What's hot in technology for 2012? Ross Bentley asked a number of experts, who will be speaking at technology seminars during Hotelympia, for their thoughts on the trends for the coming year
Amid the movers and shakers at this year's Hotelympia show, many conversations will inevitably focus on the latest trends in the hospitality sector, including what technologies will affect operators over the coming months.
It would seem there is a general agreement that mobile devices will continue to proliferate and that we will see growth in the number of hospitality-specific applications that can run on hand-helds.
"There will be more technology moving to tablet and smartphones running the Android operating system," says Mike Conyer, managing director at reservation booking provider Restaurant Diary.
"It's relatively cheap technology and while we have already seen examples of wine lists and menus being presented to guests on tablets, I expect to see more complex applications such as reservation systems and EPoS being made available on mobile devices."
According to Conyers, these new applications will have to be simpler, less data-heavy versions of traditional software, so they can run effectively on hand-held devices.
With more potential customers carrying smartphones and tablets, Simon Burgon, a director at app development agency 360R, says he expects more hospitality operators to develop apps that people can download on to their devices. These might be, for example, a video of the hotel's facilities or an animated 360-degree tour of the property.
"While users typically spend an average of only a minute and a half on a website, they currently stay on an app for over four minutes," he explains.
"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."
Burgon says it is important operators allow users to download their apps for free and that they make them available on the Apple App store - a common location to source apps. He says apps can cost anywhere from £1,000 to £100,000 to create, depending on their complexity.
"Operators have to think in terms of apps becoming just as important as their website in terms of interacting with customers," he adds.
And with more guests carrying smartphones and tablets, hoteliers will have to reassess the Wi-Fi services they offer customers, according to Bryan Steele, managing director of technology consultancy Jireh-Tek. With an increase in devices comes a demand for more bandwidth, which, he says, some hotels may not be able to handle with their current provision.
Steele says he has seen a trend towards hotels developing apps that guests can download on to their devices, which allows them to control in-room entertainment and ordering services and he expects this to continue.
He also predicts an increase in hoteliers who have their software delivered from "above" the hotel - that is, software that is delivered over the internet from remote datacentres and not stored on servers physically located on site.
"Technology is getting more complex and hotels don't want to pay to have a specialist on-site to look after it," Steele says.
"The days of the guy behind the front desk also being the person who looks after the IT because he ‘knows a bit about computers' is long gone."
Steele says software delivered in this way also has the advantage of making it easier for hotel groups who acquire another property to assimilate that property quickly and without too much complexity.
And while technology can bring many benefits to operators, Pamela Carvell, owner of Pampas Marketing, warns there are also potential pitfalls.
"Technology has made it possible for anyone to post a review or a blog about a restaurant or a hotel," she says.
"And with more people than ever using smartphones they can now even take a picture of the dish and upload a review while they are still at the dining table."
Carvell says, rather than operators bemoaning this trend towards "citizen's journalists", they should "embrace it and accept that it won't go away."
She adds: "If you truly offer good products and services, you have nothing to fear. And for those operators who don't, the trend towards online reviews provides some transparency and will force them to up their game."
Call Systems Technology will be showcasing training and reference software product ConnectSmart TeamAssist from QSR Automations at Hotelympia.
Aimed at restaurants, a key feature is its recipe viewer, which allows chefs to call up quick reminders and thus maintain recipe consistency. Via touchscreens in the kitchen, chefs and support staff can instantly access recipes - presented using both photos and videos - offering an up-to-date alternative to the costly printing of menu cards and recipe books that often clutter the kitchen.
TeamAssist can be configured so that different screens show only the sections of the menu items that are appropriate for that station.
Find the right table
Stand S2025 Long Range Systems will be demonstrating its Table Tracker product at this year's Hotelympia.
Based on RFID technology, it has been designed to help waiting staff easily find the table where a customer is sitting. About the size of a CD and less than half an inch thick, Table Tracker doesn't take up any valuable table space because it uses RFID tags installed under the table.
When the device is handed to the customer, it sends a signal to the touch screen display which shows the order number and table location.
Stand S1810 Hospitality firm Brilliant Hotel Software is using Hotelympia to launch its iTesso Enterprise Lodging System, which encompasses CRS, PMS and distribution systems on a single platform.
Based on technologies such as Microsoft Silverlight and Windows Azure, this cloud-based solution is designed to help hoteliers manage their business more efficiently and cost-effectively. The company will also be able to talk about its Call Center Module, which can be accessed via a web browser.
100 new features
Stand S1732 The Hotel Perfect team will be demonstrating its new Version 5 software, which has over 100 new features - including a new document storage module, dynamic pricing and a SMS text facility. Also available as part of the Hotel Perfect software is a fully integrated channel management option with links to more than 60 online travel agencies.
Hotel Perfect provides a full suite of software designed specifically for the UK hospitality market, including PMS, EPoS, online bookings and channel management solutions, and works with hundreds of hotels and self-catering operators throughout the UK.
At the Salto Systems stand visitors will get the chance to look over the latest advances in wireless hotel security technology, designed to enhance the guest experience and maximise guest room security.
New for 2012 is the latest version of the firm's Aelement RFID hotel lock, which controls who is able to access what, where and when.
Other features include instant room move and extended-stay abilities, lost card cancellation, intrusion alarm, door ajar alarm and remote opening. It also features roll-calls, visitor limited access, gym locker locking - all on one platform.
Stand S2043 Vitmen has embraced the tablet PC revolution and will be unveiling its new hand-held electronic menu at the show.
Designed to provide eateries with a compelling alternative to the printed menu, this Android-powered device looks like a conventional menu in a lot of respects but can be branded and customised to meet individual tastes. The 10in tablet affords instant-access technology and savings in labour, paper and print ink.
A change in any menu item can be communicated at the flick of a switch and sent to all units on the premises instantaneously.
New pricing options
Stand S1716 Say hello to the Alacer team, who will be on hand to discuss the latest release of its "one-system" hospitality software suite.
Offering new functionality, the suite comprises software modules, linked to a central database, that cater for hotels, spas, restaurants, bars and beyond.
Compared with traditional solutions comprised of multiple interfaced systems, Alacer says its suite offers consistency and inherent reliability, and the ability to analyse data from across the business instantly.
Alacer also plans to launch new flexible pricing options at the show, so the product becomes accessible to a wider customer base.
Stand S1801 At Hotelympia, NFS will be showing its new iQ-Kiosk in conjunction with its established roomMaster 2000 property management software.
RoomMaster handles reservations, sales ledger, point-of-sale and commission-free internet bookings on one platform. And for guests who want to avoid the queue at the front desk, the iQ-Kiosk is designed to provide easy-to-use self-service check-in or check-out out in under a minute.
There will also be a chance to find out more about NFS's IBS Club Management solution, which offers integration of all software across a club's estate.
Stand S2011 Cashless payment systems specialist VMC will be exhibiting its well-established portfolio of products which recently garnered a Caterer and Hotelkeeper Best Use of Technology Award.
The company produces both hardware and software and supplies all the major vending and catering operators, as well as dealing directly with end-users. Offering both cash and credit/debit card loading, the VMC team will also be introducing a new range of applications that integrate with third-party providers such as print management and car parking.
Stand 1936 Drop by the CST stand to try out Quail Digital's wireless headsets, designed to improve communications between kitchen and serving staff by giving them instant, two-way dialogue.
According to the makers, the clarity of the HD signal ensures that messages are understood even when working in noisy environments and the lightweight headset is unobtrusive and comfortable for staff to wear, as well as easy to use. The headsets come with talk-lock and push-to-talk modes as standard, which allows staff to remain constantly in touch.
Guests now bring the content, but hoteliers can still host the service
Bryan Steele, managing director, Jireh-Tek
Trends in what hotel guests require from their in-room technology mean, I believe, that providers of traditional video-on-demand services will have to change their business model and the types of services they deliver if they are to succeed into the medium- to long-term.
What I have seen is the start of a shift away from video-on-demand towards guests carrying content on their own devices or going to the internet to download films, video clips and music. Online businesses such as LoveFilm, which is now owned 100% by Amazon, and Netflix, which recently launched in the UK, are at the forefront of the growing tendency for consumers to stream content over the internet.
At the same time, there is a new generation of entertainment equipment available - including TVs and Blu-Ray players - that connect to the Internet and that are destined to become commonplace in UK living rooms over the next few years. And what people have at home, they will want in their hotel rooms - squeezing out video-on-demand services.
But while this migration towards the Internet may be painful for video-on-demand companies in the short-term, they are also well-placed to take advantage of the clamour for content that is closely linked to Internet use.
If these businesses are able to offer managed Internet services to support content on demand and new services - such as theatre and restaurant booking systems - that guests can access via their TVs, tablet PCs and smartphones, and from which the hotels are able to take a commission, I believe they have a positive future. It won't be easy and will involve these players integrating solutions to offer a broader range of services. But if they don't adapt, I believe video-on-demand providers will find themselves with no demand.
Bryan Steele is managing director of hospitality IT consultancy Jireh-Tek and chairman of the IT committee at HOSPA. He will be speaking at Hotelympia on guest technologies as part of the HOSPA seminar programme