Is Voice The New Player in Hospitality

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Is Voice The New Player in HospitalityHaving worked in the venue and hospitality industry for over two decades, we talked to George R Vaughan, current CEO of technology consultancy, The Digital Line, about his views on the opportunities afforded by true A.I. driven tech and how in many ways, voice platforms offer a credible solution in a world of rising costs and staff shortages.

 The world after Covid.

It is an unquestionable fact that the pandemic had a very disruptive effect on the global economy and no industry was arguably impacted more than the hospitality sector. Even now, two years since the last lockdown, many venues and stadiums remain in recovery mode, with a lack of staff still top on their list of concerns.

Conversely, not a week goes by without some new stadium announcement making headlines in the industry press, with the promise of the latest and greatest to lure fans to another live spectacle. But how different can each new venue be in what it delivers and how do you turn customers into fans? Furthermore, what needs to be implemented to ensure those fans will then regularly choose a season ticket over a Sky “sofa subscription”. I’ve said it many times before, customers and fans are very different beasts and converting one into the other is no easy task. Many might argue we are creatures of habit but those habits can still be tweaked and just a small shift can result in significant change.

It might sound like an obvious thing to say but selling an experience requires an honest interpretation of what the concept of an experience is to start with. It needs to be something special. Something different. Something unique. As the industry knows, competition is no longer limited to other stadiums or venues. In less than a decade, streaming has permanently altered the way we consume popular forms of entertainment such as movies, music and gaming, while travel, eating out and even hotels have been re-invented by the likes of Uber, Deliveroo and Airbnb.

I often site the banking sector as a good example for how things have changed. Since the invention of currency, payment for goods and services has had a clear identity but in the last two decades we have arguably seen the greatest number of successive developments, with the evolution from cash-to-card-to-contactless and now mobile. Throughout this rapid transformation things “moved without moving” but have dramatically shifted the landscape.

New generations generate new ideas.

The hospitality industry cannot afford to be complacent. Whilst audiences have returned, there is an increasing suggestion that some Millennials and a large percentage of Gen Z are not as enthusiastic about live sporting events as the generations that preceded them.

One recent 2023 survey in the US claimed that nearly seven in ten 18–26-year-old sports fans (68%) consume most of their sporting content through social media, whilst 21% would rather check the highlights of a sporting event to keep up to date, instead of watching a full match.

Another survey from Morning Consult claimed that Gen Z consumers in the U.S. are watching less live sports and a third don’t watch any live sports at all. Fandoms also appear to be impacted with 38% of Gen Z apparently exacerbated by the multitude of other accessible entertainment options alongside the fragmented nature of sports media rights, accessibility to games and ticket affordability.

If anything, today’s consumer has too much choice and when faced with such an abundance of options, tends to not only be more selective, but also look to diversify the experiences they commit to. This leaves event organisers having to be more creative than ever and I don’t believe this trend is restricted to Gen Z.

As a Gen Xer myself, I’ve seen my habits shift in the last few years. It takes a very special movie to get me into the cinema these days when I know I can watch most recent releases on one of numerous streaming platforms from the comfort of my living room and even as a diehard football fan, my calendar is not forgiving enough to allow me the luxury of writing off one day a week to see my favourite team play live. And don’t get me started on the hurdles of travelling, crowds, anti-social behaviour and ticket prices.

One of the problems seems to be that the link between home and venue isn’t being exploited to its full potential, although I do believe there are platforms on the market that can address this gap. Equally, if the staff aren’t there to help with operations, technology can provide a credible solution whilst still delivering a premium experience and keeping customers engaged.

Disparate systems continue to litter the technology landscape and though many suppliers claim to have cracked the problem, challenges persist. A.I. remains the buzz term of the moment but many existing solutions made for the hospitality environment are built on legacy platforms that are still learning to accommodate this new technology in a meaningful way. This is not dissimilar to the transformation that has happened in banking, with the new kids on the block like Starling, Revolut and Monzo disrupting the sector with applications that were built from the ground up to be truly digital, leaving traditional high street establishments to play “catch up” as they modify their existing systems.

Speak and you will find.

Love them or hate them, Amazon appears to be primed (excuse the pun) to help venues achieve something different. Their Alexa Smart Properties (ASP) platform, released just over two years ago in the UK, offers a low-cost, credible alternative for the hospitality sector. Having initiated the launch of voice hospitality using the audico system at Ascot Racecourse during my time there as Head of Technology, it soon became apparent to me that this open door had plenty more riches to offer if people were prepared to walk through and take a look inside.

I’ve already seen the benefits of voice technology working in the health sector, particularly with those in senior living and the overall trend is only going one way. According to consumer research from Ampere Analysis, 52% of internet households now own a voice assistant in the UK while Statista’s latest research indicates that globally, there will be 8.4 billion voice-operated devices in use by 2024. Speaking is one of the most natural things we do.

audico was built from the ground up as a true A.I. platform, quickly grabbing the attention of global acquirer Elavon, with whom they now share a defined partnership, allowing the system to incorporate full, PCI compliant payments. Its latest incarnation will see audico provide a fully functioning voice/touch POS via Alexa display devices through to KMS and stock systems in collaboration with Kappture POS and even offer NFC throughput to Apple/Google wallet with pass partner, ProntoCX. It has the potential to turn the premium hospitality space on its head by bridging the gap between at home and in-stadium experience – providing rich data without the need for an app.

Voice keeps it simple however, even in a busy, noisy environment where speaking might not be a practical option, audico’s touch capabilities mean that whatever you can ask for you can also “tap” for, thanks to Alexa’s intuitive touch screen displays. And this is where building something from the ground up really starts to show its advantages. The platform started with voice and then integrated all the other more common components in afterwards. It was a case of building the intelligence first rather than trying to layer it on later.

Using this approach means what you have now is a single system that can incorporate full voice or touch functionality and offers out-of-the-box concierge, payments, facilities management, POS, KMS integration, merchandise, room controls, NFC & loyalty integrations, ticketing deployment as well as a connected @home service all for a single, per device licence fee that’s less than the price of a monthly coffee subscription. Running on ASP and hosted by AWS you are also assured the kind of security and robust platform that provides peace-of-mind even during the busiest periods.

It’s good to listen.

Society went through a fundamental switch. Customer’s expectations changed. Whilst most people will agree that there is nothing quite like the live experience, two years of being away from the spectacle of in-person events did shift people’s collective mind set and many of the answers we are now looking for could come from the audience of tomorrow.

For some years now I have worked closely with the University of Surrey, recognised world-wide as a leading centre for tourism and hospitality and their students, who are some of the best representatives of Gen Z, continue to amaze me with their insight, vision and capacity to embrace a challenge. In my experience, when trying to understand this group too many businesses still spend time talking about them rather than to them.

This emerging generation also possesses one character component that I see missing in a lot of industries today. Courage. More than money, vision, staff or application, the greatest hurdle I regularly encounter is fear. It’s easy to say no, to keep the status quo. It’s much harder to say yes and back a brave decision.

There’s no denying that for some, moving to a voice application might seem like a step outside their comfort zone but it certainly shouldn’t be viewed as alien. People are already using voice regularly at home as well as in other industries. Successful tech is often tech that feels familiar. Giving people a solution in one environment that they already use in their everyday lives keeps it simple but also smart and that can’t be anything if not a good thing.

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Poppy Watt

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