Trends on the tech floor

It’s an exciting time in hospitality technology. We’re right on the cusp of some really great game-changers, offering ways to improve the guest experience that we never before imagined. Which ones seem to have more legs than others?

Here are some of the top trends found in the technology pavilion of NRA 2012:

From global to local

In the not too distant past, brands managed their message 24/7 across social media outlets for all their stores. Mobile and geo-targeted marketing are generating a slow creep to get the franchisees and even individual location managers involved with an individual location’s online presence. As sites like Facebook and Google+ continue to tighten their focus, the rest of us will have to follow suit.

"Targeted" and "personalized" are the critical trends in online marketing. Make sure your marketing messages are as personalized as possible, using products and promotions popular in specific locations, and most importantly, addressing the marketing message to the specific recipient. (Many email, text and mailing systems have this as an option; make sure you’re using it.)

In the future: More social media training and management systems. 

Social loyalty programs

You want to talk about generating brand ambassadors? If your loyalty program isn’t tied in with social media channels like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, you’re missing a huge opportunity. We looked at many of these systems over the course of the NRA Show; some we had also seen at the Restaurant Leadership Conference in March. We continue to be impressed at the amount of social content and dedicated followers they generate.

This is especially important now there are online ordering platforms developed for Facebook.

In the future: Online ordering and loyalty programs tied together in social media.

POS Systems are becoming more robust

POS systems are not just about touchscreens or integrating with mobile devices. Can the system tie in with your restaurant’s loyalty program and digital menu board? Can it take orders from an iPhone app? Can you put in limits on those app orders during rush periods so the kitchen doesn’t get overwhelmed? The answer is, “Yes.”

In fact, we tried really hard to find something they couldn’t do—and failed.

The big dogs of POS are doing an amazing job of staying nimble and finding new ways to develop their software as well as keep it flexible to integrate with other systems. This is great news for operators who want to take advantage of more business intelligence solutions.

In the future: The sky’s the limit. How much are you looking to spend?

Phone-based engagement in-house

While supplying trivia units and other gaming devices at the table is not unusual, newer programs allow customers to interact with in-house multimedia systems using their cellphone. One was a modern day jukebox app that allowed customers to change the in-house music. Another app required guests to check in via FourSquare to play trivia with other diners, with the bonus of submitting their scores to Facebook. Others allowed them to submit photos and text messages to television screens that displayed in house, or across multiple locations.

In the future: In-house WiFi is becoming more of a necessity for guests than a perk.

Goodbye pager, hello text message

Some of the largest buzz was for text-based table wait systems this year. The convenience for the customer in comparison to the old-fashioned pagers is significant. While cutting-edge paging systems have messaging built-in, you (and the guests) are still tied to their hardware.

By simply sharing their cellphone number, guests can walk—or even drive—away, and check their text messages to see when they need to come back. The more robust systems keep track of guests who don’t return, as well as send feedback surveys to those who stayed.

In the future: Expect to see these systems tied to loyalty programs.

Digital signage

While not a new concept, digital signs have been slower to roll out into the real world than we expected. This year’s improvements are about integration—with POS systems, company websites and mobile devices. When 62% of restaurant-related searches happen on a mobile device, the ability to communicate an accurate menu to your followers regardless of time or season is of ultimate importance.

We had the most fun playing with a system that was tied to tablets that guests could use to look at nutrition information, chef’s recipe notes and ingredients.

In the future: We expect to see feedback streams from social media or customer service reviews displayed. Maybe even video.

Credit card couponing

Perhaps one of the most interesting techbytes that dropped during an information session was the beta testing of coupons tied to a credit card. Imagine this: A guest buys a coupon for your restaurant, but doesn’t want to expose the discount to his date. One swipe of his card at the POS and it shows his discount, then marries it seamlessly and secretly to his ticket. No extra paper for the server to deal with, and no looking cheap in front of the lady.

In the future: Well, this IS in the future, but we’re excited about it right now!  

A few points that made people nervous:

  • Operators are on the fence about committing to mobile device ordering, but they want to find ways to keep the credit card from leaving the table.
  • Providing WiFi for guests is still a love/hate relationship. It has to be a separate system from the POS, and campers and bad table manners are concerns for many operators.  
  • There’s still a lot of angry grumbling about daily deal sites. Even when faced with operators who love them and had a positive experience with them, the naysayers are quick to speak out.

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