If you have ever wanted to know how the American hospitality industry is shaping up for the next millennium, why go to the expense of hopping on a plane when your existing PC and modem will do the job? To get the lowdown on hiring, firing, theming and feeding, it is best to get on-line because the Internet is awash with hospitality magazines, chef forums, recruitment sites, and yes, even the American Meat Institute.
The Internet is becoming increasingly popular for recruiting staff - Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, which has 65 hotels in the Americas and the Caribbean, has been using the Internet since September 1996 to recruit staff for its in-house management development programme.
The company set up an on-line application form backed by information about the positions on offer and the type of candidates wanted. According to Wyndham's recruitment manager Paul Tooker, the strategy has produced some promising results. "Within three months we interviewed 10 candidates directly from the Internet and two were eventually hired," he says. "We have been very successful in attracting many qualified candidates from the Internet."
While this does not do away with the popular criticism that the Internet is the exclusive preserve of techies and anoraks, Wyndham's strategy illustrates that, in the USA at least, hospitality professionals are becoming increasingly Internet literate.
This point is echoed by Les Howarth, a consultant with Flourish Recruitment, a UK agency serving the hospitality industry. The company has had an interactive web site since September 1995 and uses it to advertise vacancies all over the world.
On average, 80% of enquiries originate from the USA and Canada, with only 3% coming from the UK, says Howarth. Most US candidates would like the opportunity to work in the UK, and although many are simply surfing the Internet for fun, 60% of enquiries are authentic.
With 50-60 applicants looking at its site each week, Flourish Recruitment could be seen as a good resource for hotels and large caterers looking to fill domestic vacancies with international staff. But Howarth hopes more people in the UK will use the Internet in the near future, attracting more domestic labour this way.
What Flourish Recruitment wants to do for the UK, Resources in Food Inc (RIF) is already doing for continental America. RIF is a large hospitality recruitment agency specialising in providing restaurant managers. It maintains offices in large cities across the USA but its web site acts as a central on-line hub, carrying lists of vacancies sorted by city of origin.
The service is free for applicants to register, and in a country as vast as the USA the Internet is seen as an excellent method of delivering up-to-date information to restaurant managers across the country.
Extensive e-mail list
Jenny Lenweaver, co-founder of FoodWeb, a UK company specialising in on-line food marketing, also shares this point of view. Web browsers can automatically send out memos, press releases or adverts to an extensive e-mail list, she says. This is particularly useful if an employer is looking for a new chef because many culinary schools have their own web sites. A future employer can post notices of employment opportunities on these sites around the world at little or no cost.
FoodWeb also has a full list of culinary schools, including those without web sites.
In the USA some culinary schools provide reference information about courses and place numbers on their web sites as well as admission procedures. The Johnson and Wales University based at Rhode Island has a web site that offers a number of e-mail request options about student intake and an e-mail list of admissions representatives based all over the USA.
Apart from international recruitment information there is also an enormous amount of information available on the Internet for food professionals. One of the most informative sites is FoodNet, a resource centre providing news and features for industry professionals. The site is packed with net links allowing the user to access other related sites, topical debate about industry issues, product news, recipes and an events calendar.
There are also sites devoted to trade issues, such as foodindustry.com which is about to be re-launched, and other niche web pages for chefs, wine sellers and party caterers.
One example is ChefNet, a resource site and e-mail newsletter which has 4,000 subscribers worldwide. ChefNet founder Gary Holleman is convinced the Internet will help the hospitality industry.
"By the end of the millennium, we will see the Internet encroach on nearly every aspect of the chef's job," he says. There are already resources on the Internetto assist chefs in hiring staff, training, purchasing, marketing and menu planning.
Party and event theming caterers in need of a little inspiration might also try, Fancy Food Online, an e-zine (Internet magazine) dedicated to both food presentation and theming as well as management and marketing trends.
Another worthwhile e-zine is called Epicurus Online, run by a hospitality management and recruitment consultancy firm based in the north-east USA.
This e-zine carries a monthly food and beverage publication which includes articles on wines, coffees, teas, soft drinks, foods, spices and herbs, as well as interviews with chefs, restaurateurs, hoteliers and celebrities.
Although not as comprehensive as some of the other sites listed, Epicurus Online is a good example of how a recruitment agency or consulting group can add value to their Internet presence and generate repeat visits.
Beware, however, as some hospitality sites on the Internet are not updated regularly.
What really separates you from this digital world of indispensable on-line information is finding it in the first place. A sensible starting point is a recognised search engine such as Yahoo, which actually has a dedicated list of hospitality recruitment agencies. The rest is easy. Most food sites have links to other e-zines and archives linked to the industry. And what's more, the people who run them are in general more than willing to answer your questions via e-mail. In all, it's rather like a lucky dip - albeit with information worth knowing.