Running in tandem with Hospitality at Birmingham's NEC last week was Hostec, the industry-dedicated technology show. Ross Bentley outlines the trends and selects some of the best innovations from the exhibition
The great and the good of technology suppliers to the hospitality sector congregated at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre last week for the annual Hostec event.
Running alongside Hospitality 2007, Hostec showcased more than 70 exhibitors, making it one of Europe's largest dedicated hospitality, food service and leisure technology events this year.
And for visitors who negotiated the complex road system outside the NEC and the aisles of the massive exhibition halls to find Hostec, it will come as no surprise that technology to increase mobility was one of the main talking points at the event.
"If staff can get things done on the move, it improves operational efficiency and enhances customer service," says Luis De Souza, chief executive of NFS Hospitality.
According to Souza, the software company has seen an increase in demand for technology that enables employees to communicate and access central information without wires, and has installed mobile electronic point of sale (EPOS) and pager systems for the likes of Planet Hollywood and Grupo.
Even fast-food giant McDonald's, where prompt service is everything, is looking at mobile technology, according to its chief information officer, Ivan Brooks. Contributing to a panel discussion, he said mobile devices could be particularly effective at busy drive-in venues, enabling staff to move along vehicle queues and take customer food orders remotely.
A number of exhibitors were also showing new products that have incorporated mobile technology into control and monitoring systems.
AAW Control Systems was on hand to demonstrate the launch of its mobile webReact temperature-monitoring system, which exploits third-generation (3G) technology to enable users to access temperature-control systems via their mobile phones.
"Engineering and catering managers are often away from their desk and, in theory, they can use this product to access their temperature controls from anywhere in the world," says sales manager Ashley Hussey.
Access to any network is secured using passwords, and, once in the system, users can view and change temperature settings for individual rooms as well as pull up a computerised image of their facility. The product incorporates a text-alert function, which sends a text message to the user's phone if the temperature at any site moves beyond set parameters.
According to marketing executive Andrea Robinson, the device can be used to test the core temperature of meats and to record temperatures of food in hot and cold holding. Having the data sent back to a central repository also ensures operators keep an ongoing record of their temperature management.
Paging systems also allow mobility, and a number of innovations in this space were exhibited at this year's Hostec.
At paging company Long Range Systems, managing director Anthony McKenzie looked bleakly at the wintry conditions outside before discussing the company's new product, Beach Butler. Designed to hang off a parasol, the device incorporates a simple push-button that pages a waiter.
McKenzie says the product is equally at home attached to an umbrella on a café terrace or in a pub garden and should come into its own as the spring weather arrives.
Call-Systems Technology was showing a similar product - a new version of its EasyCall product that allows customers in a bar or restaurant to press a button on their table, which, in turn, alerts a pager worn by the waiter or bar staff.
The company, which has installed paging systems for the Thistle hotel at Marble Arch and fun park Alton Towers, uses a PC-based platform called Genesis to manage intra-organisational communications.
It includes a task manager module that can be set to send out prompts to relevant staff members who must perform scheduled tasks - for example, regular door and fire alarm checks. One nifty function features a short time delay during which only fire safety managers are contacted if a fire alarm goes off, so they can discreetly check whether the threat is real before a public evacuation of the property is ordered.
"There is no point getting all the guests to file out into the street if the alarm has only been set off by someone having a cigarette where they shouldn't," says sales manager Bruce McNair.
A number of deals were also announced at this year's Hostec.
Cashless payment systems supplier VMC publicised the news that investment bank Merrill Lynch has awarded it a contract to provide a cashless salary-sacrifice scheme for vending and catering purchases across its six UK and Ireland sites.
According to VMC's managing director, Nick Bate, there is also a growing demand for smartcard technology that combines multi-application staff functions, such as access control, time, attendance and secure computer log-on.
Also at the show, property management systems provider Micros-Fidelio released news that its reservations system Opera has been installed across all 65 Macdonald Hotels & Resorts properties. Hosted by Micros, the system gives a real-time view of occupancy and availability across all sites.
For hotel operators who want to ensure guests can check in and out with as little fuss as possible, Ariane Systems was showing the latest version of its Duo 1600 express kiosk.
Featuring a new touch-screen display, the device, according to UK managing director Carine Lebrun, is aimed at smaller hotels which might not be able to employ staff around the clock but still need to provide 24-hour check-in and checkout facilities.
The kiosk, commonplace in Campanile and Formule 1 properties in France and currently used by the City Inn in Westminster and the Novotel in Reading, takes payment and dispenses room keys automatically.
At Tata Consultancy Services, business development manager for travel Amit Nagar was talking about the trend towards contactless entry, where regular hotel users have an RFID chip on their loyalty card that checks them in, empowers that card to become a key and takes payment from their account wirelessly as they walk through the door.
While the idea is still to gain widespread acceptance in the UK, Nagar says Tata has developed a proof-of-concept model for a number of hotels in the USA.
Once in their room, many guests like to unwind in front of the TV at some point. According to Linda Ip, marketing coâ'ordinator at interactive entertainment provider nStream, there is only one technology to look out for in this space. "High definition television is on its way," she says.
Again, says Ip, it is the Americans leading the way here, with many properties in resorts such as Las Vegas already offering the technology. High-definition (HD) TV does exactly what it says on the tin and provides a picture with much higher resolution - about five times greater than current digital screens.
At the moment, according to Ip, film-makers have been reluctant to release films in HD as they can be easily pirated for illegal use.
But as more people take up the technology, expect to see a flood of HD movies in a hotel near you soon.