With tens of billions of apps downloaded by smartphone and tablet users every year, Ross Bentley reports on what is available for the hospitality sector in this ever-growing market
With the use of smartphones and tablet PCs now commonplace, the age of the app is upon us. Apps are typically pieces of software that are easy to download and run on these devices, and increasingly there are examples of apps developed for the hospitality industry hitting the streets.
The type of apps now available in this sector typically fall into two camps: there are apps that are targeted at guests, diners and customers to download themselves - these tend to be used as sophisticated marketing tools for operators. There are also apps that have been developed by software vendors, which give operators the option of accessing traditional business applications via hand-held devices.
The first kind of app tends to be free to persuade people to download it. Typically, developers make them available at either the Apple iStore or Google Play websites depending on whether it has been developed for Apple products, or those devices running Android, Google's mobile platform. Billions of apps have been downloaded from these locations in the past year, most of them games, but also a burgeoning number of apps developed by businesses.
Simon Burgon, director at app development agency 360R, says a typical hospitality app will offer users a virtual tour of the hotel or restaurant, a map function so they can locate the premises and functionality to update the app with the latest special offers and room rates. Burgon says an app typically costs somewhere between £5,000 and £15,000 to develop, depending on the level of sophistication. But he says there are potentially large benefits to be had from the technology.
"Users like to play with apps and, on average, will stay on them much longer than they linger on a website. Once they download the app, it is like someone carrying your brand around with them on their handset. From your app you can drive people to book," says Burgon.
The use of mobile devices of one form or another is now also established in the hospitality workplace, whether employees bring in their own devices or use ones supplied by the business.
But while the ability to access systems on the move may be transforming the industry, James England, a director at software firm Fourth Hospitality, says mobile devices should be seen as simply another end point for delivering software to users.
He says: "Software reflects the trend towards ‘Master Data' - where the current, live version of product and menu data can be used to feed a multi-channel environment, be it EPoS (electronic point of sale), digital menu boards, iPad, tablet or smartphone, websites, apps and kiosks."
OPINION: The insatiable appetite for apps
The appetite for apps has exploded in recent years. As of March this year, more than 25 billion apps have been downloaded from the Apple app store worldwide - up from 10 billion a year before. This is huge growth and shows the incredible increase in popularity of this type of software, driven predominantly by the continuing rise in sales of tablet PCs and smartphones, such as the iPhone.
App development is the sexy side of technology - it's fun and exciting, and the large majority of these apps are aimed at leisure users. But a growing number of businesses are also waking up to the potential of apps in helping them market themselves. Businesses realise that the type of people who are downloading apps are the demographic they want to be connecting with - smartphone users tend to be well-off and evangelical about technology. If they think an app is cool they will tell other users, recommending your app, and by association your business, by word of mouth.
In hospitality, we find the type of apps that work well are those that show off a venue, be it a hotel, restaurant or conference venue, through a virtual 3-D guide, which enables users to "walk-through". They should also be dynamic where data is constantly updated, such as new menus or special room rate offers, which gives users a reason to keep reopening the app.
We have also seen a number or venues using QR codes to direct users to the app where it can be downloaded. Typically, the QR code, a type of matrix barcode, is promoted in a prominent position in the venue where it can be easily scanned by the user with their phone.
Simon Burgon, director 360R
Sodexo Scores with App
On-site catering and services firm Sodexo has developed an iPhone app to showcase the hospitality facilities it manages at Sports Direct Arena, Newcastle United FC's stadium.
Designed by agency 360R, the app went live in the Apple App Store this month and features video, photography and 360° virtual tours. Current special offers and promotional events are highlighted throughout the app, so users are kept up-to-date with the latest from the football club's hospitality facilities. Designed with a simple to use web-based content management system, the app can be updated in real time by members of the hospitality team.
The app has also been designed so that organisers of events from meetings and conferences, to weddings and christenings, can use the dedicated venue app to get a idea of the facilities and services available.
Ed's Easy App
Retro-American restaurant chain Ed's Easy Diner went live this month with a web-based recipe software that provides menu and nutritional information directly to chefs and restaurant managers via smartphone and tablet.
According to group operations manager Reuben Todd, the app, Fourth Hospitality's StarChef Light, is being used to deliver menu specifications, support chef training and bring continuity and controls across the business.
He says: "There's one page on how to cook, with a photo and list of ingredients, and nutritional and allergen information. We can update it online from a central location knowing it will go live immediately at every site. There's no paper manual we have to update, and being web-based means the kitchen is kept tidy."
Todd adds that the software represents a "moderate level of investment" but says it would save costs in time spent chasing suppliers for information and reprinting menu and brand guides.
Mr & Mrs Smith Plan and Play
Boutique and luxury hotel booking specialist Mr & Mrs Smith has launched an app which demonstrates both the business potential and fun aspects of the technology.
The free app, designed by mobile services agency InfoMedia on the Nokia QT platform, has two modes: Plan and Play. The Plan section helps the user to find, organise and book boutique hotels, while the Play section offers a few risqué and fun ways to pep up a weekend away. Reflecting the irreverent, sexy Mr & Mrs Smith brand, features within the Play section include a truth or dare game, guides on how to mix a minibar cocktail and a series of imaginative excuses to get you some extra me-time.
Chief technology officer and co-founder of Mr & Mrs Smith, Tamara Heber-Percy, says: "We've made sure our app delivers information with the wit and charisma of a well-informed friend."
useful apps that are out there
Mobile Valet (pictured)
iRiS Software Systems has launched a mobile version of its Guest Valet app, so hotels can offer guests the opportunity to download the app prior to arrival, browse the services and facilities and even book a spa treatment or make a dinner reservation ahead of their stay.
Commercial kitchen design company Manitowoc has made six new iPad apps available free on Apple iStore. The firm says the apps have been developed to better serve channel partners, and to give chefs, food service operators, dealers and distributors the tools needed to plan, design, fit and run a new commercial kitchen, as well as train staff on using the equipment.
Chiquito, the Mexican restaurant and bar chain, is using an free app from Blippar (www.blippar.com), which allows diners to scan family place mats to access a child-friendly food and drinks menu, plus a selection of games, allowing parents and children to use smartphones together to provide table entertainment with a twist.
Survey-me specialises in an app which allows real-time customer feedback via mobile phones. Available on the Apple iStore, it is being used by a number of hotels and restaurants in the UK in place of paper-based guest comment cards.
Tips for app development
â- Understand your customer base, so you know what type of app will appeal to them and the makes of device they typically use.
â- Consider an app that is dynamic and that can be updated, so you can keep users interested with new deals and promotions.
â- Ensure your app is simple to use and download or users will be turned off.