Innovation Network: a key to the future for hospitality and travel execs

By Jeannie Griffith

What could bring 100 high-ranking hospitality and travel executives to Google’s New York headquarters in the middle of November to learn about 3D printing, of all things? What could even entice Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, to pop in twice for a look? The answer has lately been one of the School of Hotel Administration’s best-kept secrets.

When the school launched the Innovation Network (IN) in June 2008, it did so on the q.t., but the model is proving too valuable to keep under wraps. The brainchild of Leland Pillsbury ’69, co-chairman and CEO of Thayer Lodging Group, the IN brings together senior corporate leaders of the hospitality and travel industry—by invitation only—to focus on new ways of thinking about their businesses. Members, both Cornell alumni and not, meet twice a year, once on each coast, to get infused with new and even radical ideas for fostering creativity within their companies.

“As the preeminent 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 school’s associate dean for external affairs.

An important component of the IN experience is the opportunity it gives students to interact with top-level executives. This year, 13 lucky students were chosen through an application process to be IN ambassadors. “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,” said Mollie Eisler ’13. She was one of five students chosen to present their picks of the “top five industry game-changers” to the executives.

To make the programs enjoyable and mind-expanding, the IN draws speakers from other industries as well as from the Cornell faculty. Past speakers have included, among others, Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation; Carlos Dominguez, senior VP at Cisco Systems; Bonita Stewart, VP of U.S. sales for Google; Mark Joseph, P ’10 and ’13, CEO of Veolia Transportation, the largest multi-modal transportation company in North America; and the (unnamed) military operatives who set the logistics for the U.S. war in Iraq.

This fall’s highly interactive program led off with a lively presentation from innovation consultant Simon Bray of ?What If!. Rajeev Kulkarni, vice president of global engineering for 3D Systems Corp., then reviewed 3D printing’s astounding 25-year history of commercial applications in manufacturing everything from Star Wars toys to mass-customized hearing aids to 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 his laboratory who is developing edible applications for 3D 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’s 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.”