The problem with automating hospitality may not be the technology

I don’t like when it is evident that there should be a better, more obvious solution to a problem. It frustrates me. This is probably why I started Criton because I wanted to find a solution to the basket case that is the current hospitality technology landscape. What I mean by that is, hotel technology so obviously should be better than it is.  

The trade press will tell you that technology adoption in hospitality accelerated between 3 and 5 years due to the global pandemic. That sounds great, and indeed, we saw a step-change in interest in Criton, which allowed us to triple the number of locations we worked with over the past year. 

However, are hotels accelerating technology adoption, or are hotels trying to replicate a process with tech? 

I fear that all the significant gains that can come from automation and reimagining a process are lost because the industry is determined to reflect the current process(es) with new technology - and then wonders why, in some cases, hotels aren’t seeing guest adoption and therefore ROI (Return on Investment).

Skift discussed the new technologies available to hospitality and the impact Covid would have on their adoption in their recent report 'CONTACTLESS TECH IN HOSPITALITY 2020'. If you haven’t read this report, it’s well worth it. They separate various technologies into these categories: 

  • Exciting For Now
  • Fast Accelerators
  • Return to Normal
  • Potential to Stick

Online/kiosk check-in (poorly done) falls into 'Return to Normal.' It is a classic example of using technology to replicate a process rather than using technology to reimagine the process(es) completely. I will say there is nothing good about kiosks unless they are in a budget environment and/or are very, very easy to use. Mostly they are all about a hotel trying to be cost-efficient rather than considering what their guests want. If the requirement is to speed up check-in or reduce/remove time in reception, then a kiosk with a staff member next to it to tell you how to use it must surely be the most frustrating, frankly crappy experience possible as a first impression. 

Why would a hotel invest in technology when the guest brings their own technology with them?

Recently I spoke to a hotelier who had invested in a Food & Beverage order & pay system to streamline the table-order-only requirement as part of the Covid-19 protocols. It’s a good system, and feedback from current customers is:

  1. +30% order value.
  2. +20% increased frequency of spend.
  3. Quicker table turnover (no need to chase someone for a bill and then flash your card, and then the server gets the machine, and then you need a VAT receipt, etc.), plus ultimately this means increased revenue.
  4. Increased staff tips and staff being happier as they are not 'blamed' if there's a mistake in the order. 
  5. No lost revenue with walk-outs (customers who "forgot" to pay)

The hotelier wants it to work, but so far, they‘ve had limited guest take up: “Our guests don’t want to use it.

It’s not a guest issue. It’s an implementation issue.

When I asked how the software was being embedded into the team and guests, I got a sad answer.  Limited staff training was undertaken on how to accept orders on the new terminal. One poster for guests to scan a QR Code on arrival, staff popping over and taking orders when they were supposed to check if the system was ok to use, deal with any issues and answer any food-related questions. 

None of this is a surprise. Our teams are in hospitality. They want to help. But in this case, they (the team) hadn’t been sold the benefits of the technology solution; they hadn’t been trained, which meant they could not help diners use the system and explain the benefits.

At the same time, another of our hotels also went live with the same system to improve their outdoor dining offering.  Last year was apparently “carnage, and felt out of control” with diners leaving without paying or complaining as they couldn’t find a team member to take an order and when they were trying to pay.  They had had a couple of poor reviews, specifically about the service and other negative comments. They had decided to implement the system to try and get around the likely spike in demand on reopening to automate the inefficient bit of order to pad to kitchen and payment.

They followed our guidance on team training and integrated it into the EPOS (Electronic Point of Sales). They also put in place all of the required signage, table numbers, and a link to it in every table booking and prepared diners for it before they arrived, focusing on the positive impact on menus not being single-use and speed of order to delivery.  I called them to see how they were doing. “Flying," I was told. They’ve seen a significant uptick in order size, 75%+ of orders via the app and positive feedback from diners. The staff believe in it as a system, are confident explaining the whys and what fors (and proud of the reduced printing of single-use menus) and believe they can provide better service to the guest because they are advising on the food rather than writing food orders down or trying to remember it. 

This delighted feedback reinforces my belief that the lack of technology adoption isn’t a guest issue; it’s an implementation issue.

Guests want choices.

To take advantage of automation in our industry, we must offer guests a choice of how they interact, educate them on the benefits of those choices and make the various choices as fabulous as possible. Whether we like it or not, our industry has fallen behind every other industry in offering customers a choice in how they interact. There must be excellent technology to change that, which means vendors and hoteliers must invest time giving and receiving feedback and iterate. This needs a partnership approach and an acceptance that the first version may not be perfect, but it will be a step forward in offering guests choices.

But and it's a big but, one of the issues we face as an industry is that we are not flush with change agents helping us embed and implement technology. Heck, we are struggling to fill ALL of our roles right now. I am also concerned that the hotel chains will leave behind the independent hotel sector because they have been investing in automation and guest engagement for years. The hotel chains do have the resources, and they will continue to automate, drive the market, set guest expectations, and see its benefits.

Now before you think I’m having a go at operators, I am not! The success of technology implementation sits just as firmly with vendors as it does with the hospitality operators. If vendors don’t help the operators embed the technology, they will likely churn as customers, so it’s just been a waste of time.

So what's the solution, you may ask? Well, there are some things we have changed in Criton over the past 18 months which I believe have made a difference to this problem, and I want to take it further.

Our experience shows that successful customers follow all of our suggestions on how to make their app a success. They embrace the process and understand that you can’t just throw technology at your team or guests and expect it to work. It needs buy-in across the team to really sell the benefits to guests, and of course, it needs a change in SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures). However, we have realised that we can’t rely on that for all customers as more operators come towards us and consider a digital guest journey. So we are very clear in the sales process about what is required on both sides to bring about success. We also run weekly 30-45 minute webinars for operators to join, where we run through how to make your app a success, and we have a stringent process for when a customer moves from launch (embedding) to account management (steady-state).

There’s no doubt that guests want to use their mobile phones to speed up some hotel interactions.

Just as there’s no doubt that hotels want, perhaps even need, to automate the jobs that add no value to the guest, effectively the administration of service; until we all appreciate that operators and vendors are in this together, for the long haul, I believe we will continue to struggle to digitise our industry and see the benefits to service and our bottom lines.

Operators need to allocate the appropriate resources to any technology implementation. They need to dedicate time to upskill the team in why this technology will enhance their role and the guest experience

Vendors must ensure that they offer enough advice on how to get to success and explain why replicating a process may occasionally suck the joy and the effectiveness of the technology offering.

If we can bring the team along, the guests will come too, and we will have happy guests and ROI. Collaboration is at the very heart of this industry and has only grown in the Pandemic. It’s time to work together to make a success of automation. 

About the Author

Julie Grieve, Founder & CEO at Criton

Julie Grieve is the Founder and CEO of Criton, an award-winning technology provider based in Edinburgh. Criton is a guest engagement and integrations platform. It enables hotels to deliver the perfect digital guest journey, maximize in-stay revenue and wrap all guest-facing technology into a sophisticated mobile app. Criton’s mission is to give independent hotels access to the same technology that large hotel chains already adopt. 

Before starting her own business, Julie was the CEO of Lateral City, a luxury serviced apartment operator in the heart of Edinburgh. Julie spent her early career in serviced offices, where she became Managing Director of Abbey Business Centres, a UK-wide serviced office operator, which she successfully sold in 2011.

Connect with Julie on Linkedin.

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