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Innovation Network draws hospitality and travel pros

What could bring 100 high-ranking hospitality and travel executives to Google's New York City headquarters in November to learn about 3-D printing, of all things? What could entice Google Chairman Eric Schmidt to pop in twice for a look? The answer is the Innovation Network (IN,) one of the School of Hotel Administration's best-kept secrets.

IN brought together senior corporate leaders of the hospitality and travel industry -- by invitation only -- Nov. 14 to focus on new ways of thinking about their businesses. Members, who include Cornell alumni, meet twice a year, once on each coast, to get infused with new and even radical ideas for fostering creativity within their companies. Launched in June 2008 by the Hotel School, IN is the brainchild of Leland Pillsbury '69, co-chairman and CEO of Thayer Lodging Group.

The interactive program led off with a presentation from innovation consultant Simon Bray of ?What If!. Rajeev Kulkarni of global engineering for 3D Systems Corp. followed with a review of 3-D printing's 25-year history of commercial applications in manufacturing everything from "Star Wars" toys to mass-customized hearing aids and engine blocks.

The program concluded with Hod Lipson, Cornell associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and of computing and information science, and Jeff Lipton '10, a doctoral student in Lipson's laboratory who is developing edible applications for 3-D printing. Lipson discussed complex applications from bioprinting of body parts to robot reproduction -- batteries included. Throughout the day, New Yorker contributing cartoonist Drew Dernavich illustrated the goings-on with markers on a long sheet of paper on the wall.

Innovation is a perpetual challenge for corporate leaders like Simon Turner '83, president of global development for Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, one of the largest hotel companies in the world. "One thing that has been on my mind since reading Steve Jobs' obituary is the importance of leadership in sponsoring innovation," he said. "We have to look at sponsoring creativity, sponsoring that innovative mindset, and yet having that translate into value for our owners and an enhanced guest experience. Starwood has a history of innovation, but it's tough to get that balance within a 'supertanker' organization. That's why this kind of program is so valuable."

In the past, IN has drawn such speakers as Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation; Carlos Dominguez of Cisco Systems; Bonita Stewart of Google; Mark Joseph, CEO of Veolia Transportation, the largest multimodal transportation company in North America; and the military operatives who set the logistics for the U.S. war in Iraq.

"As the pre-eminent institution for teaching and research in the world's largest industry, we try to engage industry leaders in a variety of ways, all based on further building our brand identity and creating relationships to support teaching, research, recruiting and career placement. The IN has been a terrific vehicle to help accomplish these goals," said Jon Denison, the Hotel School's associate dean for external affairs.

IN also provides opportunities for students to interact with top-level executives. This year, 13 students were chosen through an application process to be IN ambassadors. Mollie Eisler '13 was one of five students chosen to present their picks of the "top five industry game-changers" to the executives. "To even be in the same room as some of the attendees was an honor, but to work with them one-on-one in such an interactive context was unforgettable," she said.

Jeannie Griffith is senior staff writer and managing editor in the School of Hotel Administration.

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