Apple's iPad is yet to go on general sale in the UK, but fans of this latest piece of clever kit will tell you that it's odds-on to be a favourite in hospitality. Daniel Thomas reports.
There was much wailing in techy circles earlier this month when Apple announced that the UK launch of its hotly anticipated iPad device would be delayed until the end of May.
The touch-screen tablet computer - which hit the headlines during the volcanic ash-related travel disruption when the Norwegian prime minister said he was running the country using one - was initially scheduled to go on sale in the UK before the end of April. However, Apple will now not start taking pre-orders until 10 May for deliveries by the end of May because of unexpected demand across the Atlantic. The company claims to have sold 500,000 iPads in the USA in the first week after the device's 3 April launch, which has exceeded forecasts of initial sales of between 100,000 and 400,000.
But there is one place you can find iPads in the UK: the InterContinental London Park Lane, which is taking part in a global trial (alongside IHG properties in New York, Atlanta and Hong Kong) that sees concierges using the devices to help with customer enquiries.
IHG expects the Apple iPad to improve its concierge teams' interaction with guests in various ways, including maps and directions, video recommendations and booking confirmations.
Rather than jot directions on a foldable paper map, concierge teams will be able to provide exact directions, through interactive maps with high-resolution satellite imagery, close-up street views and detailed walking routes, IHG said.
Becoming an early adopter of technology always has inherent dangers, but Karen Watt, hotel manager at the InterContinental London Park Lane, says that IHG has always been an innovator.
"InterContinental has always been a first adopter in its history - we were the first to introduce a hotel loyalty programme, first to partner with an airline, first to provide concierge videos and pre-stay eâ'mails to guests," she says. "Being the first to try new things has always been part of our heritage."
Watt stresses that the initiative is aimed at improving interaction between concierge teams and hotel guests - not about using technology to replace the human touch.
"In practice, we find that when we use the iPad it is a great tool for breaking down barriers - being totally transportable it means our concierges can be anywhere in the hotel so guests don't necessarily have to approach the desk," she says. "In fact the iPad is so eye-catching we've found that it opens up conversations, it's a great talking point and a way for the concierges to attract and engage with guests."
IHG is measuring the benefits of the iPad trial in a number of ways, according to Watt. "We're interested in measuring how much the iPad assists and enhances the guest experience and the nature of the interactivity of the technology means our concierge team will get instant feedback from our guests," she says. "We'll also measure the feedback from our concierge team and how much it naturally integrates into their daily schedules. Guests who would like to provide ideas and feedback to aid the future development of this service are invited to Tweet us (www.twitter.com/WorldConcierge)."
IHG has not committed to a wider rollout of the iPad until the benefits of the trial have been fully measured, Watt adds.
"The trial will give IHG the opportunity to understand the relevance of this new technology and will give us here at the hotel the opportunity to better understand what our guests are looking for with concierge services," she says. "What's really important is introducing something that truly meets our guests' needs - IHG is open to that being the iPad."
Analysts expect more hospitality operators to investigate the use of the iPad. Terence Ronson, managing director of US-based hospitality consultancy Pertlink, says its potential for the hotel sector is "only limited by one's imagination".
He can imagine a time when check-in counters use touch screen computers and wine lists are interactive, while engineers refer to online documentation in their hands and general managers can access hotel systems on the move.
It is not only hotels that are looking to utilise touch-screen technology. Restaurants across the USA, Japan and now Europe are dumping their chalk boards and notepads in favour of tableside technology that lets diners order food and drink direct from a computer screen, which is automatically fed through to the kitchen.
"We live in a computer age - with most people using this kind of technology on a daily basis - so computerised menu systems are incredibly appealing to our customers," says Asi Gabay, owner of Fernandez Grill Bar in Hendon, north London, who installed an "e-Menu" tableside ordering system eight months ago. "It has definitely increased sales because ultimately the ‘eye buys' and when customers see all the lovely food on screen they want to eat it."
Touch UK, the company behind the "e-Menu", claims it can increase customer purchases by up to 25%. "Our professional photos of the venue's food and drink simply makes customers want to dive in," says Touch UK director Ron Golan. "E-Menu also helps accelerate table turnaround - which is great for smaller and high-traffic venues - and picks up orders that might otherwise have been lost. Customers don't need to hang around for a waiter, they can order straight away themselves - at a touch of a button - and this increases impulse ordering."
Gabay is now considering rolling the system out across two other sites. "While someone might be 50/50 about buying a cocktail, when they see it looking beautiful in a chilled glass, dripping with condensation, it makes it much more appealing," he says.
It is a similar story at the Fine Burger Company at the O2 Centre in London's Finchley Road. Sales of items such as sides and starters have increased dramatically since the restaurant installed the eâ'Menu, with demand for desserts rising by almost 50%, reveals owner Robert Tame.
"The system has increased the average spend per customer, with sales from those seated at a tables showing a higher spend," he says. "People are definitely more impulsive seeing the pictures flashing."
Although some have criticised computerised ordering systems for "replacing people with PCs", Golan insists that, freed up from inputting customer requests into EPoS systems and running to and from the kitchen, waiting staff at venues that use systems like the eâ'Menu, can get on with the more important task of customer service.
"We're not here to ‘take over' the restaurant or that all important social element - which only human interaction from staff can give - but its huge practical advantages cannot be ignored," he says.