By Glenn Withiam
For fourteen Cornell University students, their trip to attend the annual HR in Hospitality Conference and Expo in Las Vegas was a capstone for their hospitality and labor-related education, as part of Labor Relations in the Hospitality Industry, a course offered jointly by the School of Hotel Administration (SHA) and the ILR School. The course is jointly taught by Rachel Aleks, an assistant professor at the ILR School, and David Sherwyn, John and Melissa Ceriale Professor of Hospitality Human Resources at SHA and director of the Cornell Institute for Hospitality Labor and Employment Relations.
The institute hosted the students at the conference, which is the world’s only event addressing the solutions to the complex issues relating to hospitality human services. HR in Hospitality is produced annually by Human Resource Executive magazine and LRP Publications, in partnership with SHA and ILR School. Programming for the conference is developed by Sherwyn and his co-chair, Bruce Tracey, a professor of management at the Hotel School.
Students were able to attend a wide variety of sessions, beginning with the opening address by Ted Teng, president and CEO of The Leading Hotels of the World, who outlined the nature of innovation in the hospitality industry, particularly as it relates to the constantly changing realities of human resources. The theme of innovation was picked up by Kimo Kippen, VP of global workforce initiatives, Hilton Worldwide, who told of his global travels to Hilton properties to identify the new and different approaches to learning that are changing the way people live and work. Kippen also highlighted the importance of educating employees for an impact in their local communities.
Some of the students saw new career horizons as a result of this conference trip, and others confirmed their intentions. Said ILR senior Morgan Levy: “The HR in Hospitality conference served to reaffirm my interest in the HR field, but also sparked a new aspiration to explore the hospitality industry, perhaps through the contacts I made at the conference. As an ILR student, it was incredibly rewarding to be able to broaden my horizons and learn from Hotel School professors and classmates about their areas of hospitality expertise, all of which were new to me.”
Bianca Viscusi, a junior in the ILR School, also saw the conference in terms of her future career: “While I have always wanted to go to law school, I wasn’t sure what type of law I wanted to practice,” she said. “However, after attending the conference and taking this class, I think that I want to go into employment law and focus on the management side for the hospitality industry. I have worked restaurants and hospitality since I was 13 and have always found the industry exciting. As an ILR major, I was unsure how I could meld my interests, but this class has proved to be enlightening with regard to all the different possibilities for the future.”
The students attended a standing-room-only session in which Barry Hartstein and Celeste Yeager, of Littler Mendelsohn, provided updates on new EEOC procedures and cases involving transgender, sexual orientation, and religious accommodation issues. Another SRO session focused on appearance accommodations. Presenters Jason Pruzansky, of Davis & Gilbert, and Holly Lawson, of Pivot Hotels and Resorts, explained that changes are coming both as a result of religious observance and changing personal expectations.
Hotel School senior Colton Haney saw the session on HR documentation to be particularly essential. “I really enjoyed hearing Celeste Yeager of Littler Mendelsohn speak,” he said. “Her resounding message was to go back and make sure that all policies of your organization are up-to-date and consistent with the law, which I found even more pertinent considering the changing political times.” Yeager was joined in that session by Milet Lukey, of Starwood Capital, and Hayden Pace, of Stokes Wagner.
One of the most challenging sessions is also one of the most popular, the “unconference,” a legal think tank offered by Carolyn D. Richmond, of Fox Rothschild, and David Ritter, of Barnes & Thornburg. There is no set agenda in this fast-paced session, and Richmond and Ritter answer the participants’ legal questions on any hospitality HR topic, including minimum wage, overtime pay, audit preparation and review, compliance, and recordkeeping.
Another fast-paced session is “50 Legal Tips in 50 Minutes,” in which Sherwyn and Yeager were joined by Kara Maciel, of Conn Maciel Carey, Paul E. Wagner, of Stokes Wagner, and Harry Katz, dean of the ILR School. The panel presented quick updates on recent changes in class actions, wage and hour compliance, gender bias, social media, and micro-bargaining, among other topics.
Miguel Palines, a senior in the ILR School, was particularly struck by the forward-looking session where Katz and Sherwyn analyzed the likely changes in labor regulations in the next four years: “I found the most compelling session to be Professor Sherwyn and Dean Katz’s panel on Trump’s administration and how his administration’s policies may affect the industry, especially in such a period of uncertainty,” he said, adding: “I learned an incredible amount about how the hospitality industry operates as well as how labor law and employee relations affect everything from hiring and marketing strategies to revenue and profits.”
In addition to a wealth of educational sessions, the students had the opportunity to meet directly with industry professionals. For example, Morgan Levy said: “I was also able to network with top industry professionals and other Cornell professors, making the experience all the more meaningful.” Colton Haney found the Cornell networking session to be a highlight: “The Cornell-specific networking session was my opportunity to talk with alums in industry who were looking to connect with students and future workers in the HR and legal field,” he said. Miguel Palines added: “The best part about the reception was the opportunity to network with experienced professionals and industry leaders who all have an affiliation to Cornell and offered to lend their advice and expertise to help us along our own career paths.” Bianca Viscusi also appreciated the personal contact: “The opportunity to meet industry professionals and connect with professors on a more personal level was a wonderful and invaluable experience.”
Looking back at their experience, the students were extremely appreciative of this opportunity. “Overall, I would highly recommend any student interested in labor relations, HR, or hospitality to seriously consider attending this conference,” said Palines. “I am very grateful to have had this opportunity,” agreed Viscusi. And Levy added: “Overall, I am so happy I attended the conference and could not be more thankful to have been given the opportunity to attend.”