About 2,850 athletes from 89 countries are competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The athletes, their families, staff and volunteers all have to eat. ABC News reports more than 2 million meals will be served to volunteers alone. Another 2,000 unique dishes will be prepared for athletes.
To feed this hungry bunch – 8,000 chefs, sous-chefs, cooks, waiters, bartenders and cashiers have been hired. Behind the scenes, this crew provides athletes the nutrients and energy they need to strive for Gold. FIU Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management Professor Zhao Jinlin has spent the last 20 years managing food service at the Olympics and the Asian Games, and he says there’s a lot the hospitality industry can learn from these international events.
For Zhao, the perfect case study is the 2008 Olympics in Beijing where he served as training manager for the catering services project. In a presentation Zhao prepared after the 2008 Olympics, he provides industry insiders and his graduate students a blueprint for success. Unlike the current games in Sochi, the games in Beijing were generally accepted by the world’s media as a logistical success.
“The  Olympic Games could not have succeeded without thousands of hard-working foodservice employees behind the scenes,” Zhao says. “However, until now no research has examined the human resources practices. Such an event organization requires a large number and complex mix of specially skilled and competent full-time and short-time employees. [Recruiters and managers] must understand the culture they’re working in.”
Zhao’s interest in the Olympics was sparked when Atlanta hosted the games in 1996. He was a professor at Western Carolina University two hours away, and decided he wanted to be involved. Zhao says his background in strategic management helped him be strategic. He wrote a letter to the director of the Olympics’ food service. Zhao knew him from his days at Indiana University of Pennsylvania where the man was director of Aramark at the university; Zhao worked in the cafeteria while a student.
“When I heard Atlanta was going to host the 1996 Olympics my reaction immediately was one day in the future China is going to host the Olympics. As a strategy, I have to squeeze in there and learn. Maybe one day my motherland will ask, ‘does anyone know anything about this?’ And I will be able to say I can help.”
Aramark gave him shot. He started as a foodservice manager during the 1996 Olympics and he was asked to reprise his role for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. In 2008, his motherland came calling.
While on sabbatical from FIU, Zhao recruited and trained nearly 7,000 temporary employees in China for the Beijing Olympics. Most of those individuals came from universities, including nearly 600 from FIU’s Marriott Tianjin China Program. Zhao says Tianjin students’ English language skills gave them a competitive edge among those being recruited. All who wanted to participate were chosen.
The team in which Zhao worked created 900 menu items – which they rotated in an eight-day-cycle menu – and served 3.5 million meals during both the Olympic and Paralympic games. They received wide acclaim from their customers.
When athletes were surveyed for their opinion of foodservice operation, 93 percent of a sample of 1,800 athletes in the Athletes Village responded “satisfied” or “very satisfied.”
We still don’t how Sochi will rate for its food service, but Zhao says there will be lessons learned that the hospitality industry should note. In the games Zhao has participated in, he has kept every menu and every training manual for future reference and research.
Zhao has learned that critical to success is analyzing the labor pool, contracting the recruitment efforts when possible, selecting a well-trained management team and motivating employees to work hard and safely.
He adds, “Globalization is a major trend in the hospitality industry. More and more global mega-events, such as the Olympic Games and World Expo will take place, and food service will continue to play an integral role in their operation.
“It is time for researchers to uncover insights from these human resource practices and provide helpful hints for the future success of foodservice operations in world events.”