As we go to press, in early June, there are a handful of hopeful signs for our troubled industry after many weeks of lockdown. The consumer confidence index is rising for the first time in two months. The TSA reports that the number of U.S. airline passengers has surpassed 300,000 per day for the first time since March. And some restaurant dining rooms are cautiously reopening, depending on state and local policies, with new protocols to protect employees and guests from the novel coronavirus.
And, of course, technology continues to provide solutions. In New York City, 230 miniature portable UV lamps from the start-up Puro Lighting are being tested on the subway system, killing pathogens including the coronavirus at a cost of $1 million. In Tierra Vierde, Fla., a seafood restaurant is trying out disinfecting technology originally designed for hospitals and doctors’ offices: As guests enter the restaurant, they step onto a mat for eight seconds as UV rays and ozone disinfect their footwear. IntraEdge has launched a contactless self-check temperature kiosk, Janus, for businesses seeking to reopen while ensuring employee and guest safety. And these are just three examples of tech-driven initiatives happening as states and local communities take steps to reopen their economies and hotels and restaurants set their sights on meeting guest expectations.
History teaches us that health crises often inspire rapid evolution in both human habits (a tuberculosis epidemic led to the reduction of expectorating in public and at home, for example) and in technology (indoor toilets were a response to the ways in which overcrowded outhouses spread disease; even front porches, which we now take for granted, were intended to get people out of crowded spaces for fresh air). Here, we take a look at the hospitality industry’s path forward — the major trends and indicators happening right now that may point the way to safe and prosperous operations, including contributions from noted thought leaders in the field.
Restaurant operators and staff are some of the scrappiest folks around, dealing with the day-to-day challenges of fresh inventory, guest service, and rigorous sanitation. But the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent closing of dining rooms this spring brought out a deep resilience as the industry underwent a seismic shift toward pickup and delivery. With some dining rooms reopening and off-prem options expected to remain in high demand, technology is rising to meet guest expectations and operator’s needs as never before.
The New Dining Experience
The guest experience has evolved quickly to embrace contactless encounters and transactions. (Read: “Contactless Transactions Are Having Their Moment”) “From menus to payments, you have to evaluate everything a guest touches,” says Dirk Izzo, President and General Manager of NCR Hospitality, who notes that a recent study by Datassential found that 44%of consumers require contactless payment options as part of a “safer restaurant experience.” While technologies such as tap and pay, mobile wallets, and contactless payments have been around, “Contactless will be table stakes and no longer considered a ‘nice to have,’’’ says Toby Malbec, Managing Director of ConStrata Technology Consulting.
Of course, going contactless is merely the new baseline. Consumers ordering off-prem will quickly evaluate how effective a restaurant’s operations are, from digital ordering and payment to smooth pickup or delivery. Similarly, guests will expect that their food is prepared and bagged safely and kept at an appropriate temperature. When guests return to a restaurant’s reopened dining room, they will expect to see sanitation and safety protocols in action, from staff wearing masks, gloves and other protective gear to regular hand-washing and disinfecting of high-contact surfaces. As many states move toward reopening dining rooms, Denny’s released guidance for its restaurants suggesting that an on-staff “sanitation specialist” be identified to take charge of ongoing cleaning and disinfecting.
When it comes to the health and safety of employees, we can expect restaurant operators to make employee health checks a daily priority, including taking and logging their temperatures when they clock in. Antimicrobial touchscreens, such as those by MetroClick/faytech, can kill pathogens and prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria among guests and employees who use digital signage, kiosks and other screens.
As restaurants cautiously reopen, the biggest visible change will be in the dining room floor plan and structure. We’ll see more space between tables, access to disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer, and perhaps protective barriers between guests and staff. Denny’s guidance provides for rearranged dining rooms to accommodate social distancing, signage to designate which tables are not currently being used, tools such as floor decals and signs to reinforce distancing rules, table guards, and clear barriers at the cash register.
Just as contactless transactions’ time has come, so too will loyalty platforms take a more central role. “Restaurants who have an existing loyalty program will need to lean on their database of customers to try to get them back into their restaurants,” notes Malbec. Opportunities for leveraging loyalty programs, Malbec advises, include promotions, coupons, and frequency discounts, especially when dining room restrictions are lifted. For restaurants that don’t yet have a loyalty program, Malbec urges them to start now. HT’s research has shown that 45% of diners will select a restaurant if they belong to its loyalty program. And while loyalty program mega-success stories such as Starbucks and Chipotle (enrollment increased 50% in recent months) are well known, it’s possible for small- to midsize restaurant brands to launch their own programs efficiently via platforms that are often integrated into a comprehensive ordering system, such as Paytronix. A robust loyalty program can also help a restaurant communicate with its customers in a time of crisis. Izzo points out that, when restaurants closed this spring, “Many operators were challenged with customer communications but didn’t have the appropriate programs or systems in place to contact their loyal guests.” (For more about restaurant communications, see “How Restaurants Should Deliver Their Message.” )
Another restaurant technology whose time has come: predictive analytics powered by artificial intelligence (AI). From analyzing data and determining which menu items are consistently most popular (allowing restaurants to streamline their online menus and their kitchens to prioritize their most in-demand offerings) to predicting staffing and inventory needs by the day or even by the hour, analytics and machine-learning are truly the next frontier. We sure took notice when the analytics company Manthan brought its Restaurant Analytics Solution to more than 400 Pizza Hut Delivery outlets in the U.K., resulting in enhanced efficiency and revenue. We’re also seeing a move toward integrating analytics into integrated restaurant systems, including CFO2’s new sales analytics and PDQ’s AI-powered self-serve kiosk, which delivers ordering data to its customer data management reporting suite.
Hotels Reimagine the Guest Experience
Recent research from the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) found that 70% of U.S. hotel rooms were empty. The strangely good news about that statistic is that earlier this spring the vacancy rate was 80%. Some hotels were not included in the recent study because they have closed temporarily or permanently. But the tentative positive trend toward occupancy is bolstered by research from several travel organizations, including AAA, suggesting that when Americans do feel safe traveling again, they plan to travel domestically, many by car. AAA estimates that 90% of Americans who had summer travel plans for 2020 planned to travel within the U.S.
When guests do return to hotels, they will encounter an array of new technologies and procedures aimed at keeping them and the hotel staff safe. We’re seeing some consensus among major hotel chains about what that new guest experience may look like, including the comprehensive Safe Stay initiative from the AHLA. MGM Resorts has delivered an exceptionally well conceived and communicated plan, a multi-layered set of protocols and procedures designed in conjunction with medical and scientific experts to deter the spread of the virus, that could serve as a template for hotel brands of all sizes as they move forward. A contactless hotel check-in will allow guests to complete the process themselves via mobile app, including processing payments, verifying identify, and receiving a digital room key. For guests who prefer to check in with staff assistance, MGM will provide staff at an appropriate distance and a self-serve key encoder. (Advances in key card technology are meeting hotels’ needs, with RFID Hotel and LAS Hospitality Supply acquiring the license to manufacture an antimicrobial plastic key card.) MGM will take the contactless experience into food and beverage as well, with digital menus available on mobile devices or via QR code, and even “virtual queues” while awaiting a restaurant seating.
Zongqing Zhou, PhD, Professor at the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management of Niagara University, notes that the accelerated use of virtual reality, augmented reality, and robotics will all help deliver a contactless guest experience, and that videoconferencing platforms and events platforms are now familiar to many guests and can be effective in delivering “intangible” guest services such as personal attention from staff.
Guest & Staff Health Tracking
Hotels will likely perform screening and temperature checks on employees and screen them for possible exposure to coronavirus. Guests will likely be asked to self-screen and, if needed, self-quarantine. At present, there is no clear guidance on how a hotel could compel a guest to undergo compulsory screening and quarantine; issues of guest privacy and hotel liability will likely be explored in detail in the coming months. Similarly, hotel staff will be required to wear protective face masks and gloves; guests will likely be strongly encouraged to do so. As with restaurants (noted above), guests can expect hotels to encourage social distancing with signage and, in some cases, clear barriers such as plexiglass.
Hotels will also implement “incident response” procedures for the inevitable occurrence of a guest or employee testing positive for the coronavirus. A comprehensive response will include ensuring medical treatment, sanitizing areas exposed to the virus, and notification of anyone who may have had contact with those affected. (For more on the evolving landscape of incident response and followup, read Contact Tracing 101.)
“Enhanced Loyalty” Programs
Zhou notes that hotels can benefit from offering what he calls “enhanced loyalty” programs at this time, communicating the message to its existing loyalty members that safety procedures are in place, amenities such as masks and hand sanitizer will be provided, and that in the event of any crisis that triggers travel restrictions, the hotel will provide refunds or credits. Zhou points out that now is also an ideal time for hotels to seek new loyalty members as a means of expanding its base of customers who are interested in traveling when it becomes feasible for them.
A Hotel Recovery Dashboard
Combining a near-term to-do list with predictive analytics, a solid virtual dashboard will help hotels navigate through health and safety issues and respond to guest needs and expectations. In May, Knowland launched a free interactive COVID-19 Hotel Recovery Dashboard that allows hoteliers to view and gauge where they stand in the rebound process. Analytics and a proprietary algorithm establish a property’s “recovery curve,” factoring in recent occupancy trends compared with their local market, and deliver 30-, 60-, and 90-day action plans based on where the property stands on the curve. Classifications include Leading, On Track and Delayed. A property that was deemed on track, for example, might be advised to pursue targeted marketing initiatives, while a delayed property might still be addressing contactless check-in, distancing, and employee health tracking.