This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Food Management.
The pandemic has impacted virtually every aspect of our life: office work, air travel, dining out, sporting events, fitness centers, family gatherings. The list goes on and on. While some change has been welcomed, such as the decline in daily commute time, the vast majority of change has been upending. Higher education and, in particular, the college campus lifestyle is no exception.
If you take the “life” out of college life, you are left with what some may think of as just college: A combination of academic programs, teachers and classrooms over time that culminate in a degree. No need to attend on campus if you can receive the same results from the security of your own bedroom, yes? As we ponder the full impact of the pandemic on college, we must take into consideration what is really important to the one stakeholder most affected today: that college student. Has the student dream of an exciting growth experience that leads to a better, more fulfilling life morphed into years spent staring at a laptop to receive a degree by mail? If you ask college students, and we did, the answer is a resounding no.
Here is what is really happening. While the pandemic has disrupted the basics of campus life, the student desire for the college experience had never been higher. Even though technology has enabled education from anywhere, this is not at all what students crave. Take out the on-campus experience, and students are unhappy. Really unhappy.
In fact, the opportunity to deliver a college experience has never been more of a necessity. Over the past year, the pandemic has forced college administrators and their partners to make decisions that optimize for safety at the expense of students’ desires and emotional needs.
Student emotions are being denied, albeit for good reasons. But forward-looking colleges are battling their way onward and upward. They are reinvigorating their campus around one basic tenet: Cultivating a student experience that delivers education within what we call a hospitality ecosystem.
What’s a hospitality ecosystem, and does my campus have one? Every campus already has its own unique ecosystem, whether it is actively managed or not. Universities are complex organisms, and their ecosystem incorporates all things community—things like campus traditions, dining and athletics. The ecosystem extends beyond the campus boundary to include local restaurants, retail outlets and members of the community. Maybe even some in-town raving school fans. Bottom line is that your campus ecosystem is in place already. The key now is to make it a competitive advantage.
The pandemic has challenged the hospitality of many daily experiences. Over time, the pandemic mantra of solving principally for safety will give way to a more holistic approach. Managing the hospitality ecosystem is the key to building demand for the on-campus experience, one that nurtures the university community, is attractive to prospective students and supports the journey to graduation.
So how do you actively engage to craft a compelling hospitality ecosystem? By focusing on what brings college to life: student emotions. Colleges must plan for the reinvigoration of campus by connecting with students on a visceral level.
Through a patented process, we are surveying students coast to coast about the value elements within the campus hospitality ecosystem. The results allow us to see which elements deliver on the emotions their students crave the most. While the emotional intensity differs on a campus-by-campus basis (as well as the solutions to each university), the emotional needs remain similar.
Here are just some of the macro insights we’ve garnered from those emotions.
The Idea in Practice
Emotion has always been the driver of decision making, and this is no different for students. The pandemic has only elevated the intensity of student emotions. Compared to 18 years ago, data shows that the student emotions around the ideal college experience are significantly more intense. Hospitality, by its very nature, is a personal, emotional experience. Many would say that a personal, emotional reaction is how students choose which school to attend in the first place.
Which leaves a basic question: What is the prospective and current student’s ideal experience? Is there a match within your hospitality ecosystem?
We frame the ideal experience using five emotional needs each student desires to feel from your campus. These are the personal needs for stability and flexibility, all while feeling your campus is connected, like-minded and innovative.
So, what is your campus’s elusive ideal experience all about? How do you measure the student data to see if you are creating it? What has the pandemic done to the student in terms of how they feel about their campus life? Where and how can you reinvigorate your campus to restore the attractiveness of a student’s college experience?
Let’s start by unpacking the five emotional needs into their core meaning from a student’s perspective. We will look at these emotional needs through the lens of the food and the dining experience, but the implications extend across many aspects of campus.
The Need for Stability
Food is at the cornerstone of the hospitality ecosystem for students. Food is a primary way for students to experience their campus and the lifestyle a college offers. The pandemic brought on changes in how to capture that experience though. Today, here is what students say they expect while on-campus: “I want my food and hospitality provider to know me, what comforts me and how to fit me into our campus and its traditions.”
Here’s what has happened to colleges during the pandemic. The longstanding and storied histories of campus traditions have given way to a stronger, more immediate need for safety and security. Necessary yet also confusing. What was typically a comforting cadence in our daily food rituals is now being guided—some might say governed—by anxious staff and service providers. The intent was right on target. Colleges must keep the campus healthy and satisfy the broad range of constituents across the university’s community of interest.
Of course, students are also deeply committed to staying safe. They crave stability, and anything that raises concern levels is not helpful. Colleges can only deliver on stability when students become a vested member of the university community. Incorporating campus traditions is the one way to make students feel comfort and stability. This design element takes many forms—both virtual and in person—depending on what your students crave the most.
This requires arming yourself with an understanding of what students think and, more specifically, reveals the ideal blend of value elements and emotional responses for your campus. With this data in hand, the key question becomes: How do you reset your campus to fulfill the desire for shared, hospitality-based experiences?
The Need for Flexibility
While graduation is the goal of attending college, student education has always been much greater than the sum of its parts. What each student gains—or does not gain—from the experience on their campus lifestyle impacts their long-term ability to succeed. Making decisions is a much-needed skill set that is built when students transition from home living to campus living.
Students love choices, and a core part of their hospitality ideal on campus is to feel that the food offerings are fresh and flexible. Pandemic or no pandemic, students are clear in their desires: “I need flexibility in choices and access to quality food that suits my taste and lifestyle.”
Yet, unfortunately, the pandemic has forced colleges to severely limit—and sometimes even eliminate—alternatives for students around any hospitality-intensive experiences. All too often, colleges have replaced “fresh and flexible” with “fast and fixed” when it comes to food. In an environment where density is essentially the sworn enemy during the pandemic, the requirement for safe, secure and transportable food is creating the exact opposite emotion that students desire.
Adaptation requires knowledge about what to do, in what order, that can deliver on each student’s desire for flexibility. How can you adjust your campus lifestyle to be more flexible? How can you design and build adaptation into the campus, so your students get a tailored experience moment to moment?
The Need for Connection
A student’s weekday is remarkedly similar. Go to class, eat, study and sleep. Then repeat. Eating often serves multiple daily purposes in the student’s mind. Food can be fuel. Food can be social. Food can be great. And during the pandemic, another aspect became critical for students: Food can be simple.
Students want colleges to connect with them by providing real food, really easy. Here’s what they say they want today: “I want to be constantly connected to authentic food options that are easy to order, and simple to get where, when and how I want it.” Straight forward, right?
Well, despite all the technological advances that provide a virtual window into our personal lives, the pandemic has been anything but a connected experience. Colleges have asked students to stay physically distant from each other, with traditional dining gathering spots often offering only takeout and delivery.
Although pivoting to more modern mechanisms such as mobile ordering or delivery robots does deliver the food, students feel detached as ever from their campus experience. Students crave more. Connecting isn’t just about clicks—it’s about all of the subtle ways that humans communicate when they are together in a physical space.
Campus connection requires more than just food; it requires the full activation of the hospitality ecosystem. College is that time in the adult journey between youth life and work life when students connect with a world of knowledge and experience.
So how do you activate the key value elements of the hospitality ecosystem to do more than deliver nutrition? How do you foster connection while remaining authentic?
The Need for Like-Mindedness
Students value change but also seek comfort from the familiar. Of course, change is always a constant, and the pandemic has forced changes upon all of us with great velocity and depth. So it is easy to understand why students, who were historically greeted with an orientation program built on a deep understanding creating comfort in their new environment, are less than satisfied with the rapidly changing operating protocols that a pandemic has required.
No surprises here in today’s world: Students want to feel their college experience is just like a home away from home. Food at home with family or friends is a bonding experience. Here’s what students say they want today on campus: “I want my everyday food experience to feel just like I do at home: Safe, clean and from people I know and trust.”
Students don’t want you to ask a lot of questions, nor do they want to be asked a lot of questions. Yet, the safety imperative often forces colleges to repeat orders and enforce security lines. And an unfortunate byproduct of mask wearing is a less personal experience. These actions breed a disassociation, a barrier and a lack of familiarity, which then impacts the ability to bond with a student.
So how do you build trust with students? How well do you really know how they think? Can you design ways to develop family-type bonds into your campus lifestyle?
The Need for Innovation
In a year when the world just got a lot smaller for everyone, students still want to expand their horizon. The pandemic has not changed how open students are to experience new and innovative things. In fact, over the past two decades, the most enduring and consistent student emotion is their need for innovation.
What has changed is how students define innovation in their hospitality ecosystem. Today, students say: “I value a mix of innovative foods and local favorites that are available on demand and make it fun to explore my expanding world.”
New students want to experience the campus and surrounding local community. Returning students want to know what’s changed from last year. On-campus students want colleges to offer diverse, signature experiences that are unique. The hospitality ecosystem need not be limited to just what’s on a campus. Yet, the pandemic has forced restrictions on availability and reduced food and dining options to only those practical.
How can you capture more local or global experiences and design them into your campus ecosystem? How can you make your campus more innovative and seemingly less inner-directed?
Summing it all up…
The key benefits of a college education rest in the college, the education and what happens in life during that time period. Students don’t just earn degrees, they experience a new way of learning and living. Emotions play a critical part of student success.
Surviving the pandemic will not be enough. Today’s colleges must find new ways to differentiate and deliver on their promises. That’s why building a hospitality ecosystem around your campus makes so much economic sense.
Managing the hospitality ecosystem is the key to building demand for the on-campus experience, one that nurtures the university community, is attractive to prospective students and supports the journey to graduation in a way unique to your campus.
When virtually every campus starts to look the same due to pandemic requirements, it’s time to move toward a new, experiential model to differentiate your campus.
Jack Donovan is the president and CEO of Aramark Higher Education.
Gary A. Williams is the founder and CEO of wRatings.