This is a viewpoint from Sam Shank, CEO of HotelTonight.
A few weeks ago, at a dinner with other tech startup execs, the topic of fostering a great team culture came up. Everyone was throwing out big ideas (like HotelTonight’s HT Roulette, where we send a randomly-chosen team member on a totally free, spontaneous trip), but the conversation quickly turned to an idea that’s less splashy but just as impactful: providing free team lunches.
Not everyone saw the benefits so clearly. In particular, a CFO from another company was perplexed. He was obsessing over the cost and whether providing lunch was “worth it.” I got where he was coming from: we’re also laser-focused on our bottom line and thoughtful about how we spend every dollar. But once I shared the impact we’ve seen at HT – from employee retention and recruiting to deeper friendships and better collaboration, he started to come around.
I wanted to expand on one of those benefits: collaboration
Free lunch has become a bit of a cliché in Silicon Valley, table stakes in a startup’s overall benefits package. From the outside, offering a free meal can seem like golden handcuffs – a reason to never leave the office.
That’s definitely not why we’ve chosen to offer lunches at HotelTonight. In fact, we don’t think of them as a “benefit” in the traditional sense. Sure, they’re a great perk. No one hates free food, or saving time and money. But more important is what happens around that lunch table, and as a result of those meals shared.
The HT team works incredibly hard. In fact, they’re the smartest, most dedicated group I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. A few years ago, I observed that because they were so focused on their work, they had trouble dragging themselves away from their desks. I was worried about the team getting isolated and burnt-out. Team lunch is an excuse to break away from your desk, and come together with colleagues over great food (shout-out to our awesome chef, Sandra).
And we’re in the hospitality industry. It’s always been extremely important to me to create a welcoming space at HT HQ – for the team and for anyone who visits. We designed our office to have the best elements of the boutique hotels we partner with, including couches and nooks and communal working spaces.
Our long lunch tables are a big part of nurturing that vibe.
Forging deeper connections -- with our business and our colleagues
The conversations and collaborations I’ve witnessed around those communal tables have been truly inspiring. I see people from different teams – who might not have otherwise had a reason to interact – sitting together and having spirited discussions, on everything from what they did that weekend to where they’ve traveled recently to what they’re working on that week.
I’ve seen people go on life-changing trips inspired by a colleague’s travels, and those from across the company teaming up for hackathons or coming up with innovative solutions to problems they’d been stuck on. I’ve seen friendships develop, teammates sign up to run marathons and people from different teams go on to start their own companies and build amazing things together. I’ve read a lot about how having friends at work improves your quality of life, and I truly believe it, because I’ve seen and experienced it myself.
As just one of many examples, Donnie, on our Strategic Partnerships team, told me:
“In addition to the friendships I’ve developed around the lunch table, a casual lunchtime conversation with some people on our finance team led to a way greater understanding of how we handle taxes, which helped me better negotiate deals. It was like ‘International Tax Law 101’ over a kale salad. I’ve also gotten amazing recommendations for places to hold partner events in markets where people from other departments were from. Hotels would always be beyond impressed with my venue choices, and ask if I was a local.”
One of the greatest joys of traveling is the connections you make, the spontaneous conversations you have with people who’ve had different life experiences than you. And while I’m obviously a big proponent of travel, I believe you don’t always have to go far to have these experiences and build these relationships. Having lunch with colleagues, learning about their backgrounds and inspiring each other leads to amazing things, both personally and professionally. That’s why we’ll always offer team lunches at HotelTonight.
This is a viewpoint from Sam Shank, CEO of HotelTonight. Sam Shank is CEO and Co-Founder of HotelTonight, the leading mobile app for last-minute hotel booking. His favorite lunch is barbecue day.
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