Customer Experience Is King

John Clarke, professor of practice and associate dean for graduate programs, on the Stewart Center CBD terrace overlooking downtown New Orleans.

As a practicing nephrologist, Dr. Adrian Baudy (MBA ’19) routinely counseled his patients with kidney disease and high blood pressure to reduce their sodium intake, but to his surprise many told him they didn’t add any extra salt to their food. The culprit, he discovered, was condiments.

“This is Louisiana,” Baudy says. “People put hot sauce on everything.”

After struggling with how to address the problem, Baudy began making his own low-sodium hot sauce and giving it to patients. The reaction was overwhelming.

“They loved it,” Baudy recalls. “They would come back every visit and say, ‘Hey, can I get another bottle?’”

It was at that point Baudy realized he might have something on his hands. He was already enrolled in the Freeman School’s Professional MBA program, so he signed up for New Product Development in the Hospitality Industry, a course that emphasizes the process of developing hospitality products and services. Taught by Professor of Practice and Associate Dean for Graduate Programs John Clarke, the unconventional course teamed students with Reily Foods to ideate new products for its Luzianne tea brand and then put them to work developing their own hospitality ideas.

The course was so valuable to Baudy that he went on to take two subsequent courses focusing on the intersection of entrepreneurship and hospitality.

Today, Baudy is the founder and CEO of Doc’s Salt Free, producer of a growing line of low-sodium hot sauces, seasoning mixes and salad dressings.

“There’s no way I’d be where I am now without the classes I took at Freeman,” he says. “They taught me to focus not so much on the product as on creating value for customers. When you frame the business in that context, you can help your customers more and that’s ultimately what I want to do.”

The courses Baudy took are at the heart of an innovative new Freeman School offering. Beginning this fall, MBA, Professional MBA and Master of Management students will be able to earn a concentration or specialization in Entrepreneurial Hospitality, a new focus area that combines the Freeman School’s strength in entrepreneurship with New Orleans’ tradition of hospitality excellence. Through courses such as Hospitality New Venture Planning, Strategic Consulting in Hospitality Organizations and Entrepreneurial Hospitality Leadership Practicum, students can gain the multidisciplinary foundation necessary to take on the challenges of launching and running a wide range of hospitality- related ventures.

“New Orleans has been a hotbed of not only hospitality but innovative hospitality for a long time,” says Freeman School Dean Ira Solomon. “When you couple that with the city’s emerging entrepreneurial ecosystem, you get a program that is distinctively New Orleans and one in which we have the knowledge and experience to emerge as a top player.”

“Hospitality is increasingly important to all of us in terms of how we engage with products,” adds Clarke, who led the development of the program. “It’s not just about food or service. It’s about curating a set of experiences that create value for someone.”

Clarke is quick to point out that this isn’t a hotel and restaurant management program, and it’s not designed to replicate existing hospitality programs. Rather, it takes a novel approach with a curriculum that uses hospitality to prepare students to take on leadership roles in a variety of organizations.

What makes the curriculum unique, Clarke says, is its focus on customer experience as a business strategy. In the Freeman School’s innovative and non-traditional view, hospitality is a context to better understand the customer experience, an approach that yields insights relevant not only to hotels, restaurants and tourism-related businesses but to a wide range of customer-focused industries, including health care, retail, consumer products, banking and professional services.

“It’s about using the customer experience as a way to create competitive advantage in an industry,” Clarke says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re running a tech company, a bank or a hospital. How can you use the customer experience
as a differentiator?”

By tapping into the New Orleans business community, Clarke says the program connects students with the cutting edge of hospitality while leveraging the unique strengths of the Freeman School and the unique
resources of New Orleans.

“In many ways, the question isn’t why should we focus on hospitality,” Clarke says. “It’s why haven’t we been focused in hospitality.”

The origins of the entrepreneurial hospitality initiative  go back to 2011, shortly after Solomon’s arrival at the Freeman School. Business School Council Chair Jerry Greenbaum (BBA ’62), chairman of Atlanta-based restaurant developer CentraArchy, invited the new dean to meet Daryl Berger (L ’72), the New Orleans real estate developer and investor whose hotel properties include the Windsor Court, the Omni Royal Orleans and the Omni Riverfront.

Over a leisurely lunch at the Grill Room, the three discussed some of the strategic areas the Freeman School might consider pursuing in the coming years. Not surprisingly, Berger and Greenbaum both highlighted the importance of hospitality to the New Orleans economy and encouraged Solomon to explore ways to build stronger ties between Freeman and the city’s hospitality industry.

A little over a year later, as the Freeman School’s Strategic Planning Leadership Team worked to map out the school’s objectives for the next five years, hospitality emerged as an area of focus.

“The Freeman School can’t be everything to everybody, so we have to identify areas of growth for us that are strategic in nature,” Clarke says. “After studying the landscape, it was clear that hospitality was a perfect match.”

The challenge was building a program that leveraged the Freeman School’s strengths while engaging with the city’s hospitality industry. Clarke had taught new venture planning for many years so it was natural for him to approach hospitality from the perspective of entrepreneurship. As he began to study the industry, he noticed a rise in the number of hospitality startups coming out of the Freeman School. Zach Engel (BSM ’10) had won a James Beard Award at Shaya and was in the process of opening Galit, one of Chicago’s most talked-about new restaurants. Will
Donaldson (MBA ’09) established the groundbreaking food hall St. Roch Market and its parent company, Politan Group. Jacob Landry (MBA ’12) started Urban South Beer. A.J. Brooks (MBA ’12) developed the Catahoula Hotel and co-founded locavore-centric grocery store Made Grocery. Matt Schwartz (BSM ’99) and Chris Papamichael (BSM ’96) were founders of the Domain Cos., which was reinventing downtown New Orleans with its groundbreaking South Market District development. The list went on.

In addition to Berger and Greenbaum, there were also more established alums in the hospitality industry, like Bill Goldring (BBA ’64), chairman of the Sazerac Co., the nation’s leading liquor manufacturer, and Ti Martin (MBA ’84), co-proprietor of the Commander’s Palace family of restaurants and co-founder of the recently established New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute.

Clarke began to envision a program that would build on the Freeman School’s extensive connections to the industry, enabling students to interact with and learn from the city’s leading hospitality professionals. New Product Development in the Hospitality Industry — the course that Baudy took last year — was one of the first courses developed for the prospective program. More recently, in January, Clarke taught Entrepreneurial Hospitality Seminar, a weeklong intensive course in which students worked with industry mentors to develop their own hospitality venture ideas.

“To have James Beard Award-winning mixologists and chefs be part of helping you understand how to design and position a restaurant or a bar, to me it doesn’t get any better than that,” Clarke says. “You really couldn’t have a deeper bench of people to help you understand how to start a hospitality business than the people our students are engaging with.”

As far as he knows, Clarke says no other business schools are focusing on the intersection of entrepreneurship and hospitality, but that doesn’t surprise him. No other city boasts the abundance and diversity of hospitality entrepreneurs that New Orleans does.

Baudy agrees.

“In New Orleans, there’s so much competition in hospitality you have to go above and beyond to succeed,” he says. “Being here at Tulane and in New Orleans is really unique because it forces you to become better, and that’s the best thing you could ask for.”

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