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What restaurant executives are learning at adult camp

If you don’t believe all the consultant-speak about subordinating profits to a higher purpose, let me set you straight.  I just came off that mountain, and I can assure you there’s no trippy long-beard in robes and sandals at the top, blathering about karma and planet alignment. The apostles making the case for a new business mindset hailed from the likes of Chili’s and Coca-Cola, and they were speaking as capitalists, not recruiters for a commune. They likely convinced the skeptics at Summer Brand Camp, the industry’s most unusual conference, that doing more than making money is the new imperative for pleasing consumers, employees and even investors.

Not that the crowd at Brand Camp needed much persuading. The event brings together executives from the marketing, human resources and operations departments of restaurant chains to foster collaboration—“workplace, marketplace, one place,” as the program declares.

Pulling those often-warring corporate divisions out of their bunkers makes for a rare confab per se. But that’s only the beginning of the novelty. Where else are you likely to find corporate executives in shorts, t-shirts and flip flops, munching PBJs and talking about their “tent mates” as one of them strums a guitar? The summer-camp theme is carried cleverly to a marked degree, fostering a radically informal atmosphere where networking happens as effortlessly as it would amongst youngsters attending a band camp.

The focus is still on business, and attendees got a headful of talk on that topic. But this was not Jim Collins and Stephen Hovey territory. The favorite word of presenters seemed to be “purpose,” as in pushing for more than a strong P&L.

“The marketplace has changed,” explained Chris Ebbeler, senior manager of workplace community for Chili’s. “People are saying, ‘I want to lift business up. I want business to be more.’ We see the workplace filled with emotions and values. Why do you do what you do? Why are you in this business? That is what ‘purpose’ is all about.”

Ebbeler and Chili’s senior director Dom Perry recounted how the Brinker International-owned chain embraced the new business rationale of making the workplace and dining place more than just somewhere to exchange money for services rendered. A watershed point was a 2014 meeting of the chain’s 1,500 restaurant operators, christened The Purpose Experience.

“The difference between a conference and an experience is night and day,” explained Perry. “A conference is about downloading information. We wanted it to be about 80 percent [focused on] improvement and purpose, 20 percent business and strategy…It turned into how to become the best you.”

Invitees were encouraged to exercise together and engage in small-team activities like building bicycles.  A squad of top executives even built one on the stage, mentioning how the output of their work would be donated later to children. Then an executive stood up, acknowledged that he’d lied about the donations, and said the 150 bikes would be given new owners there and then. One hundred and fifty kids charged into the rooms to get their shiny new bikes, an experience that Perry said would not be quickly forgotten.

“We’re all on this journey,” said Perry.  “But this journey by yourself? Not as much fun. You all want to share that journey, to share that experience.”

Wendy Clark, president of strategic marketing for Coca-Cola, had to interrupt her presentation for what she called “a tissue break” because of the sniffling and crying that couldn’t be missed in the audience. Clark recounted a few examples of how her employer has strived to display traits that have nothing to do with beverages, like courage, belief and connection. She aired a marketing spot for Coke’s orange-juice line in which parents read thank-you letters from their children. The whole idea, she said, was to make Minute Maid stand out in the juice aisle by demonstrating that the brand appreciated the challenge parents face and celebrated their hard work. The effort was all about emotion and a purpose greater than winning customers with the product’s taste and price.

Brand Camp is presented by TDn2K, the parent company of People Report, a human-capital research firm, and Black Box Intelligence, a research concern that measures and benchmarks the sales and traffic results of restaurant chains. Look for more coverage here as new business sensibilities are explored by speakers and attendees. 

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