Bringing It Back: NACUFS Conference Debriefings
It’s one thing to attend a national conference and take part in the whirlwind of activities. However, the true value of a conference lies in what you bring back with you. That’s what attendees of this year’s national NACUFS Conference talked about at a recent debriefing open to all HFS staff.
Call it the takeaway briefing, as HFS attendees offered overviews of their experiences at the recent NACUFS national conference held in Nashville, Tennessee. The conference theme—the power of storytelling—was reinforced throughout the conference and given deeper meaning by ace storyteller/adventurer/sometimes motivational speaker Steve Donahue. Award winning chef Sean Brock showed the advantage of staying on theme (in his case Southern cooking). And in a great synthesis of styles and ideas, Alan Schaefer demonstrated an instructive approach to collaboration called Banding People Together.
Attending his third NACUFS conference, Administrator for Business Operations Dean Masuccio came away with many takeaways. Now serving NACUFS as a member-at-large on the Membership Community, Dean noted how storyteller Steve Donahue kept the attendees connected through the three-day conference by feeding different aspects of story each day: What is our story; How to get the message out; How story connects to customers.
About the Living Laboratory or educational collaboration with students and campus partners, there are many ways to pull people in, Dean noted, such as inviting local chefs onto campus or producing a student cookbook and using those recipes during the year. (As Dean mentioned, HFS is already doing educational collaborations with the department of Public Health, the Whole U and other departments on campus, a trend that will continue.)
For Assistant Director, Communications and Marketing Deborah Costar this was her first NACUFS conference, which included a marketing track of programs, where, again, the theme of the power of story resonated throughout the three days. Deborah pointed out that the use of storytelling is already part of ComMar’s strategic plan for the coming academic year; the conference’s theme reinforced for her the role that story plays in conveying the developmental aspect the Department plays in students’ lives.
She also attended an informative session detailing the steps one university took to go from the all-you-care-to-eat dining model to the anytime model. And on a fun and useful note, she picked up some professional photo techniques and suggestions in a food photography session.
UW Dining Director Gary Goldberg has attended a score of NACUFS conferences, and he says comes back from each one inspired and with a renewed sense of energy for improving food services. Technology continues to evolve in the industry; using technology to increase customer convenience and satisfaction is the challenge. As Gary noted, “The great passion around food service, the infusion of technology and what that means—students want what they want, when they want it, how they want it— how do you meet that challenge?” The dining director said he admired the leading edge work of a school such as the University of Massachusetts where “they’ve set a very high bar for college dining.” Yet he also emphasized that “no one has it all right, not one school; they all have challenges.” For example, how does a program offer quality, choice, flexibility, customization, and value at all hours and still maintain affordable pricing for students who are always on a budget? Gary also reinforced the commitment it takes to bring excellence to food service, a commitment strengthened by a passion for food and connection to customer. “The University of Massachusetts has a slogan,” Gary concluded. “People come for the food, and they stay for the education. I’d like people to talk about us like that.”
This was the second NACUFS for John Murphy, Administrator for Retail Dining. “I came from the resort hotel part of the business where everyone is considered a competitor, so you don’t share anything,” said John. In comparison, he added, “when you go to NACUFS, they want to tell you everything, the good, the bad and so forth.”
At the conference, John focused on the service theme. Playing on Gary’s quote, he said, “I came for the food and stayed for the service.” As an example, he went to a nearby restaurant for wine and an appetizer, “but because the service was so outstanding, I ended up staying there [for dinner].”
Another insight: The need to pay attention not only to the dining customer but to the internal (HFS) customers who work with UW Dining. “We’ve got to take care of each other and make sure we are giving to all of you when we have a colleague ask for something,” said John. “It’s never no; it’s we’ll find a way.”
Another key realization: Perception vs. reality. “We may think we are giving the answer customers are looking for, but sometimes we are wrong. The reality is that we are not hitting it right,” noted John. That means trying to see dining from the customer’s point of view, to realize their sense of reality can be different from UW Dining’s expectation of what that reality should be. “Service-centered done right can lead to loyal customers,” John concluded.
Pam Schreiber, Assistant Vice President and Executive Director, who will serve as will serve as a guest trustee on the NACUFS Board this academic year, was sworn in during the conference. During the three days of presentations and other programs, Pam said she noticed a “tremendous amount of conversation and activity around health, nutrition, access to food, food insecurity, and information about the food.” She added, “We know these are the topics of great interest. It’s what our students are telling us.” She also noticed that some university dining programs are not relying on others and are creating their own definitions and standards, for example, in updating and completing how nutritional information is conveyed.
Pam also attended a presentation similar to one Gary and she gave last year on ways dining services support student growth and development, and, again, she saw confirmation of current UW Dining activities, including the campus farm-dining link, the encouragement of community through facility design, and the ongoing support of student employees.
At a session on employee performance, Pam mentioned the presenter made a point that candidate selection and hiring are not the same thing. By just changing the word from ‘hiring’ staff to ‘selecting’ staff, “we are looking at really identifying people as most the talented who fit our organization and not just filling a vacancy.”
From another session on trends, Pam came back with “great reminders,” such as the “uber expectations” of the Generation Zers, the rise of pop up restaurants, activating students as brand ambassadors (students trust students), breakfast all day, and student advisory boards. Pam noted students buy more than food–they are buying an experience: “We have to create the experience they are also buying when they come in.”
The last session she attended detailed how the University of Michigan went through a strategic reorganization. “Organizational change is very hard, and understanding the needs of the institution was the key," she reported. "You can’t create a dining operation and have a disconnect with what the institution is looking for.”