What does it mean to be a leader in hospitality? To start, it's not about being "the best"—the speakers at this year's Welcome Conference had some better ideas. 

By Maria Yagoda
Updated: June 11, 2019
Evan Sung

Founded by Will Guidara and Anthony Rudolf in 2014, the Welcome Conference is an annual day-long forum that gathers speakers of all fields to discuss issues affecting the hospitality industry. Guidara and Rudolf, now joined by Brian Canlis of Canlis in Seattle, hosted the event this Monday at the Lincoln Center. The theme? "People, Place, or Thing." While broad and somewhat cerebral, the theme allowed for a wide variety of perspectives; speakers had backgrounds in screenwriting, child therapy, nonprofits, and more fields that you might not associate with hospitality or the food and beverage industry. But that's sort of the point; the idea of hospitality is too big, too important, to be contained by any one field.

The founding theme of the Welcome Conference—hospitality and its betterment—manifested in every talk, from Billions creator Brian Koppelman's conversation with author Seth Godin to Post Ranch Inn general manager Gary Obligacion's love letter to leftovers. Each speaker seemed to return to a single question, however indirectly: How can we be better leaders in service of better hospitality? As industry professionals have realized more and more, the question of leadership has massive implications on service, but there's more at stake than enticing guests to return to your restaurant, hotel, or bar.

Evan Sung

"It's about leadership instead of management," said Godin, gesturing to Danny Meyer, in the audience, as an example of someone who gets it. "Management requires authority. Leadership means enrollment in difficult decisions."

Indeed, many of the speakers emphasized the importance of leading with intention, of thinking beyond the framework of maximizing efficiency and profit margins to tap into something much larger as a team. As Simon Sinek—the speaker behind the third most-watched TED Talk in history—framed it, we should all be thinking with "an infinite mindset," rather than a finite one.

"If we listen to so many leaders, they talk about being the best," he said, noting that applying a finite mindset (coming in first!) to play an infinite game (enduring for years to come) marks the "demise of innovation." "In the infinite game, the only true competitor is yourself,” he said. The goal not to beat the competition, but rather to outlast them. One caveat? Your cause must be just and good, said Sinek.

Welcome Conference

“How do we create an environment in which people can work at their natural best?” is the question leaders should be asking, he said. “It’s not about being in charge—it’s about taking care of those in your charge."

In fact, the idea of leader-as-caretaker recurred throughout day, kicking off with Obligacion's talk on the humble beauty of leftovers, which are transformed in the service of something greater: to care for people who are hungry. 

"I don’t have a lot, but I'm going to make sure you have enough to eat," said Oblicacion. "I only have a little of this and a piece of that, but I'm going to make it work somehow ... Hospitality needs intent ... Hospitality is a series of leftovers."

Evan Sung

During this year's event, the hosts announced that the Welcome Conference would branch out of New York for the first time ever, with a Chicago Welcome Conference scheduled for this fall. Kevin Boehm and Donnie Madia, both past speakers, will helm the conference.

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