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Viewpoint: Five solutions for college dining pandemic challenges

From contracts to technology, higher education is rethinking dining services for the post-COVID world.

Dining halls, coffee shops and on-campus convenience stores are a key component of the business model for colleges and universities. Socializing over shared meals, after all, is a key part of the classic college experience for many students. Schools also depend on revenue generated from dining programs, with the average college charging $4,500 per student for a meal plan to support dining and other auxiliary services. College dining is a big business.

But the pandemic turned those models upside down, forcing administrators to change their methods and operations to adapt to newly uncertain times. They’ve had to consider whether students will be back on campus, and in what numbers; whether food safety protocols are sufficient, and how they can be improved; and what the impact all of this will have on the program and financial bottom line.

Here are five solutions to the top challenges facing campus dining in fall 2021:

  1. Rethinking and renegotiating financial agreements

For schools that contract their dining services to outside operators—that’s nearly 40% of the members of the National Association of College and University Food Services organization—the pandemic has forced a re-evaluation of those agreements from both sides. Open communication, concessions and collaboration between administrators and operators is key and can help achieve financial balance and keep student satisfaction high.

Contracts tend to be long-term, spanning 10 or 15 years because the operators put up significant capital to add on-trend and retail-style food programs in the residential dining space. Commitments made before the pandemic were based on assumptions that students would be on campus, purchasing meal plans, and utilizing retail food services. Operators are looking for financial relief, saying that prior assumptions made about items such as the number of meals served substantially changed.

  1. Building flexibility into programs

During COVID, colleges and universities have learned about the importance of flexibility when maintaining on-campus dining programs. Using 24/7 unmanned micro-market-style operations has been key to this flexibility, allowing labor to be used for on-campus delivery while providing students with choices when they want them. Flexibility in adapting to new safety protocols is also required—rethinking food stations, gloving and masking by workers, and maintaining social distancing procedures if needed.

  1. Embracing technology and innovation

Investing in technology allows campuses to be more flexible in their dining operations while providing a great customer experience. Technology will play a much larger role in the future of on-campus dining as it becomes more mainstream. Customizing smartphone apps and websites to use a pre-pay delivery service such as Grubhub, Uber Eats or DoorDash allows campuses to flex dining hall hours and divert labor to other areas. These apps also can store student orders and delivery history for convienence, as well as provide real time information regarding allergens and different dietary needs. On some campuses, when students returned in spring 2021 many meals were offered only via apps, and in certain cases, robotic vehicles made the deliveries.

Smart apps also allow campuses and dining service operators to take a deep dive into student usage data, helping improve efficiency and customize the student’s experience. The operators normally would take on the investment on this new  technology, but due to decreased revenue and uncertainty, colleges are partnering with the operators and taking on some of the cost burdens as well.

  1. Reviewing ‘Act of God’ contract provisions

Force majeure, a French term that literally means "greater force,” is related to the “Act of God” concept—an event for which no party can be held accountable. Campuses and operators should be reviewing their contracts that may have force majeure provisions such as those governing pandemics, epidemics, or diseases for the fall. These may come into play should another spike in COVID cases occur.

  1. Tapping into student needs via surveys

Ensuring that the customer’s voice is heard is a critical part of dining service success, especially in a residential environment where complaints and negative experiences can spread quickly. Student surveys allow campus administrators to get a pulse on campus life, helping identify new trends, student needs, gaps in service and what is going well for customers. For example, a survey by digital engagement solutions vendor Nutrislice of more than 800 college students found a strong desire for safety by using contactless ordering/payment options. Nearly 70% cited mobile apps and websites as their first choice in contactless technologies, and almost 75% said mobile food ordering from campus dining locations was important to them when their schools reopen in the fall of 2021.

Gary Gunderson is Principal/COO and Bob Wolkom and Laura Lozano are Senior Associates for Innovative Hospitality Solutions (IHS), which coaches college and university clients with operational consulting, quality assurance/safety evaluations and strategic planning for dining halls, retail food service, restaurants, catering, c-stores, concessions and vending operations. For more information on IHS and its 2021 Campus Dining Consulting Program, visit ihsimpact.com.

TAGS: Operations
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