All the fantastic things you can do with your internet-enabled mobile phone - not to mention your computer - mean that there are some slick tools for making your business run more smoothly about to reach the UK. Nick Huber reports on the latest technologies on show at last month's NRA show.
Coming soon to a restaurant or hotel near you: mobile reservation and payment systems, location-based marketing and multimedia touch-screen tables.
These were some of the hot technologies on show last month (May) at the National Restaurant Association (NRA) conference in Chicago, America, which attracted tens of thousands of visitors and more than 1,600 corporate exhibitors.
New technology featured prominently at this year's conference in the "Windy City", reflecting America's reputation for developing the latest technology in the hospitality market. Here are five hot technologies that are likely to reach the UK soon.
SMARTPHONE APPS AND SMARTCARDS
Apple's ubiquitous iPhone, with its tens of thousands of mini computer programs known as "apps", has created a potentially lucrative market for the enterprising companies.
And a growth in the number of "smart phones", offering consumers fast and easy Internet access, the hospitality industry is starting to develop new services and marketing to cash in on the new breed of mobile devices.
"Restaurants are developing applications to store customers' personal details, such as their name, what they've eaten at a restaurant in the past and whether the person is vegetarian or eats halal food," says Stephen Minall, managing director of Moving Food, a consultancy specialising in the supply chain.
Large restaurant chains and fast-food companies are developing their own mobile apps for smart phones, letting customers pre-order food if they are in a hurry, or book at table at a restaurant.
Customers can download the mobile application from the restaurant's web site, or from a bigger site such as a portal for reserving hotel rooms at various chains.
Cards are changing too, amid a growth in "smart cards" that can be used as electronic cash for small payments (see right) and for restaurant and café loyalty cards.
The Oyster card, which is widely used for travel on trains and buses in London, has helped popularise smart cards, which can be topped up with cash.
Smart card payments can be made by waving the card near a card sensor, avoiding the need to enter a pin number and cutting queue time.
Some of the big credit card companies now include contactless payment features and are linking up with retailers. The hospitality industry is well placed to capitalise on this trend for fast payment.
SMS-BASED ORDERING AND PROMOTIONS
Experts reckon that Mobile payment and information services are set to catch on in the hospitality industry, making services more convenient for customers and helping restaurants and hotels build customer loyalty at a relatively low cost.
"Imagine commuting home and pre-ordering and paying for your Indian meal via the mobile," Minall says.
Customers point their phone at a mobile infra-read scanner, which reads the information on the customer's phone, welcomes the customer and asks if they would like to pay for their meal using their mobile phone.
Mobile phone payment services are relatively rare in the UK, but are common in countries such as Japan and Finland, where payments made using phones appear on the customer's monthly mobile bill.
Many new mobile services use SMS texts, a proven and relatively cheap marketing medium.
US-based ReadyPing provides a new solution to an old problem - letting restaurants notify guests by text message when their table is ready. The system aims to improve on restaurant pagers, which it says can cost thousands of pounds and have a limited range.
The host enters a party's name, number of guests, and their mobile number. When their table is available, the host clicks a button to send a customisable text message.
Restaurants need only an Internet connection and a PC to use ReadyPing. ReadyPing offers a free 14-day trial and then charges a flat monthly fee of $49 with a variety of text-message bundles to suit different business needs.
ReadyPing is currently only available in the USA, but the technology has the potential to take off in the UK.
Txtandtell (txtandtell.com) is an SMS-based service which lets restaurants get immediate feedback from customers about their dining.
Customers are texted a survey to rate the restaurant they've just eaten at. After texting their reply to the restaurant the customer is sent an instant response and reward for their feedback. The customer feedback is available in real time on a secure web site for the restaurant to view and managers are also texted customer feedback. The service is hosted by txtandtell.
Restaurants can choose between a fixed monthly charge per location, or a charge based on the number of customer responses.
McDonald's is using touch screens in some of its drive-in restaurants in America, China and India, and plans to roll out the technology in Europe, according to Minall.
In the UK, customers at Premier Inn hotels can check-in and out using self-service kiosks supplied by Shere. The technology has the potential to cut costs for hotels by doing away with the need to keep staff on the reception through the night. "A customer arriving at 3am can check in to the hotel plus order breakfast and paper for the following morning, or order extra pillows," Minall says.
In the USA, Smartakeout.com (www.smartertakeout.com), provides kiosks and online ordering systems for small and medium-sized restaurants.
Customers can pay online for orders and choose their preferred time to pick up the order.
Can it boost sales? Smartertakeout says that its system can boost customer spending ("check averages") by 15-40%. Restaurants pay a monthly charge for the service, which varies according to the number of features used.
MULTIMEDIA TOUCH SCREENS/TABLES
Restaurants, nightclubs or hotels with larger IT budgets can chose more sophisticated multimedia touch screens.
US start-up T1 Visions demonstrated its interactive touch-screen technology at the NRA conference. Booths or tables have built-in touch screens, allowing each customer to browse the menu and place their order.
The touch screens can also show a selection of films on offer and run a video clip of the film, and a voucher discount for the film that can be printed off.
Orders are stored and customers are invited to become members of a loyalty programme, according to Minall.
"All this is built into a table top less than four inches thick, priced at $5,000 including software," Minall says, adding that the T1 customers have seen their "check average" rise by 25%.
Ever been in a city for the first time and wasted time looking for a nearby bar or restaurant? Help could be at hand in the form of location-based services that provide maps and information of local bars and restaurants for mobile phone users through listings information and Global Position System (GPS) technology.
Google already offers this service through its "maps" web application that can be accessed on mobile phones. Enter a street or area location and, say "Chinese restaurant" and up pops a map showing nearby Chinese restaurants.
Restaurants can pay a monthly fee to be included in search listings for location based services, potentially getting extra business at a relatively little cost.
Location-based services are in their infancy, but Minall reckons that the technology is well suited to parts of the hospitality industry, particularly for fast-food outlets.
SQUID - CONTACTLESS PAYMENT CARD
http://www.squidcard.com" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">sQuid is a UK company specialising in "electronic cash" services. The company supplies branded smartcards that can be loaded with cash to pay for items under £10.
The smartcards can also be used for payment for cash-free catering services in companies or schools, and also for customer loyalty schemes, such as Coffee Republic, the UK coffee chain.
sQuid uses contactless smart card technology, similar to the Oyster card system used for travelling on London trains and buses. sQuid card customers have an online account where they can view their transactions and track of their loyalty points. Payments are sent over a secure, broadband-based payment network run by sQuid. Cash can be loaded on to the card online or at the restaurant.
"Think of the card as having two purses," says Aruna Withane, business development manager at sQuid. "One purse can be topped up online and can be used to spend on food and drink in the restaurant. The second purse is more of gift a card and incentive scheme. The more you purchase at the restaurant the restaurant adds money into your smartcard - maybe 10% of your spend."
sQuid, is talking to large restaurant chains and also small restaurants, about using its card, Withane says.