Thinking of joining the 20th century?

A couple of my past columns have concerned the subject of adoption of new technology in the hospitality industry. I was prompted to think about this again after a recent experience in my own business.

We’ve been experimenting with different kinds of marketing lately. Because of the deregulation of the telecommunications industry, the cost of phone calls is falling to the point where advertising by fax looked cost effective. I wanted to do a pilot study to gauge its effectiveness.

One of my staff was briefed to collect fax numbers from all the top restaurants in Melbourne. He elected to use the Age Good Food Guide as a start, and proceeded to ring each restaurant listed and ask them for their fax number. The result was quite a surprise — 20% of the 200+ restaurants he called didn’t have a fax machine! I was astounded.

I didn’t expect to find that fax machines — which are cheap, easy to use and quite handy — are being ignored by a significant portion of the industry. It didn’t make sense; faxes have been around for 15 years, are hardly new technology and are very widely used, even in the home.

It reminded me of the stories I was told about the introduction of automatic dish washing machines just after the second world war. Most restaurateurs and hoteliers considered them to be an abomination against God when they first appeared. They considered the purchase price to be prohibitive and they found the concept of a machine doing what up till then had been a manual task quite distasteful — all this in spite of the fact that a dishwashing machine could eliminate from two to five staff.

Microwave ovens suffered the same fate for a while. They were introduced to Australia nearly thirty years ago, but have only been widely embraced in commercial kitchens in the last ten years. I can remember not so many years ago when a chef I know tried to convince me that they were unnatural and altered the taste of the food — now the trusty ‘pinger’ is a valued piece of equipment in most of the kitchens I work with..

Lack of adoption of computers and modern software are another persuasive example of the inherent resistance to new technology in this industry. I’ve written about this before, but from a different perspective. Let me share some comparisons with you: The finance industry has a computer utilisation of 90%, retail has 54%, tourism and accommodation has 48%, while restaurants now have a disappointing 15%.

I don’t believe that computers are any less relevant to a restaurant than to other kinds of businesses. In the past I’ve argued the use of computers and modern software from two different perspectives — first, for automating all kinds of office functions: accounting, database and word processing; second, for the production of marketing materials: newsletters, posters, flyers, tent cards etc.

Computers aren’t like fax machines, microwaves and dishwashers. The latter are single purpose tools whereas computers are rapidly evolving technology with useful, new applications being found almost daily. The emergence of the Internet as a major telecommunications tool is a good example of the leapfrog extension of computer use from wordprocessor to accounting tool, to desktop publishing tool and now to global communication tool — and who knows what else in the future?

Some of my clients argued against the use of new technology using logic like: ‘If I produce top food, and give good service, people will come and I’ll make a profit. Why make my business complicated? I haven’t got time to learn all these things, and I’m just not interested.’

While I have some empathy with this argument, I feel it’s a bit naive. A business has to be efficient and competitive or it won’t survive. There are two sides to a restaurant business — the creative side and the business side. Both have to evolve with the times; a lack of attention to either has the capacity to bring down the whole affair.

Those same restaurateurs are constantly searching for new produce, continually bringing in new wines and always on the lookout for a new edge to their service. Why keep up with the times in food and beverage and not in business technology?

New technology of any kind usually delivers a benefit in terms of time, money or quality. Ignoring a new piece of equipment is not likely to bring your business down, but if you ignore technological change for long periods of time, you run a strong risk of slowly but surely becoming inefficient and uncompetitive.

There’s a whole generation of young people entering the industry now with strong technological skills and a positive attitude to new things — the ‘techno kids’. As they establish themselves in business they will automatically adopt the tools they think will give them an edge.

Imagine trying to compete with somebody down the road who does their banking without leaving their desk; who can produce full colour, professional marketing material for a fraction of the cost you can; who has instant access to the world’s libraries of culinary and restaurant expertise; who can send out 10,000 carefully targeted electronic mail messages in 15 minutes for a total cost of $5; who can send an instant media release, complete with digital photos, to all the hospitality press in the country in a flash for virtually no cost . . .

All this and much more can be done now. It’s not a dream. The equipment is not expensive — the only difficult thing is to learn to use it, and you can even escape that if you are prepared to allow the younger people in your business to contribute.