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Crunching the Numbers

The Center for Hospitality Research links academia and industry.


Weekends are a busy time for restaurants, and fitting in the optimal number of reservations is a perennial challenge. So in 2015, the Hotel school’s Center for Hospitality Research created the Restaurant Reservations Optimization Tool. Drawing on research in operations management, it takes into account such factors as party size, arrival time, and expected meal length to help determine the best mix of tables.

The tool is just one of many ways that the center has aided restaurants, hotels, and other hospitality-related businesses since it was founded in 1992 with the aim of facilitating productive links between academia and industry. Some thirty corporate partners—ranging from established brands such as Hyatt and to smaller start-ups—make up its advisory board and largely fund the center’s activities. In a given year, these may include putting out two dozen publications, inviting visiting scholars, hosting the Cornell Hospitality Research Summit, and holding roundtables on such topics as sustainability in the hotel industry and revenue management in restaurants. “We take general academic puzzles we’re working on,” says center director Chris Anderson, an associate professor at the Hotel school, “and weave them into something that’s of value to industry today.”

The benefits go both ways, according to Ben Lawrence ’97, an assistant professor of food and beverage management who has worked with the center since he began teaching at Cornell five years ago. Hoteliers receive impartial, data-driven feedback on their business ideas and initiatives, while academics gain access to a trove of industry data. Lawrence, for example, has worked with data supplied by the center in two published and three ongoing projects, including research on online reviews as a measure of a service company’s reputation and a study of advertising among 3,500 franchised hotel properties in the U.S. Most recently, he used industry-provided data to evaluate the relationship between “checkout charity”—when customers are solicited for small donations as they pay for their orders—and repeat purchases for a national fast food chain. He found that customers experience a “warm glow” when they donate and are more likely to revisit the restaurant in the future. “The business got the answers it was looking for, and we were able to publish research that had implications for both theory and practice,” says Lawrence. “A win-win.”

The center makes its findings available to hoteliers and the public for free online, offering easily digestible reports, round­table highlights, and how-to documents on subjects ranging from keeping track of wines’ drinkability in a restaurant cellar to strategies for communicating a hotel’s “green” values. Last year saw the one millionth download—a number that Anderson offers up as a measure of the center’s relevance. Regularly rotating industry partners on the advisory board, appointed for three-year terms, help to maintain fresh perspectives and visions, Anderson says. As the center has expanded over the years, it has spun off four others at the Hotel school that focus on labor, entrepreneurship, real estate, and healthcare in relation to the hospitality industry. Partner funding also supports undergraduate and graduate research, and students are invited to network with executives at center events. “Even though the Hotel school is on the endowed side of campus, in some manner we follow the land grant mission of the state side,” Anderson observes. “We actively reach out to industry and engage our students not only in the practice of hospitality but also in applied research—with a goal of improving the business of hospitality, today and into the future.”