Be Our Guest
The hospitality sector is one of the largest in the world. Prior to COVID-19, according to statistics from the World Travel and Tourism Council, it accounted for one in four new jobs created across the world, 10.6 percent of all jobs (334 million), and 10.4 percent of global GDP (9.2 trillion USD). But in 2020, as COVID-19 swept around the world, the sector lost almost 4.5 trillion USD and 62 million jobs.
At Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL) at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Western Switzerland, administrators felt it was imperative that the school take action to support the sector during the crisis. The EHL Group created an online portal that offered free resources to hospitality professionals as a way to provide perspective and actionable business intelligence during the pandemic. School administrators described the portal in a submission to AACSB’s 2021 Innovations That Inspire challenge.
Providing Information and Advice
Responsibility for managing the portal’s content fell to the EHL Editorial Team—members of the communication and marketing departments. They concentrated on offering four key resources:
RISE webinars. This weekly live web show was launched in the early days of the pandemic and continues today. It features Demian Hodari, an associate professor at EHL; Anita Mendiratta, a special advisor to the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization; and an array of industry leaders, university professors, and current students. Over the past year and a half, they have worked through the COVID challenges in a fun and unusual way, often bantering with guests and sharing personal stories about the challenges of travel.
In addition, the two hosts offer a regular “TKO” (technical knockout) segment where they debate a relevant topic. They also air weekly videos they have found online that show how others are handling the situation. Some of the shows have featured customized research from external partners and consultants, especially content that skews toward younger viewers. In other episodes, regular viewers have appeared as guests.
The webinars have been aired as seasons, with each season correlating with a spring or fall semester. “Season 1 was focused mostly on trying to make sense of the situation—episode 1 aired one month after Switzerland entered lockdown,” says Hodari. “Seasons 2 and 3 were more about how to best emerge from the situation. Now, Season 4 is focused on how companies are improving their operations even when compared to their pre-pandemic situations. For example, business leaders have identified new ways of treating line-level staff and new norms within their cultural values.”
So far, about 50 episodes have been produced and are available for viewing online, and additional episodes air live every other Monday. The school plans to continue airing RISE indefinitely.
Thought leadership articles. The portal also contains a great deal of COVID-related content generated by faculty. In some cases, faculty members have suggested topics and have drawn on their own research to write articles; in other cases, members of the marketing and communication team have approached professors with suggestions for contributions. EHL’s content editor also conducted interviews with faculty members who had deep expertise but didn’t have time to write their own articles. About 40 faculty members have contributed content in some way, and more than 100 insights and COVID tips have been published on the school’s blogs.
Popular themes have included how the hospitality industry can survive COVID, what hoteliers can do to prepare for recovery, how Switzerland’s tourism industry has been impacted by the virus, how COVID has affected the food and beverage industry, how human resources departments can work from home, and how schools can make the transition to online teaching.
The school also has brought in external partners to create content in collaboration with professors and students. For instance, Remy Rein, a senior lecturer at the school, and Alex Sogno, CEO of Global Asset Solutions, offered students enrolled in their Hotel Asset Management class the opportunity to write articles aimed at helping hotel owners navigate through the crisis.
Interested students had to submit applications, motivation letters, and résumés. Those who were selected to participate identified topics they thought would be helpful to hoteliers, and Sogno and Rein helped them find the information they needed to produce their articles. Students explored a range of topics, including how to deploy cybersecurity to keep businesses safe when employees were working remotely and how to reassure customers and employees during closures.
Says Véronique Malan, business development director at EHL Group, “By combining diligent research, expert opinions, and their own experiences, students have published a series of best practices on the most current topics facing the hospitality industry.”
The EHL Group’s online portal provided hospitality professionals with actionable business intelligence during the pandemic.
Free online courses. From March through September 2020, the school offered a course extracted from its MBA in Hospitality program. This self-paced course, which required an estimated five hours to complete, included 26 short videos taught by EHL’s professors of strategic management. It helped participants diagnose declines in performance, understand the triggers for these drops, identify the five stages of decline, and learn how to avoid them.
While that course is no longer available through the portal, a second offering—a condensed version of the school’s Managing Underperforming Properties course—still is. The five-week course runs twice a year and includes synchronous interactions in addition to self-paced content.
“We are exploring the opportunity of offering another free course in 2022,” says Malan. “We haven’t finalized the topic yet, but it will focus on elements that are key for the recovery and resilience of companies—especially in the service industry—such as adopting a hospitality mindset in every customer interaction.”
Ask Our Experts. A final offering on the portal is a pro bono advice service provided by the school’s hospitality consulting entity, EHL Advisory Services. At the beginning of the pandemic, visitors primarily asked questions that revolved around hygiene and safety; later, they sought advice about re-opening and re-purposing their businesses. The answers have not been made public, as they pertain to situations at specific companies, but the school has published a blog about some of the most common questions. EHL is planning to continue the initiative even after the pandemic ends.
Maintaining a Useful Resource
Not surprisingly, the portal has presented EHL administrators with a variety of challenges. The biggest has been creating thought leadership content fast enough to address the needs of the industry, all while dealing with the pandemic’s effect on the school’s students and faculty. Another has been finding ways to sustain the portal over the long haul so it could continue to be a truly useful resource. If other schools want to launch similar public resources, Malan suggests they take the following steps:
- Talk to community members to find out what would be most useful to them.
- Explore different formats and content levels to address the various preferences of the target audience. For instance, EHL’s site includes short articles, longer pieces, live webinars, on-demand webinars, and downloadable checklists, among other options.
- Measure traffic and make adjustments as needed. For example, when EHL saw portal usage decrease, it had to re-evaluate its presentation, says Malan. “One small challenge we hadn’t foreseen was that the vocabulary concerning the pandemic would evolve from ‘coronavirus’ to ‘COVID.’ After we saw a drop in the online visibility of our resources, we had to undergo a comprehensive renaming exercise for all our articles!”
- Welcome all contributors—students, staff, faculty, and external partners. However, make sure one person or team is managing the editorial calendar in order to ensure high editorial quality and optimize content for online visibility.
For EHL, the effort of maintaining the portal has been worth it, as illustrated by the numbers. About 500 people regularly participate in the RISE web series. There have been more than 180,000 views of the free pages and articles, and about 1,800 people have taken the free online course about underperforming properties. More than 100 companies from 39 countries have received pro bono advice from the school’s experts.
Although EHL’s goal was to help the industry, the school also reinforced its own brand and heightened its visibility in key markets. EHL content views were 43 percent higher in 2020 than they were in 2019, and organic web traffic is poised to more than double in 2021. A number of people who registered for free courses have since applied to other EHL programs, including online certificates and the online MBA—and some participants who had already been in contact with the school have applied to formal programs.
Although EHL’s goal was to help the industry, the school also reinforced its own brand and heightened its visibility in key markets.
Through the portal, the school also generated more than 900 new industry contacts. While some of these contacts are merely continuing to subscribe to the blog, others could develop deeper relationships with the school. For instance, some have inquired about the school’s hospitality consulting services. Others might be invited to recruit EHL’s graduates.
Although the portal has been a success, EHL officials feel it will be less useful as the pandemic wanes and the hospitality sector returns to a more varied set of needs and interests. Therefore, rather than keeping the dedicated portal, the school now directs visitors to a regularly updated site where they can access a full range of articles and topics.
“The portal ended up being a very rewarding initiative, not only for the increased visibility that we obtained, but also for the stronger relationships we developed with industry contacts,” says Malan. “The added bonus was, of course, to receive ‘thank you’ messages for our efforts.”