Many industries have been severely impacted since the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in early March. When stay at home orders were put in place, limiting people’s ability to eat at their favorite restaurants or travel, the hospitality sector was among the hardest hit areas. Business owners had to quickly pivot the way they do business to survive the immediate impacts of the pandemic – and will likely have to continue to adapt in the future when the hospitality industry looks very different than it did before COVID-19 hit.
During a recent webinar with Comcast Business and the Jacksonville Business Journal, local experts shared key insights on the vital role technology played in helping move their businesses forward and keep their customers safe.
Lead by moderator Michael Corrigan, President & CEO, Visit Jacksonville, the panel of experts included:
- Bernie Moyle,Director & COO, Cal-Vegas LTD
- Alex Alston, Director of Sales & Marketing, Official ASM Global
- Nicole Chapman,Regional Director, Northeast & Florida Inns Chapter of FRLA
- Harold Craw, EVP & General Manager, Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp
- Matthew Fitzgerald, Senior Director of Solution Architects, Deep Blue Communications
- Paul Sherlock, General Manager, The Omni Jacksonville Hotel
- Tom Gray, Co-Owner & Chef, CuliVino
The conversation focused on three main topics – insights into the ‘new normal’ for the hospitality industry, current technology trends and tools helping businesses to pivot their operations, and strategies and solutions for business owners who need to adapt to a world affected by COVID-19.
The ‘new normal’: Survive first, adopt new technologies second
Many business owners were already thinking about implementing new technologies at their sites, but the pandemic expedited the process for the hospitality industry.
Bernie Moyle, COO and Director of Cal-Vegas LTD, offered important advice for business owners who want to make their customers feel comfortable and safe when returning to their establishments. First, the business must survive and then it must adopt new technologies to ensure its long-term survival. Whether it’s digitizing interactions with customers or establishing new technologies to regulate meeting spaces, common areas and the check-in process, it’s imperative that customers feel just as comfortable as they would have felt pre-pandemic.
Alex Alston, Director of Sales & Marketing at ASM Global, discussed the key role technology is playing in the sports and arena industry. ASM Global’s focus today is making sure their guests feel safe coming back into event spaces, and they’ve been connecting and engaging with their customers through social media to get a pulse on that sentiment. Part of the new normal at stadiums will inevitably involve businesses investing in contactless and cashless payment systems. ASM Global is also working on implementing a new system to keep crowds of people socially distanced, exploring ideas like seating guests in pods or expanding premium seating.
Matthew Fitzgerald, Deep Blue Communications Senior Director of Solutions Architects, shared insights from a provider standpoint on how the company is helping businesses bring their networks back online. Fitzgerald has seen contactless technologies for a while throughout the hospitality industry, but the pandemic has created a perfect moment for business owners to implement mobile applications, or any type of touchless check-in processes.
In addition, service providers also now need to solve for stronger demands on network bandwidth, as hotels are implementing network-connected cleanliness devices like as UV robots or portable air filters.
Technology is leading the way in the hospitality industry’s transformation
Several panel experts noted that the common denominator when pivoting their business models during the pandemic was technology. Technology has allowed businesses to change the way they approach guests, convert to online ordering systems as well as communicate effectively through social media platforms with their customers.
NEFL Regional Director of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Accommodation Nicole Chapman shared insights into some of the emerging trends in the restaurant and hospitality industry. Some restaurants pivoted to provide self-delivery services to keep their staff employed, while others became “Groceraunts,” or restaurants that sell their pantry items as if they were grocery stores. Meanwhile, hotels have marketed their rooms as home offices for parents who need to focus on work while their kids are at home.
Chef Tom Gray and Owner of CuliVino pointed out that like many other businesses, they had to close in March and regroup on their new strategy going forward. In early April, they created an online ordering program, and have since developed family-oriented meal kits and family sized meals.
Gray went on to explain that the restaurant couldn’t just survive on an online ordering system, so they turned to their partner, BentoBox, and used external delivery services to increase their revenue. In addition, Gray rolled out a retail food program, and they’ve been promoting the initiative on social media to get the message out. Despite the challenges that came with the pandemic, it was imperative for restaurants to connect with their vendors and demonstrate their willingness to work and support them.
Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp Harold Craw explained how the minor league baseball team was also able to communicate with fans and patrons by using their social media channels.
At first, their social media strategy was to keep their fans excited about the upcoming baseball season. However, once the company saw a bigger opportunity to generate funds for their business and give back to the community, they launched an online merchandise sales platform to sell experiences. In doing so, they developed a new way to sell tickets for games, bingo nights, trivia nights and family movie nights – plus, the proceeds from the ticket sales went to the local United Way COVID-19 relief fund.
Flexibility and a willingness to change are also key to adapting for the future
According to Craw, businesses need to be flexible and adapt to the current situation, so their guests and staff feel safe. The Jumbo Shrimp focus on three key factors – making sure it’s safe for fans and staff, making its services affordable and ensuring everyone is having fun.
Paul Sherlock, General Manager of Omni Hotel Jacksonville, added that the hospitality industry needs to embrace the sudden changes. Uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 may continue for a while, but hospitality businesses must continue to reassure travelers that they can stay safely.
It is also important for these businesses to stay up to date with advanced technologies that can keep operations moving.
Fitzgerald said that the continuous evolution of available resources will play a key role in adapting to COVID-19. Given the shift in technology demands, it’s important to set a long-term plan and determine when you will update your current technologies.
Customers’ expectations will always change, but COVID-19 has shown that businesses can in fact pivot and listen to their customers’ needs. To keep on track despite the pandemic, hospitality businesses need to continue to find innovative uses for technology and be thinking about where the next best advancement could be.