How Technology Will Help in the Recovery of the Hospitality Sector

Bethan Vincent

This guest post by Paul Whiting is part of our series exploring key sector challenges and technology solutions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paul is a multi-awarding-winning campaign marketer who has spent over a decade promoting some of the most well-loved brands in the leisure, hospitality and tourism sector. With deep expertise in blending together digital and traditional channels, Paul has helped create compelling, far-reaching and impactful experiences that drive commercial success.

We are living in unprecedented times…

Yes, we’ve all read this statement many times before but this doesn’t make it any less true. The global pandemic has changed nearly every part of our lives; from the more mundane but ever-so-important aspects of life including how we do our shopping via enhanced ‘click and collect’ or home delivery options, to how we entertain ourselves and socialise with our friends with regular ‘Zoom’ or ‘House Party’ nights (and who doesn’t love a quiz!).  

All of this has been achieved through technology and the road to recovery can and will be eased through the use of innovative applications that allow businesses to connect with, and manage the logistics and flow, of customers. 

The New Normal

Let’s start by looking at how brands have already seen a shift in customer engagement. The grocery market is a good example of this, as it has seen a shift away from engagement in physical stores to online. Consumers have taken advantage of the opportunity to complete their shopping online and have their goods delivered to their door, ensuring that they do not have to enter a store. This change in behaviour has, according to GlobalData, seen a 25% growth, and over 10% of total sales are now online, up from around 7%. 

This may not look significant but when you consider the size of the total market this rise is substantial.

I know what you are thinking – “online shopping isn’t anything new” – and you would be right, but the pandemic and the lockdown has changed the very nature of how we shop online. Where once it was a convenient method of purchasing products and services it has now become a fundamental extension of how we can access information, services and products. Yes, this activity is due to the lockdown but this forced engagement has meant that many consumers, those who may have only been comfortable purchasing a few things online from a limited number of sites have now educated themselves more on the opportunities online, and as such have become more confident with online shopping. 

This newly-savvy audience is now more confident than ever to engage with brands online, and it is this opportunity that leisure and hospitality businesses can use to their advantage to come out of this crisis with a stronger relationship and indeed, an improved and efficient workflow. 

Overcoming Those Challenges

Whatever happens over the coming weeks and months, as we leave lockdown, social distancing will be an integral part of our day-to-day lives. Which, for an industry that is built on social interaction, is a difficult issue to overcome. Difficult but not impossible.

I can see three distinct challenges to this:

  • The ability to manage capacity and the flow of customers through a venue 
  • The amount of direct face-to-face engagement between staff and customers 
  • Building consumer confidence (peace of mind)

How do we overcome these challenges then? The answer is already out there, but we need to change our perspective a little.

How a Stag Do Experience Can Help…

Please, bear with me on this; last year a good friend from school was getting married and decided to have his Stag Do in Chester. For me, any trip always feels a little like a ‘bus man’s holiday’ especially when you are visiting a beautiful heritage city, one with encircling walls that were first settled by Romans (I have lived and worked in York for 15 years). However, like the majority of trips like this, we didn’t see much of the architecture, unless it was bar-shaped and this is where our story gets back on point.

The first morning, after the night before, we were all sitting at breakfast at a J D Wetherspoons’ (of course) and whilst perusing the laminated menu and discussing the dignified evening we’d all spent sampling continental beers I noticed that one of the group was not fumbling around with his menu to order at the bar they were already ordering their food via an App. I quizzed him on this if only to distract me from a mild-to-medium pain I had at the back of my head, asking how often he used it and why even bother having an App when all you have to do is get up off your chair and totter over to the bar – his answer made total sense.

“I’m out on the road a lot with work and as there are pubs across the country I tend to visit regularly. Having the App means that when I enter a pub I can just sit down, order my food and drinks and just sit back and relax. No messing about queuing, no shouting over other customers at the bar, no waiting around.”

He was right. In the same time, it took me to make a decision from the slightly sticky menu, then get up, go to the bar, get served and sit down again, my friend’s food and drink (orange juice, it was 9 am) had been brought to the table by the server.

Again, this isn’t anything brand new but it gives us a roadmap to evolve this concept and help beat the three challenges.

By using an application, like the Wetherspoons’ App, hospitality businesses can significantly reduce the face-to-face engagement between staff and customers without creating any animosity or reducing the levels of customer service. The food that my friend ordered on the App came quickly, the order was 100% correct and the server pleasant and attentive. For the pub, the customer ordering via the App meant that the bar staff could focus on other customers or cleaning duties and the flow of orders into the kitchen could be managed easier, through the system. From either side, the transaction was frictionless and resulted in a satisfied customer and even some new converts to the App.

It is this blueprint that could be used for all leisure and hospitality businesses, not just food and beverage.

Roadmap to Recovery

Using a digital solution like an App for customers to pre-book a ‘slot’ – be that a table, the meal itself or a timed entry time to an experience, show or shop visit – will be invaluable in managing flow in a social distancing world. Businesses will be able to calculate how many covers they will need or be able to serve in a given time and use the guidelines from the government to ensure that they operating safely and legally. This number of slots can be then be released to the market and the customer can make an informed choice.

This approach fulfils the challenge criteria by allowing businesses to sufficiently manage expectations and the logistics of their offer. It will involve blending operations with the digital application at its heart, all supported by an ever-present marketing message that is both about educating and informing prospective customers about engaging digitally to ensure that adequate and efficient social distancing measures are in place for the safety of all.

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Here’s the thing, customers are already used to change, they’ve adapted to not answering the door straight away when deliveries are dropped off by couriers – waiting until they’ve stepped back and then collecting, whilst still having a human connection by waving off their delivery driver. They will adapt to this new way of engaging with hospitality too, as it is beneficial to them as much as it is to the business. Cabin fever is setting in and soon the opportunity to, safely, engage in social situations again, no matter how changed, will be taken up. This is where the opportunity lies, post-lockdown and accessing it through a technological approach will make it easier for everyone.

How to APPly this?

Digital technology can disrupt and evolve all industries, and hospitality is no different. However, for a complex sector like this, there is no one method to adequately cover the many nuances of individual offers and services. So, businesses must ask themselves the following questions:

  • What are we are trying to achieve with an online system?
    • Managing capacity through bookings during the pre-visit stage?
    • Completing orders once in the venue?
  • Will customers be returning regularly to engage with our brand?
  • How will our instore and back-office staff access the pertinent data to complete transactions?

For me, the most important question to think about at the start is the second question, the frequency of engagement. If you are a chain or franchise business then an App would be the logical step into this new world, if you haven’t already got one, as it is a cost-effective way to engage with your audience and create uniformity across your outlets. Its cost-effectiveness comes from the potential market to the business and the reasonable assumption of continued repeat visits but what if you are a standalone brand what would be the best option for you?

My suggestion would be developing your website into a mobile-first e-commerce platform – a site that can both promote what the business is offering and allows the customer to purchase services and products directly, without leaving the site.

Mobile internet penetration has hit over 70% in the UK, so, with most of the population willing to use their phones to search and purchase online, it isn’t a big step for them to engage with your brand online, both pre and post-visit. This approach, when delivered in a user-friendly design specifically for mobile, will be more cost-effective to smaller businesses, as Apps, although user-friendly is not always the best approach.

The Most Important Piece of Real Estate

Someone once described the memory capacity on your smartphone as the most important piece of real estate to a person. I couldn’t agree more. People make informed decisions when downloading Apps onto their phone:

  • How often am I going to use it?
  • What do I get out of using it?
  • Does it make my life better?

 So, downloading Twitter, Instagram, TikTok (a new personal vice of mine) and WhatsApp all make sense with these criteria. You will use them a lot and you get some enjoyment from them throughout the day. The same is true of shopping Apps for the well-loved brands that you will use a lot but is that the same for an experience or visit you will only really be able to enjoy sporadically throughout the year?

Probably not. This doesn’t mean that the customer doesn’t love this brand, just their real estate is precious. They would have no problem using your mobile-first site to purchase, especially if Apple / Google Pay and PayPal are integrated into the payment process, and organise their trip without having to give up that much-loved real estate.

Time to Start Planning for the Future

Now is the time for marketers and their operations counterparts to get together and undertake a full and comprehensive audit of their current processes and work together on a recovery plan that will address the logistical needs and translate that into a comprehensive marketing and communications plan that has a digital application, be that a new App, or an updated eCommerce proposition on your existing website. Either option will help you better engage with your audience and build a lasting relationship, whilst showcasing your commitment to keeping your customers and staff safe, whilst offering them the same great experience you always have.

We are certainly living in unprecedented times, but we have the opportunity to recover with a savvier audience and a potentially more streamlined and efficient service, allowing us to offer even better service leading to greater brand loyalty.

It won’t be easy, but it is possible.

Follow Paul on Twitter @IamPaulWhiting

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