* Click here to view several slideshows from the event.
More than 60 pizzeria executives, independent operators, vendors and industry experts gathered at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago June 8-9 for the first Pizza Executive Summit.
The theme of the invitation-only event was "Evolution of the Modern Pizza Business."
Summit highlights included a series of collaborative sessions where small groups of operators grappled with issues facing the industry and worked together to develop solutions. Following the presentations, groups of operators were asked to tackle a series of challenging questions, come up with solutions and present them to the audience.
"Our goal in organizing the Summit was to provide a forum where operators could work together in order to solve some of the common problems they face," said Paul Barron, executive vice president of NetWorld Alliance, the organizer of the Pizza Executive Summit. "I believe we accomplished that goal."
NetWorld Alliance is the publisher of PizzaMarketplace.com.
Some of the key takeaways from the Pizza Executive Summit included:
1. Hiring and training are still some of the biggest issues facing the industry
Even though turnover rates are on the decline, operators still need to interview on a regular basis. The tight economy offers a tremendous opportunity to build an A+ staff. And while operators may be tempted to scrimp on measures such as background checks in order to save money, that could be costly in the long run.
"You're basically hiring a person who you will be sending into your customers' homes," said Georgianna Stump, senior partner with insurance provider Risk Services Corp. "You want to make sure that person is going to be a good representative for your business."
2. Operators must strive to connect with their community
One of the challenges facing Jamie Strobino, vice president of new concepts at Uno Chicago Grill, is how to connect with today's consumers.
Part of the way Uno Chicago Grill is accomplishing that goal is through their support of Pizza for Patriots, an effort to ship 40,000 pizzas to soldiers stationed in Iraq in time for July 4. The company also works with the nonprofit group Autism Speaks, sponsoring fundraising walks in several cities.
"We don't advertise this, but it gets picked up in the media and helps people understand what we do," he said. "The guest is more concerned with who is making a difference out there than they have ever been in the past."
3. Online is where it's happening
Tuesday's sessions included a presentation titled "Operations 2.0: Real Time Solutions, hosted by Eric Abrams, executive vice president of Fishbowl Marketing, Casey McEwen, chief operating officer of Wing Zone and Sandy Lechner, CEO of Synergy Media Team.
The discussion included a look at how operators can use Web tools to better reach their customers.
"We are playing catch-up with other industries as far as identifying who our customers are and how they want to be engaged," Abrams said. "We are sitting on some great data and guest information without really knowing what to do with it."
Social media, e-mail marketing and online ordering are all very cost-effective and measurable marketing tools, he said. Media today is both push and pull, and online marketing offers a tremendous opportunity to engage customers.
"Every time we reach out online, we should be wanting to open up a two-way dialogue," he said. "Customers can choose not just how they want to interact with a brand, but if they want to interact at all, not just what they want to hear about but when they want to hear it and by what channel."
4. The POS system offers a treasure trove of business management tools
Modern point-of sale systems include a host of features designed to help pizzeria operators better manage their businesses. Unfortunately, most operators don't take advantage of those tools.
"Eighty percent of our customers only use 20 percent of the features of a POS system," said Kristi Stark, marketing director with POS provider Revention, during her keynote address on the second day of the summit.
Today's systems include customer database management, e-mail marketing capabilities and the ability to calculate optimum food costs based on the price of recipe ingredients.
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Stark and other speakers recommended that operators work with their POS supplier in order to better understand the capabilities of their systems. Among the attendees, several operators offered to assist their competitors in setting up their systems.
5. Green is more than a buzzword
One of the sessions on Day 1 of the summit was titled "Greenfusion: New Track to the Profit Line," featuring Networld Alliance executive vice president Paul Barron and Technomic principal Tom Miner.
Barron and Miner presented statistics from the Food Action Group that indicated 70 percent of consumers would be more inclined to visit green or organic restaurants regardless of price, up from 37 percent in 2007. And while the search engine Google returned 1,467 results for the phrase "green restaurant" in 2006, today a search on that phrase returned nearly 79 million results.
Barron did warn operators not to fall into the trap of "greenwashing," or making unsubstantiated claims about a restaurant's green efforts.
"In many cases, what operators tout as "green" just isn't the case," Barron said.
Organizers of the Pizza Executive Summit are seeking input from pizzeria operators and other industry professionals on topic ideas for next year's summit. E-mail your suggestions to Paulb@networldalliance.com.