Technology increasingly underpins many of the processes in the hospitality industry. But what are going to be the main trends in 2007, and what are the main technology challenges facing the sector overthe next 12 months? Ross Bentley asks the experts
David Battersby, Managing director, Hospitality and Leisure Manpower
Wireless technologies will continue to grow in popularity. Hand-held devices providing access to local networks or the internet are a boon for many employees in the hospitality sector, such as reservations staff, who are freed from the front desk and able to give higher levels of customer service.
Online productivity scheduling tools that provide the right staff at the right time and place will become more widespread. They have the potential to drive down costs, and dramatically raise levels of productivity in any hospitality business.
We will also see a growing demand for real-time, online, customer feedback systems. Touch-screen tablets, or talk-back panels, can record customer feedback, which periodically can be downloaded by remote GSM (global system for mobile communications) links. Bespoke reports can quickly enable management and staff to take corrective action without the need for comparatively costly and time-consuming mystery shopping exercises.
Ben Wishart, Group IS director, Whitbread Group
A major challenge will continue to be how to make IT systems simpler to use, so that the people who work with them become more productive and help grow the business.
It's a generic problem that software is written by developers who are rarely familiar with the business they are developing systems for. It's important we get the systems people out into contact points with the guests, so they understand what they are delivering.
Simplicity is a key area of focus for us, and whatever the technology - be it system tills, reservation or membership systems - a real measure of our progress will be how well we reduce the number of 'How do I...' calls into the helpdesk.
It can be achieved. For example, how many customers do you train to use your website? Very few, because everyone is familiar with website design - it's simple and intuitive. We should look to make internal systems as easy to use.
Luke Mellors, IT director, Expotel
In hotels we will see more convergence and a move towards smart, integrated hotel rooms. IP (internet protocol) technology will be used to control devices such as heating, ventilation, air conditioning, televisions and coffee machines, while IP phones will incorporate Skype-like technology.
Self-service and the web will continue to grow, and companies will need to include more on their websites, such as news and photos from customers.
Pricing models for technology ancillary services will be a huge challenge. In the UK there is a backlash from the travelling public, who feel they are overcharged by hotels for internet use. This debate will continue to heat up.
The increasing complexity of online distribution of rates and rooms will be a big issue, as will the ability of independent hotels that are not available through global distribution systems to remain competitive as the booking trends go online.
Paul Williams, General manager, Sugarvine.com
I expect to see features that are common on the websites of US restaurants becoming more widespread over here in the UK.
A lot of the US sites feature music as standard, make use of 360° movies and video, and offer e-vouchers online. Some also contain blogs written by chefs and descriptions of their recipes, as well as the option to click through to online shops that sell produce.
Traditionally, chefs have remained out of sight in the kitchen, but the web can bring them directly in touch with their audience. We have seen, with the success of the likes of Gordon Ramsay, that people are hungry for a behind-the-scenes view of a restaurant, and the web is an ideal medium to bring the user into the world of the chef.
E-marketing will also increase, allowing restaurants to e-mail and text their customers cheaply and at short notice.
Mark Mitchelson, Chief technical officer, Sodexho
Within the contract market the ability to communicate and share information between geographically spread resources will be driven in two key areas.
First, in the Microsoft arena, Vista will replace XP and this, along with the 2007 version of Exchange, will start to provide a platform for remote teams to collaborate as never before. The Exchange element, in particular, begins to extend a single messaging (e-mail, telephone, fax, video, SMS) centre beyond offices, across the internet, to work almost seamlessly on the smart devices we increasingly use.
Second, landline and mobile telephony will move closer together. Videoconferencing is becoming more reliable, and, as entry costs drop, the potential savings from VOIP (voice over internet protocol) technology can be seriously considered.
On a broader business systems front, best-of-breed applications will be deployed to meet specific market opportunities. They must, however, be able to link to all levels of the business, supporting more refined business intelligence and reporting capabilities.
Stephen Minall, Managing director, Moving Food
Catering systems are still way behind our cousins in the retail sector. Chain restaurant, hotel and pub electronic point of sale (EPOS) systems still essentially count, menu engineer (how many pepperonis on my pizza?) and give yesterday's sales figures.
The smart guys are challenging their IT departments to provide them with real-time information, so that area managers can sit anywhere in the world, log in to any particular unit and see who's on shift and what tills are working and follow customer transactions as they happen.
We will also see joined-up systems in the customer relationship management (CRM) space. By the end of 2007 the Transport for London Oyster card will link up with Barclaycard Visa to allow users to make "wave and pay" purchases.
So, you will be able to carry one card in London, get your sandwich and paper at lunch, your Starbucks in the afternoon, and have all costs deducted from a single source - safer, easy, and ideal for capturing consumer trends.
Luis DeSouza, Chief executive officer, NFS Hospitality
In the restaurant sector, multi-site operators will increasingly benefit from web technology, embracing ASP and hosted solutions that permit the outsourcing of head-office infrastructure.
More restaurants will use advanced EPOS to support customer loyalty programmes and a growing number will turn to mobile technology to speed orders and improve customer service.
In the hotel market, online booking is the big trend. Now that the end user is accustomed to online shopping, 24/7 service is expected. This means smaller hotels that have so far resisted automated booking will have to consider expanding their online presence.
What to look out for in 2007
Mobile technologies Hand-held devices will improve customer service and give remote workers access to information, while the mobile phone will become a room key, payment system and access device.
Kiosks For hotel check-ins and use in leisure clubs, where members can access personal profiles and exercise routines.
Real-time information To allow managers to make decisions based on till transactions and staffing levels now - not last week.
Online The rise and rise of the world wide web continues. Online bookings will increase and customers will expect more from your website, such as video, e-vouchers and blogs.
IP technology Brings real cost savings in telephony facilitates videoconferencing and enables remote control of in-room devices.
Contactless top-up cards The Transport for London Oyster card links up with Barclaycard Visa to allow users to purchase low-value items such as coffee, newspapers and snacks.