On September 10, Manhattan’s Apella event space hosted an inaugural gathering of leaders from across the fields of technology and hospitality. TechTable, billed as a summit to address some of the hospitality industry’s biggest logistical challenges, deftly set the pace for a new season of conferences across the city focusing on the tech and industry hybrid model.
Despite being the new conference on the block, TechTable Summit struck a polished yet practical balance throughout the day’s proceedings. Attendees conversed over hyper-local lunches (there’s a farm on the roof) at the center’s Tom Colicchio dining spot Riverpark. Presentations and panel discussions took place inside an intimate setting on the second floor, with local legends such as Danny Meyer jovially sharing narrow seat-space with fellow entrepreneurs from as far afield as Iceland. Topics ranged from “Big Data” to start-ups, with a number of solutions presented to streamline and support the $5 trillion global industry.
The event was founded by four female entrepreneurs with deep roots in the hospitality and tech industries: Jaci Badzin, Maureen Cushing, Lauren Hobbs and Camilla Marcus. Representing the cream of local hospitality and tech groups including Union Square Hospitality Group and Google, each founder is actively involved in helping to “bridge the gap” between both industries. Each contributed to the conversation, with Hobbs setting the tone for proceedings by defining all four founders’ ambition to “redefine how hospitality affects tech.” Badzin, a Xoogler (ex-Googler), later took the goal a step further by pushing for “a more seamless union between the two.”
As a case in point the summit began with a conversation between Danny Meyer and Steve Case on the intersection of technology and hospitality. Both have amassed numerous accolades as founders of world-renowned restaurants, hospitality groups and internet pioneers. Fittingly each entrepreneur has also been at the forefront of tech-meets-food for more than 30 years. Meyer was an early adopter and now board member of OpenTable, while Case uses insights gleaned from running AOL and product development at Pizza Hut to manage new venture investments in food via firm Revolution Growth. On the day both expressed the need to “bring people together” from both industries with Case challenging the audience: “Both sides can add value but only if they engage with each other.”
Luckily for all the founders present, there was a palpable level of interest and engagement between attendees throughout the day. Discussions ranged from launching hospitality-centric start-ups and digitizing local “mom and pop” stores to managing margins for established international hotel chains, tech and finance companies. Seminars on “The Future of Payments,” “Big Data” and “Investing and Entrepreneurship” were well-attended as were the day’s start-up showcase and panel on social media strategy.
Beyond its industry focus, TechTable raised interesting questions about the role of technology in society. Gary Vaynerchuk’s tech forecast finale unveiled a future where technology is as ubiquitous — and physically embedded — as the new behavioral social norms it creates. His eyebrow- and hand-raising speech generated a crescendo of applause to end the day on a high.
True to its aim, the summit showcased how technology already creates efficiencies and connections between the global hospitality industry, its staff and customers. It also challenged hospitality leaders to recognize the pace of development in order to meet the expectations of emerging customers. “Tech+Food,” as expressed by figureheads such as Danny Meyer, Steve Case, Bill Chait, Joanne Wilson and more broadly by thought-leadership organizations such as Food+Tech Connect, is the new paradigm in itself. Forget pencilling its arrival in the reservations book; the code’s already on wall (and tables for that matter). TechTable Summit highlighted the era of tech-served hospitality is already here.
Some of the main take-aways were:
- #TheFutureOfFoodIsFood: With founders drawn from high-end dining establishments to sustainable-centric high street superstars, good food in all its forms was well represented. Steve Case was keen to underscore that no matter what technological advances come to bear on society, humans will still express a desire to eat food that looks and tastes like food: “The future of food is food.” Danny Meyer added “fine-casual is teaching us that people want simple food but with a chef approach.” All were keen to underscore that regardless of technological advances, the raw matter of food will remain a primal element in our lives.
- #ConsumerBehaviorChange: Digital advocate Albert Lee, CTO of OTG Management, calmly underscored the need for his peers in the industry to “embrace the generational shift towards technology.” Steve Case predicted that more than half of food orders will come from mobile platforms in future. However panels represented a spectrum still populated at the extremes: advocates like Bill Chait fully-embrace everything from dynamic pricing to integrated CMS while late adopters like Will Guidara stick to the bare essentials of online booking only. Gary Vaynerchuk used the law of compounding averages (or Moore’s Law as it’s known in science and tech communities) to support his predictions of fast-changing attitudes towards tech on the table. While his straw poll of summit participants revealed at least 60 percent slept within arm’s reach of their cell phones, no one was prepared for the era of the tech implant. Each speaker underscored the importance of creating tech-enabled experiences to meet Millennial customer expectations. Gotham Gal and female entrepreneur advocate Joanne Wilson called on financiers to “understand what they’re investing in” and thereby set relevant growth targets and expectations.
- #SocialMediaRules: The hot topic on everybody’s lips. Integral to brand or business growth and customer-outreach strategy. However opinions varied on practical implementation. From Gary Vaynerchuk’s advocacy of long-form content on platforms such as Instagram and Facebook to bite-size image-centric content from Matt Hantz of M Booth and Jeannie Chu of American Express, social media is the marketing channel to be embraced. The humble #hashtag had the floor, as did industry “influencers” creating aspirational brand value. All agreed good storytelling, clarifying objectives and a “call-to-action” were key to any good marketing campaign.
- #SweetStartUps: Don’t burst my bubble. Despite some bumps along the way, the industry continues to see sustained growth in start-ups. In return start-ups are promoting all things sustainable. Ex IBMer and culinary start-up founder Alice Cheng spoke of the exponential growth she has encountered in the hospitality staffing sector. Farming advocates FarmersWeb alongside FarmersWeb NY-advocate Nic Jammet of Sweetgreen illustrated how techies are helping fellow food lovers grow and do sustainable things all at the same time. Jammet spoke of the growing “connection to food.” His engaging speech focused on the growing desire among consumers for greater transparency into ingredients and sourcing.
- #HumanDataTouch: Maintaining the “human touch” to hospitality was top of mind for Danny Meyer. Hotel group managers Guy Rigby from the Four Seasons, Steve Weitman from the Wynn Las Vegas and Albert Lee of OTG looked to technology to help uplift or support the customer experience. They actively use data to analyze staff performance, manage costs and help attract or retain new customers to their hotels. All expressed the desire for more seamless information to help provide a more consistent experience for repeat customers across restaurants and hotels.
Photos courtesy of TechTable