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2017 Innovation Report


Technology is mission critical for all businesses and hospitality is seeing how important innovation strategies are in order to remain competitive in an increasingly crowded field. Hospitality Technology research reveals that the majority of hotels (57%) and restaurants (58%) plan to spend more on technology in 2017. While promising, restaurants and hotels must face the reality that innovation is advancing at a pace of change unlike anything seen before. Tech that impressed a year ago, may already seem antiquated. 

In a Fortune poll of 500 CEOs, keeping up with the rapid pace of technological change was named the “single biggest challenge.” 

HT’s own 2017 Lodging Technology Study found that 46% of hotel companies that identify themselves as innovators name delivering tech projects faster as a top friction point. Meanwhile 38% of innovative restaurants claim the same challenge according to HT’s 2017 Restaurant Technology Study.

HT research reveals that innovative hotel companies named robots (31%), augmented reality/virtual reality (23%), and Artificial Intelligence (AI)/voice-enabled devices (15%) among emerging technologies that will have the most impact. AI, virtual reality, biometrics and wearables were all among top choices for innovative restaurants. Here, HT blends insight from its benchmark research and industry leaders to chart the path of innovation and show use cases of “emerging” technologies that are gaining traction with real applications and ROI.

Robots: The Droids Hospitality Is Looking For

Robots, commonplace in manufacturing and the medical field, are becoming more prevalent in hospitality. With the rising cost of labor, restaurants, particularly QSRs are increasingly exploring applications for robotics.

CaliBurger, a global restaurant chain with 44 locations in 14 countries, will soon be deploying a kitchen assistant robot called Flippy, developed by Miso Robotics. Flippy is programmed to do the hot, greasy and repetitive work of a fry cook. It can identify patties on a grill, track them as they cook, flip them and then place them on a bun when they’re done cooking.

One of the main benefits of Flippy will be consistency of cooked patties, says John Miller, CEO, CaliGroup, parent company to CaliBurger, and a major investor in Miso Robotics. Another very important benefit will be safety.

“Anytime you can eliminate human hands touching a food product will improve food safety,” he notes. “Future versions of Flippy will have pathogen sensors that will be able to detect the presence of E.coli and other bacteria.”

The restaurant expects production to increase quite a bit in terms of number of burgers cooked per hour simply because a robot can cook faster, more efficiently and more precisely, Miller notes. This will reduce wait times and allow CaliBurger to serve more guests.

Zume Pizza began using the Doughbot: a dough presser that turns any dough ball into the “perfect” pizza crust five times faster than a manually-tossed one. According to Zume Pizza, it improves the quality of crust by pressing it into the optimal baking size and shape.

HMSHost decided to partner with SoftBank Robotics America and put a robot in front of diners with Pepper at the Pyramid Ale Taproom in Oakland International Airport. Pepper assists guests with menu recommendations and helps travelers find their gate, the nearest restrooms, and other HMSHost-operated food and beverage options throughout Oakland Airport by using interactive maps displayed on its screen.

“We’ve received a positive reaction to Pepper,” says HMSHost Vice President of Innovation Jim Schmitz. “Travelers have ordered items based on her suggestions. At Oakland International Airport, Pepper has generated increased foot traffic to the restaurant from travelers who otherwise may have gone straight to their gate.”

Aloft Hotels offers its guests access to Botlr, a relay robot from Savioke, at select properties. Botlr mainly assists in deliveries. If a guest needs towels or toiletries delivered to their room they can send the request from their smart phone and Botlr will bring the requested items immediately, freeing personnel to focus on and respond to more immediate guest needs.

AI/Chatbots: Rise of the Machine Learning

Artificial Intelligence or AI has been around as a term since the 1950s. But today’s AI technology varies greatly in sophistication as noted by Oracle’s Hotel 2025 report. The study cites AI capabilities ranging from automation and reactive machines that can analyze options and select optimal ones, to limited-memory devices (autonomous vehicles), which can use past experiences to shape future decisions.

Chatbots — powered by artificial intelligence — are one way brands are choosing to communicate with increasingly digitally-driven guests.

“We are currently working on an AI platform based on adaptive architecture,” says Michael Innocentin, vice president of e-commerce for FRHI Hotels and Resorts. “The first result of this platform is the AccorHotels bot: Phil Welcome.”

Available through the Facebook mobile app or the Facebook messenger app, Phil acts as a digital concierge with access to information at 6,300 AccorHotels present in 95 countries. It can tell guests if the hotel has a swimming pool, a tennis court or free parking.  

Taco Bell is also experimenting with AI and chatbot technology. The company is in beta testing with TacoBot, a food ordering tool integrated with communications tool Slack. With TacoBot, Slack users can order select menu items from their local Taco Bell without leaving the messaging platform. TacoBot leverages artificial intelligence for group and single ordering through natural language.

Lawrence Kim, director of digital Innovation and on demand for Taco Bell, explains that the integration with a social communications platform is part of Taco Bell’s strategy to make the brand accessible wherever and whenever fans want it.  

ShakeShack partnered with Conversable to release a chatbot on both Facebook Messenger and Twitter Direct Message. The ShackBot will answer guests’ most commonly asked questions and help them find their nearest Shake Shack. Guests will engage with the bot to learn more about the menu, featured items, nutritional information, hours and more.

Phil Crawford, vice president of information technology at Shake Shack, expressed in a statement that the company aims to “deliver the best experience possible, whether that be in line at a Shack or online via our Shack App.”  The company is “excited by continued innovation in the digital space, especially around conversational technology like the ShackBot, and what that means for our guests.”


Voice Command Tech: Giving a Voice to Innovation

As voice command technology, such as Siri, Alexa and Cortana, is integrating itself quickly and easily into consumers’ lives, potential use opportunities are crystalizing for hotels and restaurants. 

According to Oracle’s Hotel 2025 report, a typical hotel guest spends 12 to 15 minutes trying to figure out how to operate or adjust the thermostat, lights, TV controls and other room functions. This is not a hassle-free guest experience. Hoteliers believe that voice-activated solutions could be the answer. In fact, 78% of hotel operators say voice-activated controls for lights, air conditioning, and room devices will be mainstream or in mass adoption by 2025.  

“Despite having issues to overcome, I think voice command technology is exciting from a guest perspective,” says Brian Garavuso, CIO, Diamond Resorts International, naming voice command a tech with the most potential in HT’s recent poll of CIOs for the August issue’s cover story.

Aloft Hotels began deploying iPads in rooms that allow guests to use Siri to adjust temperature and lighting, and Wynn Las Vegas placed Amazon Echo devices in all of its rooms to control different aspects of the room environment.

Jupiter Hotel partnered with Roxy, a speech-enabled in-room device that acts as an always available concierge. Roxy is able to answer most guest questions about the property and can handle requests such ordering toiletries from housekeeping. It can also provide curated recommendations or help with maintenance issues.

“Guests enjoy the convenience of being able to ask questions/requests and get responses immediately,” says Al Munguia, general manager, Jupiter Hotel. “They hate waiting on the phone or walking to the front desk. They want instant access to information.”

Starbucks unveiled a conversational ordering system powered by AI for its mobile app, MyStarbucks Barista. The voice command technology can function as a voice-enabled assistant and as a chatbot. It will allow customers to customize orders the same way they would if they were speaking with a live barista.

Voice command can not only improve customer engagement but operations as well. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit partnered with iOLAP to optimize Alexa for the kitchen and integrate with Smokestack, the company’s proprietary data platform. Now owner/operators can ask Alexa for daily sales metrics, KPI analytics or even when their brisket in the smoker will be finished smoking. It can also perform inventory food analysis, provide food safety reminders, and offer waste management controls.

“Voice smart appliances are the next evolution in fast casual technology,” Laura Rea Dickey, CEO, says. “These tools are completely revolutionizing the kitchen. Speak instead of type is the first truly kitchen friendly tech.” 

Armand Rabinowitz, senior director of strategy and workgroups, Hospitality Technology Next
, believes the most exciting aspect about voice is that it can engage with everyone. 

“We have the potential to increase the volume of engagement and the amount of data and insights our industry can collect to improve experiences,” he says.

But it’s not without its own challenges, Rabinowitz notes. “The first is knowing what to do with it. Then we must consider user learning-curves which are affected by the complexity of language and speech. In our industry, privacy and security is on everyone’s mind so there are many questions about how to enable a powerful voice technology experience without compromising those tenants.”

Biometrics: Becoming Mainstream

Expect to see biometrics become a more prevalent part of hospitality operations, as consumers have become accustomed to the technology. It is now a common security measure to unlock smart devices and HYP3R reports that biometric technology such as face, iris, and fingerprint scanning to verify travelers’ identities and improve the customer experience, is commonplace at international airports, specifically when it comes to speeding up the check-in and security process. 

Facial recognition can empower hotels and restaurants looking to create personalized and individualized guest experiences, especially for VIP guests. 

Sports Haven Bar & Grille offers customers a full service restaurant, a bar and a walk-up concession stand, however, the venue has only one kitchen to service all three areas with two or three cooks and no cashier on staff. For walk-up customers, this can translate into a bit of a wait before they’re able to have their order taken and food made. To help reduce this wait time, Scott Graham, food and beverage director, Sportech, installed a BITE kiosk, which uses facial recognition to recognize regular customers, bring up their usual order and send it to the cooks. 

While customers were initially wary of using the technology, they’ve quickly begun to adapt to it, especially once they were reassured that the kiosk does not store any information other than food orders and the facial features tied to it. It’s not linked to a phone number, an address, an email address or any other personal information, Graham says.

In December 2016, KFC China announced a new smart restaurant that would use facial recognition to recommend what customers should order based on age, gender and even their expression.

Oracle predicts biometrics will soon allow customers to pay simply by touching a biometric reading device or open guestroom doors. French casino and hotel group Groupe Partouche partnered with MeReal Biometrics to give employees fingerprint cards as identity badges removing the hassle of typing account numbers and passwords without compromising on security. The card combines a fingerprint sensor, an acoustic signature and a rechargeable battery on a traditional wallet-sized card. If successful, the cards would also be given to guests. They could use the card to book and pay for a hotel room, bypass the hotel’s check-in, pay for services throughout the property, and use it to access secure areas like gaming rooms, pool, gym, spa or even rental cars.

As with any centralized biometric database, there is a risk that the customer templates of face, iris, and fingerprints will be hacked, HYP3R notes. Companies can implement a decentralized authentication model to solve these issues. For instance, advances such as biometric tokenization are gaining traction and deliver the same experience while reducing risk.

Wearables: Welcome by Brands & Guests 

When Walt Disney Company introduced its MagicBand, it became a frontrunner in the world of hospitality wearable applications. The RFID wearables, allow guests to unlock their Disney Resort hotel rooms, enter theme and water parks, check in at FastPass+ entrances, connect  PhotoPass images to their account, charge food and merchandise to their Disney Resort hotel room, and unlock personalized surprises.

Further functionalities are being reviewed, including: alerting theme park employees that a guest has been waiting too long in line resulting in a coupon or other perk for the guest, improving the experience. Disney could use the tech to analyze guest buying patterns which would then play a key role in improving inventory management and reducing waste.

Carnival Corporation introduced Ocean Medallion, powered by the company’s Ocean Compass digital concierge. Cruisers will be able to pay for food, drinks and merchandise by having their credit card-connected Ocean Medallion in their pocket. Simply approaching the correct room with the right medallion will unlock the door. 

Using a connected mobile app, guests can order food to be delivered wherever they plan to be at a designated time. Servers will know who to deliver the food to because the guest’s photograph will pop up on the server’s tablet when she gets close to the medallion. 

Restaurants are also outfitting staff with the devices. Buffalo Wings & Rings had been using a POS system to track how long it takes for an order to go from the POS to the dinner table, but the restaurant lacked visibility into the timing and performance of tasks on the dining floor. It wanted a solution that would ensure waitstaff checked in with customers within expected time frames, thus improving their table turnover ratio while increasing customer satisfaction.

The company selected Hipaax TaskWatch, an enterprise platform for task management, for a pilot program at one of its restaurants. The TaskWatch notifications, delivered on the Samsung Gear S2 smartwatches, sent real-time notifications when food and drink orders were ready, tables need to be cleaned or seated or a manager needed to greet guests. The system tracked the time involved in these tasks and sent instant notifications, so servers knew what they needed to do and when. By the end of the pilot, waitstaff reduced average table turnover time by five minutes, because of efficient service and faster delivery of the bill. Waiters served an additional 10 tables for every 150 tables seated. The pilot also yielded improved service and waitstaff reported greater tips. 

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