Digital innovation

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Imagine a couple heading to their favourite hotel for their 10-year anniversary. Not only do they book the weekend getaway on their smartphone, but they use it to check in on the drive into the city. When they arrive, a concierge meets them at the door, greets them by name and hands them room keys. Upon settling in, they check out local attractions on an in-room tablet, make a dinner reservation for the following evening, book an afternoon massage and order a room service feast and a bottle of red wine with the push of a button.

The next evening, the host wishes them a happy anniversary at the door of the upscale hotel restaurant and their favourite drinks are waiting at the table. The server describes the specials, but not the bisque, because he knows they are both allergic to shellfish—that information is saved in a customer database. They make their dessert decision based on the nutritional information on a tablet menu and place the order directly to the kitchen. 

Nothing seems forced or contrived—it’s seamless and it could be the future of hotel restaurants and reservations.

Don Smith, sales manager for POS Canada, says more and more new generation restaurateurs are embracing mobile technology.

“If you had walked into the CRFA Show never having been before … you would think that the whole industry has gone mobile; that tablets and handhelds are the way to go,” says Smith.

Stuart Smith, Micros Western Canada general manager, says hotel foodservice operations were early adopters of mobile ordering. Hotels with large patios or pool space may want to utilize more mobile ordering devices to increase food and beverage sales in those key guest areas.  

“I think that mobility is so much a part of everyone’s thinking these days, I would say that almost everybody is thinking about it in some way, shape or form,” says Dan Schachtler, Micros Eastern Canada general manager.

He suggests pre-ordering and prepaying will be a large trend going forward and as e-wallets and Paypal use become more commonplace, customers will demand they be accepted as payment.

In hotels, Micros Western Canada sales manager Wes Peters says this applies more to restaurants with a large outside client base, noting that many hotel restaurants focus on guests who will want to charge to their room.

“Depending on the hotel, the size, the sprawling facilities, they may have a need in the banquets department to have POS technology in remote, offsite or unique locations,” says Don Smith.

Shannon Arnold, director of marketing for Posera Software, which makes Maitre’D POS, says tableside ordering has been around for quite a while, “But the adoption rate had been quite low until the past year or two.”

This has largely been attributed to the price of hardware coming down.

Arnold sat down with the Posera management team at the end of last year and discussed the state of the POS industry. “We haven’t seen this much movement in the point of sale industry since touch screen solutions were introduced 20 years ago,” says Arnold. “It’s going to be interesting to see where the next 12 to 24 months are going to lead us.”

Maris Berzins, Agilysys vice-president of product engineering for POS, inventory and procurement, workforce management, document management and analysis, says the company sees mobile taking over more and more of the overall POS footprint.

“The whole point being: how do we detach people from this large, bulky sales terminal and allow them to get out in front of the guest or allow a manager to get out on the floor with their staff and de-shackle them from their desks,” says Berzins.

“Many of our hotel customers are luxury or resort destinations—they often have large pool areas or patios, where the guests are spread out. There might be obstacles that keep the wait staff from readily being able to get back to a fixed terminal and, historically, running back and forth with a notepad has led to long delays and customers not getting their food or drink in a timely fashion,” Berzins says. He says Agilsys customers have been using tablets as ordering devices and having runners bring out food and beverage.  

In some cases, he says, properties have seen strong double-digit revenue growth and an increase in tips, covers and staff.

Micros chief technology officer Mike Russo notes POS tablets can also be used as an engagement tools to display the special of the day, for example.

In the 20 years Peter Abel has owned Five Star Hotel Systems—which provides PMS for independent hotels and has more than 400 Canadian customers—he has seen huge changes.

The world wants to travel using the Internet to book, notes Abel. One of the most effective ways for independents to compete against branded properties is by attacking the Internet and getting the most from it, he adds.

He also recommends being aware of what your guests think of you in online satisfaction surveys. “The property management system can be set to e-mail the manager on his smartphone as soon as a guest does a survey and, what’s really cool, is you can then send those feedback comments to the guest testimonials section of your website instantaneously,” says Abel. “When you get some good feedback, off it goes to your website and when you get some bad feedback, you’ve got all the information about the guest in the property management system.”

If you score above 80 per cent on a guest satisfaction survey, the property management system sends a follow up e-mail asking whether the guest would consider reviewing on TripAdvisor.

The online tools have to work on smartphones. “I’ve actually booked hotel rooms sitting in my car in the parking lot of the hotel I’m booking,” says Abel. “If I book it online, I have a sense that I’m going to get the better price.”

He says in order for mobile check in to work, a hotel must have cell phone enabled door locks. “If I walk into a hotel and check myself in on my cell phone, I have to get a key somehow. The only effective way to do that is to use a door lock where the cell phone is actually the key.”

Rehan Jaddi, Agilysys vice-president of property management systems, says PMS technology has four different trends: mobile devices, data integration, social networks and cloud services.  He says data needs to be available everywhere on the property and envisions a future in which housekeepers check off when rooms are clean on a discreet device and are able to see guest preferences stored in the PMS.  

Di Davillas, vice-president of Micros hotel strategies accounts, says mobility encompasses the entire hotel, whether it be in the hands of the guest, in the room for self-service.

“That may well be ordering room service through in-room technology, or that may be ordering additional housekeeping requirements, it might be a pillows menu,” says Davillas.

“We’re seeing more and more resort-style, campus style hotels that are trying to put the ownership back to the guest and allow them to ask for what they need instead of being questioned constantly about what they need,” Davillas says.  

Much of the movement can be attributed to changing demographics and millennials with disposable income. “For them, spending comes with technology,” she says.

While the concept of self-service isn’t new, especially in quick service, tablets and POS systems have recently earned a place at the table at full service establishments.

Russo says he has seen a trend to mobile menus and mobile kiosks in hotel F&B in the forms of wine lists or allowing guests to order wine or appetizers from a tablet menu.

“I would say that the menu in question has to be very simple,” says Don Smith. He adds that customers shouldn’t have to go through more than one level of modifiers.

Airport food and beverage operator OTG is in the process of installing 2,500 iPads at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

OTG is working with the Greater Toronto Airports Authority to roll out about a dozen eateries in waiting areas in terminals one and three.

“We feel like the order-taking experience itself should be replaced with tablets. It gets rid of a lot of the wasted time that we see,” Lee says, noting the order might not get to the kitchen for five minutes if a server is visiting more than one table.

“By giving the consumer the ability to place their order on a tablet and send it directly to the kitchen, that accelerates the time,” says Lee, adding that the actual dining experience is the same.

He says there hasn’t been a problem with people walking off with the iPads—they are kept clean and well maintained, and customers, in turn, treat them with respect.

Co-founder of Toronto startup MenYou Thaves Ponnampalam was inspired by a restaurant experience in Singapore about two years ago. The server punched in the order on a palm pilot and it was sent to the kitchen.  

“That’s when I realized that we’re in a day and age when technology has somewhat evolved in our daily lives. Why not bring that whole experience to the customer themselves,” says Ponnampalam. He says it doesn’t replace the waiter, but enhances the relationship between the serving staff and customers by allowing them to build a rapport rather than be an order taker.

Ponnampalam sees tablets replacing the traditional hotel welcome binder in rooms. Not only can guests order room service without picking up the phone or book an appointment for a spa treatment, but the tablet could be a source of revenue for local advertising.

Russo says many hotels are starting to market their restaurants as destination eateries to the local community, whether offering fine dining or delivery. “Then, of course, [there is] integration with the hotel’s loyalty system, where you don’t necessarily have to be a guest at the hotel to earn points to use at that restaurant,” adds Russo.  

He says the same tablet might run the POS software during peak dining hours and be used at other times for checking in guests.  

Stuart Smith says an enhanced interface allows a lot of information to pass between POS and PMS systems, allowing the guest’s folio to display individual items, and it also gives the hotels better reporting capabilities.

Jaddi says when it comes to POS and PMS integration, basic integration shows a room charge, while rich integration ties in all the data both systems have learned about the customer during their stay: for example, they enjoyed the wine, but didn’t like the fish.

Berzins says rich and broad integration is critical between POS and PMS.

“For the longest time, point of sale was viewed as purely a cost of doing business,” he says. Conversations about establishing guest relationships and creating loyalty are changing the perception of POS as a simple commodity.

“We’re seeing those kinds of conversations drive a lot of the upgrades and here’s the kicker: that nudge is coming from the marketing department of those organizations driving the upgrade cycle,” he says.

Berzins says boutique and luxury clients seem less interested in mobile ordering and guest-facing technology. “To them, the guest experience is what’s most critical and there is still some reluctance to insert a device between them and their guest,” he says.

Don Smith says some restaurant operators are worried tableside ordering will result in losing that personal touch if the main goal is to get the order in and out.

“Some restaurateurs, if the menu is complicated and has a lot of modifiers, they fear [staff] will be punching in [rather] than engaging,” says Smith.

Smith recommends operators consider how POS technology complements their vision of the food, customers and décor: should it be at the table or behind the scenes?

Stuart Smith, Micros Western Canada general manager says, in the past, a fear that a personal connection would be lost led to limited acceptance of table-side tablet ordering.

A server should be making eye contact with the guest, “if you’re looking at your screen then you can’t do that,” he explains.

He credits widespread consumer acceptance of tablets with paving the way for tablet ordering.

Arnold sees benefit to adding self-service to the mix as it increases productivity, but she doesn’t see a fully self-service establishment as a possibility.

“The foodservice industry is about food and service,” she notes.

“The adoption of technology is like a bell curve. There is a bunch of people who are on the bleeding edge, and that is all very exciting.

“These people are paving the way for the rest of the industry—figuring out what’s really going to work and what isn’t,” says Schachtler.

“There are a lot of other proven technologies that aren’t necessarily fully deployed yet,’’ says Schachtler, pointing to kitchen display systems, which present to each station what they need to prepare on a screen.  

“It has a lot of advantages. It improves kitchen operations at one end of the spectrum and saves you paper at the other,” he adds, noting he is surprised at how few restaurants take advantage of this technology.   

Don Smith says kitchen video has been in quick service for some time, but more sophisticated versions are only recently gaining ground in full service operations.

The systems time the meals so dishes come to the pass at the same time, they calculate how many you have all day and can alert the expeditor what station is getting slammed.

He says he hasn’t seen many hotel restaurants install a system.

“Hotel restaurants [typically] don’t have the volume that the early adopters of kitchen video in table service have,” says Smith.