Team OpenTable is heading to New York next week for the second annual TechTable Summit, a day of panels and discussions bringing together leaders in the hospitality, technology, and investment communities. The goal? Creating conversations, forging connections, and discovering solutions to benefit “hi-tech for hi-touch.”
OpenTable CEO Christa Quarles will join an all-star lineup of speakers from companies like Airbnb, Uber, and Instagram, plus smaller food brands such as Smitten Ice Cream and San Francisco’s Souvla. Joined by James Liakakos, Vice President of Operations for Jean Georges Management LLC, she’ll share insights about how data from OpenTable’s network can help create better experiences for restaurants and diners alike.
Ahead of the conference, we talked to three TechTable founders: Lauren Hobbs, Director of Marketing at Union Square Hospitality Group; Jaci Badzin, formerly in marketing for Google and Nike; and Camilla Marcus, an angel investor who previously served as Director of Business Development for USHG. Read on for their take on the intersection of hospitality and technology today: where we’ve been, how the landscape is evolving, and what’s yet to unfold.
What were your biggest learnings from TechTable 2015 that you’ve brought to this year’s programming?
One of our big learnings was that this is a huge need. The feedback we got from the first one is, finally someone’s cutting through the clutter and we have a space to gather where we’re really meeting people who speak to this sector, who understand and value and are active participants in this vertical.
People loved having one program all day, about 200 attendees, which is big enough for a diverse audience, equally spread between the investing community, tech entrepreneurs, and hospitality leaders. We covered a lot of topics to get a broad swath of perspectives. We weren’t sure if the audience would want a super deep dive, or how technical they wanted the information — but people really wanted that technical knowledge. They wanted case study, TED talk-style talks. Phil Stead from Reliant did a PCI compliance talk, and we worried: were people going to get this? But far and away he was one of the most beloved talks, and people felt armed with valuable, tangible information. This year we’re peeling back a bit on the panels to do deeper dives into certain topics.
Lastly, we got a lot of great feedback about the startup showcase. They wanted more of it. So we’re changing the format a little bit: we’ll have commentary from a panel of investors to give perspective on how the startups lay up in the landscape and giving meaningful feedback in that way. Our goal is to set them up for success and make it something that’s really meaningful.
We thought a lot about the size of the conference. It was a really high-level audience — we were seeing that with ticket sales this year, 75% are VP and above and founders. That’s such a valuable thing to people. We’re thinking this year about the food and hospitality throughout every touch and networking opportunities that deliver that high-value experience, and allow people not only to engage with the content but with each other. That’s the most valuable aspect of buying a ticket to TechTable.
What developments have you seen over the past year in the tech and hospitality spaces? How has the landscape evolved?
It’s constantly in flux, and the changes are remarkable.
One of the big ones we didn’t cover last year that we are going to be talking about is delivery. All sectors of our audience, from tech to operators to finance and investors — everyone’s trying to figure it out. We’re putting together a pretty broad base of people from different perspectives on that topic, from a large logistics company — we have Jason Droege of Uber — to a small growing hospitality company, Souvla. It’s growing with consumer demand, and we’re still in those early stages of how technology can make it better and make it a special experience.
Connected to that is a general theme that fine-dining and fast-casual groups are continuing to intersect, and there are a lot of people coming from one to the other. Many solutions that would have been only relevant for fast casual or fine dining are becoming more holistic solutions, and that’s really interesting.
I think you’re seeing a ton more cross-collaboration. You’re seeing hospitality companies take seriously developing platforms in house in partnership with other groups. At our talk in L.A., we had Erik [Oberholtzer], one of the founders of Tender Greens, talking about how he’s working across a bunch of different companies in a space that would otherwise be seen as competitors and they’re working on a solution that will work for all of their businesses. There are tons of other examples where people are starting to partner up, even across the aisle.
What are some more of the topics you’ll be addressing at this year’s summit?
There were a few things from last year we wanted to cover again in a deeper way: data, security, and social media. We’re doing more of a case study model. Then we have a bunch of new things — delivery, and HR, which is incredibly relevant with no tipping and the laws coming out in California and New York. And design innovation — we have Jo Berrington, who’s the VP of Brand for Yotel coming to talk about innovation and design.
Additionally, the beginning of the day is going to be centered around community, and Chip Conley is going to give a talk about building communities around the world with Airbnb.
Hospitality is changing so quickly, when you think about the way people dine and travel.
And Airbnb is truly at the center of that. It’s going global; people are thinking about hospitality as a core tenant of almost any business. Investors are looking at that as a potential for companies they’re looking at in the space. Chip is uniquely positioned, coming from hospitality and now heading up strategy and community and hospitality for one of the most trailblazing tech companies in the past couple of years.
Who are you particularly excited to hear from this year and why?
Wyley Cerilli. He’s worked in the delivery space since 1999. He was one of the early employees at Seamless and now is in the midst of fundraising for a new startup called Good Uncle. He’s going to give an intro to the delivery topic about the highs and lows of delivery from 1999 to present.
And Chip Conley — doing hi tech for hi touch at such a huge scale with a disruptive company. And Jo Berrington, starting with the employee experience, how they make decisions, and where they’re spending money on technology. And understanding that tech isn’t always the answer and there has to be a balance with human interaction and creating a sense of place and community through design.
What areas of hospitality do think still have a huge opportunity to benefit from tech?
POS and CRM are both huge opportunities. They both can come together and be viewed as an opportunity to go from silos to aggregate the information. For CRM, you have to look at how you’re going to analyze the data and utilize it.
For full-service, security — as we go towards more of an open-source platform, you have to figure out, how are we going to make sure the data and information are secure? Security isn’t necessarily a critical element of just hospitality, it’s critical across the board for technology.
Social media is still a huge opportunity. Hospitality teams can really increase awareness and build communities and share brand messaging. We’re excited to have Hedley & Bennett — [Ellen Bennett] is going to talk about how she made aprons go viral on social media. It really shows the power and is a good case study of how you can utilize social media as a marketing and sales channel.
The dining room, bar and host stand have a ton of opportunity, both for design elements and invisible tech. Tableside payments are huge, but what about charging mechanisms for your phone? Another area is this idea of real-time tracking. How can you create tech elements you can use at the host stand or on the floor by managers, by servers, by hosts to see what’s happening in the kitchen, at the table, and how are orders happening? You can give guests real-time information about when the seating will happen and have a better way to manage that front-of-house flow.
In general, there is a lot of attention on this lack of an open-source system that’s preventing people from gathering the full picture of data from their businesses. Gathering data is one hurdle, but the second hurdle is, how do you distill it, and then the third hurdle is what you do with it. You want to create a high-touch experience but you don’t want to go overboard, and there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all expression to show someone appreciation in your hotel or restaurant. How do you use that data for efficient but meaningful and effective one-size-fits-one messaging and action?
What are you most excited about that you’re seeing today in the tech-hospitality space? Any big developments you’re looking forward to watching unfold?
The major thing that’s unfolding right now is everything to do with HR and labor. Some companies are trying to get ahead of it, but it’s a wait-and-see game in terms of how it’s going to affect the industry. From recruiting to attendance to tipping — there’s going to be a huge wave of innovation and foundations being built so operators can benefit from more of a one-stop shop for their needs.
It goes back to this idea of one platform and a dashboard for businesses to keep track of what’s going on with their employees as well as their guests. People are often so focused on the guest experience and not realizing that the employee experience drives your business.
The other thing still in its nascent phase is the “pay at table.” There’s a lack of POS integration, and that’s the hold-up from the hospitality side, and from the guest side, the adoption is not there. There’s a lot of development in this area but it hasn’t taken hold yet, and I think everyone’s excited for when that eventually does take hold. There’s so much potential for better security, better solutions, faster service.
The final thing is discovery and search. Airbnb is starting to delve into this, creating ways to access on a broad scale what your friends or community thinks and says and does. How do you really, as a consumer, think about where you want to go, get suggestions, and do what you want to do in a high-touch way? It scales, but it’s also really curated towards your actual needs, and your target audience, from the hospitality side.
We’re also seeing discovery interwoven with social media. For hospitality companies, one of the unique features of the business is that people don’t take out paid advertising. Maybe if you’re a very large chain, but it’s more about native marketing and coming upon something. That ability to focus on discovery is huge, because that’s the only way you can drive awareness.
What do you hope people take away from this year’s Summit?
The goals haven’t changed. It’s fostering connectivity, making new relationships, and having thoughtful conversations throughout the day. This is an industry conference, but it should be really fun to dream big and think about what we can do in the industry if we put our heads together at a high level.
Our goal is always to drive change, illuminate thought leadership where it matters, and bring people together to hopefully spark and inspire collaboration. We think cross-collaboration between these three sectors is the key to the future of the space.