If you are paying for Wi-Fi, the argument goes, you might as well exploit it. And hospitality operators are riding the technology wave with a range of apps that ease the customer journey and reward loyalty. Elly Earls looks at the latest offerings
The rising cost and falling revenue from Wi-Fi have made it a hot topic across the hospitality sector: should it be free for customers? Does having free Wi-Fi actually drive up occupancy rates? And, ultimately, what is the return on investment?
Of course, some follow the reasoning that not investing in Wi-Fi will have a detrimental effect on their business, but the issue can also be looked at from a more positive perspective: if you're going to invest in Wi-Fi and, furthermore, offer it free to your guests, why not get the most out of it as a business, too?
As Richard Betts, account director for hospitality at communications solutions provider Britannic Technologies, summarises: "Wi-Fi is the enabler of mobile applications, which can be used to improve and enhance the guest experience and increase revenue."
Pre-ordering apps Over the past 12 months, pre-order apps, which allow customers to order and pay for drinks and food with their smartphones, reducing queuing time and increasing ordering efficiency, have taken the hospitality market by storm. Operators that have joined the party, including restaurants, bars, hotels, nightclubs and event spaces, are already starting to see the benefits.
For example, venues that have signed up for mobile ordering and payments platform Q App - which has seen an exponential growth in the number of downloads since its launch last year and is on track to hit its target of 250,000 users by the end of 2014 - have seen an average uplift of 12% to the number of orders processed at peak times and even bigger increases in average order value.
Clients of online ordering app Orderella, which launched in October 2013, have also found mobile ordering a boon to their businesses. Allan Harper, owner of the Burning Night Group, says: "We decided to start using Orderella because we believe it is the future of transactions in retail environments. It will also mean we can save staffing costs and it's more convenient for customers. The single biggest advantage to our business is having pre-ordered food and drinks ready at the table at a set time, reducing waiting times."
Behind the scenes Of course, deploying new technology is never without pitfalls, but when it comes to apps, these really are minimal, particularly compared with the upheaval traditionally associated with implementing a new IT system.
"There are so many things you can do with relative ease," explains Kenny Fraser, founder and director of Sunstone Communication. He says that the most popular apps are generally the simplest - for example, online ordering or booking apps and those that solely provide information.
"It's incredibly quick and easy to develop and deploy this stuff. Of course, if you wanted to do something more complicated, you might want to dig into your pre-existing systems, but there are lots of things you can try without change or disruption."
For Harper, the main pitfall of launching Orderella's app has been getting his staff used to the new solution, while at Gillray's Steakhouse & Bar at the London Marriott Hotel County Hall, which uses interactive digital menu app iRiS F&B Classic, the biggest challenge has been ensuring that staff
still offer the personal service the restaurant prides itself on.
"Guests find the menu easy to navigate and they comment on the clear information, and our wine sales have shown a steeper rise in sales and revenue since the implementation," says Francesco Galletti, director of food and beverage at Gillray's.
"But I have found that some of my team use the app to do all the work, which, from our side, distances them from the guest, so I encourage the team to always offer suggestions and ideas."
Rewarding loyalty Contract caterers aren't being left behind when it comes to apps. At Sodexo, the Reward Tree app, which acts as a virtual loyalty card and offers two loyalty schemes, one for drink and one for food, was launched in February. In just four months, it has been downloaded nearly 10,000 times.
For promotions manager Harpreet Cheema, launching an app was a logical step: "Understanding your customers is key to the success of any business. At Sodexo we have previously run a number of loyalty initiatives, but we recognised the need to adapt to newer technologies and changing consumer behaviour."
Cashless payment solutions provider Systopia will be following suit later in the year when it launches its own app for its contract caterer clients, which will allow customers to not only pay for food and drink through their mobiles via a closed-loop system, but also be rewarded for their loyalty.
"When you look at the City of London, you'll find a deli bar or coffee shop every 10 metres, so the idea is to keep customers inside the building and reward them," says Systopia managing director Chris Lyons.
The back end of the system is equally important for operators, he adds: "They're getting information on what customers are eating, what they're not eating and when they should be providing the service - all viewable online through a web browser."
Going a step further, artisan slow-roasted coffee company Paddy & Scott's has added a charitable element to its loyalty app. As well as allowing customers to pre-order from the in-store menu, pay wirelessly from a preregistered credit card and earn Bean Points with every purchase, the company's Bean Counter app has a donation widget, which enables users to forgo their free coffee and instead donate to Paddy & Scott's Bean 2 School Foundation.
Initially, the app will be used only in Paddy & Scott's owned and operated sites, but later it will be rolled out as an option to its partnership and B&I customers.
Not all apps are consumer-facing; in fact, the solutions being launched that can improve operational efficiencies are giving hospitality businesses equally significant benefits.
IDeaS Revenue Solutions, for example, has recently launched the hospitality industry's first integrated revenue management mobile app, which allows users to view, update and deploy hotel pricing information on the go, something Fabian Specht, managing director at IDEaS, EMEA region, believes is becoming increasingly important for operators.
"Obviously, speed is key. Allowing our clients to react to the changing market conditions is essential," he says. "We work closely with our clients to assess their requirements and hold regular workshops to see how revenue management is developing."
Fraser concludes that apps that take over or significantly improve back-end processes are only going to become more widespread, while on the consumer side of things, we'll be seeing more and more futuristic solutions.
For example, take location-based iBeacon technology, created by Apple. It lets businesses set up transmitters that can tell nearby smartphones of their presence. When combined with the right software, iBeacons placed at key touchpoints can detect customers who are nearby and provide staff with the information they need to create an even better guest experience.