A brief history of technology in hospitality

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Date: 18 November 2021

A QR code confirms a booking reservation

For many of us, it may seem as if the conversation about the use of technology in hospitality is a very recent one. Much has been said, for example, on the subject of hospitality businesses being forced to adopt or develop technological solutions in response to the COVID-19 crisis, accelerated by the closures of brick-and-mortar premises during repeated lockdowns.

One market report recently cited by BigHospitality found that almost two-thirds of customers said they would feel more comfortable visiting a restaurant if apps and QR codes were used to minimise contact with employees and menus.

Such technology, then, could doubtless play a key role in the efforts of businesses like restaurants, cafes and hotels to reassure visitors that their physical sites are safe and return to growth.

But the story of technology in hospitality began long before the coronavirus pandemic, and in many ways can be traced back to the start of the modern hospitality era.

The invention of the mechanical cash register 

While the hospitality sector can be said to have its origins in ancient times – it having existed, in fact, since humans first began to live in permanent places rather than living nomadic lifestyles – for the sake of describing the journey of technology in hospitality, we are going to skip ahead to modern times.

After all, it took until the early 19th century for the first modern hotel to be built in England. Restaurants – as we would now recognise them – had long existed by then, but until the invention of the cash register by saloonkeeper James Ritty in 1879, it was difficult for the owners of such businesses to know whether they were even operating at a profit or a loss.

This first mechanical cash register was known as the "Incorruptible Cashier", and with their brass encasings and metal taps, these early machines look rather quaint to today's eyes. Nonetheless, the invention went on to be refined considerably in the years to come, geared towards improving reliability and security.

The 20th century saw fast developments in hospitality tech

Over the course of the 20th century, electronic innovation helped make it harder for would-be wrongdoers to steal money from cash registers. Another key development during the 20th century was the emergence of the first 'point of sale' systems, which helped bring even greater convenience and efficiency of operations to hospitality businesses.

One of the things that makes the historical development of technology in hospitality businesses so interesting, is the tendency for many of us to see this sector as being about human-to-human contact. The COVID-19 crisis has helped upend that perception, of course – but before that, the emergence of electronic devices like laptops, phones and tablet computers was already doing some of that work.

This might help explain why, even though hotels began to make use of electricity in the late 19th century, it was seen as something of 'bonus' for a while compared to, say, running hot water, which became a fixture in hotels during the early 20th century.

Fast-forward to the later 20th century, however, and it was becoming more and more of a thing for the customers of hospitality businesses to wish to pay for goods and services with plastic rather than cash. In response, restaurants and similar firms increasingly adopted digital point of sale systems that were capable of processing debit cards and credit cards.

Increasingly digital solutions have continued to reshape the hospitality sector

By the 1990s, the World Wide Web (WWW) was being popularised and heralded a drastically different world to come. Barely a decade later, in 2007, Apple ushered in the smartphone era with the iPhone – but arguably no less significant to the development of hospitality-industry tech was the late 2000s global economic slowdown.

As the 'credit crunch' hit and significant numbers of people were made unexpectedly redundant, many property owners – desperate for some kind of income – became 'accidental landlords', with the establishment of Airbnb in August 2008 capitalising on this rush.

However, even revolutionary new market entrants like Airbnb, would not have been so successful in shaking up the hospitality sector without the explosion of mobile technology in the 2000s and 2010s. And the coronavirus crisis only served to accelerate trends that were already in play, as restaurants – for example – turned to operational partners like Slerp to help develop their own branded apps.

These apps made it a quicker and more intuitive process for customers – even those who were nowhere near the given restaurant or café's physical location – to place orders and arrange for the delivery of their goods.

Other increasingly popular functionalities during the pandemic have included 'click and collect' and 'order at table' – the latter allowing customers to simply scan a QR code with their mobile device to browse the business' menu and make a payment.

It is not solely the COVID-19 crisis that has driven these technological developments across the world's hospitality businesses. There have been well-publicised worker shortages – blamed in part, in the UK, on Brexit. Many hospitality firms have grasped how relevant tech has enabled them to serve more customers with fewer employees.

All the while, many restaurants, hotels and cafes have continued to develop and enhance their overall digital presences – including their websites, social media profiles, and activity on platforms such as Google My Business. Today, there are more possibilities than ever for such platforms to interlink with other technologies that hospitality firms may choose to embrace in the 2020s.

Such firms can use their online presence to draw attention to other features and activities that help them to attract and retain customers, such as loyalty programmes that can be easily integrated into the given brand's app.

Would you like to learn more about how you can make your brand more resilient, adaptable and efficient in the post-COVID age, with our assistance? If so, please do not hesitate to contact the Slerp team today for answers to any of your questions.

Copyright 2021. Article made possible by MR SEO.

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