Once upon a time, hospitality was all about hustle and bustle: busy bars packed with people; restaurants humming with the comforting hubbub of diners chatting, service staff smiling, and the conviviality of a shared experience.
Those days are gone, with restaurant doors shut and bars transformed into silent caverns devoid of customers as well as drinks. Part of the hospitality sector may reopen in July, but our much-loved venues are unlikely to be the same again for a long time – perhaps ever.
Technology is already proving invaluable in connecting consumers with producers and suppliers, including the surge in the creation of online portals like food delivery service Mighty Small and online marketplace FLOC Market. But with restaurants and bars looking to a future where social distancing is the norm, could tech help them offer some kind of service in our ‘new normal’?
One new innovation is ServeSafely, adapted from technology that previously helped hotel guests order food and contact staff from their rooms but could now be used to enable socially-distanced dining and drinking. ServeSafely allows customers to order and pay at their tables by mobile phone, as well as using video and text to allow venues to provide a personal service at a safe distance and allowing managers to stagger customers’ arrival to avoid queues and maintain social distancing. There’s no app – customers point their camera phone at a QR code and get access to everything from advanced ordering to a video or messaging link that connects staff to customers as they arrive so they can direct them to their tables and make menu recommendations.
Gareth Hughes, CEO of Crave Interactive – the company behind ServeSafely – which is talking to more than 500 venues in the UK and United States about implementing the technology, says: “Pubs and restaurants are desperate to get back trading again and, let’s face it, we’re all missing having a pint or meal out. There needs to be a reality check with service though, if we’re to avoid a second disastrous wave of Covid-19.
“Hospitality can no longer be an ‘in person’ service industry, and we need to give customers confidence that they are safe to get them back through the doors. Mobile tech is the only way to safely get pints pulled and meals served this side of Christmas.
“ServeSafely replaces face-to-face service with easy to use mobile video chats with staff they can see at a safe distance a few yards away, keeping everyone socially distant but not anti-social. Not only is it effective, it’s very cool – it’s one button video service instead of waving your hands to attract passing staff. Staggered table booking times also means restaurants and pubs can better control the flow of people in and out, leaving time slots to thoroughly clean tables in between each guest. The hospitality industry has been hit hard by this crisis and I think everyone realises that we need to get creative and adapt to the changed environment where the safety of staff and customers is high on the agenda.”
Take things one step further, and you could end up with a robot waitress rather than a human. Tim Warrington, CEO of Bots.co.uk, which manufactures and hires out robots, says: “We have seen a huge increase in demand for waitress and delivery robots as when restaurants open again there will still be restrictions so delivery robots will prevent person-to-person contact. We are just about to launch a hire service at £950 per month per robot with the software. People can use their own phones to order and pay via the robot.”
Something we’re more familiar with is the ‘digital kiosk’ – the digital touchscreens that are regular sights in some fast food chains but set to become even more commonplace post- lockdown. Conor McCarthy, CEO of Flipdish, which provides the hardware and software to restaurants for such kiosks, says: “Demand for digital kiosks has been on the rise for years but, with lockdown easing, we expect orders to surge. The technology will allow establishments to better enforce social distancing measures. Self-ordering kiosks can drastically reduce both the size of queues and the number of person-to-person interactions. Given the technology can quickly pay for itself, it’s a sound long-term investment not just a quick-fix for Covid-19.”
One company has come up with a creation that not only focuses on social distancing but on coronavirus itself, measuring people’s temperatures to detect the virus as they walk into a restaurant. Global retail innovation agency Outform’s iDISPLAY Thermometer uses infrared ‘thermopile’ and facial recognition technology to detect fever levels by taking your temperature as you enter a venue. It then alerts people discreetly if they have a temperature of 37.8C or higher.
Simon Hathaway, managing director of Outform’s European operation, says: “This sector has done an amazing job of pivoting into direct-to-consumer deliveries and pushing into retail, but bottom lines here are driven by maximum head count. Most restaurants operate at something like 10 per cent profit so reconfiguring for 2m apart will mean a drop in capacity. Couple that with the fact that personal safety is top of the list for people now, it’s evident that there are some pretty tricky long-term challenges to be addressed.
“Being handed a pint or picking up a knife and fork, paying by chip-and-pin, or receiving a physical receipt can’t be taken for granted anymore. So businesses of all kinds will have to adapt, and innovative tech solutions will play a critical role in reassuring staff and customers alike of a safe return to bars and restaurants as economies open up.”
For Tom Cheesewright, applied futurist and author of Future-proof Your Business, tech is key in dealing with uncertainty. “Tech makes diversifying easier and cheaper, and when you don’t know what’s coming next, diversification is the key to success,” he says.
“It might be too late for some brands and retailers to make it through this crisis. But the lesson for next time is that you can’t rely on a single sales channel anymore, even for a simple cafe. You need to use technology to build an ongoing relationship with your customers, and to give them alternative ways to buy from you.”