#PaceMeetsGrace: Integrating human touch with technology

April 22, 2024 | By RetailME Bureau

#PaceMeetsGrace: Integrating human touch with technology session, ICS MENA 2024

The art of integrating technology with human touch in the food and beverage (F&B) industry was the central focus of a panel discussion at the Internet Commerce Summit (ICS) MENA 2024 that was steered by Ketaki Shah, Head of Marketing, Citymax Hotels & Foodmark.  

In her opening comments, Shah observed, “As the industry continues to evolve rapidly, customers now have access to both traditional services as well as tech-enabled experiences.”

There was a time when traditional service meant picking up the phone and talking to the guest to understand their requirements. Being in the catering industry this is crucial. Nowadays, there are automated phones playing messages. That’s tech. Writing down the order on a paper versus a device is tech. Tech-enabled aggregators such as Deliveroo and Talabat are taking the market by storm. It’s all automated even in the hospitality industry, which is only going to get more advanced with time, opined Vidisha Badwal, Owner, Paprika Gourmet.

“We’re at an interesting stage, specifically within the hospitality sector – which includes hotel rooms, restaurants, cafés, spa and other elements – wherein technology can never replace the personal touch. Technology enables us to do our jobs better by becoming more efficient at managing costs, curating a better and personalised guest experience and engaging with them meaningfully,” said Marcus Sutton, General Manager, Zabeel House by Jumeirah, The Greens.  

As a predominately brick-and-mortar business, technology has been a “gamechanger” for Mister Baker, a three-decade old UAE-based cake shop. Around eight-nine years ago the company’s first e-commerce platform accounted for 2-3% of the topline, which is “significantly” higher now. “But technology has its caveats,” pointed out Tushar Fotedar, Director, Mister Baker. “For a holistic experience, businesses must leverage relevant tech tools and excel at offering the human touch.”

From food and grocery to laundry and even luxury goods, nowadays consumers expect doorstep delivery within 15 minutes of placing an order, which has pushed convenience to the extreme, Shah stated.

“While technology has enabled speed and convenience, where we want to draw the line is based on our business. For example, human interaction plays a key role in our business, since our brand DNA is built around the values of consuming natural and healthy products. I can’t imagine having a robot serving our ice-creams. That’s why it’s important to understand brand positioning, consumer expectations and wisely leverage technology to fix the gaps to ensure efficiency while not taking away from the unique selling proposition,” shared Mazen Kanaan, Chief Executive Officer & Co-founder, House of Pops.

At this point, Shah asked, “Is our industry embracing technology?”

The pandemic has expedited the embracing of technology within many fields, including hospitality. The use of QR code is a good example, Sutton responded. “However, at some of our restaurants in Zabeel House we stopped using QR codes because it had a negative impact on the engagement between our colleagues and guests. When we stopped using QR codes, customer engagement peaked. People enjoyed touching the menu because that’s part of an experience.”

Technology keeps evolving, the way we use it also evolves and especially within the hospitality industry where human touch is so key. It’s all about finding a balance between utilisation of technology and keeping that personal touch intact, he added.

Service is, indeed, an emotion, Shah agreed. “But while talking about tech and digital, how can we not touch upon artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots? How is AI being leveraged to create more tailored experience for customers,” she asked.

“For sure we can’t ignore technology, so we use AI and other tech-based tools to optimise our operations. AI can analyse a lot of data which not only saves time but leads to stronger outputs for the business. We use AI on our website because we work with aggregators as well as through our own Shopify platform. So, when a customer logs into their account, we provide suggestions based on their preferences to offer a personalised experience. At the back end we use AI as a tool that facilitates learning and development and the induction process for new joiners. But the human touch is pivotal for any customer facing role because people don’t just come to us to buy an ice-cream, they come for the experience,” Mazen responded.

Maintaining a balance between technology with human touch is crucial, Badwal agreed who isn’t using AI for customer facing functions either. “We use AI to generate automated messages for platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp, draft emails and other content. While at the back end it eases and enhances our way forward.”

At the back end, Mister Baker has started using Microsoft Dynamics and deployed Copilot, Microsoft’s chatbot that leverages AI to better understand information, boost productivity and unlock creativity. “As a business that’s into customised products like cakes for celebrations which require a certain degree of emotional intelligence, relationship building is at the core of what we do,” Fotedar added. “How we translate that level of service to tech is still a bit of a challenge,” he admitted.

The industry has embraced technology in many ways from enhancements in the point-of-sale systems to curating highly personalised experiences. Now with middleware coming into the picture, the delivery process has become more seamless. Even though customers don’t see it, it impacts the customer journey, owing to less human errors and faster delivery, Shah shared.

Any hotelier who thinks that data and technology will not impact their business will likely be left behind, Sutton concluded. “At the same time, abiding by GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] guidelines and respecting people’s privacy are things that we need to be very mindful of.”

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