When it was suggested to me that I write a piece on tech in restaurants for this month’s column, I immediately recalled a somewhat heated discussion I had with one of my professors back in business school. He showed us a video of a fast-food chain outlet in which the tables were actually giant touchscreens on which people could play games while waiting for their order. Our professor hailed this as a great example of the kind of innovation that technology can bring to the hospitality sector. Having grown up in hospitality, I not only disagreed, but vocally dismissed it as an expensive –to buy, maintain and replace –borderline unhygienic gimmick that represents exactly the kind of nonsense nobody, let alone the hospitality industry, needs. I stand by that.
Do not get me wrong: the introduction of new technology definitely has a place in hospitality. I just seriously doubt that the hospitality industry needs fundamentally disruptive technology (with one exception, to which will I get shortly). After all, if you for example look at the excavated snack bar in Pompeii and compare it to a snack bar in 2022, you will see that very little has changed. Even the introduction of electricity – surely still the most disruptive technological breakthrough so far, and one that fundamentally changed almost every other industry – mostly just made things more convenient.
That is fine. Convenience should be the goal. I’m therefore all for electronic appliances, booking systems, automated volume control and everything else that makes it easier to make deliver a good product in a reliable and consistent manner. McDonald’s, for example, wouldn’t be as consistent and trustworthy without sensors. I wouldn’t want to live in that world. However, as my mother (a hospitality veteran) pointed out to me when I told her about my thoughts for this article: things that ostensibly increase convenience only actually do so if they are easy to clean. Nothing is more important, she assured me.
Automation to take up the slack
All that being said, I think that we are rocketing towards the relatively widespread introduction of one technological development that will, to an extent, conflict with the perception of what the hospitality industry has been for thousands of years, more so than any other development before it: extensive automation through robotization. Unless the hospitality industry becomes not only fundamentally more attractive to potential employees in the relatively short term (which, due to many factors outside of the industry’s control, is very unlikely), automation will have to pick up the slack.
Once you cross that bridge, it will be difficult to turn back, even if workers come back. What exactly the implications of that will be is hard to predict (although plenty claim otherwise). For example, will people – once the novelty has worn off – still enjoy coming to restaurants that rely heavily on robotization? Or will it dramatically increase the shift towards take-away and delivery? In this case, I have more questions than answers.
I should note that I do not think that the whole business will go down this road. 100 years from now, plenty of hospitality establishments – especially family businesses – will look and feel just as much like that snack bar in Pompeii as they do now and as they have 100 years ago, despite the occasional increase in convenience through new technology. I don’t know about you readers, but to me, that is a comforting feeling.
About the author:
The co-owner & founder of start-up 1520 in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, Marius Zürcher was a participant at FCSI’s ‘Millennials’ focused roundtable at INTERGASTRA 2018.