The growing influence of technology on the food service, hospitality and leisure industries was very much in evidence at London's ExCel centre last month as 90 specialist suppliers took to their exhibition stands for Hostec, the technology element of the impressive Hotelympia show.
More than 40,000 visitors passed through the doors during the five days of the event, and among them was Caterer, ready to find out what technological innovations are making waves in the hospitality sector.
First port of call was the stand of telecommunications firm, TMS-Com Telco, where chief executive Henry Barnard laid out his vision for how hotel groups must change from regarding telecommunications as a revenue stream to seeing it as a key plank in a strategy to improve guest loyalty.
One bill for calls, internet and in-room entertainment
As more hotels use internet protocol (IP) technology to run phone lines, internet provision and in-room entertainment over a converged network, said Barnard, they will be able to manage the rates they offer customers centrally.
This will enable companies to provide valued corporate clients or leisure guests a specific combined rate for all phone calls, internet and TV services in any property they visit.
"The growing dependency on communications makes telecoms a prime candidate for inclusion in loyalty programmes," said Barnard.
Giving hotel guests the option to serve themselves is also a growing area, judging by the number of vendors at Hostec demonstrating self-service check-in/checkout kiosks.
French company Ariane Systems, which has already fitted 600 self-service kiosks throughout Europe, sees so much potential in the UK market that it opened an office in Bedford at the start of the year.
According to its UK managing director, Carine Lebrun, the terminals link directly with a hotel's property management system (PMS) and can be programmed to access all the data and services a traditional system offers.
The company has already installed a number of its express check-in systems in UK hotels, including the Covent Garden Travelodge and the Westminster City Inn in London.
At the stand of German supplier Checkomat, chief executive Verena Mumford said the concept of self-service kiosks is well established in the USA and is now slowly taking off on this side of the pond.
Checkomat's kiosks offer the ability to generate two distinct bills for one individual guest, separating company expenses from personal expenditure and offering peace of mind to businessmen who might have enjoyed the minibar a little too much.
Check-in for flights at the hotel
Technology giant IBM is also making moves in this space, drawing on its expertise in developing airport self-check-in kiosks. John Howes, manager for IBM self-service solutions, explained that kiosks can be adapted to offer a number of services.
A recent example is the IBM system installed at the Fairmount Royal York hotel in Toronto, where guests can not only check in and out of the hotel but also use the same kiosk to electronically check in and obtain a boarding pass for any Air Canada flight.
Howes says the kiosks can also be used to generate revenue by displaying advertising during non-peak hours or to add value to guests by providing virtual concierge services.
Virtual concierge This technology was displayed by Whichway Media, which has developed a "virtual interactive concierge" - fondly know as VIC - a touch-screen terminal offering information on a range of services such as local restaurants, taxi firms and doctors.
Already installed in London's Holiday Inn Regents Park and Holiday Inn Bloomsbury, the device interfaces with Multimap.com, providing guests with a print-out map of the best route to their chosen destination.
Stand-alone kiosks can also be used to offer guests quick and convenient access to the internet. Internet connectivity company Inter-touch was displaying one such device, which it says can be placed in a hotel lobby to service guests who don't have a laptop or who want to access the internet for a short time.
The system can be integrated with a prepaid card system containing a user name and password that can be purchased by guests at reception.
Hitch broadband to your electrical wiring An innovative delivery of broadband was to be found at the stand of technology integrator Systemax Communications, which was demonstrating a technology developed by broadband access specialist Telkonet.
The Telkonet iWire system uses the existing internal electrical wiring of a property to deliver broadband, transforming power outlets into internet-enabled data ports.
According to Systemax director Chris Bright, this makes broadband installation quick and simple. A 100-room building, for example, can be equipped in a day, he said.
Guests wanting to access the internet need only a small bridge unit that plugs into the power socket. These units, said Bright, are typically rented by guests during their stay and can be used anywhere throughout the building where there is a plug socket.
New software, no upfront costs At the Micros Fidelio stand the talk was of the changing face of software pricing. Long gone are the days when companies had to purchase all software upfront and then pay a monthly per-user fee.
"As communications technology has developed to allow the remote delivery of software services, so new pricing models have become possible," said sales director for hotels Paul Finch.
An increasing number of hotels are asking the company to host its industry-leading PMS, Opera, for them, removing any upfront capital costs and leaving hotel operators with only a monthly fee to pay.
The latest on internet reservation systems The increase in consumer restaurant bookings over the internet was also very evident.
Established in the USA since 1988, Open Table launched in the UK a year ago and has already signed up about 100 restaurants. Sites using the system install software in their back office which gives real-time information on availability and instant confirmation to anyone booking through the Opentable.co.uk website.
The system also helps restaurants manage reservations from all other channels and handle throughput of customers. It contains a tool aimed at building a customer database for follow-up promotions.
A similar product was to be found on the stand of Livebookings, which offers the same real-time reservations technology but uses a different business model. Livebookings has partnered with 28 different companies, such as American Express and Lastminute.com, to enable customers to make reservations direct from these websites into the Livebookings system.
According to sales and marketing manager Olivia Fitzgerald, there are no set-up costs with Livebookings, just a £20-a-month software charge and a small commission on each booking made.
Livebookings shared its stand with another partner website: online dining magazine and directory Sugarvine.com.
Where this website comes into its own is through its comprehensive coverage of dining in the provinces. So many eating-out sites tend to be London-centric, but Sugarvine gives equal exposure to venues throughout the North and West of England.
The site also features a text-alert service, 360° video footage of restaurant interiors and information on signature dishes from each establishment.
With so much good food on display, this reporter was grateful a technology hasn't yet been invented that will eat the meal for you.