Be Our Guest—Creating an Inclusive, Fun-Filled Family Dining Experience

Imagine that it’s a typical Saturday night, and you and your family head to a local restaurant for dinner. You walk in and there’s a line out the door. You see service staff buzzing around with trays of food, kitchen staff spouting out orders, and dozens of tables squeezed close together. While this sensory-stimulating environment may not interfere with most people’s dining experience, families with loved ones with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may not be able to easily dine out because of the challenging environment restaurants present.

Designed to provide an inclusive, sensory-friendly, and fun night out for people with autism and their families, Hospitality Listens is a free, dining event hosted by the Hospitality Management Program at The Ohio State University, in partnership with OCALI.

Banquet hall of families eating for Hospitality Listens event
Families gather for the Hospitality Listens event at The Ohio State University

“Everyone having the opportunity to fully engage in their community is at the heart of OCALI’s mission,” shares Shawn Henry, Executive Director at OCALI. “For that to be accomplished, the knowledge for the hospitality industry to meet the needs of all community members is important and that is why this partnership aligns so well with our mission.”

Hosted on October 27, 2019, this student-planned and executed event offers students in the Hospitality Management Program at The Ohio State University an opportunity to experience and learn first-hand with real-time feedback from families about their needs from the hospitality industry. In addition to the meal, the event offers a variety of activities with a group of trained student volunteers to support individuals as they play.

“Hospitality Listens is a wonderful educational experience designed to create awareness, inclusivity and hospitality through education and empathy,” explains Anne Turpin, Leader of Hospitality Partnerships at The Ohio State University. “In the last six years since our first event, we have built upon awareness about autism and inclusivity, and provided a platform for a new way of thinking about hospitality when looking at it through an all-inclusive, diverse lens.”  

OCALI has partnered with the Hospitality Management Program since the beginning to support and grow awareness about the event. In 2017, OCALI’s online learning tool, ASD Strategies in Action, was included as part of the coursework for students in the Hospitality Management Program. The Ohio State University and OCALI continue to explore opportunities to expand efforts to inform, educate, and support hospitality professionals in making Columbus a more inclusive community.

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to see how this event has supported the students in increasing their awareness and understanding of autism and family needs,” shares Jen Bavry, Program Director for the Family and Community Outreach Center at OCALI. “I see the passion that these students have to create an inclusive community and deliver genuine hospitality. It is even more exciting to see how this experience and increase in awareness spills over into other aspects of their lives.”

Students and planning staff hope that events like this will bring a deeper understanding of the importance of customer service. Creating an inclusive community starts with getting to know customers and their needs and it is an important element that should be integrated into the hospitality industry’s culture.

“Working on Hospitality Listens for the past two years has been a highlight of my time at Ohio State,” shares one student. “Hospitality Listens has challenged my perceptions and ultimately changed them for the better. I will be taking what I learned from this event into my future career and hope to teach others along the way.” 


Hospitality Listens is an amazing opportunity for families who have children on the autism spectrum to come together and enjoy a no-pressure, no-judgement, and unconditional acceptance night of dining and activities.” 

“The event was wonderful. The comfort of not having a lot of overhead noise, the lights being dimmed, and the speakers giving short informative speeches. The area for the children to play and the basket of toys to keep them occupied at the table were perfect. I tip my hat to all who were involved. A job well done!”

“Seeing this knowledge being spread through the community and seeing all the Hospitality Listens families really soaking in the experience and being comfortable has made an enormous impact on my life and what I hope to do in my future career.”

“The Hospitality Listens event was a wonderful experience. We felt welcomed and appreciated. It was nice to go somewhere and not worry about being stared at because of my son’s unpredictable behavior. The games and activities were geared toward a wide age range and gave all the children options. Thanks for your ongoing support and for hosting such a fun event.”

“About an hour before the event, one of my sons started having a hard time and didn’t want to go saying, ‘I don’t like going places I’ve never been before!’ I told him I thought I could help and opened up the social story [provided by Hospitality Listens]. I showed him the pictures and walked him through the event. When we came to the end of the story, he said, ‘Okay! Let’s go.’ We went and he had a great time.”

To learn more about this event, visit