Equity and sustainability will be front and center for the 98th annual Hotel Ezra Cornell, the student-run hospitality business conference for industry leaders and members of the Cornell community from across the globe.
“We really believe that the future of our industry lies in our collective diversity, and in creating a platform where diverse voices are welcome,” said Lillian Pinheiro ’23, managing director for HEC 98, to be held April 20-22 with both in-person and virtual events planned.
“A lot of the themes for our speakers, and for our food and beverage events, are tied to sustainability and to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Pinheiro said.
An annual tradition of the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of the Hotel Administration, HEC is one of the oldest organizations at Cornell and an introduction to the students, faculty and alumni of one of the nation’s leading hospitality programs. The complete schedule of HEC 98 events can be found online.
“The Nolan Hotel School has been at the forefront of experiential learning with HEC,” said Kate Walsh, MPS ’90, dean of the Nolan School. “For close to a century, students have been putting their leadership skills, business acumen and service mindset on display in this important tradition that involves hundreds of students, and draws hospitality business leaders and alumni across the globe back to campus.”
As the world slowly breaks free from the grip of a global pandemic, lessons learned from COVID protocols will be incorporated into this year’s conference, with the theme, “EXPO: Envisioning a Sustainable and Equitable Future Through Global Hospitality.” Organizers said the inspiration was Expo 2020 Dubai, the world’s fair held in the United Arab Emirates from October 2021 to March 2022.
“The pandemic really put our industry into survival mode; restaurants were struggling, hotels were struggling, so there was a huge focus on how to bring people together and get through this together,” said Audrey Andrews ’24, marketing and communications director.
“And then last year was about celebrating a lot of things reopening, a whole new take on hospitality,” she said, “but we really wanted to take a step forward this year, past the pandemic and say, what does this look like for the long-term future of the hospitality industry?”
According to HEC faculty adviser Heather Kolakowski ’00, a lecturer in food and beverage management at the Nolan School, the run-up to HEC 98 has featured more in-person events than were possible during the height of the pandemic.
“For HEC 97, the beginning of the year had many changes and adjustments due to shifting COVID policies and protocols,” she said. “The HEC 98 students have been able to create engagement experiences starting the first week of classes in the fall to recruit volunteers and team members to plan the conference.”
A highlight of day 2 will be the finals of the 13th Cornell Hospitality Business Plan Competition, sponsored by the Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship. The competition began at the start of the academic year, when students formed teams and developed executive summaries for their business plans.
The 10 semifinalist teams will make their presentations from 2-4 p.m. on April 21 to a panel of three alumni judges, who will select the top three concepts as winners. The winning team will receive $25,000; the top three will be announced later in the day.
And back for a second year is the Server Derby, scheduled for 11 a.m. on April 22 on Ho Plaza. A modern take on the Parisian Waiter’s Race, students and guests will have the opportunity to compete together in teams, with prizes for the top finishers.
As the theme suggests, sustainability will be woven into HEC 98 in a number of ways.
“The students also wanted to bring more awareness to the needs for more sustainable practices and have worked very hard to try and bring those practices to the conference,” Kolakowski said. “From reusable water bottles to ethically sourced coffee, they want to showcase the products and services that will be critical for the future of hospitality.”
Among the speakers will be Gilda Perez-Alvarado ’02, global CEO of JLL Hotels & Hospitality. Following Walsh’s welcome, Perez-Alvarado will sit down with Programs Director Lucas Arulpragasam ’24 for the opening talk of HEC 98, “Fireside Chat: What’s Next for Hospitality Real Estate?” The chat is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on April 21.
“Returning to Cornell for HEC 98 as a speaker is an extraordinary honor,” Perez-Alvarado said. “I look forward to sharing from experiences and also learning from all the stakeholders at the event. This exchange of ideas is what makes HEC so special.”
“I’m excited for our students to be able to see what the leaders in our industry have to say,” Arulpragasam said. “There was a lot of intention behind why I chose each of them, so there’s a part of me that’ll be reflected on that stage. I’m really excited for everyone to be able to watch and hopefully get something out of it.”
HEC 98 will mark the end of a yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Nolan School, the first hospitality education program at a U.S. university when it was founded in 1922.