules and Fourth, brought restaurant industry leaders together to address challenges facing operators today.

The restaurant industry is facing a set of daunting challenges that force restaurateurs to rethink their operations. Consumer demands are changing more every day, labor challenges persist, and margins remain razor-thin. How can restaurant owners and operators address these obstacles? 

Nearly 250 restaurant professionals from 70 brands gathered in Austin, TX, to try to answer these questions and many more during Spark 2019, a conference by HotSchedules, now powered by Fourth. 

Now in its third year, Spark 2019 served as a forum for restaurant professionals to explore new ways to attract and retain talent, enrich their cultures, and drive operational excellence within their organizations. During the two-day event, attendees gleaned insights from industry experts and thought leaders like G.J. Hart, CEO of Torchy’s Tacos, Kelli Valade, president and CEO of TDn2K, and Don Yaeger, an award-winning speaker and best-selling author.

The conference also served as a massive 20th anniversary celebration for our newly merged company. Both HotSchedules and Fourth were founded in 1999, albeit on different sides of the Atlantic. We could not have asked for a better way to ring in such a major milestone.

Stay Competitive by Adapting to New Consumer Demands

As the restaurant industry becomes more digital, operators must adapt to shifting consumer expectations. 

“Consumers know they have it all,” Valade said during her keynote address. “Consumers know they can demand more from you, and they know they can demand what they want when they want.”

The continued rise of third-party delivery has played a big role in these new consumer demands. Delivery apps have driven in-store traffic down and presented a new set of challenges for many restaurants. Profit margins are slim, quality control becomes a concern, and app users typically don’t discern between the delivery service and the restaurant in the event of a bad experience. 

“Delivery is about speed. It’s about who can get there the fastest,” Valade said. “They are probably going to be in the driver’s seat for a long time, so you need to be flexible to them.”

But Valade noted that while businesses should adapt to the third party boom if it makes sense for them, she urged operators not to lose sight of their core missions and values.

Foster a Strong Culture to Connect with Employees

Speakers throughout the conference agreed that establishing and living by those core missions and values will set your brand apart. As the industry faces a workforce crisis, engaging and connecting with hourly team members will help foster employee loyalty and reduce turnover. After all, happy employees drive happy guests.

For G.J. Hart and Torchy’s Tacos, that strong culture begins with a set of core values that employees can believe in and live during their day-to-day. To build a strong, sustainable brand, employees need to know that leadership cares and can connect with them individually.

“Can you genuinely connect and engage with the team member from all positions in the company? I think human beings want to have their voices heard,” Hart said. “The more you can engage, the more success you’ll have within your organization.”

With turnover rates through the roof and record low unemployment, brands must rethink their approach to workforce management. Technology can connect teams and boost both communication and collaboration, but, as Hart said, a company’s true culture truly starts with leadership.

Finding the Right Partner to Navigate the New Industry Landscape

Creating great experiences for guests and employees should be at the top of your restaurant’s priority list. But that’s no easy task when managers are working longer hours with fewer people in the face of changing industry dynamics. 

“The brands that succeed the most are the ones who retain their managers the longest,” said David Cantu, Co-Founder and Chief Customer Officer of HotSchedules, now powered by Fourth.

And in order to retain managers, restaurateurs will have to find the right tools to enable their managers to focus on what matters most — ensuring that guests have a great experience and return again and again.

“Labor is changing. Gone are the days that we just accept we have a transient workforce. We can’t do it,” said Ben Hood, CEO of Fourth. 

If you weren’t able to make it to Spark 2019, don’t worry — we’ll have plenty more content covering the wealth of insights from this year’s edition of the conference. Be sure to check back soon!

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