Digital tools won’t just exist for social distancing - they’ll become the ‘new normal’

By Stuart Stone contact

- Last updated on GMT

Tech rollout: 'you’ve got people like JD Wetherspoon that implemented its app, but that technology needs to be brought to your local,' according to Eagle Eye's Al Henderson
Tech rollout: 'you’ve got people like JD Wetherspoon that implemented its app, but that technology needs to be brought to your local,' according to Eagle Eye's Al Henderson

Related tags: Technology, Public house, Beer

Social distancing may force operators to re-programme post-lockdown pubs to accommodate new consumer behaviour – but which tech innovations can help them push the right buttons?

The British Institute of Innkeeping’s chief executive Steve Alton summed up the complexity of the challenge facing pubs reopening post-lockdown by explaining that venues are designed to provide “the opposite of social distancing” – with each pub being unique in layout, space and location. 

Depending on who you ask, keeping socially lubricated customers two metres apart in a potentially confined space is, at best, a very tricky task and, at worst, nigh-on impossible​. Asking which gadgets or technology could help accomplish this feat may yield sarcastic replies such as sci-fi forcefields or Mission Impossible ​style laser mazes. 

However, the reality, according to a number of hospitality tech providers, is far more attainable. 

Launching technology provider Access Hospitality’s eBook of tech solutions to social distancing​, the company’s managing director Henry Seddon explained that technology is a vital cog in publicans “reimagining and redesigning” their venues in anticipation of post-lockdown rules. 

“Many operators feel it may be impossible to implement social distancing measures, so everyone is conscious that reopening under restrictions isn’t as straightforward as it sounds,” he said. “But technology aids are available to minimise the impact that restrictions could have on levels of trade, cash flow and profit.”

On top of this, chief sales officer of consumer loyalty scheme and digital reward programme provider Eagle Eye, Al Henderson, says that the cost-effective application of these technology aids across not just big pub players but independent sites will be key in seeing the sector through the Covid-19 emergency.

“You’ve got people like JD Wetherspoon that implemented its app – which was phenomenal – but that technology needs to be brought to your local. The Dog & Duck down the road needs to be able to implement that in order to be able to trade in the same scenario. 

“Now is exactly the right moment for operators to work with technology providers that service the sector because we want to give back – we want to help,” Henderson continues. “Those operators and technology providers that work together in partnership to navigate their way through are going to be the people that win. It shouldn’t just be something for the big players.”

Not reinventing the wheel 

While the buzz around the advent of new technology and digital innovation may seem initially daunting, Josh Bunce, CEO and founder of Inurface Group explains that tech solutions to social distancing are more about re-wiring existing technology than “reinventing the wheel”.

A case in point, Bunce’s company has combined a thermal monitoring camera that can remotely read multiple individuals’ temperatures with cloud technology that can share data in real time with site managers, as well digital signage with in-built hand sanitiser dispensers.

“For us, it wasn’t about reinventing the wheel, but about looking at what solutions we had previously offered as a business, as well as the technology available for adaptation, and working on creative ways these could quickly and practically support businesses and reassure the public,” he explains.

As such, hospitality tech solutions provider Zonal’s sales director Tim Chapman adds that when it comes to ordering and paying for food and drink, the “great news” is that next to no new technology has to be invented. The likes of Qbunk and Yoello, for example, have harnessed mobile tech to minimise touch points between staff and customers during food and drink service. 

“The hospitality industry is traditionally fast-moving, however, digital innovation often falls behind,” Scott Waddingon, former CEO of SA Brain and now director of Yoello, explains. “With uncertainties around how hospitality businesses will operate after social distancing is relaxed, self-service mobile technology such as Yoello is at the forefront of necessary digital innovations for the industry.”


Mobile tech ‘at the forefront’ 

According to Tabology’s commercial director and co-founder Ali Rees, while the use of mobile ordering technology can help replace staff and customer touch points with the help of food and drink pick-up points, the removal of obstacles such as long queues between customers and getting their hands on their tipple of choice could, ultimately, increase spend per head post-lockdown.

“Customers order more frequently and spend more when there are fewer barriers to service, so as well as maintaining social distancing you will also be more likely to be able to turn a profit from the reduced number of customers you can accommodate,” Rees explained.  

“You can also use the app to offer a takeaway or delivery service, which could increase your trade further once open, or provide some much-needed income while you’re waiting for the nod.”

Eagle Eye’s Henderson adds: “You’re not going to be handing over cash at a bar anymore, you’re not going to be handing over paper coupons or loyalty cards – that kind of physical contact is going to change, naturally, because the Government has done such a job to say ‘stay two metres apart’.

“People won’t want to go ‘hey here’s my fiver’ – you’re going to be doing it all on your device. But you don’t want anyone else to touch your device, so digital services are important to run.”

Avoid guests congregating in small areas

One of the measures introduced in as venues emerged from the first lockdown was to advise guests to book tables in advance to avoid queues and make it easier to trace possible infection chains should the need arise. 

This saw the widespread adoption of booking and table management platforms despite near-inevitably reduced covers and footfall due to social distancing measures, according to Zonal’s Tim Chapman.

“While reducing covers and yield is the exact opposite of what any bookings and table management system should be doing, good bookings and table management functionality will help by allowing the site to rearrange table layouts and limit capacity in timeslots to enable distancing,” he says.

“It can also manage wait lists in the same social distance way by sending a text message when tables are available to avoid guests congregating in small spaces.”

An example of this, Sort-It, which has been developed in conjunction with Atlas Bar in Manchester, and helps reduce the level of contact between staff and customers as well as tackling both queues on the door and for toilets – advising customers when toilets are vacant, when they are occupied or when they’re being cleaned.

Data is ‘the new oil’

Eagle Eye’s Henderson adds that the challenge posed by reopening under reduced capacity and measures designed to minimise physical contact could also force pub operators both large and small to invent new digital touch points for their venues.

“If your local pub draws from a 3km distance, how do you get the community together when only 30% of those people can even come in at any one time,” he says.

“Our view is that data is hugely important – it’s the new oil – and those operators that know who their VIPs are and know who their frequent guests are, and are naturally trying to keep them warm through this closure period. If you don’t know who they are, spin up a digital service as soon as you can because digital is going to be the way consumers will interact with you.” 

Henderson adds that once a pub has a database of people who have opted in to its digital service, they can not only keep them looped in on how things are changing within their venue from a social distancing and health and safety perspective, but increase engagement from home through tailored promotions.

“Know who your customers are, work with them, give them all the services that they could work with you on – click and collect, delivery, pay at table – and be able to still use loyalty schemes in those services, still use your promotions as well as digital services so customers feel like they’re getting more of a service,” he says.

“Then all of those digital tools won’t just be for social distancing, they’ll be part of the ‘new normal’. I don’t think there’s a way to go back after such a technological change. You’ll see these services taking off more and more.”

Heineken unveils new payment and loyalty app for pubs


Heineken UK has launched Swifty to help pub operators navigate contact-free re-opening and adapt to post-lockdown measures. 

In partnership with booking system Togo, the £24-per month app has been developed specifically for pubs, bars and restaurants and allows operators to take orders on food and drink items, incentivise visits and manage footfall digitally - without the need for physical customer contact. 

“We know many outlets will find adapting to new social distancing measures extremely challenging,” Heineken UK’s head of data driven commerce, on-trade, Matt Rix, explains. “Swifty is designed to make that process as easy and successful as possible for both customer and operator. 

“The aim is to make customers feel confident when visiting outlets during the immediate reopening and keep them coming back long into the future as we transition in to the ‘new normal’.

“By combining our expertise as brewers, retailers and suppliers with an industry-leading mobile solution, we’re able to uniquely provide our customers with the means to kick-start their operations once lockdown has been lifted.”

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