One of the great things about my role as Director of Pre-Sales at Shiji is that it’s given me the chance to see a wide range of operational styles around the world and many sides of hospitality, both professionally and as a guest. I’ve been struck by the rapid evolution and transformation of how businesses interact with guests in the food and beverage space.
When I first arrived in Munich, where I now live, from Singapore, it was shocking how tech-adverse the F&B guest experience was. Almost all transactions were in cash, if you were lucky, the vendor accepted a German debit card. This was a stark contrast to Singapore, where you could do just about everything with a tap on a smartphone app. Guest interaction really does depend on local customs.
Then COVID-19 hit. Restaurants were desperate for business, and they suddenly began to prefer contactless payments. One day they were cash only, then the next day, Apple Pay was preferred. As I walked around Munich, I saw storefronts with signs in the window that said, “Text us on Whatsapp and we’ll deliver to you!”
A Brief History of Guest Interaction in F&B
Of course, globally, the technological evolution of guest interaction has been happening over a much longer period of time than just the last year-plus of the pandemic. And as illustrated above in my comparison of Germany and Singapore, each country has its own standards and expectations.
Up until very recently in human history, hospitality always meant interacting with another person. All the way back to the time of cavemen, they’d ask a neighbor for a nice mastodon steak.
Fast forward to more recent times and we’ve seen several technological developments that have transformed guest interaction. When ATMs were first introduced, replacing bank tellers, they became many people’s first interaction as a customer with a touchscreen-based computer.
When the US pizza chain Dominos came into power, they enabled guests to order pizza over the phone– a revolutionary change at the time. This concept evolved in the airline industry where kiosks were installed to help customers check in. Today, grocery stores have self-checkout, fast food chains have ordering kiosks.
Even more recently, Uber Eats, and many other delivery services were disrupting the way we ordered food from restaurants.
During the pandemic, businesses around the world were scrambling to figure out how to get their food to people who were no longer able or willing to show up in-person. On the supplier side, this created a gold rush mentality, where new tools could be created to solve this fundamental challenge.
However, in practice, all these new tech solutions can be unwieldy for businesses. Each service might have its own tablet, for instance, and multiple ordering systems make it difficult to manage.
Operationally, this will all need to be consolidated into one system that can handle all orders, whether digital or physical. This will likely be the next evolution of this tech.
What’s so interesting is that in my work I’ve long been showing businesses how open APIs allow technology to connect. This can sometimes seem abstract to businesses who haven’t experienced the pain of managing multiple, incompatible technology tools and services. But the time has come. Businesses are now experiencing this challenge.
Automating Food Prep
While we’re not there yet, food prep could be the next thing to be automated. Royal Caribbean, for instance, has a robot bartender. It’s somewhat of a gimmick, but that’s how these things usually start. This will likely start with beverages: place your order at the bar with a human bartender, they enter the order in their POS, and a robot makes the drink behind the scenes. Of course, it’s easier to automate bartending than the highly complex process of food prep, but we will get there.
Listen to the Sound of My Voice
Interestingly, the current generation of technology seems to be moving to voice, which in some ways feels like a turn back to a more human touch, yet in reality is a major leap forward into the sci-fi age. We feel like we’re speaking with a person, but actually they’re a digital representation of a person, as best as AI can manage.
McDonalds, a brand consistently yet quietly at the forefront of the adoption of many cutting edge F&B tech solutions, recently bought an AI firm. People couldn’t quite understand why, though it’s now clear they were automating their drive-thru. In fact, I’m fairly certain that on my last trip to the US, while at a McDonalds drive-thru, my order was taken by AI.
There are all sorts of opportunities for improved efficiency and guest experience with voice-led AI. Imagine being at a hotel, picking up the phone and speaking Mandarin. On the other end would be an AI that would immediately understand you and be able to extend your checkout or place your room service order.
Where Guest Interaction is Headed
Today, people are simply accustomed to ordering food from their phone. This trend is here to stay, so we need to think about where we’re headed. If we don’t keep up, we risk being left behind.
That said, it’s important to embrace this and all new tech in the way that makes sense for your business. Businesses will always have different kinds of guests. Some will prefer the in-person experience, some will prefer a digital-first experience. The key is understanding your guests’ expectations and how you can best accommodate them.
When Amazon’s Alexas were first introduced, many hotels placed them in their rooms so that guests could use them to order room service, but they quickly received backlash as some guests were concerned about privacy. These hotels were off in their timing of adoption of this tech.
Ultimately, our goal in hospitality hasn’t changed: We need to consider what guests expect and what they feel comfortable with, and use technology to make their experience better and as frictionless as possible.