How futuristic technology is already making waves in pubs

By Katie Coyne

- Last updated on GMT

Could this be the face of the new pub bartender?
Could this be the face of the new pub bartender?

Related tags: Pub, Alcoholic beverage

With Blade Runner 2049 showing in cinemas, futuristic technology is a hot topic. But how might robots, virtual reality or even artificial intelligence work in pubs?

Is it far-fetched to believe that pubs may one day be swarming with ‘selfie’ drones recording customers’ every move and automatically posting updates on social media? Or that special spectacles may be used to research online, in real-time, some of the more outlandish claims a companion might try to spin us? 

Is it outlandish to think those same super specs might be able to detect elevated physiological responses – such as an increased heart rate or blushing under make-up? According to futurologist Dr Ian Pearson, they are not and augmented reality (AR) is one to watch.

We are certainly using things starting to bear a resemblance, such as Google Glass and the more recent Snapchat Spectacles. Snapchat has even just launched a worldwide art exhibition of AR sculptures by artist Jeff Koons.

Royal Caribbean has two dancing robot bartenders in the Bionic Bar aboard its $1bn cruise ship Quantum of the Seas. Singapore, which has a severe shortage of bar and restaurant staff, is leading the way in using flying drone waiters. And in the past year we’ve seen consumers offered a chance to experience virtual reality (VR) using headsets to celebrate promotions from Scottish brewer Innis and Gunn and Carluccio’s restaurant chain.

VR has had a positive impact on business in the same way that other experiential offers have, as customers seek out enhanced pub experiences. We’ve seen a significant uptake in customer engagement in experiential activities, from comedy to circus spectacles and from remote control cars to escape rooms.

- Laine Pub Company CEO, Gavin George

In the past month, drinks brand Treasury Wine Estates has been using AR, accessed through smartphones, in a promotion to sell its wine to men.

Less futuristic, Mitchells & Butlers is in the middle of trialling an online delivery system with Deliveroo, which it says is creating £300 delivery sales on average per week.

So amid the noise of all of this new tech, what should we be sitting up and taking notice of? According to experts, it’s still the rise and rise of the smartphone. While there’s criticism they make us antisocial, some of the new tech around them may make us more social in other ways. And they may help pubs provide a better service and boost sales.

JD Wetherspoon, for instance, celebrated increased sales in October, which it claimed was due to its mobile app. The app, which has had lots of mainstream media coverage, allows customers to order and pay for their food without leaving their seat.

According to some newspaper reports, it has also increased social interaction. One man tweeted a birthday drinks request and was rewarded by fellow pubgoers with a strange procession of drinks including milk, non-alcoholic beer, peas, ice cream and Prosecco.

Customer bugbear

Zonal Retail Data Systems, one of the biggest technology developers for pubs, has carried out research with CGA Peach and found that a huge customer bugbear, particularly for Millennials, is waiting time when ordering, paying and waiting for food to arrive.

Zonal offers a range of systems to help with these issues, including: iTable (a table management system), iServe (an ordering system that can be installed on an Apple ioS device), Kitchen iQ (a real time kitchen and service management system), and a hand-held Pay at Table system.

Zonal sales and marketing director Clive Consterdine highlights mobile apps such as Apple Pay as technologies of the moment that could greatly benefit pubs. Consterdine argues that pub apps can improve service as they free up bar staff, with the caveat that the menu is linked into the pub’s systems. So for instance, if an item of food runs out, it is automatically removed from the menu on the app.

Zonal has created a number of apps for different clients, including one for the 26-strong Be At One cocktail group.

Apps allow pubs to capture data from customers and tailor their marketing to help build loyalty – perhaps by creating a birthday offer, or an individual ‘appy hour’ that starts when the customer walks through the door.

Consterdine says: “When somebody registers for an app you can start to learn more about your guest and their purchasing behaviours. You can build a complete profile of what they are buying and when they are buying it so you can send them offers that suit their likes – it’s the sort of thing supermarkets have been doing for years.”

Zonal even offers a ‘white label’ product, where the app is already built and you simply add your own content to tailor it to your pub. Consterdine says this has brought the cost down, making it feasible for smaller pub groups and independents to have their own app.

Ali Rees has got around the demand for super speedy service by getting punters to pull their own pints, throwing an element of entertainment into the mix.

Rees is a co-founder of tech company Tabology (formerly Robot Pub Group) with Phil Neale, and they both run the Thirsty Bear. The Southwark-based pub in south London features a couple of beer taps at each table – a premium and a session beer – and a self-service beer wall, as well as the usual manned bar. Each table also has an iPad where you can order other drinks and watch football matches. Customers have their own tab and only pay for exactly the amount they have poured, which allows them to taste more beers.

Rees argues that the DIY tap service speeds things up so, in theory, you can sell more drinks and it makes for a more enjoyable experience for customers as they don’t have the “frustration” of
having to spend “half the night queuing at the bar”.

Rather than reduce the number of staff behind the bar, he says, it actually frees them up so they can offer table service. “Our staff costs are quite high, higher than other pubs. But, say, you had a function room upstairs but couldn’t afford an extra member of staff to run the bar, you could use this system. It’s not necessarily taking away jobs but it’s allowing businesses to take advantage of the space they have.”       

But has bringing all this tech into the pub created a rather drab experience? Not at all, says Rees. “You see people engaging more. It gives people an excuse to talk to one another – it’s a talking point. People laugh at one another pulling pints, and people love explaining how it works. It creates a really friendly atmosphere.”

Entertainment benefits

Laine Pub Company is making the most of the entertainment benefits of new tech by bringing VR into its venues. Working with The VR Concept, it has introduced VR into its Four Thieves pub in Clapham Junction, south London. In fact, the Four Thieves has a whole arcade room upstairs featuring not just VR but also other operators offering vintage arcade games, crazy golf, mini motor racing, and more.

Laine is about to open its refurbished Aeronaut pub in Acton, west London, which will also now have a VR offering. And the chain is shortly to add VR entertainment into its World’s End pub in Brighton.

Anthony Nixon, who co-founded The VR Concept last year, said offering VR is a great way to use space in a pub that may not normally be utilised. Laine CEO Gavin George says: “VR has had a positive impact on business in the same way that other experiential offers have, as customers seek out enhanced pub experiences. We’ve seen a significant uptake in customer engagement in experiential activities, from comedy to circus spectacles and from remote control cars to escape rooms.

“VR is expensive to set up at home, so providing such an intense entertainment experience for as little as £5 has proven a compelling offer for our pubs.

“In order to provide a safe environment in which games can be played, we have needed to set aside a reasonable amount of space, so bigger pubs are definitely more suited.

And there’s a very swift technological learning curve, which in our case has been led by our partners The VR Concept. The standard of their VR creations is exceptional – a real world away from a PS4 and some goggles.”

Updating classics

New tech entertainment in pubs is not only confined to VR and AR. Bounce bars has created its own interactive ping pong game Wonderball using lasers and projectors. In the summer it announced it would be opening seven new venues by 2018 and 20 by 2020. Founder Adam Breeden was also a co-founder of All Star Lanes bowling and bar, and social darts concept Flight Club. Sometimes it’s a case of updating classics rather than inventing something entirely new.

Jim and Claire Alexander, the husband and wife team who run Cotswolds pubs the Ebrington Arms and Killingworth Castle, are a reminder that sometimes there are benefits to be had by just tweaking the classics.

The duo left London 10 years ago and juggled learning to run two pubs with starting a family. Updating their tech has saved them money, Jim explains.

For example, the pair’s decision to switch their kitchen to induction hobs paid for itself within five years in reduced energy bills, as 95% of the heat used in induction goes to the pan compared with just 65% with more traditional gas cooking.

They are also making use of the increased availability of superfast broadband and have switched to a cloud-based Talech till system. Because it is cloud technology, Jim can log in to the tills in real time, on his mobile.

“It gives me enormous flexibility to check what is going on across the two sites,” he says.

“It gives me more flexibility on the products we are selling. We might notice that a particular food item is doing well at the Ebrington, and we can get that on the menu quickly at the Killingworth Castle.”

Futurologist Dr Pearson adds that AR could be used to give instructions to staff, provide recipes in the kitchen, dress up cocktails, and dress up staff for themed events. We could see ‘sound screening’ allowing ‘bubbles’ of different entertainments to be enjoyed around a pub, and we will see an increasing use of screens so they eventually cover the walls.

But all of this is still a way off. And if you’re not yet ready for the leap into all this new-fangled technological stuff don’t worry because, according to Elon Musk and Bank of America, there’s up to a 50% chance we’re already living in a Matrix-style VR...

Could artificial intelligence work in pubs?

AI may already be helping the pub industry in ways many people are not even aware of. From Deliveroo’s algorithm that decides which of its flexible mobile workers will collect food from your pub to AI brewers producing beer and asking for feedback, it’s already here.

“AI is about making decisions and when you’re brewing beer, there are a lot of decisions that need to be made,” says Dr Rob McInerney, co-founder of UK-based IntelligentX, the brewer using AI to make beer.

He explains that the brewing variables, such as ingredients and methods, are turned into a data structure the AI understands. “We’ve worked closely with the [human] brewers to encode their intuition into our algorithms.”

Customer about the beer are fed back to the AI, which then helps the company evolve the beer, he says.

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