The latest gizmos, such as the Apple Tablet and Google's Nexus smartphone, are undeniably exciting, but what hospitality-related technology will appear this year, with a view to boosting business? Daniel Thomas reports.
The beginning of the year is traditionally when technology companies unveil their latest and most futuristic offerings and this month was no exception, with products such as 3D glasses, eReaders, smartbooks, smartphones and tablets all announced by some of the leading players.
But while technology industry watchers get excited about new launches, such as Google's Nexus smartphone and Apple's Tablet, hospitality businesses want their technology investments to be slightly more prosaic - to cut costs, increase efficiency and boost sales.
So what does 2010 have in store for hospitality-related technology? Christian Berthelsen, chief technology officer at Fourth Hospitality, believes the key trend will be the growth of what is known as cloud computing - the concept of using the internet to allow employees to access company data via the web.
"This will be the dominant trend in technology as far as business is concerned in 2010, as increasingly, data and applications will cease to reside on our desktops and instead exist on servers elsewhere - the cloud - making our data accessible from anywhere and enabling collaboration with distributed teams," he says.
"The cloud computing juggernaut will forge forward in the first half of 2010 with the launch of Office Web Apps - free online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote released in tandem with Microsoft Office 2010."
Of particular interest to hospitality operators will be the growth of location-sharing services such as Foursquare, Gowalla, Brightkite and Google Latitude, according to Berthelsen.
"Unless they're swamped by the addition of location-based features to Twitter and Facebook, these services should gather further prominence and importance in 2010," he says.
"Location is not about any singular service; rather, it's a new layer of the web and soon our whereabouts will be optionally appended to every Tweet, blog comment, photo or video we post."
Berthelsen also predicts that the much-anticipated mobile payments market should really gather pace this year.
"The UK and US are currently lagging behind Asia in terms of this technology but there's good reason to believe that this trend will develop prominently in 2010," he says.
As hospitality operators begin to recover from the recession, there will be even greater focus on how management information software can bring about operational efficiencies, and automate processes such as ordering and stocktaking, according to Andrew Markwell, sales director at Fretwell-Downing Hospitality.
"Such back office systems will not be immune from the continuing trend towards technological mobility, with greater adoption of devices that enable the workforce to keep on the move," he says.
The massive popularity of smartphones, such as Apple's iPhone, means restaurant operators will have to incorporate mobile devices into their marketing strategy if they have not already done so, Markwell says.
"There are already generic restaurant iPhone apps and if, as predicted, calorie counts become standard on restaurant menus here in the UK, there will no doubt be a phone app listing the nutritional content of meals served at popular high street outlets," he adds.
Simon I'Anson, vice-president of sales for Europe, the Middle East and Asia at Swisscom, says the transition from analogue to digital television will be a major focus for many hotel operators during the year.
Around 56% of UK households are capable of receiving free-to-air high definition TV (HDTV) today even though most have yet to set up their devices to do so, but by the end of 2012, 100% will have HDTV.
I'Anson says the hospitality sector is "still reacting rather timidly" to this trend, but adds that on the positive side of things, many three-, four- and five-star hotels have already invested in HD-ready TVs.
"The chances are, in 2010 some hotel brands will want to take a lead over the competition by offering full HD viewing in all bedrooms," he says.
"We are seeing more and more hotel chains in the high-end sector incorporating the delivery of HDTV systems into their brand standards. It is very likely that this trend will trickle down to the more mid-market operations, especially among those hotels whose branding and value proposition relies heavily on consumer technology."
A SLICKER SET-UP
Along with the upgrade to digital TV comes the need to provide a quality internet experience to all guests - gone are the days when free Wi-Fi was enough to attract and retain business clientele, I'Anson warns.
"Today's guests want to use the internet securely from a multitude of different portable devices," he says.
"These devices have one thing in common: they all need plenty of bandwidth to download high volume e-mail and attachments, stream videos, communicate on Facebook and upload 10 million mega pixel photos."
Given this, I'Anson suggests there is "a clear case" for the installation of an integrated data network.
"Using the same set of cables for multiple applications such as digital television, internet service and videoconferencing will not only allow operational costs to be cut, it will also further improve and personalise the delivery of services across multiple media applications," he says.
Of course, technology isn't all about innovations - staples such as electronic point of sale (EPoS) remain vital to hospitality operators.
Justin Hollins, director of business development at Clarity Retail Systems, stresses that the point of sale is the collection vehicle for information about customers and what they like and dislike about the business.
"With the consumer becoming smarter and looking for value, the point of sale has to change and evolve with them and needs to provide support for today's multi-channel marketplace," he says.
"From simple loyalty schemes to intricate customer relationship management systems, it is the point of sale that sees all of these transactions and processes the information through to a central point for interrogation and reporting."
Y0! SUSHI'S TECHNOLOGY FOCUS FOR 2010
Billy Waters, IT manager at Yo! Sushi, reveals the operator's plans for the year ahead.
"A big part of our focus on technology in 2010 will be developing our digital strategy further," he explains.
"Having dipped our toe in the water in late 2009 with the use of Twitter, Facebook and the launch of a great new website, we are looking into other ways of digitally interacting with our customers rather than just feeding them a one-way stream of information.
"We are exploring ways of doing this both within the restaurant and outside, but that's all I'm revealing for now.
"On the business side, we are looking to our EPoS system supplier to deliver a handheld solution to speed up the payment process and reduce stock loss due to inaccurate billing.
"We are also in the early stages of implementing a promotions processing engine.
"With the current trend in discounting and vouchers, we want to stay smart and deliver value-adding promotions, which we can track and link back to our customers that have joined the Yo! Love Club, enabling the monitoring of frequency of visit, basket mix etc.
"Other methods of delivering the promotion to the customer will also be explored and again we are looking to suppliers to do this in 2010 to reduce the often fraudulent use of paper vouchers."