As the new year gets underway, HT reaches out to its advisory board as a litmus test to where the hospitality industry is heading. We ask this illustrious group of hotel and restaurant technology executives to offer candid takes on IT from strategy to goals and innovation that is going beyond buzz-factor. What we can learn from this year’s pool of responses is that restaurants and hotels are hyper-focused on empowering guests. A key takeaway from many of these executives is that technology must be leveraged to allow guests to choose their experience. Whether that is through a mobile device, voice-enabled technology, or self-driving car, tech execs realize that a successful IT strategy is one that is flexible enough to give guests the digital or analog experience they desire at any given time.
Fittingly, there is no shortage of “chatter” around the possibilities for voice tech. However, Corey Kline, VP of IT for Noodles & Co., offered a slightly “quieter” perspective, saying, “Technology will play a large role in the next phase of this evolution, but the main characteristic that is guiding our efforts is silence. We want to require as little actual guest interaction with the technology as possible — what the guest should experience is simply convenience.”
R.P. Rama agrees, saying, “guest-facing technologies that work well and seamlessly will be a focus in 2018.”
What are your top strategic IT goals for 2018?
BARBER: Dunkin’ Brands (www.dunkinbrands.com) is focusing on technologies critical to optimizing guest experience and differentiating digital presence. Each year we continue to prepare for the future of truly omni-channel interactions that customers expect when they interact with our brand, including continued improvements to the mobile app experience. The implementation of ordering through integrations with Waze and GM in 2017 were all focused on the guest’s daily routine and making their Dunkin’ Run as seamless as possible.
BROOKS: Tumbleweed Southwest Grill’s (http://tumbleweedrestaurants.com) top project for 2018 is mobile guest interaction. This project is underway with the TableTop App. It will allow guests to speak to our staff while in the restaurant through their smartphones. They will be able to pay on their phone, ask for service or a manager, take a short survey, or place online orders.
GARAVUSO: There are a few key 2018 IT priorities for Diamond Resorts (www.diamondresorts.com). Through a process of real-time feedback gathered from members, we develop enhanced function of the member’s area of our website. We will deliver significantly faster availability searches for consolidation of all the various accommodation types into a unified display of availability. Mobilization continues to be a strong focus with utilizing mobile devices to enhance housekeeping/resort operations, eliminate manual processes around the new customer acquisition process and enrich sales operations.
GARRIDO: Thayer Lodging (www.thayerlodging.com) will be implementing a multi-discipline SharePoint site which will become the hub of internal communications and moving storage to this platform as well. We are examining available in-room entertainment options and considering how to bring more “home” like features to the guestroom.
HASSEL: Momofuku (https://momofuku.com) is looking to explore online ordering and delivery. Our guests are ordering in or pre-ordering for pick up to fit their mobile lifestyles. Services like UberEats, Amazon Restaurants and others are promising to raise the stakes in the delivery arena. We need to be ready.
LUCIA: Fireman Hospitality Group (www.thefiremangroup.com) will be rolling out a new takeout and delivery program. Our call center is in the corporate office, answers phones and takes orders for the restaurant, and we needed a central program that the agents can enter orders into for all locations that also interfaces with POS. We will also be upgrading our WiFi system and increasing the bandwidth that goes with it. Everyone expects strong, stable WiFi, so we need to be able to deliver that to guests.
PEARSON: A trifecta of mobility — customer engagement/ordering/payment — are all hot topics for Stacked (www.stacked.com). We’re looking to leverage some existing infrastructure while enabling customer-owned devices as a hardware platform.
KLINE: Noodles (www.noodles.com) will have an intense focus on continuing to streamline the experience for guests – from ordering to payments to pick-up. In 2017 we spent a great amount of our resources making infrastructure upgrades to facilitate these incipient experiential changes.
TENCZAR: Last year Sonny’s BBQ (www.sonnysbbq.com) installed a restaurant technology platform across a substantial portion of our stores. This year we’ll finish them and put in the platforms to make sense of all this new data. We are working with a BI consulting firm to take advantage of the newest cloud data technology so we don’t have to create a huge data warehouse.
What emerging tech do you think has “legs?”
GARAVUSO: We are very interested in cognitive systems and use of appended data sets to enhance our CRM. In particular, we want to explore deeper customer insights through their declared, observed, and inferred data points and interactions by using new big data technologies to identify hidden patterns and inferences through analysis of unstructured data elements. We believe we can enhance service by true and actionable 1:1 personalization. In addition, we can use the new data points to reduce our direct marketing costs.
HASSEL: With the push for increases in the minimum wage, operators are looking for ways to offset costs. Kiosks and self-service innovation will be key. I think we will see more concepts where service staff will be reduced to one or two people responsible for maintaining automated cooking equipment.
LUCIA: I think the emergence of specialized apps in our industry could be huge. Everyone wants to do everything from a smartphone/device these days. If your company has an app where a guest can make a reservation, order takeout and delivery, pay their check when they dine and leave reviews via Yelp etc., this will create great customer engagement and repeat guests via the use of social media and other outreach areas. Dunkin’ Donuts, Uber and Pandora (to name a few) have “trained” me to use their apps on a regular basis. Why can’t we do the same for our guests?
PEARSON: Mobile pay has the opportunity to offset a ton of hardware and security-related costs for our industry. By leveraging beacons or other location-based tools in concert with mobile pay, we will not only give the guest a more seamless experience, but reduce table time and increase staff efficiency.
RAMA: I found a company that has patented a technology for floor sensors that will detect the presence of guests and adjust lighting and HVAC to save energy. The same technology may be used for security and safety, indicating when people are in areas where they are not supposed to be or need to be rescued.
TENCZAR: I am not fully committed to cryptocurrency just yet, but it will most likely play an integral part in the future of commerce in the coming years. I have seen Bitcoin ATMs that convert your BC key into U.S. dollars. A lot of work will have to take place to channel this digital currency into payment transactions at the merchant. Another disruptive tech that few people seem to be considering in the restaurant space is autonomous driving. Imagine getting into your self-driving car and saying, “take me home…and, by the way, I am hungry.” BMW recently integrated with online ordering for a couple of test restaurants, but it is still pretty clunky. There needs to be a link between POS systems and cars that will expose locations, menu items, payments, and all the rest so the native brain of the car can consider options on the driver’s route.
Where do you think technology has been under-served?
BROOKS: Mobile ordering and payment should be ubiquitous, but in most of the country it is only available at a fraction of restaurants. It should be the norm to order or pre-order your meal online.
DICKERSBACH: In general, hospitality is behind in innovation, but the largest area representative of that is the property management system. The amount of time people have to wait to get checked in and/or receive a room key is simply out of alignment with this day and age. One reason for the stagnation is how hotels are structured. With multiple layers between owners, operators, and brands, not everyone is on board to invest in technology, nor can I blame them. Why invest in technology if I have a relatively short hold on an asset? On the flip side, if bad WiFi is resulting in dissatisfied guests, then you really have no choice but to correct the issue.
HOPCROFT: Our solution partners have lagged in adopting — let alone driving — enhanced mobile functionality. Guests and our associates alike, across all generations and demographics, are accustomed to using robust and engaging mobile apps. However, our partners continue to publish outmoded solutions that have limited functionality or cumbersome and difficult user experiences.
PEARSON: Legacy POS systems have been very slow to adapt solutions to meet the changing needs of the industry. APIs have come along too slowly, and frequently don’t have all of the necessary endpoints to shift the POS from a mini-ERP to the transactional engine we all need. No POS has all of the tools necessary to serve our guests the way the organization desires, and due to the incomplete, or absent, APIs we don’t have the flexibility to add new solutions without wholesale change.
RAMA: Revenue management is one of the most important areas that has not had enough done in terms of automation. Current technologies require a great deal of input from staff or on property systems to do projections or predictions.
How will your brand create digital experiences to align with today’s e-commerce culture?
BARBER: With the launch of On The Go Ordering, Dunkin’ took a big step forward building our digital future and unlocking an incredible amount of new ways for our guests to engage with the brand. Guests can now order in the app, through Waze or right from their GM connected car. There’s more work to do in the QSR world to get the complete experience for the customer and in 2018 we’ll continue to look for the best ways to make your Dunkin’ Run as seamless as possible. A good example of that is the dedicated mobile ordering lane in our prototype store that allows drivers to bypass the ordering kiosk and merge directly into line for the pick-up window, where they give their name and receive their order.
STARMER: Hospitality technologists and operators have an opportunity — really more of an obligation — to embed technology deeper into the entire guest journey. Our challenge is to meld varied expectations into the guest journey with a simple, intuitive user experience that continues to reduce friction and doesn’t cause increased guest frustration. Fast bandwidth, a voice assistant that’s fluent in guest needs, and using a streaming service intuitively on a SmartTV has to be a reflex that requires little thought.
What challenges face your segment of the industry?
BROOKS: Credit card security laws have been an expensive challenge that changes every couple of years. If laws could stay consistent for five to 10 years it would save on development time and cost less. Overall, technology is keeping up with these changes once they occur, but if they are passed and take effect in six months or less there can be a lag for vendors.
GARRIDO: We have more devices per guest coming into our hotels trying to get onto networks that were not designed to handle that volume of devices. The biggest challenge is how we upgrade-proof our networks so that we don’t have to completely re-haul every couple of years, which is tough to get capital approval for. Connectivity and device coverage in hotels are essential. There are technologies out there to solve this, but they are not at a price point that make them easily deployed to most hotels.
HOPCROFT: As the pace of change increases, solution providers, customers and consumers all face the challenge of knowing when to put a stake in the ground and purchase solutions for existing business needs. Compounding this issue is the demand for technology solutions for both existing and new operational needs. That demand can radically and unexpectedly alter solution requirements. There simply isn’t the available funding to makes instantaneous changes to existing technology solutions.
LUCIA: Increased costs, whether from labor with the minimum wage rising or other static fees are eating into costs and aren’t leaving much for profit. As technologists, we have to start getting creative to see where we can help operations save money and increase sales. Self-service ordering, whether it be kiosks in QSR or order-at-the-table devices, could cut back on the number of servers needed and also have pay-at-the-table built in so guests don’t have to wait for checks, which would help table turn time and create incremental sales. Using real-time metrics to analyze sales, labor, and inventory could help to home in and make changes “on the fly” instead of after the fact.
PEARSON: Labor is going to be the #1 pressure in the next three to five years. We’re seeing such a dramatic percentage increase that only the strongest brands will survive. There is already a growing distinction between brands viewed as fuel and brands viewed as experience. If you are a fuel brand, it’s all a commodity, and you’re likely looking at trading labor for kiosks or other direct guest-facing technology. If you’re an experience brand, you’re having to raise prices to pay for the labor, and you must be vastly superior in execution and offerings to remain viable.
KLINE: The channels through which guests can engage with any brand are expanding with a velocity that is unprecedented. The challenge is to use technology to maintain a single experience for the operators within the restaurants, which they can continue to enhance while allowing the choice and variety for the guest that supports evolving preferences.
RAMA: Data security remains a concern. Until properties, brands and franchise partners move systems to secured cloud, this threat will remain. Staff training and awareness are critical.
STARMER: Although options are growing, there are fewer mature off-the-shelf and SaaS solutions for the hospitality industry than in other verticals. That situation imposes a choice as to how hospitality technologists balance stabilizing and improving basics and balancing the cuts that result from living on the bleeding edge.
What disruptive tech is impacting your business?
DICKERSBACH: The increasing desire for streaming personal accounts from Netflix to Amazon places a constant demand for the best wireless experience possible. On the commerce end, we need to keep addressing the need to be mobile first, giving consumers the full experience of searching, researching, buying, consuming, and reviewing hotels from a mobile POV.
KLINE: External marketplaces and delivery are challenging restaurants to evolve tech and ops. With respect to technology, the imperatives are integration and partnership with boundaries much different than those traditionally guiding these relationships. We often facilitate integration amongst partners, sharing ownership of platforms and assets, while needing to maintain the identity of our brand and competitive advantage.
TENCZAR: Delivery marketplaces were the biggest disruptor in 2017 and are not slowing down. It seems crazy that we are willing to pay a huge percentage of a sale for the privilege of selling our food through a transportation company or an online book seller. Oh, and these guys (gals?) are pushing back on integrating with our POS systems, because they like handing out tablets and making us re-enter everything. A few online ordering companies have begun linkages to POS, but I’m not sure we’re there yet.
AI in Charge: Voice Takes Control
HT’s advisory board weighs in on the buzz, benefits and concerns surrounding artificial intelligence and voice technologies.
“The guestroom Alexa is one thing, but ultimately I would expect that our phones or mobile devices will run the AI of our choice (much like we use our preferred web browser) and will become the interface to the hotel room of the future. I imagine a room that communicates with our personal AI and handles whatever we need, from communicating with the hotel’s chatbots for room service, or streaming favorite shows directly to the TV with voice inputs.”
– Mike Dickersbach
“Voice-activated control systems (or assistants) have the most promise and yet are lumbered with privacy and general security concerns, poor implementations, and a lack of useful integrations. Setting aside the privacy and security concerns for a moment — which I think we could mitigate by using a trusted device, like the guest’s own mobile — the integrations do not yet exist that would make it useful in a hotel environment. At some point in the future, your mobile should connect to the hotel’s private AI, query it for a list of available control skills, and load it into your personal voice assistant package. This would allow you to communicate with your guestroom regardless of where you are such that, at bedtime, you could say in German “schließe bitte die Vorhänge” in your hotel room in Barcelona and the curtains would close. All that without worrying about the NSA or Russian hackers. Sadly, we will probably have flying Teslas before that happens.”
– Simon Eng
“AI has real potential. I don’t think it can take the place of people providing face-to-face services, but can help in automating some of the more mundane requests from guests during and even pre-stay.”
– Brian Garavuso
“Voice activation very quickly ballooned from a novelty to a norm in our homes and our regular lives with the adoption of Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home platforms, all after the success of Apple’s Siri. It affords a powerful and yet comfortable channel for engaging guests in new ways, providing more and better services to them and simplifying service delivery workflows to reduce overhead.”
– Ted Hopcroft
“Augmented intelligence (AI) — syntax I prefer over ‘artificial’ — and machine learning (ML) will be integral to shaping the guest and employee experience. Some of the early movers in this space are deploying chatbots to answer guest questions and make the brand accessible wherever and whenever customers want to engage in a dialogue. As AI/ML matures, it will find broader uses such as smart pricing, hotel distribution management and shaping marketers’ interactions with guests. Voice technology is rapidly gaining traction and has the capability to dramatically increase guest engagement and the amount of data available with which to build insights.”
– David Starmer