A Seat at the Table: Q&A with Kelly MacPherson of Union Square Hospitality Group

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5 min read

Apr 18, 2023

A Seat at the Table: Q&A with Kelly MacPherson of Union Square Hospitality Group

SevenRooms recently sat down with Kelly MacPherson, Chief Technology and Supply Chain Officer of Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG). With over 20+ years of experience working with brands including Restaurant Brands International, Burger King Corporation, Hard Rock Cafe, and Abercrombie & Fitch, Kelly is a seasoned, well-respected professional in the hospitality industry. Check out what Kelly had to say about guest data, ‘anticipatory hospitality’, standing out in a competitive market, and the future of hospitality. 

Technology adoption for operators has significantly grown over the past few years. How do you see operators embracing technology in their venues and what are some of the major ways you’ve seen this change over the span of your career?

Much of the technology adoption we’ve seen in recent years came out of necessity. Overnight, the pandemic created an instant need for omnichannel business to sustain restaurant operations of any kind. COVID was destructive to the restaurant industry in many ways, but it was an extreme catalyst for innovation and technology adoption – especially in a sector that had largely underinvested in technology.

As we’ve moved into a post-pandemic world, it’s been encouraging to see that operators haven’t walked away from their investments – instead, they’ve started optimizing them. Now, more than ever, the industry is embracing technology as a way to drive efficiency, explore new channels and opportunities, and grow their businesses and bottom lines.

How has technology helped Union Square Hospitality Group overcome challenges such as labor shortages, rising costs & employee retention?

Even post-COVID, changes in the macroeconomic environment and employee expectations have continued to drive innovation. We need to be more efficient in the way we hire, and technology has certainly helped streamline the process from discovering a candidate to setting them up for their first day of work. But even more interesting is how we use technology to create a work environment that retains our employees. 

Technology is a part of everyday life; you can do just about anything from your phone – from watching TV to paying bills to booking flights. People expect technology to be easy to use and frictionless. We are passionate about making the user experience of work technology as seamless and positive as personal technology. Any friction we can remove from day-to-day work elevates the overall work experience. 

Moreover, we know our employees entered this industry and joined USHG because they are passionate about hospitality. The more we can use technology to automate and expedite highly manual back-office work, the more we can empower them to focus on why they pursued hospitality in the first place – to create personal relationships with and meaningful experiences for our guests. By helping our employees operate more efficiently, and focusing on what drives top-line revenue, we are ultimately enhancing performance and profitability.

New York is arguably one of the most competitive markets in the world. How do you ensure guests keep coming back to your restaurants?

We’re fortunate to be in a city where we are constantly inspired by the culinary and hospitality talent blossoming around us – it’s certainly a uniquely competitive market. We foster lifelong relationships with our guests by delivering on our promise of Enlightened Hospitality. They come back to us for personal hospitality experiences, memorable food and beverage programs, and for the value we can provide.

We’ve heard USHG talk about the concept of ‘always connecting the dots’. How can technology help venues across a restaurant group connect the dots in order to elevate the guest experience?  

The power of data – and communicating it effectively – cannot be overstated. Data is how we connect the “art and science” of hospitality. With technology, we can gather important information about our guests at scale, and present it to operators in an easy-to-digest, actionable format. 

That data is, in effect, “dots”: pieces of information about our guests that allow us to create personalized, memorable hospitality experiences. This is where the “art” of hospitality enters. Once presented with the data, our operators can “connect the dots” and transform nuggets of information into smarter decisions about table arrangements, personalized greetings, menu recommendations, and endless other actions that create an environment of Enlightened Hospitality.

What are some ways that you use guest data to provide ‘anticipatory hospitality’ to both new and repeat customers in your venues?

Guest data – and the technology that organizes it – helps us understand, first and foremost, what our guests value. Do they appreciate an efficient or leisurely dinner? Do they prefer banquettes or barstools? Do they like to chat with the team, or enjoy a quiet evening to themselves? Do they crave their favorites or always ask to try the newest dishes and wines? 

When we know their behaviors and preferences, we can anticipate their needs – and thus exceed their expectations. At USHG, we call this “reading and feeding signs”. With rich guest data, before a guest even steps through the front door, we can anticipate their “signs”. Hospitality should be a one-to-one, personal experience, and guest data allows us to deliver these experiences at scale.

What advice do you have for restaurant operators looking to improve their tech stack to better optimize their operations and provide better experiences to guests? 

Picking the right partners is critical. Look for partners who truly understand your business and care about driving better experiences for both your team and your guests – partners who are invested in your success with strategic and cultural alignment. 

Collaboration between partners is also key; a modular tech stack with collaborative partners will allow flexibility and innovation. If possible, steer clear of a position where you can’t innovate or grow because of your technical debt. 

Most importantly, don’t be afraid of change! Sometimes, a partnership has run its course – that happens. Develop a tech strategy that focuses on business impact and be rigorous in doing what is best for your operators and your guests.

Thanks for chatting! From your perspective, what’s your vision for the future of hospitality in the next 5 years?

Over the next 5 years, I’m excited to see true one-to-one hospitality come to life: personalized experiences that meet guests where they are. I look forward to seeing artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) move the industry forward. Not because they will replace humanity in hospitality, but because they can improve efficiency and enable it at scale. 

Technology can never satisfy the emotional reasons people visit restaurants – to celebrate, relax, savor, find comfort, foster community, and more. We will always be a people business and in the coming years, I hope that we leverage technology to help us focus more than ever before on the human element of the hospitality experience.

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