Europe's largest technology-for-hospitality showcase will run alongside Hotelympia at London's ExCel centre on 18-21 February 2008. Ross Bentley talked to the US founder of Hostec, Rob Grimes, about what trends we can expect to see at next year's exhibition
With major interests in both IT consultancy and food service, Rob Grimes is perfectly positioned to comment on the key technology trends in the hospitality sector today.
Not only is the 49-year-old Grimes the founder of a chain of restaurants called Capitol Fresh in the Washington, DC, area, he is also chairman of Accuvia, the US technology consultancy that established the Hostec exhibition and conference back in 2000.
Running in conjunction with Hotelympia, Hostec is now recognised as the leading UK show dealing with IT specifically for hotels, restaurants and caterers.
Next year's Hostec is fast approaching and will be open from 18 to 21 February at the ExCel centre in London.
So what does Grimes expect to see come to the fore at the event? He says there are three trends that he sees as prevalent: speed of service, data security, and connecting the guest.
Whether you are looking at hotels or restaurants, speed of service is now critical to customer satisfaction and, according to Grimes, it's technology that is helping to quicken things up.
He says: "In the old days restaurants would measure their success in table turnover. They were focused on getting the diner in and then out, and this system didn't always suit the customer.
"But today there are technologies that facilitate speed of service, which leaves the customer happier and therefore generates follow-on business."
Grimes points to innovations in this area such as paging buttons on tables that allow customers to alert waiting staff, and hand-held devices that enable waiters to pass orders wirelessly to the kitchen as well as process payments at the table. In the hotel sector, the emergence of automated check-in kiosks has helped guests avoid queues at reception.
In the USA, the trend towards speed of service has gone as far as using predictive business intelligence software at fast-food drive-ins to predict what amounts and types of meals are required at certain times of the day.
Business intelligence software is also at the heart of customer relationship management software that enables a hotel to build up a profile of each guest in order to provide them with their preferences and special offers they are likely to find attractive.
But to build up this loyalty hotels need more and more information on their guests, which means, says Grimes, that they have to find ways of protecting this data from hackers and identity thieves.
"The trend is towards locking down data," says Grimes. "A lot of hotels now keep their valuable data on remote servers off-site, and credit card processors now take out financial information from customer records."
Managing the customer relationship also feeds into Grimes's third trend, which is the development of technology that connects the guest to the hotel through a range of media. Electronic marketing, for example, enables operators to automate special offers that are sent out by text, such as asking a guest if they want anything else with their room, perhaps theatre tickets or a meal, a few days ahead of their stay.
"Phones are the perfect device for one-to-one marketing," he says.
As mobile phones have got smarter, some operators are using them to send barcode images or e-vouchers that can be redeemed at their venue. Grimes says that in Japan the use of the mobile phone as a payment device to gain entry to a hotel room is well established.
Hotels can also use technology to connect with their guests by giving them the ability to plug in their own devices during their stay. A growing number of hotels are installing communications panels, where guests can plug in their laptop and iPod and surf the internet or play their music on the flat-screen in their room.
Wireless internet access is also commonplace, so guests can connect to the internet at a lot of places within a hotel.
Grimes believes hoteliers who charge their guests to use this service are being short-sighted. "Getting guests to pay for wireless isn't where the money is," he says. "The trend is for wireless to be free and then to charge for games or movies that the guests download."
Grimes says that to run a successful hospitality business today, operators need to be aware of how they can benefit from technology.
"A general manager, even if he isn't a techie person, needs to at least understand what technology can do for his business. Everyone working in a hotel comes into contact with technology - be it occupancy rate systems or online food ordering."
For this reason, one of the three conference tracks at this year's Hostec is aimed at non-techie types who have a business interest in how technology can improve their operation.
The other two conference programmes are for those responsible for IT in the food service and lodging sectors.
Grimes also plans to introduce a formal gala dinner on the night of Tuesday 19 February, when exhibitors and conference visitors as well as interested parties who may not have been to the event are invited.
"We will be handing out awards and providing an opportunity for people to network, with all the money going to charity," he says.
More details on the dinner will be available on the Hostec website nearer the time.