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One Class, One Day: Planet Hollywood Comes to BU

Robert Earl among luminaries in SHA lecture series


Buca di Beppo catered dinner for School of Hospitality Administration students after a lecture by company owner Robert Earl. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

Founding partners Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis were not in tow, but Planet Hollywood impresario Robert Earl didn’t need any help in the showmanship arena. Standing before 90 School of Hospitality Administration students during a recent class, the pinstriped restaurateur dropped names, confessed goofs, cracked jokes, and spilled confidences—all to “excite you about the industry I’ve been in for 40 years.”

He explained his aversion to owning gourmet eateries (Earl also cofounded or co-owns the Earl of Sandwich and Buca di Beppo chains): “I’ve always been in mass catering. I hate opening a beautiful little restaurant where you’re hoping and praying for the phone to ring.” He rued selling stock in Planet Hollywood, which brought an overvaluing followed by a tanking—“I took that company from zero all the way to three-and-a-half billion and all the way back down again”—before recovering. He stressed principles he’s learned: public relations beats advertising for cost-effectiveness; don’t oversplurge on décor; include seasoned veterans in your hires; and for God’s sake, don’t overprice your product.

A half dozen times, he signaled when a scribe covering his talk couldn’t publish sensitive information. “That you can’t write ’cause I’ll lose a court case,” he said at one point. (“I’ve had lots of court cases,” he told students.) Capping the day, the 20-plus seniors in the class were treated to a separate, smaller discussion after the lecture, dining with Earl on chicken picante, pasta, cannoli, and tiramisu, courtesy of his Buca chain.

Hotel, restaurant, and event planning luminaries appear throughout the syllabus for HF 103, otherwise known as Distinguished Hospitality Management Lecturers. For more than 15 years, the course has hosted hospitality hotshots on campus to dish out their accumulated acumen to students. This semester’s speakers include Ed Fuller (SMG’68), president and managing director of Marriott International and author of the just-published You Can’t Lead with Your Feet on the Desk; Marc Bruno, president of ARAMARK Stadiums and Arenas, which provides food and beverage services to the Olympic Games and other venues; and Robb Webb, chief human resources officer for Hyatt.

SHA Dean Christopher Muller—who had to sit on the floor during Earl’s packed lecture—says the British entrepreneur’s appearance underscored the course’s value, with its “access to a man who’s arguably one of the most well-known industry icons, showing them that he’s not only human, but that this is doable. This is a man who, as he said, 40 years ago was no different than they are today.”

Muller, who has run numerous eateries and founded the University of Central Florida’s Center for Multi-Unit Restaurant Management, was himself a guest lecturer in the course in 1994. His long career in the hospitality industry allows him to draw on years of friendships and acquaintances to fill out the syllabus. Longtime friends, Muller testified in a legal case in which Earl successfully argued that Planet Hollywood was not stealing its business idea from Hard Rock Café, which Earl had formerly helmed. (“They didn’t even use the same brownies,” Muller says.)

The series also includes alumni lecturers whose BU experience provides a special bond with students, says Michael Oshins, an associate professor who once ran the course. This year, those include Manny Costa (CAS’74), president of Costa Fruit & Produce, a leader in New England’s environmental and sustainable agriculture movement, and George Poll (SHA’84), owner of Poll Hospitality Group, which operates such eateries as GW in Roslyn, N.Y.

For Earl, who hadn’t addressed a university class in at least five years, the SHA talk followed a convergence of circumstances: his son has applied to BU, Buca has committed itself to the Boston market, with four local restaurants, and he knows Muller. The lecture also afforded mutual networking between the students and Earl, who gave several his personal email address. “For sure, I was trying to convey the message that we’re a young, energetic company that’s looking for college graduates,” he said after his talk, amid a stream of appreciative students. “That was really awesome,” one woman said.

“Yeah, yeah, such schmoozers,” he replied jovially.

In fact, talks like Earl’s are valuable, said Maggie Wang (SHA’11). “It’s always interesting to look at different people and how they got their way into the industry. There’s always passion you can see in them, and that’s the most important thing you want to see.”

Befitting a hospitality master, Earl handed out parting gifts to his hosts: black T-shirts with Planet Hollywood’s logo above BU’s name. He requested a favor in return. “Can I ask you something?” he said to the seniors at the end of his smaller talk. “OK guys, should I send my son here?”

“Yes,” came an enthusiastic chorus of responses.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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