Last week we at OpenTable were excited and honored to be a part of the inaugural TechTable Summit, a gathering of leaders in the restaurant and technology industries to explore how tech is transforming hospitality.
We heard Danny Meyer describe how tech taught him how to scale businesses; we learned how sweetgreen uses tech products to source local food from farmers. Leaders at the Four Seasons and the Wynn talked about the role of data and insights in making business decisions. Our own Jocelyn Mangan moderated a panel about mobile payments, while restaurateurs Bill Chait, Will Guidara and Patric Yumul weighed the merits of different reservation systems.
Overall, we were awed by the spirited conversations and collaboration at the summit, and so were the organizers of the event: Jaci Badzin, formerly of Google; and three members of the Union Square Hospitality Group family, including Maureen Cushing (Director of IT), Lauren Hobbs (Director of Marketing), and Camilla Marcus (formerly Director of Business Development).
We caught up with the team to hear their top takeaways from the first TechTable Summit, the day’s biggest surprises, and what they have in store for the future of TechTable.
Tell us the story behind TechTable. How did you identify a need for the summit and what were some challenges you sought to solve?
Individually we were witnessing larger conversations and innovations happening in each industry, but there was little cross-communication. There were conferences focused more on large-scale solutions for QSR concepts and broad-based food tech, but no real dialogue around technology for high-touch businesses.
As technologies and investments in this area are rapidly increasing, we saw need for a conversation focused on tech for businesses such as fine-dining restaurants, boutique hotels and experiences that often demand “one sized fits one” solutions, and a have different, human-centric approach.
After many disparate conversations with investors, operators, developers, and vendors, we wanted to create an outlet to jumpstart and foster collaboration.
One of the challenges we were trying to solve for is simply the time and place for people from the key three industries — investing, hospitality, and technology — to get together. It’s easy for people to get siloed in their own worlds, but it was clear from the event that there is a need for people to get together, share content, and brainstorm in an environment that takes them out of their day to day routines.
Why these topics and panelists? How did you come up with the agenda and select speakers and moderators for each?
The strategy from the start was to create an enriching program for us, by us, based on what we felt was missing in the market and what was not genuinely being broadly discussed in a meaningful way.
We began by mapping out the major topics that dominate in the media already — such as reservations and mobile pay — while shedding light on “behind the scenes” areas we wish there were more resources on — such as investing, HR and recruiting solutions, and big data for loyalty. Once we had the content organized, we targeted thought leaders that we know are passionate about this space, are outspoken about collaboration across these industries, and that truly embody our core ethos of “hi tech for hi touch.”
We also kept a keen eye on wanting diverse voices to be showcased, representing a spectrum of businesses both geographically and in regards to size, focus, and phase. We were overwhelmed by the excitement and engagement from each of our speakers and how much they wanted not just to appear on the day of the summit, but also to help us further build the conversations and spread the word.
I’d love to hear from each of you about your top takeaways from the day. What stood out?
Lauren: For me, what really stood out was that I heard people from both sides of the conversation (hospitality and tech) venture out of their comfort zones to admit they had work to do to understand and implement solutions and best practices. It’s not easy to be open about what you don’t know, particularly with a large group and publicly.
There was a healthy tension in the room on topics like reservations and mobile pay, and a lot of honest talk about things that are not currently working, but also an implicit understanding that we have to collaborate for the best results.
Camilla: I was amazed to hear how grateful attendees felt to have the opportunity to meet people that frankly I would have expected them to come across previously and to truly forge a connection. Additionally, many attendees noted that they were unsure how the pairing of Danny Meyer and Steve Case would play out as an unexpected opening to the program, but following the first session, it was rewarding to see leaders across these industries come to realize that they have more in common and greater shared goals than ever before.
This was the perfect lead into the talk about investing and entrepreneurship — a new phenomenon in this space with so much money at play and where the matchups between startups and investors need to be nuanced to make sense and drive future growth thoughtfully. Further, capital analysis and valuations have to align to the fact that people underlie these businesses and investors’ strategic decision making.
Maureen: What stood out most to me was the response to the security topic. It was very important that PCI and security was part of the conversation because it is so critical for the entire industry. Secure infrastructure is critical to be able to continue to innovate and implement new technologies.
The discussion around big data reinforced the challenges that we have all been seeing. Sophisticated companies admit that fostering a culture of experimentation needed to leverage information in a meaningful and strategic way is challenging and that they continue to struggle with how to capture the right data and seek to measure appropriate targets.
Jaci: I think the conversation around social media was really impactful because it was a broader discussion around strategies, trends, and solutions for businesses. They also presented ideas for how the hospitality industry can apply these practices.
Another presentation that I think stood out during the day was Gary Vaynerchuk’s presentation. It was a great surprise and delight moment because, per usual, he brought energy and ideas that were “outside of the box.” He raised questions and presented ideas that pushed attendees to think about what was coming, rather than what has already been done. It was a great way to close the day.
Any big surprises? Unexpected revelations?
We wanted to be sure to arm all attendees with tangible, technical knowledge in addition to fostering relationship building, which is a delicate balance between substance and context.
The overwhelming positive feedback we received in regards to Phil Stead’s security brief stood out as a pleasant surprise that leaders across the fields are in fact craving in-depth, tangible help with regards to the less talked-about infrastructure needs of these businesses. What made an even bigger impression was how many attendees courageously admitted that they were not previously informed in this area but want to engage and learn more given they recognized through attending TechTable the critical nature of securing and optimizing networks to build a foundation for the future of technology in hospitality. This doesn’t often make the front page unfortunately in the press, but it was certainly a major headline of the day.
How do you think the intersection of technology and hospitality has evolved and will continue to evolve?
Hospitality technology is not going anywhere, and we believe it will continue to evolve and innovate throughout every level of hospitality operations as this sector grows.
One panelist said that the key is to target the main cost drivers of hospitality ventures to make the greatest impact – labor and cost of goods – and we agree.
Sourcing, inventory management, and human resources — from recruiting, onboarding, training, to communication and retention — still have needs for vast improvement where technology can help simplify and ease the scale of these functions. Both of these areas of hospitality operations are disaggregated, often driven by manual processes, and involve a large amount of people. This is where we believe that technological advancement, done in a thoughtful way, will be critical to the improved profitability and sustainability of these businesses.
Where do you see more opportunities for collaboration and discussion between these industries going forward?
So many of the solutions that we are seeing are very guest focused, solving for aspects of an experience that they see, such as reservations and loyalty. There is such a need for more back-of-house solutions — inventory management, accounting, human resource practices — all the things that a guest doesn’t experience, but are essential to making a business run smoothly.
We are looking for technology that won’t take away from hospitality and tradition, but will give operators more time to spend with their guests.
What are you thinking for next year’s summit? How will you build on the conversations you started this year?
The response to the inaugural summit was truly incredible and we’ve already had some discussions around topics that we didn’t cover this year that are obviously hot topics in the industry, such as delivery and beacon technology.
As a first step we’ll be sharing video content over the next few weeks so that those who weren’t able to attend can engage in the conversation, and we’re also hoping to do some follow-up events throughout the year to keep the community engaged and connected.
Images courtesy of TechTable.