Great strides

Traditionally viewed as something of a laggard, the hospitality and leisure sector is now as cutting edge as any other when it comes to technology solutions, observes Scott Thompson.

Nowadays, visit a bar, pub or restaurant and you're likely to come across the most flexible and innovative PoS solutions in operation. PizzaExpress, for instance, recently rolled out a new PoS system from Torex across all of its 356 sites in the UK, Ireland and Channel Islands. The roll-out followed a five month pilot programme across six restaurants. The company reports that the solution has reduced customer waiting time, administration and achieved greater accuracy in stock accounting, resulting in reduced wastage.

John Sullivan, director for group IT at Gondola Group, which operates more than 580 casual dining restaurants in the UK, comments: "Our previous PoS system and out of date processes meant we were spending too much time on admin, which limited the time we could spend with customers. We needed a solution that would capture our sales data accurately, enable us to manage stock limiting waste and automate manual tasks. Following the implementation of Torex PoS in the pilot restaurants, we saw an immediate impact on the business, including positive feedback from our teams."

The recession has hit the hospitality and leisure industries hard and so the need for technology that delivers an exceptional customer experience, while capturing essential sales and stock data, has never been greater. Time was when small restaurants and pubs were firmly rooted in the technological dark ages, but things change. "Hospitality and leisure, from a low base, has more recently been very proactive in embracing technology. While it's easy to go into a small retailer and find no EPoS system, more and more small restaurants and pubs are onboard with the technology," says Chris Barling, CEO at e-commerce and EPoS supplier, Actinic.

"And the ability to find room availability when searching on the web is very impressive, even though there's some way to go with very small hotels and guesthouses. Remember the days of making loads of phone calls to find someone who had a room available, and then probably failing? It's largely in the past," Barling adds.

A good example of innovation within the hotel business can be found at The Marriott Gatwick, which recently announced that it has chosen a combined solution from Acentic and REIO to provide an integrated TV and internet service for its rooms. Whilst Mulbourn Hotels, a group which owns 19 hotels across the UK, recently upgraded its IT system to improve its customer service. The new network ensures that centralised systems such as CRM and reservations will be available 24/7 for day to day running of the hotels. In addition, customer data will be secured to ensure compliance with standards such as the Data Protection Act. The company is forecasting a turnover of £48 million in its first year of trading, so upgrading the system ensures it will be able to cope with this growth. By outsourcing its entire voice infrastructure to Telstra International, Mulbourn has also been able free up employee resources that were previously dedicated to running its communications system as less co-ordination is now required in-house.

"The majority of organisations within the hospitality and leisure sectors have implemented various technology-based solutions from the early adoptions of the retail industry to improve their offerings," says Kevin Hickson, general manager at queue management specialist, Tensator. "It may have been slow moving previously, but now that technology is amongst consumers' daily lives, hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions have been able to monitor the triumphs and tribulations of retail, and thus safely learn from them and step up to the mark in the latest cutting-edge technology."

Hickson adds that segmentation, in the form of guest and customer profiling, is a key area of focus within this sector, and solutions such as electronic call-forward systems and digital signage can support this, and even be scheduled according to customer flow. Interactive way-finding solutions can be utilised via touch-screen plasma screens, and will also help customers navigate around hospitality
and leisure venues, whether viewing menus, opening times or prices of spa treatments and so on.

"And with hotels expanding and diversifying their offerings, such as conferences and weddings, there is an increasing need to ensure that service providers meet customers' specific technical needs and expectations," he says. "Tensator has installed a number of single line and dispersed queue call forward systems that integrate within existing systems, which can automatically generate reports to evaluate and improve customer flow, waiting times and operational efficiency. Queue management technology within this area alone, demonstrates that this is a sector in which the hospitality and leisure industry is excelling."

Movie mania

Unlike many of its leisure sector counterparts, cinema has thus far been immune to the financial crisis, posting record results last year and continuing to perform strongly in 2009. Cineworld, for instance, saw total estimated revenue up 16.5 per cent for the 27 weeks ending 2 July, driven by the surprise success of Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire, and blockbusters such as Star Trek, Transformers and X-Men Origins. "The outlook for the remainder of the year is promising thanks to an exciting line up of films such as Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince as well an increasing number of 3D releases including Ice Age 3, Up, and Toy Story," the company said in a statement.

The sector also boasts a number of companies who are responding in an innovative way to the changing retail landscape. Empire Cinemas has introduced self-service kiosks for ticket purchasing and collection, supported by YESpay's EMBOSS payment system. Julian Timm, IT director at the group, which operates 144 screens across 17 cinemas in the UK, says: "After researching numerous vendors we shortlisted two candidates. YESpay became the obvious choice as it was already PCI DSS pre-accredited and able to set up an initial trial quickly and efficiently."

"The kiosks have taken over £800,000 in a three-month period and have helped increase payment security and reduce queues. This has saved us time and money, and improved the customer service experience," Timm adds. "Since the implementation we have introduced electronic giftcards which can be used to pay at the kiosks. In the future we are planning for customers to be able to purchase tickets via their mobile phones and then collect at the kiosks. We also intend to allow our customers to be able to top up their giftcards at the kiosks and buy selected items such as popcorn and sweets. The business required a system that would support these additional operations."

Meanwhile, Cineworld has rolled out Protouch Xen X5 kiosks into a number of its cinemas. It installed the kiosks into five of its sites, which include Glasgow, West India Quays and Cheltenham, in late 2008. They are used in the cinema's main foyer for the Unlimited film programme that entitles visitors to watch any film, any day, any time and at any cinema from £13.50 a month. Wannabe members simply sign up by entering their details into the kiosk; an A4 receipt with a photo of the member on is then printed out which they can use as identification until their membership card arrives in the post. In the six months that the kiosks have been operating, they have pulled in 100 new members per week.

On the back of the success of the X5s, Cineworld is now rolling out 34 Xen X4 kiosks into 13 of its sites. These will be used by cinema goers for ticket purchase and collection and will run as either wall or floor mounted kiosks using the latest Chasis Printer technology for printing ticket receipts. Collectively the kiosks have brought down ticket purchase handling and paper costs and are particularly beneficial for managing customer data.

At the same time, however, Richard Cottrell, sales and marketing director at EPoS maintenance specialist, Vista Retail Support, sounds a note of warning: "The introduction of automated kiosks make both practical and economic sense to many players in the hospitality sector. It gives them the ability to reduce waiting times during peak foot fall and, in turn, keep customers happy. However, kiosk downtime can drive customers away. Savvy retailers have the foresight to ensure kiosks are always available. Businesses should look to work with a maintenance provider who understands that a fast response time is critical to maintaining high customer service levels.

"Organisations who specialise in retail and hospitality maintenance understand that when the kiosk isn't available, you're not taking cash and treat it with the same urgency as an EPoS failure. Businesses should ensure that any maintenance provider has coverage that suits your hours of trading. What's the point in having a four-hour fix that starts at 9am and stops at 5.30pm - if your business trades into the small hours so should your support company."

Ultimately, whilst hospitality and leisure was once know for its age-old processes, companies in this sector are now making intelligent use of technology in order to improve customer service and also provide flexibility when adapting to future business demands.

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