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The digital debate: what’s the opportunity value for restaurants? The industry gives its view

Speakers at this month’s MCA Hostech discussed the power of digital and how data can transform the restaurant industry. For those who missed it, Yumpingo CEO Gary Goodman gives a run-down on the topical themes…

It’s a balancing act that more and more restaurant operators are grappling with. How does the hospitality industry – a sector built on personal interaction and the human touch – harness the power of digital to its benefit? To what extent does and should technology - and the data it can generate - have the power to transform the way restaurant businesses operate? How is this working in practice today and what might the future look like?

At this month’s Hostech 2019 event, I took to the floor with Jonathan Knight, CEO of Jamie’s Restaurant Group, Gavin Adair, MD of Rosa’s Thai Café Group and panel moderator Peter Martin, Founder of CM & Co to discuss views. Key topics in the spotlight included…

How far can restaurants realistically go down the digital, data-driven route?

Gavin Adair’s view was that, while the human element in hospitality is absolutely key, the right technologies also play an essential role in creating operational and commercial advantage. However, the right balance must be struck. He’s found through his relationship with Yumpingo that achieving that balance can deliver significant, visible benefits, harnessing the power of data together with the personal touch to drive NPS, sales and footfall.

As he put it, “The insight we get from Yumpingo is front and centre of our KPIs. By layering that data across multiple reference points, we’re deepening our understanding of exactly what it is that customers are enjoying, and that’s fundamental to accelerating growth.”

Is there sufficient investment in fit-for-purpose technology?

Jonathan Knight said that when investing in new technologies, restauranteurs have to ask “What’s it going to take to make it work and how much is it going to cost?”, just as you would when making any other investment decision, for instance on the aesthetics of the site or re-branding. He believes that if operators can “future-proof” tech investment and see real ROI from digital innovation, they stand to gain competitive edge.

Is data changing and is it killing intuition?

“At one point we had so much data from multiple sources that we couldn’t really translate it into meaningful action within the restaurants” said Jonathan Knight. “Now we’ve consolidated it from a number of systems to just using Yumpingo, and now we’re able to deploy it in a variety of ways, from our latest menu developments to incentivising staff.”

Gavin Adair’s response to the question “is data killing intuition” was that “data provides the science to support our intuition.” He said that hospitality will always be a people-centric business but that doesn’t mean the sector only has gut-instinct alone to rely on.

I believe it’s all about providing certainty in an uncertain world, to empower restaurants to make confident decisions.

How can we develop and optimise an omni-channel experience?

For me, a critical question for the industry to consider is: “How can we develop a truly omni-channel experience within a people-led business?” Over the past two years, we’ve found that around half of all guests are keen to engage in the digital experience by leaving a review at the end of their meal, so how do you enhance that? What other content should be layered onto the digital conversation that customers are already having with restaurants? For example, information about what other diners are enjoying via QR codes on menus or friction-free pay-at-table solutions.

This prompted Peter Martin to ask whether Amazon-style innovations such as personalised product suggestions are something panellists see coming to restaurants?

Views varied. Jonathan Knight’s perspective was that, as things stand, “There’s still a long way to go for restaurants to be able to scope out an Amazon-style model that’s fit-for-purpose”. He believes that, while digital innovation has a lot to offer, in a people-driven business like hospitality, the role of individual staff in up-selling, engaging customers and providing a seamless will remain critical.

Gavin Adair added that if digital prompts could “take you to the sort of products that may be most suitable for you, for instance based on allergens information or previous preferences, I think that could be interesting.”

How far should personalising guests’ digital experience go?

There was some debate about how far operators should take this idea of digital “personalisation”. It was felt that such a move would need to be handled sensitively to mitigate the risk of potentially detracting from, rather than enhancing, customer service. However, done in the right way it was felt that there could be real value in it.

Gavin Adair raised the example of Amazon Prime as an interesting concept to consider in terms of how to make customers feel extra special and part of the brand using tech. Jamie’s is already taking a lead here with its “Gold Club” app which rewards loyal customers but, though useful, Jonathan Knight recognised that this approach can only go so far. He flagged up the challenge of communicating effectively with the rest of the target market with the right messages and through the right channels.

How do you get your teams to engage with technology and data?

“Training is an area where tech is absolutely essential,” Jonathan Knight commented. He said that getting to a point where co-workers want to compete on an app for the best scores is a win-win for all concerned. This applies from front to back of house, from customer service to issues such as more efficient waste management.

A concern, however, was the proliferation of devices that staff now have to use, from PDQs to tablets used by delivery companies – sometimes more than 10 hand-helds for different functions are in use in one restaurant environment. “That’s where we need a simpler solution,” he said.

That’s exactly why we at Yumpingo are currently working on a [new product] that enables restaurants to streamline the number of devices that are necessary, enabling multiple functionality on one tablet.

Gavin Adair talked about getting the balance right between hospitality and tech, and explained that its young, plugged-in staff in its Marketing and IT departments play a key role in “driving the agenda of delivering what our customers want.”

Food for thought

The role of digital and data in the restaurant scene is in a state of continuous evolution, as new technologies and techniques come to the fore and operator buy-in and customer demand develop and mature. Against this backdrop, there are bound to be as many questions as answers – and that’s healthy for a sector that’s keen to keep pushing the boundaries in order to innovate and continuously improve.

The Hostech event provided an essential forum for debate, throwing a fascinating spotlight onto where we are now and the likely future direction of travel, flagging up the effectiveness of solutions that already exist and anticipating ways in which the digital debate might be honed and enhanced going forward. It’s clear that, in a people-centric industry, digital innovation is here to stay. It’s about making it work to your advantage.


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