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Digital Dining

In our information-hungry society, technology has rapidly transformed the way consumers make purchases today. And as our methods of communication evolve, businesses must embrace new approaches for engaging with their customers. In the lodging industry, this has prompted many hotels to develop mobile apps for on-the-go travelers and offer direct bookings via smartphone and Facebook. Once these digital explorers check-in, they still keep one foot firmly planted in the tech realm, even when they’re on the hunt for dinner and drinks. Digital menus and QR codes are changing the process in which guests make their food and beverage decisions at hotels, impacting the overall guest experience.

INTERACTIVE ORDERING
Gene Zell, CEO of the 1-year-old digital menu solution provider Aptito, says restaurants are lagging behind many other industries in regards to digital technology. “Restaurants have used paper menus since the early 1800s. Everything has changed since then except the way we dine out,” Zell says. “I found that to be particularly ridiculous, with the amount of cheap technology available these days. Somebody needs to step up and figure things out where it accommodates the client as well as the restaurant establishment and hotel.”

With the release of the iPad in April 2010, and the wave of tablets that followed, some forward-thinking restaurateurs began experimenting with digital wine lists and menus. Customers now had searchable, interactive information at their fingertips, with detailed descriptions, photos, ratings, and the power to make more educated, and perhaps bolder, decisions.

“Many people don’t like to try dishes they never heard of before, but after looking at some pictures, as I found out for myself, they don’t look as bad as they may sound,” Zell says.

In addition to potential sales increases, restaurants can benefit from the ability to easily update specials, add or remove items, and change prices on the fly without spending money to reprint hundreds of menus. As the concept progresses, digital menu capabilities are expanding to allow customers to place their orders, make special requests to the kitchen, and even pay their bill.

While some skeptics fear that technology will depersonalize the dining experience, and limit the amount of personal interaction between the employee and customer, others feel it improves communication and increases staff productivity.

“If a customer has a particular question about a dish or about the restaurant, instead of looking for the waiter, and waving their hands trying to get attention, they can click one button and get attention,” Zell says.

Customers using Aptito’s digital menu software, on either iPad or Android tablets that have been purchased or leased by the property, can browse photos of dishes, contact their server, rate their meals, and recommend restaurants to their Facebook friends.

Aptito’s other services include a smartphone app, from which customers can access the restaurant’s menu, book a reservation, or place an order; a hotel app for accessing services and amenities such as room service; and a tablet, cloud-based POS system. “It makes all the sense in the world for establishments to start jumping into the digital world,” Zell says.

INSTANT SERVICE
Although the cost of tablets continues to decrease, it can still be an expensive investment for certain properties. QR codes offer an inexpensive and in some cases cost-free way to interact and engage with customers.

Retail Application Deployment (RAD) Systems LLC, an Orlando-based company that uses mobile barcode technology to deploy digital content at physical locations, developed a service called Scan4Beer that allows resort patrons, golfers, and sports fans to place drink orders via smartphone, without interrupting their leisure activity.

In a resort environment, guests can scan a QR code, whether it’s fixed on their cabana chair, table or umbrella, and the order will be delivered directly to their location.

“The QR code is the means to allow the location to engage with the customer,” says Matt Roberts, vice president of RAD Systems, which officially launched Scan4Beer nationwide in February. “It’s like a portal. Customers whip out their phone, take a picture of the code, and now they’re communicating to the hotel.”

Roberts says by using a technology service such as this, properties can increase staff productivity and make the ordering process more efficient. Servers don’t have to constantly canvas the grounds asking guests if they are ready to place an order, and guests don’t have to get up and wait in line at the bar.

“Customers can engage as much as they want with servers, but they’re engaging on their terms, when they want to,” Roberts says.

Customers access the menu on their own phones through a specially designed Web app, or by downloading a free application from iTunes or the Android Market. Once guests place an order, it opens up a ticket to the bartender on the establishment’s POS system and the server delivers the drink once it’s prepared.

Because there is no cost for participating hotels, Scan4Beer earns revenue by charging liquor and beer companies a nominal fee when guests purchase one of their products from a premier menu page. The “more” button leads customers to a more in-depth menu that the hotel creates.

EDUCATED CONSUMER
Other hotels are opting for a more subtle way to incorporate technology that gives guests a choice as to how interactive they want to get. Interstate Hotels & Resorts’ “Cocktails” menu isn’t digital, but it features QR codes for inquisitive guests who want access to more information. The current menu rolled out in June 2011 and is in use at more than 40 Interstate hotels, with more properties implementing it each week.

The content is separated by spirit type, so guests can easily search for a signature cocktail that is prepared with the spirit of their choice. Cocktail options are highlighted by flavor profile and a traditional description. Each spirit section includes a unique QR code that will pull up a photo and recipe of the featured drink on a particular page.

“When guests choose to use a smartphone and snap the QR code, they are taken to behind-the-scenes information and education on how they can duplicate the delicious creation at home,” says Bradley Moore, director of food and beverage for Interstate Hotels & Resorts.

Guests can also choose to email, Facebook post, and tweet the contents of the site directly to their pages.

“The more that our guests rely on social media outlets for their information, the more engaged we have to be with social media,” Moore says. “Our hotels have robust email, Facebook, and Twitter campaigns, which they use to continuously drive traffic in the hotel outlets.”

Consumers are more knowledgeable than ever about what they eat and drink, and the Cocktails menu helps guests discover their flavor profile preferences and encourages experimentation with new and different types of spirits. “In general, consumers are becoming more aware of their food and beverage choices, and some are very educated on the subject,” he says.

“Guests are entering our hotel outlets asking if their fish was caught wild or farm raised, they understand the benefit of being served locally-raised meat and produce, and they are educated on the differences in organic and all-natural products.

“This definitely carries over to beverage,” Moore continues, “with consumer knowledge on the nuances of how various bourbon and scotch products are aged, the farming practices of different wineries, and the growing number of microbrew beer varieties.”

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