Website technologies are changing quickly, and the expectations of those using the internet are increasing. Hospitality companies must keep up to date with the latest trends and features if they are to compete in the digital world.
Caterer quizzed a number of experts on the functionality they should be considering and some of the factors they ought to take into account when upgrading their websites.
Go real time If it hasn't already done so, any restaurant worth its salt should be thinking about integrating its website with its reservation system, so customers can book a table in real time, says George Pokorny, operations manager at guest management system supplier OpenTable Europe.
"Online customers today expect this kind of integration and it makes things easier for the restaurateurs as diners make the booking themselves," he says.
Functionality offering customers a broad range of choices online before entering a restaurant now exists. With the right technology clients could book a table, pay a deposit, choose where to sit, pick a time and order their food and wine - all from the comfort of their home or office.
Get personal Winning hospitality websites of the future will use the personal information of their visitors to build a database of customer preferences, says Paul Williams, general manager at restaurant website Sugarvine.com. This data can then be used to market offers tailored for specific segments of your clientele, such as families, gourmets, bargain hunters or wine lovers.
Customised e-newsletters targeting particular interest groups and automated SMS text messages to coincide with birthdays and anniversaries are just some of the possibilities a joined-up customer relationship management strategy can offer.
Williams suggests websites could feature a dedicated log-in section for their most loyal customers, with forthcoming events, updated content and special offers.
Better looking and more responsive "The days when companies could get away with blurry website images and unresponsive search functions are over," says Ruth Scanlan, marketing director at website development firm Johnhenry.net.
Ajax permits content on web pages to update immediately when a user performs an action.
Keep up with the law With the internet still a relatively immature medium, companies must keep track of any changes in the law that may affect how they run their website, according to Sarah Lacey, a partner at law firm MB Law. "It's impossible to predict what laws will come through, but it's important to keep up to date with the latest requirements," she says.
Hospitality websites must already comply with e-commerce regulations, data protection laws, and the Disability Discrimination Act, which requires businesses to ensure websites are accessible to those with disabilities.
Lacey says one area particularly crucial for accommodation websites, where the room prices advertised may not be the prices the customer is finally offered, is ensuring disclaimers are comprehensive, well-worded and clearly shown.
The potential of video With broadband services continually improving, home users will have increasing amounts of capacity to run video files and streams from the internet - offering endless opportunities for the industry to engage website visitors.
Short clips can give users 360-degree shots of a hotel's facilities or the layout of a restaurant, which in turn could be integrated into the booking process, so customers can choose a specific room or table.
"Why not include video streams of chefs preparing a dish with recipe details,
or the sommelier taking visitors through a tasting of some of the wines currently in stock," says Williams at Sugarvine.com.
Speed is of the essence Consumers now expect their websites to download almost instantly. If your website doesn't appear within a matter of seconds, potential customers will soon be off into cyberspace in search of a speedier rival.
Peter Matthews, managing director at web design agency Nucleus, says this means companies must ensure they have their website architecture correctly configured, that their server is big enough and that too many flashy animations on their site aren't slowing it down. "Companies skimp in this area and it could be costing them thousands," he says.
It's good to talk
Despite the increased emphasis on online bookings, websites should still clearly display a telephone number so visitors have the option of finalising their booking person-to-person.
"Some people like to use the web to browse but feel more comfortable completing their booking over the phone," says Catriona Campbell, a director at web design agency Foviance.
Before too long, however, people will be making calls via their home computer using technology called Voice over IP (VoIP), which carries voice traffic over the internet. Typically, people click on an icon on the webpage to dial and speak through a headset plugged into the PC.
And with the conversation routed through the internet, calls are far cheaper than those on a standard telephone.
Research RSS Pioneering websites, such as the BBC online, already use RSS (Really Simple Syndication) technology to automatically send users pop-up newsflashes and offers on topics they've previously requested.
In the hospitality sector people could, for example, request information on "new menu changes" or "bargain spa breaks" and then receive regular updates of the latest offers.
Ruth Scanlan at JohnHenry.net says the technology provides "a degree of customisation that will ensure increased guest loyalty".
Farm gate to plate "Provenance" is currently a buzz word in the restaurant trade, with chefs going to great lengths to source the best quality products, whether from local farmers or from overseas.
A website offers an ideal means of showing customers exactly where your produce has come from through the inclusion of links to the websites of your suppliers.
If these supplier sites offer fully functional e-commerce capabilities, all the better, says Williams "It's a value-added service you can offer customers," he says. "Enjoyed the Cornish hand-dived scallops at our restaurant? - then get them delivered direct to your door, so you can try cooking them at home."
Think small Increasingly, consumers are using handheld devices, such as iPods, mobile phones, Blackberries, and personal digital assistants (PDAs) to download and carry information and images from the internet.
Companies building websites should ensure they have taken this trend into consideration, says Scanlan at Johnhenry.net.
Compatibility with these devices is achieved through the separation of code, such as style and content sheets, behind the website and ensuring the code complies with standards used by the gadgets.
"With good separation and standards, accessibility for different devices and different users follows pretty naturally," says Scanlan.