Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Live from the People Report Best Practices Conference

I'm blogging live today from the People Report Best Practices Conference in Dallas. It's best to read the thread from the bottom up.

4:58: There are those of us who believe casual dining's biggest problem is the loss of rock and roll. A segment that rose to prominence by taking the starch out of full-service dining has settled into a mayonnaise-on-white-bread blandness. Add in the lack of differentiation and you have a pretty good diagnosis of what's wrong with the sector.

Every CEO in that sector should be tied to one of their concept's bar stool and forced to watch the videos that Kent Taylor showed to illustrate the culture he's cultivated at Texas Roadhouse. How often do you see a promotional clip that features an executive giving the competition the finger? Of execs doing some serious damage at the bar? Of using air horns and joke recordings a la Howard Stern at a meeting with the concept's main bank?

Rock on, Kent.

4:17: Three issues keep arising here at the conference: Obamacare, usually mentioned with pronounced disgust; fears of our economy falling off the fiscal cliff, which one speaker noted is already dampening traffic at Burger King and McDonald's, but not Wendy's (no reason was given); and, most surprising, the business importance of serving a purpose higher than the profit motive.

If you're puzzled by the latter, see the story we ran last May about Panera Bread's commitment to conscious capitalism. Here at the conference, a similar philosophy, Changers of Commerce, will be the subject of a session on Friday.

But those well-developed, comprehensive philosophies aren't the only higher purposes getting talk time. There seems to be an agreement among attendees that what engages recruits and employees is pursuing an end that's loftier than mere profits. That objective can be striving to be a better environmental steward, helping co-workers in need of help, or trying to combat social ills like childhood hunger.

If the Old Guard doubts that a new sensitivity to social issues is taking hold, they should book now for next year's PRBPC.

4:06: George McKerrow, the founder of LongHorn Steakhouse and head of the Ted's Montana Grill bison burger chain, is talking about what's next for restaurants that want to be green. For instance, he's talking about a building's co-mingled garbage being turned into clean water and energy in a system being tested in Green Bay, Wisc. He also mentioned disposable coffee cups that consist 40% of recycled fiber.

3:05: Hudson Riehle, the National Restaurant Association's master of statistics, offered this takeaway from his crystal ball: " What you’ll see is a much more rapid integration of technology into the front of the house and the back of the house. For those under age 45, their expectation of a restaurant experience involves technology. That will be another point of engagement for them."

2:55:  Lots of talk at the conference about the effects of Hurricane Sandy on dining out. The gist of it: Definitely a negative impact short term, but a prompt for consumers to treat themselves a few days down the road to the indulgence of dining out. As one speaker put it, we'll likely see a bump.

1:15: Let Harvard Business School keep its snooty reputation and blue-blood degrees. I’m listening to Kelli Valade, COO of Chili’s, and hifalutin educational systems have nothing on her.
She’s talking about what makes a successful employer. It’s not a coincidence that remaking Chili’s into a better employer led to a resurgence of the brand three years ago, as she’s proving with her riveting account of how the company changed its employment culture. That’s what made the difference to guests.
“It started with people and changing our culture,” she explained. “If you do focus on people, and you do focus on culture, you can make a remarkable difference.”

As Valade recounted, Chili's intensified that focus about three years ago, during what she termed a Perfect Storm: Declining traffic, declining sales, seemingly more dissatisfaction on the part of employees as well as guests.

Trying to pinpoint what went wrong, the chain decided to get back to the vision of its builder, the man who gave his name to the company, Normal Brinker. "'WWND"--What Would Norman Do?--"was what we talked about," recounted Valade.
 That approach led the chain to address its employees, affectionately known as Chiliheads. 
They were told, "We will get better at how we treat you. We will get better at what brought you here," she continued. 
That led to stories from the employees about why the brand was special and what they enjoyed about working at a Chili's. That, in turn, led to stories from customers about their experiences.
 The upshot was what's now Chili's marketing slogan, "More life happens here."
It's a restatement of the magic that made Chili's different at its start back in the mid-1970s.
Listening to Valade, you clearly got the sense that it's been recaptured.

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