Robert A. Beck, the pioneering second dean of Cornell Universitys School of Hotel Administration who helped accelerate front desk guest arrivals and check-outs worldwide, urged the industry into a customer service bent, and became a proponent of computerized reservation and billing systems, died of complications from a stroke July 31 at his residence in Redding, Conn. He was 91.
Beck joined the Cornell faculty in 1954 and led the hotel school as dean from 1961 to 1981, when he concurrently helped to bring the hotel industry out of the ledger era into the age of computers. He envisioned technology to revolutionize and enhance the hotel guest’s customer experience.
In 1962, Beck established a Cornell research committee and advisory council. The group studied how punch card and key tape technologies could be used to create centralized data processing systems for hotels.
Beck pushed for efficiency when Cornell partnered with technology giant IBM to list hotel functions, such as guest registration, that computers could perform better and more efficiently than the ledger systems. Two years later, the National Cash Register Corp. upgraded Cornell’s Statler Inn (later to be rebuilt as the Statler Hotel) with the latest mainframe computer so that the school could develop an online accounting package for hotels – a package that was eventually perfected and marketed to the industry.
After commissioning a major study of the registration and billing process – dubbed “Operation Breakthrough” – Beck budgeted funding so his faculty could start working with the first set of microcomputers in the 1970s. The faculty began developing new hotel billing and accounting systems, and when the Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly (now called Cornell Hospitality Quarterly) published the research, the hospitality industry took notice, snatching up 9,500 copies of the publication.
With the improvement of air travel in the 1960s, there was a new international interest in American-style hospitality, as hotels outside of the U.S. wanted to cater to the wave of new American tourists. From the beginning of his tenure, Beck was globally minded and developed a series of educational seminars on every continent except Antarctica. He eventually established and oversaw Cornell programs in Puerto Rico and France.
Beck succeeded H.B. Meek, the hotel school’s founding dean, who had been in place for 39 years. Upon Meek’s retirement, Cornell President Deane W. Malott offered Beck the job. Beck explained: “One February day I got a call from [Malott], so I went over, and he said he would like me to be dean. I said I liked things the way they were, and was there any possibility that Meek’s tenure could be extended?”
Robert Alfred Beck was born on Nov. 1, 1920 in Boston, Mass. He grew up in Milton, Mass., and he spent many summers in Cape Cod, Mass., where a teenaged Beck first met Meek. He earned his bachelor’s degree (hotel administration) from Cornell in 1942, and then enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, he returned to Cornell to earn his master’s degree in 1952, and then his doctorate in 1954.
In World War II, he served as a First Lieutenant in a field artillery unit from 1942-45. He landed at Utah Beach at 5:20 a.m. during the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. He made it through the first day of combat unscathed, but a week later in fighting, he lost his leg. He received the Purple Heart, a European Theater Ribbon and the Bronze Arrowhead.
Beck was predeceased by his wife Mary (Jan) Murray Beck in 1999. He is survived by his daughters Susan Warner, Janyce Beck (Cornell ’70), Robin MacRae; and seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
About the Cornell School of Hotel Administration
The Cornell University School of Hotel Administration is shaping the global knowledge base for hospitality management through leadership in education, research and industry advancement. The school provides management instruction in the full range of hospitality disciplines, educating the next generation of leaders in the world's largest industry. Founded in 1922 as the nation's first collegiate course of study in hospitality management, the Cornell School of Hotel Administration is recognized as the world leader in its field. For more information, visit www.hotelschool.cornell.edu.
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