In our regular Shiji Buzz conversations, we explore various hot topics in hospitality technology with a panel of diverse experts from across the industry. Below we share highlights from a recent episode on the changes in F&B post-COVID.
With travel steadily resuming its pre-pandemic pace and life going back to normal, we took the opportunity for the latest Shiji Buzz to discuss the recovery of F&B post-COVID with different industry leaders. In this panel, four hoteliers share their perspectives on how technology is impacting recovery, in particular contactless solutions, and the effects of the COVID pandemic on the course of the F&B industry evolution. Our panelists are Ravi Singh, founder of seafood restaurant chain Kickin’Inn Australia; Jonathan Reinfelds, Field Services Technology Director at Hyatt APAC; Mark Rademaker, Global Head of Hospitality at Adyen, a leading payment provider for F&B and hospitality in e-commerce and in-store payments; and James Montague, Senior Director of Integrations & Security at Shiji Group for payments in global markets.
Here are highlights from the conversation. Let’s jump in.
“It’s hard to consume seafood as takeaway or on the run, so we created a culture of taking the restaurant’s vibe and experience to customers’ homes. When we were closed, we invented the takeaway series based on our own internal resources and delivered to 22,500 homes every month, so it really kept our business going.” — Ravi Singh, Founder Kickin’Inn
The situation during COVID and restaurants’ coping strategies
Ravi begins by sharing how the Australian industry, just like most of the world, went through turbulent times but has mostly recovered. Sharing about the situation at Kickin’Inn specifically, he says, “It’s hard to consume seafood as takeaway or on the run, so we created a culture of taking the restaurant’s vibe and experience to customers’ homes. When we were closed, we invented the takeaway series based on our own internal resources and delivered to 22,500 homes every month, so it really kept our business going.”
For F&B post-COVID, however, behaviors changed. Ravi’s strategy was to keep customers engaged and informed about what was happening in the business by reaching out to them online and having collaborative conversations that culminated in the introduction of menus based on customers’ ideas. “Sales went up 33% compared to last year, and that’s simply due to closer engagement with our customers than ever before”, Ravi points out.
Mark goes on to discuss the need businesses had to pivot and find their footing in e-commerce, with some of them making their very first forays into the area. Due to hygiene or other operational factors, digital menus and digital payments became something of a norm, but he has also observed preferences shifting back to physical menus as the crisis improved, noting that most but not all of the technology adopted is here to stay.
“I think it will be intriguing to see which trends are going to stick around. I believe having what we call omnichannel to service guests is going to stay, and one of the interesting points we found is that it doesn’t mitigate customer service,”
Mark predicts, adding that contactless service and a high-touch experience don’t need to be relinquished, especially when it comes to the luxury segment, where such technologies have the power to add to the degree of control a guest can have over their experience.
James agrees that the industry was forced to adopt new ways to conduct business, and comments on how hoteliers suddenly had new choices available to them: “Customers are now driven to different payment methods based on preference and usage habit, and there’s a high degree of adoption moving from a traditional way of payment with a credit card and terminal to more alternative payment methods.”
How can F&B businesses maintain high-touch service in an increasingly contactless and automated environment?
Ravi believes there is still more work to be done in automation and contactless solutions. Sharing results of tests conducted by his restaurant chain with their 1+ million-a-year customer base, Ravi concludes that contactless technology has been taken to the next level but has also been exaggerated, as it was not adopted widely by the average consumer in Australia. He cites how, after the pandemic subsided, over 89% of their customers preferred to revert back to traditional methods, such as physical menus.
As for the labor shortage, he goes on to say that Australia is struggling just like the rest of the world, and some restaurants have trouble choosing a platform or solution that meets the needs of their business. On top of it, the difficulty to find quality staff makes it imperative for operators to balance the quality of service that comes with customer interaction with the need for operational efficiencies.
Jonathan chimes in, agreeing with Ravi’s observation. As operators or business owners can be approached by a large number of technology providers and other vendors with often competing solutions, the task of choosing vendors to partner with can become daunting. Jonathan offers advice to make the right choice: “During COVID, there was an explosion of service providers approaching businesses with similar solutions. When we look at these competing solutions, the first key factor is the ease of use for the staff and what the learning curve is like. The second factor, which is equally important, is the security of the platform as we want to be as safe as possible when dealing with payment cards and customer data. A third factor is the flexibility of the solution, especially since many operators cover a wide range of outlets going from grab-and-go to fine dining, and we want to make sure the solution will cover as much of these operations as possible.”
Are F&B businesses in Asia ready for contactless payment integration?
For James, Asia is, to some degree, the pioneer in these methods, with China and Southeast Asia boasting a high volume of QR code-based payments. “The key to making contactless payments work seamlessly is integration, from the point of payment all the way to reconciliation. There’s nothing worse than a cashier’s workstation in a restaurant with four tablets, three terminals, two QR code scanners, and three printers. It’s a messy experience for the guest and a cumbersome one for the cashier. Disparate channels that are not integrated into the back-of-the-house functions when it comes to reconciliation processes also become quite a nightmare.”
Mark echoes James’ opinion that APAC moved quickly on tech adoption and was on the cusp of leading the world in this regard, and also that integration is extremely important. He cautions that having multiple channels can be challenging for businesses, as the increased focus on driving efficiencies heightens the degree to which reconciliation is needed, especially as payment providers may differ for each of the solutions. Additionally, Mark sees cloud solutions as an advantage in future-proofing payments: “The interesting thing about payments is, if we all got together two years from now, I guarantee that a new payment method that none of us have ever heard of will have popped up”, adding that cloud-based solutions allow for routinely future-proofing terminals and e-commerce platforms, an understated benefit as humans tend to see things in a static vacuum.
Ravi agrees but is concerned with bottlenecks that can be caused by substandard integration of contactless payment systems. “Hospitality operations survive on the cash flow of the business, (…) we need to pay suppliers and some accounts turn over very quickly. If we are using any integrations, they have to be adaptable and quick and the money needs to reach our accounts in a timely manner for us to maintain a healthy cash flow”.
Looking ahead at F&B post-COVID
All panelists have the same opinion that cloud-based solutions will be increasingly important. Table pay emerges as one of the most promising features, and each of them exposes a different aspect of its usage, apart from other predictions.
Ravi sees the need to plan for and budget around how to make table pay more efficient, cost-effective, and easy to use. He notices how Millennials and Zennials are going down the app route, and wonders what functions can be added to that ecosystem to make it easier to place and receive orders in the future.
Mark is another fan of the table pay functionality, as he recognizes a real need to streamline operations without reducing customer service. He raises questions on how to make that function better and decrease the time needed to go back and forth to a POS system. Another promising area is queue-busting technology. “There are studies showing that as lines get longer, people start to walk away. And as a business is coming back now, we obviously want to be able to help our clients retain as many customers as possible.”
He also sees the trend of buying online and paying in-store growing in popularity as customers enjoy the flexibility and the gamification experience conferred by an app, while also enjoying the opportunity to physically interact with their purchase.
Jonathan shares that infrastructure should be upgraded with more cloud-based solutions implemented, as COVID made more evident that legacy premise-based infrastructure was becoming too costly and had been suffering too many time delays. He also points out that different regions will have different challenges in terms of what technology is available, as well as regulations, making the way we interact with the guests in each geography different. As for the technology to be used going forward, Jonathan agrees with Mark that the future will see hybrid solutions: “Contactless is here to stay, but we will definitely still have outlets that will want a traditional touch experience.”
James highlights that although the concept of taking pay at a table on a device is not new, we’ve come a long way from just the basic functionality of taking payments, and clients are now looking at how to use it to collect data on the customer, such as getting their email or getting them to enroll in a membership program. In addition, “As people are starting to travel again, and not just because of COVID, they prefer electronic receipts which make expense claims easier. Integration of email capture into table pay is one big demand we are seeing.” James also agrees with Mark that the all-in-one device which bundles payment and ordering into one is the way forward to enhance the experience.