Hospitality industry leaders visit Penn State, meet with students

February 11, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Penn State School of Hospitality Management welcomed two national leaders in the hospitality industry as spring 2015 Walter J. Conti Visiting Professors.

Katherine Lugar, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, and Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, visited the school in February to interact with students and faculty members. The school recognized Lugar and Sweeney during a reception and industry presentation, “Critical Issues in Hospitality,” Feb. 9 at the Nittany Lion Inn at Penn State University Park.

“Both of these important organizations have evolved significantly in recent years as these progressive chief executives have re-aligned their organizational priorities, and they are concerned with many of the same issues related to such things as labor and government,” said John O’Neill, director of the School of Hospitality Management. “As these two associations will represent the interests of and provide services to most of our students after they graduate from Penn State, it's vital for our students to become familiar with them and their activities while here at Penn State. Through these associations, our students will have the opportunity to become leaders who will shape the course of the hospitality industry for years to come.”

Sweeney and Lugar interacted with students over multiple days through classroom presentations and roundtable discussions offering students career advice.

Specifically, Sweeney outlined key qualities the restaurant industry is seeking in new managers, such as the ability to work at a macro level while also paying attention to details; passion for excellent service; and eagerness to continually learn. Critical skills, she said, include: interpersonal communication, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, leadership and compassion.

"I think success, in large part, depends on knowing who you are and being true to who you are," Sweeney said. 

Kara Zukowski, a senior studying hospitality management, hopes to work in the restaurant industry. Zukowski appreciated hearing Sweeney’s story, in part, because Sweeney has a unique career path, which started with the International Dairy Foods Association.

“I also liked how empowering her position is for women because she’s the first female CEO of the National Restaurant Association,” Zukowski said.

Dawn Sweeney

Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, speaks with hospitality management students at the Nittany Lion Inn as part of the spring 2015 Walter J. Conti Visiting Professors program.

IMAGE: Kevin Sliman

In her advice to students, Lugar highlighted the importance of having mentors, listening and possessing a strong work ethic. Mentoring students, she said, has been one of the most rewarding parts of her career.

“Go to people who are established in every segment of the industry,” Lugar said. “Any good leader is going to want to mentor young people.”

Lugar also said it’s important to not only listen, but to ask questions and to put oneself in others’ shoes to see different perspectives.

Jingyi Zhang, a senior studying hospitality management, said she enjoyed Lugar’s presentation because it went beyond textbook knowledge and helped open her eyes to options in workforce development and job opportunities.

“It broadened my horizon of the hospitality industry,” Zhang said.

Olivia Graf, also a senior studying hospitality management, said she is most interested in how the hotel industry is changing when it comes to such topics as minimum wage and costs. Graf said after graduation she plans to pursue a career in private catering.

“I want to learn what’s causing the biggest impact (on cost) and how we’ll move forward in the future to adjust to it,” she said.

Sweeney and Lugar also shared with students a plethora of industry insight.

The restaurant industry is a $709 billion industry in the United States with one in 10 Americans working in the field, Sweeney said. The National Restaurant Association plays a critical role regarding policies and regulations for the industry.

The association takes its role seriously, Sweeney said, by taking proactive steps to improve the industry, such as in recent years developing and implementing a plan to make children’s menus healthier. Looking forward, the association plans to tackle sustainability, including food waste and water usage.

“We are trying to get ahead of these issues on a macro level,” Sweeney said.

Mirroring the industry’s path, the School addresses sustainability in its restaurant-management courses and implements award-winning sustainability measures at the school’s student-run restaurant, Café Laura.

The role of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Lugar said, is to identify where the association is as an industry, and also to make sure it is positioned for the future. When Lugar entered her position, she found the association was not set up to unify the hotel industry and to allow all governance leaders to come together in decision-making.

“We were fragmented,” she said. “To drive change as an industry we’ve got to be aligned. That has been driving my work at the AH&LA.”

Lugar implemented a new strategic plan, which over the next three years, will focus on the major areas and challenges faced by the hospitality industry.

Some of these target areas include the workforce, and making sure it is positioned for the future; technology and distribution; cyber security; and attracting and maintaining the international traveler market.

“The AH&LA is beginning a new and very exciting chapter in our history,” Lugar said.

About Katherine Lugar

Katherine Lugar is president and CEO of American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA). As the head of the largest trade association representing the U.S. lodging industry, she directs AH&LA's services and works directly with the volunteer officers and board of directors in determining the industry's strategic initiatives. Lugar has over 20 years of experience in private sector public affairs, including serving as executive vice president, public affairs, with the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

About Dawn Sweeney

Dawn Sweeney is the president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association. Since 2007, Sweeney has led the association in a wide range of policy issues, while offering services and products that promote the industry and help individual operators and large companies succeed. She has more than 25 years of experience in marketing, advocacy, and policy, including leadership roles at the National Rural Electrical Cooperative Association and the International Dairy Foods Association.

About Walter Conti

Walter J. Conti, for whom the Conti Professorship is named, is a well-known restaurateur and industry leader from Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He is the retired owner and chief executive officer of Conti Cross Keys Inn and the Historic Piper Tavern (formerly Conti's Pipersville Inn), both located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Conti has held various leadership positions in the National Restaurant Association, including a term as chairman from 1981 to 1982, and he is a "diplomat" of the association's educational foundation. The Conti Professorship Program was established by alumni and friends of the Penn State School of Hospitality Management in 1987 to honor Walter J. Conti for his contributions to the school, to Penn State and to the hospitality profession.

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Last Updated February 13, 2015