A new cohort of tech start-ups are helping restaurants deliver the personalised experience customers are used to with Amazon and Netflix in the physical world of hospitality. Elly Earls reports
WiFi has become an expectation in hospitality venues. In hotels, it needs to be free and high-speed or the property's image will start to suffer. It's also becoming increasingly difficult to find a restaurant, café or bar that doesn't offer at least a basic WiFi service.
But this doesn't have to be the case. A growing cohort of tech start-ups are focusing on bringing the online customer experience -think Amazon or Netflix - to the physical world of hospitality.
Instead of a WiFi password on a blackboard or a clunky online portal, customers have a smooth and speedy journey through log-on and registration. Then, with the information they provide during that process - along with the metadata the WiFi picks up about their movements - businesses can build up a picture of their customers' activities and preferences, which they can use to personalise their experience, driving loyalty.
As HOSPA chief executive Jane Pendlebury says: "If operators] are delivering it as a service for guests, they should be doing what they can to make it work to their advantage too - and that includes for marketing purposes."
Less is more
The process, which is largely the same with all WiFi marketing platforms, starts with the first time a guest logs on to the venue's WiFi, at which point they're asked to fill out a registration form with a few key pieces of information.
"We recommend that operators don't ask more than three questions to keep it nice and simple," says Patrick Clover, whose Edinburgh-based start-up Blackbx is one such platform. "These would generally be name, email address and then lots of businesses use a custom field, which might be 'what's your favourite drink?' in a bar, or 'what's your favourite meal?' in a restaurant."
Pendlebury agrees that less is more at this point. "Profiling guests can be a tricky business. You don't want to ask for too much information, as a laborious data collection process can be off-putting to guests. You also run the risk of appearing intrusive.
"While you may be keen to gather information to help tailor your service and ultimately deliver a better one, it's not always apparent to guests that this is the reasoning behind it. With cybersecurity a never-ending battle, guests may well be wary of just what is being done with their personal information. You therefore need to be transparent with its use and to ask for what's required with a light touch."
In fact, under GDPR, businesses aren't allowed to trade data for a free service without consent, which means that if guests don't want to give up their information, they should be allowed online anyway.
Clover hasn't found this to be a hindrance, however, with Blackbx's opt-in rates for that part of the process at about 98%, something he puts down to the element of trust. "It's not like a service you use online that you might not trust because there are no people or actual service," he explains.
Personalising the profiles
As guests continue to use the business, there are more opportunities to keep collecting information, says Adrian Maseda, co-founder of Cheerfy, another platform designed to drive loyalty through personalised experiences.
"For example, we can collect information about a customer's experience through a personalised message that gets sent automatically after they leave, thanking them for their visit and asking them to score it from zero to 10," he says.
"That then takes them through to an additional optional set of questions (typically a maximum of eight) where we take diners through what they should have experienced from the moment they set foot in the restaurant to the moment they walked out."
He has found that when a brand looks after the story and asks for a feedback in an elegant way, diners are willing to take the time to provide constructive comments. "It's like they want to be part of running that coffee shop or restaurant," he says.
The business can then automatically react to that feedback, thanking the guest for their comments and inviting them back for their favourite drink, perhaps in a different one of their venues, a return visit which would be automatically logged and added to their profile.
"Your profile is continuously growing in terms of information," Maseda says. "It can also be manually edited and that generates the ability for messages to be increasingly personal."
Making the most of metadata
From a marketing perspective, the critical data for businesses isn't what the customer's email address or phone number is. It's the metadata that sits in the background about how they're interacting with the business - for example, what day they visited, at what time and for how long.
As Clover explains: "The first time someone visits, you wouldn't treat them the same as the 10th time. It's all about how you can use that data to better serve customers so that everyone gets the white glove treatment."
For example, a customer that's been to a café 10 times before but hasn't been seen for the last two months might be sent a message saying 'Hey, we miss you! Come back in tomorrow and get a free coffee!' at which point the business could ask them for feedback about their experience.
Some hotel operators will even track guests' movements from one access point to another within the property to determine the most opportune time to deliver a message.
"If a guest accesses the internet on their smartphone within the vicinity of your hotel bar, for example, you can message them directly, outlining drinks offers (or the cocktail menu at the very least), helping to tempt them at just the right time," Pendlebury explains.
When combined with information previously collected about a customer's preferences, the experience could be even more powerful.
"If you're a regular customer in a high-end venue, you might be surprised with a gin and tonic on your 10th visit because you like cocktails, but somebody else might receive a mocktail as they don't drink alcohol," Maseda says. "It's about helping restaurateurs engage with their customers automatically, just like when you go online on Amazon or Google, and they can customise or personalise the content you see on those pages based on what you did in the past. If you engage customers in a personal way and in a genuine way, the chances of customers sharing data with you and returning to your shop is far greater."
Over time, the data collected can be used to build up a picture of a business's clientele, how they're behaving and what's working - or not - for them.
"We're giving them this toolset, which lets them look at all their key metrics from a customer point of view - from reviews to return rates to new customers - and compare that against how they were doing previously," Clover explains.
Cheerfy's dashboard also allows operators cut-and-slice information using different parameters. For example, you can compare the number of visits of cocktail lovers versus wine lovers or how frequent customers rate the food versus first-time customers.
"This allows [operators] to tune the content they put on our platform so you can essentially keep doing more of what works and change what doesn't," Maseda explains.
How to get it right
There are a few keys to making the most out of WiFi marketing platforms, starting with staff training. "Our best businesses make it part of the journey of being in that business," Clover says. "If you can imagine the waiter coming over and saying 'if you want to have special treatment, you can do that by joining our WiFi network'. It's a slight behaviour change there."
It's also important to set clear objectives from the outset. What do you want to learn about your customers? What behaviours do you want to drive? Do you have quiet hours in the afternoon you're interested in filling? Is there a particular product you want your customers to know about?
"We invest an hour or two with our customers discussing the content and trying to help them achieve whatever they want to achieve, whether it's loyalty or cross-sales between brands," says Maseda.
Equally crucial is the reliability of the infrastructure that's supporting the marketing platform: "Alongside WiFi data analytics, it's important to select a provider that understands the core foundations of providing a scalable, resilient and well-supported WiFi solution to meet business objectives," says Andy Kydd, head of product at Sky Business.
The Sky WiFi service provides flexible bandwidth options, reliable backhaul and consistent coverage throughout venues, as well as a platform that collects customer information in a fully GDPR-compliant way.
"Customer data can then be synced to CRM systems or marketing platforms in real time to create personalised marketing campaigns to retain and acquire new customers," Kydd says, adding that the importance of having systems synced in real time via APIs is key.
Finally, data security is something that can't be forgotten, as James Slatter, EMEA managing director at hospitality software provider Agilysys, explains in a hotel context.
"While PoS, PMS and other solutions integrate with many other technologies via the hotel's WiFi, we advocate WiFi security as a top priority for all hotel IT systems and integrations.
"Security is probably the most essential piece when it comes to successful implementation and integration. Considering the ramifications of a breach - its potential impact on guest privacy and brand reputation - a proactive approach to data security make sense."
These start-ups are just scratching the surface of what's possible. Cheerfy, for one, has big plans for the year ahead, including integrating the platform with WhatsApp, which has recently opened its APIs (albeit in beta mode), and introducing a digital loyalty card that customers can download to their virtual wallet.
"To make that happen, we had to integrate ourselves with the point of sale, because we are going to provide you with new points based on your consumption," Cheerfy's other co-founder Carlos GÁ³mez Vendrell explains.
"We will know what you are consuming every time you go to the restaurant. So it's that breakthrough piece of information that will enable us to further profile you, beyond giving you new elements to drive your loyalty."
Beyond that, the company is also talking to FMCG companies like Heineken about partnering up. "For these brands, the point of sale is a black box - they don't know anything about what's happening in there," GÁ³mez Vendrell says. "Having a radar in the point of sale and understanding who's going there, at what time and how this correlates with product sales is extremely valuable."
In the meantime, this new part of the tech industry continues to learn from its customers and grow its understanding of what GÁ³mez Vendrell calls 'this new art' - bringing the personalisation we've become used to online into the physical world of hospitality.
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