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Tablets – T-Commerce: Innovative Guest-facing Applications

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October 01, 2011
Michael L. Kasavana, Ph.D., NCE, CHTP - kasavana@msu.edu

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For most industries, including hospitality, the creative implementation of a portable, mobile tablet device is on the verge of explosion. The use of tablet computers in business, referred to as t-commerce, involves pad-like mobile units functioning as a product information kiosk, point of sale terminal, digital display, inventory monitoring device, Web access tool and a variety of related applications. A tablet device can be placed on a tabletop or desktop, wall mounted or secured to a pedestal for easy access by staff and consumers alike. T-commerce components are capable of engaging, mobilizing and reconciling hospitality guest-facing transactions resulting in more techno-savvy industry practitioners and consumers. Often described as a hybrid of smartphone and desktop computer, tablet devices are proving helpful to hospitality business guests, employees and management in a variety of full-service and self-service applications.

In Spring 2011, Apple announced that more than 20 million iPad tablets had been sold. Merrill Lynch forecasts another 20 million iPads will be sold by Apple through the end of 2011 with more than 52 million tablet devices overall being sold in 2011. Most technology experts agree that the introduction of the iPad and iPad2 devices redefined the relevance and role of mobile computing devices in business with no less than 80 different tablet devices announced or released at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES). T-commerce is becoming a familiar feature of business life with outlets increasingly equipping staff with a tablet device, placing accessible devices in consumer’s reach and marketing downloadable applications for consumer’s to place on personal devices. A recent research study conducted by the National Restaurant Association found that two out of three 18- to 34-year-old consumers favored restaurants that made use of high-tech applications more so than those emphasizing specialty menu offerings or service quality enhancements.

For the hospitality industry, there have been many pioneering uses of tablet devices as industry operators were among the earliest adopters to recognize the design features leading to improved service and self-service applications as well as robust employee assistance capabilities and back office functionality. Such guest-facing applications as hotel room amenity menus, digital food and beverage presentation, detailed wine inventory navigation, and account settlement contributed to the rapid success of t-commerce applications. In addition, monitoring of guest requests and staff responses, goods and services promotions, recipe content and nutritional analysis, e-couponing, and back office flash reports have become part of the lodging and foodservice toolbox. For the hospitality industry, the goal of t-commerce is to apply tablet devices in a way that technology complements service, not replaces it. Hotels, restaurants, bars and private member clubs have become better able to manage a variety of operations via tablet devices as the following sections delineate.

Lodging Management
In an attempt to enhance the guest’s experience throughout a hotel stay some hoteliers have installed t-commerce devices in guestrooms, lobby and public space locations, spas and convention centers. The placement of tablet devices in these locations enables more features and transactions to be directly under guest control, which empowers the guest while reducing the hotel’s operating costs. Guest-facing applications, which typically integrate directly to the hotel’s property management system (PMS) and/or property website, form the basis of a data warehouse of aggregated information ripe for data mining. Such factors as guest preferences, purchasing habits and service requests can be tracked and analyzed.

With t-commerce, guests can review hotel amenities and services including in-room dining, turn down service, wake-up call scheduling, restaurant reservations, local transportation arrangements and housekeeping or maintenance service requests. Given the integrated nature of system interfaces, management is able to process and monitor guest actions and transactions, revise displayed sale offers and promotional media, and evaluate staff responses to guest needs in a timely manner. Some of the benefits derived from the implementation of tablet devices involve redefining the guest experience with respect to leveraging technology to communicate, promote, cross-sell, up-sell and advertise goods and services, while altering the core of a traditionally paper-driven, paper-laden lodging culture.

Guest Services In-room tablet devices can be used to provide guests access to hotel concierge-type services (e.g. in-room dining, eatery suggestions and reservations, spa services, housekeeping requests, local transport, maps and directions, etc.). In addition, a number of properties have installed tablet devices in lobby areas to further extend guest service accessibility. T-commerce applications range from devices that auto-play a hotel welcome video message every time the device is initialized to robust applications that enable online global shopping.

At both its Royalton and Mondrian Soho New York hotels, Morgans Hotel Group has placed an Apple iPad in each guestroom (more than 430 total) to provide a more interactive guest experience. Featured among Morgans’ applications is access to the company’s proprietary catalog entitled ‘The List,’ an exclusive selection of must-see attractions, music downloads and current events. Also available on the in-room tablet devices is an application that enables the guest to order products from a virtual minibar replete with a broad range of non-traditional selections (including beverages, snacks, electronics, grooming supplies and casual apparel); all delivered to the guestroom with impressive room service efficiency.

Guestroom Controls An intuitive touchscreen tablet device can be used to provide the guest with effective control over the temperature, air movement and lighting levels within the guestroom. Providing guests with these controls improves guest satisfaction and comfort. Inncom's Integrated Room Automation System (IRAS) can be integrated with the Interactive Customer Experience (ICE) for iPad from Intelity, which allow guests to control room temperature, lighting, drapes and alarm clock settings directly from a tablet device, even when the guest is not in the room. In addition, the ICE iPad app can be configured to include Inncom’s ecoMODE, an application that empowers guests to select a feature that governs guestroom energy conservation. The company’s website states that more than 80 percent of guests use some aspect of the ICE application suite during a hotel stay.

Sales Management For more than a year, hotel sales managers have been using t-commerce equipment, often in combination with cloud computing, to capture, process and record hotel bookings. From overnight accommodations, to meeting room space, to foodservice menu selection, to conference room configuration, to tradeshow layout can all be completed through a t-commerce application. Sales teams are able to access email, review contacts, calendars and other resources in real time. A provider of sales and marketing solutions for the hospitality industry, the Knowland Group has configured its industry software, Target Net, for tablet devices. The application allows hotel sales staff to login into a Target Net account, on or off-premises, and promote both individual and group business. TargetNet enables hotel/guest contract creation, distribution and digital signature capture with this mobile application.

Virtual Concierge Replacement of a staffed concierge desk with a smart digital application that serves as a coordinator of goods and services empowers guests to self-manage and control transactions. Hoteliers first explored concierge replacement with a series of non-interactive videos; recently the videos evolved into tablet-based applications with the capability to serve as interactive service hubs. These hubs freed hired staff to focus on assisting those guests requiring personalized expertise versus conventional searches.

InfoSys Virtual Concierge provides access to a variety of lodging services including housekeeping, engineering, security, front desk, food and beverage, recreation, spa, guest accounting, bell and valet staff, local transportation and airline information. Such applications can be interfaced to the hotel’s PMS, POS and specialized transaction systems. Included in the system is a means to highlight local eateries, area attractions, shopping centers, entertainment venues and points of interest, all with MapQuest interconnectivity for generating walking or driving directions.

Pre-arrival Services There are t-commerce applications that allow soon-to-be guests access to hotel services, room reservations, in-room amenities and various forms of information (e.g. weather forecast, local attractions, promotional materials and transportation availability). The Interactive Customer Experience (ICE) technology from Intelity has remote as well as in-house application capabilities. This software serves as a portal allowing potential guests to review digital, as opposed to printed materials, to interact with specific services at the destination hotel prior to arrival.

Restaurant Management
A number of industry observers anticipate the future of restaurant menu presentation to be digital, not printed, as the traditional menu is expected to become as scarce as finding a pay phone or wind-up wristwatch. Durable tabletop tablet devices that provide a multidimensional, multilingual menu presentation, searchable menu listings and nutritional information in an attractive easy to update format surely alters the dining experience.

For many foodservice providers, the smaller technology footprint of a t-commerce device can be an important consideration as dining room and production space may be limited or constrained. Alternatively, some foodservice establishments are electing to locate a tablet device atop a tethered, pedestal stand on each dining room table and equipping it with a theft deterrent security system. Industry experts have credited the minimalist form factor of a tablet device as a significant consideration. Additional values gained through t-commerce deployment include enhanced customer relationship management through the availability of digital surveys, email address capture, and affinity/rewards/frequent diner programming.

Menu Presentation There has been a steady movement to place restaurant menus on an automated tablet device as a platform for impressive graphics, photos and links to support materials such as nutritional values, ingredients, recipes and related characteristics. The replacement of a printed menu with an electronic display has enabled restaurateurs to add special promotions and cross-selling techniques to what had been a highly static sales tool.

The Chicago Cut Steakhouse uploads its dining menus and wine lists to its in-store tablet PCs. This upscale eatery relies on 40 iPads for guest meal and beverage selection through creative artistry, including a customized application resembling a virtual wine cellar. The wine list contains detailed information on more than 750 wines enabling the guest to perform a product search by variety, price, taste or region of origin. This application is so extensive, diners can actually access a Google map of the vineyard from which a wine was produced. In addition to many other foodservice operators, vacation specialist Celebrity Cruises and quick service provider Au Bon Pain have been recognized for successful marketing of menu offerings through tablet-based devices.

Order Entry A highly effective digital menu should provide the guest an ability to perform an item search by a variety of criteria (e.g. allergens, dietary restrictions or other factors). Once a menu item is identified, the guest should also be able to initiate order entry.

At 4Food Restaurant located in midtown New York, diners can build and name their own burgers. Tablet devices are strategically positioned atop pedestal stands that feature choice menu items as well as the ability for self-ordering and electronic payment capture. Perhaps the tipping point for self-order entry through a mobile device was the Micros POS iPad Ordering Application. This technology, built as an extension to the Micros POS suite, has been credited with enhancing both table turns and average check.

BTO – Build To Order A unique feature of t-commerce devices is the simplicity involved with allowing customers to design a personalized menu item based on food components positioned as building blocks. In many applications, consumers merely click and drag graphic icons to create a visual of a customized item. Often the guest can also assign a unique name to the item and thereby save it within the system it for re-ordering. 

Stacked Restaurants placed 100 iPads in each of its restaurants to allow diners to review meal options and apply BTO algorithms. This functionality enabled diners to design their own menu items (e.g. burgers, pizzas and salads) and swipe a credit or debit card for payment. For environmental protection, the iPads are placed in a metal frame and are positioned on a short stand about 3 inches above the tabletop and are alarmed as a theft deterrent. Other restaurant companies have also implemented multifaceted tablet devices including OTG Management that installed menu iPads at its foodservice outlets in New York’s JFK and LaGuardia airports. The installed iPads enable guests to custom-build and self-order salad and sandwich items. A waiter transports the food from production to service and the guest is given the option of settling the bill via iPad or with the waiter.

Recipe Analysis  There is probably no easier means to provide menu item detail than through iPad support. A tablet device can be used to provide guests with menu item detail as well as provide foodservice production staff with standardized kitchen procedures through the use of photographic and video images. On the consumer side is a plethora of facts and selection criteria (allergens and intolerances), while on the production side is portion and batch information, including recipe scaling and substitute ingredient impact.

From a guest perspective several tablet devices have been cited for providing access to ingredient content; from a production perspective, BirchStreet Systems Recipe iPad software contains a robust set of applications. This iPad-based system is equipped with recipe management features that enable kitchen staff to quickly scale standard base recipes to desired batch and portion sizes, review pictures of menu items in various stages of production, and to view final menu item service presentation, all on the fly. 

Point of Sale (POS) The ability to settle transactions at the point of purchase through electronic data capture is gaining traction as consumer confidence in the areas of security and service timing are addressed by tablet devices. POS settlement is an important aspect of t-commerce as intuitive functionality and lead through programming can provide reconciliation while providing real-time report generation, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional fixed POS terminal system. In addition, a mobile POS device removes the need to allocate space and personnel to a dedicated cashier station. Revel Systems offers an iPad-based enterprise software system for the restaurant industry. The Revel POS system provides a comprehensive series of monitoring and tracking procedures designed to document sales from order entry through to secure payment processing. The Revel System combines the usability of the iPad with the flexibility of cloud-based software. Similarly, the ISISPOS solution and Squirrel Professional POS solution also operate on an iPad platform and can be used by servers or guests to capture and transmit orders, and accept credit/debit card payments. Somewhat unique is the Nextep Systems Mynextep.net, which is a Web-based POS application that integrates iPad transactions to a back-end system to provide administrative and reporting oversight.

Line Busting The ability to avoid or eliminate long waiting times at foodservice eateries is highly desirable. A somewhat unexpected benefit of t-commerce computing is that it can enable guest self-order entry, while awaiting seating or from the table, thereby removing or diminishing the waiting line. Line-busting can also be accomplished through staff operated tablet devices. This mobile application allows the server to take orders while guests wait for restaurant seating. Line-busting is designed to minimize customer concern over slow or poor table management.

When Nextep Systems added iPad menu item ordering and POS settlement to its tablet device capabilities, there was an unexpectedly positive impact on line-busting. The application contributed to shortening lines while improving table turnover and average check. An alternate approach involves Xylem Interactive’s DSL (which cleverly stands for Don’t Stand in Line) software. This application involves an online ordering system in which a guest uses a tablet device to access the restaurant’s webpage to place an order and specify a desired pickup time. The transaction is complete when the guest arrives at the designated time and location. This application is credited with providing a near in-house experience and with reducing or eliminating wait times.

Loyalty Rewards Although still in its developmental stages, changes in loyalty and reward programs may be on the horizon given the potential impact of t-commerce devices. There has been some experimentation with replacing a traditional loyalty card with a plastic card (or even an e-wallet) with an embedded RFID chip. Once a guest enters the eatery, management can be alerted via his/her iPad. Information about the guest’s purchase history and personal data can be retrieved and displayed on the iPad thereby creating the opportunity for enhancing the guest’s experience. Sprocket Kiosks has developed an interactive iPad-based kiosk to track customer purchase activity and earned rewards for Hog’s Breath Cafes in Australia. This tablet-based application also allows guests to sign up for special offers via iPad establishing an interactive relationship with guests.

Beverage Management
Tablet devices that display beverage lists  have shown to enhance the guest’s in-house experience while significantly increasing product sales. A tablet device is becoming the industry standard for presentation quality as it provides outstanding graphics, can be updated in real time, and provides unparalleled detailed information on beverages and food item pairings.

Wine List Search A central feature of a digital wine display is its level of interactivity through multiple search routines (by type, varietal, winery, region, price, rating, food pairing and other criteria). In many applications, the tablet device uses the property’s wine offerings along with an inventory tracking mechanism (e.g. bar code) to seamlessly maintain an updated availability of stock on hand. Often referred to as the wine tablet among sommeliers, these devices provide diners an interactive tool for identifying wines that interest them. Industry practitioners cite wine sales increases of 10 percent to 20 percent as a result of tablet platforms.

South Gate Restaurant of New York City was an early provider of digital wine listings on an iPad. It employed a specialty application called SmartCellar from Incentient that allowed guests to quickly sort wines by price and type. Catch Restaurant, located inside Hotel Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica, Calif., enables diners to display detailed information on each of its wines, including ratings, pricing, pairing suggestions and bottle label. Similarly, in Atlanta at Bone’s Steakhouse Restaurant gold-jacketed waiters greet diners by handing them an iPad loaded with the restaurant’s extensive wine list (detailed descriptions and ratings of 1,350 labels). The tablet devices are credited with initiating deeper interest in wine while empowering more confident selections.

Content Searches Part of the problem for bars and restaurants with extensive product offerings is determining an efficient menu presentation scheme. A tablet device has become the preferred platform as item presentation, description, price and other criteria can be neatly categorized and displayed to educate guests to make more informed decisions and thereby enhance the hospitality experience.

In Columbia, Md., Victoria Gastro Pub replaced its 60-page Libations Menu with digital iPad content achieved through Micros’ mymenu application. In addition to item postings, the pub relies on several roving iPads to provide guests the ability to search current offerings by a variety of filters, such as flavor profile, orientation or brewing style as well as view detailed product information. A special feature of this application is the inclusion of a shopping cart metaphor that enables guests to place candidate product choices into the cart for later consultation with service staff prior to final selection. The restaurant has embedded GPS chips in its iPad devices to reduce the threat of theft.

Updating Another important advantage of digital presentation lists is the ability to update inventory and pricing across all products instantaneously. Some tablet applications are interoperable with back-end inventory systems to enable countdown reflection of products remaining on hand.

The Victoria Gastro Pub has also launched the innovative Beer Club and Cork Club loyalty programs powered by Micros iCare, an easy-to-search, well-organized database of constantly changing inventory of beer and wine products seamlessly integrated with the installed Micros POS system.

Club Management
The above food and beverage applications as well as overnight accommodation uses, can be applied similarly in private member clubs. In addition there are some unique tablet applications helpful in the club environment, including club news and events, recreational reservations, directions and maps, weather conditions, photo galleries, links to staff members and club website hyperlinks.

Newsletter Similar to a newspaper application on a tablet device, the club news can be published in a user friendly, attractive format that takes advantage of the tablet devices sharp graphics, touch-sensitive fonts and rapid scrolling capabilities.

The tablet application for the Anthem Country Club in Henderson, Nev., provides a digital version of the club newsletter (Anthem Daily) that includes reports on news and events, upcoming promotions and programs, calendar planning, along with weather reports, committee updates, class and clinic offerings and staff happenings.

Tee Times While there are a number of ways to make tee-time reservations at private clubs booking via tablet provides quick access to a digital time sheet.  A tablet application from Shaker Hills Golf Club provides valuable tools for on and off-course golfing. The application includes the club newsletter, enables members to book tee times, displays yardages and GPS landmarks, and provides a communication channel to club staff members.

Electronic Scorecard The ability to load a scorecard with course highlights, features and challenges on a tablet device for use on the club’s golf course is an ideal way to chart a round with a virtual expert caddie. Photo maps for hole layout, videos of simulated shots generated from detailed 3-D course models, and scorecard tabulations and handicap tracking can be built into this application. The Diamond Country Club of Austria has been captured and packaged into a GB3D Caddie version by GolfBlaster. This tablet-based application can be used to accompany a golfer playing the actual course or as a standalone gaming device for a virtual course simulation.

The explosion of t-commerce throughout the hospitality industry is happening at an unprecedented rate. Development is occurring despite that a majority of guests assert a fondness for full-service, not self-service. Tablet devices are being effectively applied to nearly all aspects of hotel, restaurant, bar and club operations. While the potential impact of tablet devices on lodging, foodservice and club revenues remains unknown, most industry observers believe that these devices offer unique services (e.g. build-to-order items, extensive product information, up-selling and cross-selling, in-room controls, graphic explanation and transaction settlement). Together these features can reinforce and expand guest relationship management efforts.

Improvements in the evolution of tablet devices include thinner and more durable case design (security and convenience), feature-rich architecture (HD graphics and dual cameras), multitasking of intuitive tasks simultaneously (Web surfing, movie downloading and video streaming), improved graphic performance through integrated video imaging and extended battery life. The next generation of t-commerce devices are expected to be equipped with integrated near field communication (NFC) capabilities and 3-D graphics among other enhancements.

Michael Kasavana, PH.D., NCE, CHTP, is a NAMA professor in Hospitality Business for the School of Hospitality Business at the Michigan State University. He can be reached at kasavana@msu.edu.  

©2011 Hospitality Upgrade
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