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Let’s talk: How conversational systems are set to transform the Hospitality industry

“Speech has power.  What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”  – A.J Heschel

In the raft of obligatory ‘Hospitality Trends to watch out for in 2017’ that we saw at the beginning of the month, one trend seemed to trump all others in terms of popular prediction coverage: Intelligent, conversational systems.  We lift the lid on this emerging trend to find out what it means for hospitality and if it really deserves the top spot for tech-watch this year.

According to Microsoft: Conversational systems interact with people through language to assist, enable, or entertain.  In the case of Hospitality, these systems are being used to assist in not only the ordering and payment process but also enable a faster, more efficient means of finding a store, pulling up menus, making reservations, eliminating language barriers and much more.  And that’s just for the consumer.  When it comes to you, the operator, conversational systems have the potential to offer many money-saving benefits including easing labour costs, speeding up service especially in high pressure, time sensitive environments such as airport food and beverage outlets and the technology also serves to eliminate staff error by putting the responsibility of the ordering process firmly on the guest.

Dominos already has an app linked to Amazon’s Alexa system that lets customers order pizza simply by telling their Echo or Dot speaker devices that they’d like to place an order.  This triggers a food order and pays via an existing customer account.  As with any new technology, ironing out of some wrinkles still needs to be done.  For example, guests need to establish a preset order inside the Domino’s app and then must remember the not so catchy phrase, “Alexa, open Domino’s and place my Easy Order.”  And as The Verge puts it, “That’s just not at all a chill thing to shout across the room while drunkenly playing cards/watching football / looting a horde of kobolds in your weekly D&D session.  But at least you won’t have to argue about toppings.”

“Speech has reached a tipping point in our society.  In my experience, when people can talk to a device rather than via a remote control, they want to do that.”  Jim Glass, senior research scientist at MIT

DineTime is using Alexa in a slightly different way than Dominos in that it’s more about information access rather than operational ability like ordering and pay.  By using voice activated commands, guests can find out what restaurants are near them, what the wait times are at specific locations and add their name to the wait list.  Other abilities such as adding a group to the list and allowing users to make specific day and time reservations are also being developed.

Starbucks is another brand to embrace the power of speech with a new system called My Starbucks Barista. Customers with the Starbucks app will be able to speak their orders into their smartphone which is then sent to the store designated by the customer.  The charge is automatically added to the customer’s account.

Using conversational systems, no matter how primitive they may be right now, has obvious benefits for ordering and accessing information but what about the payment portion of the customer journey?  According to Restaurant Business Online, restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area are testing a new Google service that allows people to pay for their meals by simply saying, “ I’ll pay with Google.”  Users don’t have to remove their phone from their pocket or purse and technology at the POS detects a selfie on the customer’s phone displaying it on the POS screen for the employee to verify and approve the transaction.  Once approved, a receipt is then sent to the guest’s phone.

These new technologies that harness the power and convenience of voice have other operational implications for the industry.  Currently, many operators still use online forms and spreadsheets to place orders with suppliers.  By bringing front-end innovation like voice recognition to the back of house, there may be a time when managers can just speak their orders into an Amazon Echo for example and have it automatically added to the req form and charged to their account.

A bold prediction of the future?  We just need to look at some of China’s mega-apps that are all encompassing, omni-present, lifestyle pervasive and increasingly voice operated to see what might be in store for the rest of the world.  This powerful video from NY Times shows how China is changing the fundamental ways our internet works and how mobile is becoming the master key to all the web has to offer.  The golden mixture of intelligent, conversational systems, a closed loop structure and a whole eco-system of integrated app-like services will mean our smartphones will essentially be our PA, our butler, the coordinator to our every need and whim – not just for work but for any conceivable action.  One day, not so far in the future, the following conversation with our phones might not be so out of the ordinary:

Me: “Does my nearest café serve cheese and ham croissants?”

Phone: “Yes, would you like me to order it and your usual hot chocolate?”

Me: “Yes, and ask Tom if he wants to add anything to my order”

Phone: “Message received from Tom: flat white please!”

Me: “Add Tom’s order and pay for pick-up in 20 minutes”

Phone: “Your order has been placed.  Would you like to pay with your Bean2Cup rewards points?

Me: “Yes.”

Phone: “Order placed and confirmed for pick-up. There is a 10-minute traffic jam on the way to Bean2Cup Coffee.”

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