An invitation to innovate

As the coronavirus knocked on doors, alumni in the hospitality industry answered with ingenuity

Dara Wong (BSBA ’09) named her Flagstaff, Arizona, restaurant Shift because that was its goal: to shift the definition of a normal dining experience.   

Dara Wong outside her restaurant

Five years later, that name holds an entirely new meaning—one that, as Wong sees it, encapsulates the experience of keeping the lights beaming and the doors swinging during a global pandemic that has, according to Business Insider, permanently closed 17% of the country’s restaurants and left millions unemployed. 

“We joke around that we are Shift 8.0 at this point,” Wong says. “We’ve changed so many times—how we deal with dining, how we do different processes, adapting our dishes to be able to take them home. … We have to have a plan B, C and D for almost everything we do if we want to survive.”

Guided by state mandates and an unpredictable virus, Shift 2.0 meant a closed dining room and takeout-only menus. Down to only a skeleton crew, Wong got behind the wheel and delivered orders herself. When dining rooms were allowed to open at limited capacity, Shift 3.0 offered lunch for the first time and added basics such as sandwiches and salads. Every dollar mattered, and anything that could sell, did sell—even pantry items like bags of flour. Shift 4.0 maximized each available seat via a four-course, prix fixe menu. And so on and so forth. 

This has been the picture across the hospitality and tourism industry, from restaurants and hotels to cruise ships, airlines and ski resorts. With folks hunkering down and business travel completely frozen, the industry has scrambled to find its pulse. 

That’s been as true in Denver as elsewhere. Prior to COVID-19, tourism, business travel and conventions produced 60% of Denver’s restaurant spend, says David Corsun, associate professor in DU’s Daniels College of Business and director of the Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management. That’s largely evaporated. 

And while some hotels, including those offering extended stays and those situated near hospitals, are doing “gangbuster business,” Corsun says most others are getting “slaughtered” thanks to the travel standstill. 

Recovery from a pandemic that has claimed more than 350,000 U.S. lives may feel desperately out of reach, but with vaccine distribution underway, there’s finally a twinkle of hope for an end to COVID-19. 

For those hospitality enterprises that survive, Corsun says, that twinkle could grow into a sunburst. 

“The future is very, very bright. This is an industry that has been around forever and will continue to be. It serves really significant human needs,” he explains. “Anybody who is able to make it through is going to thrive post-COVID.”

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