14 January 2019

By Paul HUDSON, Business Development Manager, AURES UK

Some people call them Smart Fridges. To others, they are known as Grab ‘n’ Go kiosks. Whatever you want to call them, a new generation of food vending systems is re-writing the rules on what you can sell in an unattended machine.

Given their flexibility and the range of products you can include, hotels stand to gain as much as anyone from this innovation.

Hotels have long had stronger incentives than perhaps any other type of business to provide 24/7 service to customers. Their reputations live and die on the quality of the experience they provide to guests. Being able to fulfil a request for a drink, a meal or onward transport whether it is made at 3pm or 3am is often worth a star rating, not to mention a good review online.

The difficulty has always been the staffing and resourcing required to provide genuine round-the-clock service. A late-night concierge to let late-returning guests in and book taxis is the minimum most establishments of all ratings accept as their lot to provide. Instead of keeping a bar open all night, many hotels moved to providing mini bars in rooms years ago.

But what about food? That is more of a sticking point. Especially if you wish to provide fresh, hot meals, there is little alternative but to staff the kitchen all night, just in case a request comes in. Which is why only the very swankiest places have traditionally offered room service with a full menu available at any time of the day.

Vending makeover

Kiosk technology is changing all of that. The vending machine – long the exclusive domain of crisps, chocolate bars and sugary drinks – is undergoing a very 21st century makeover. By combining the latest access control and self-service payment technology with large scale refrigeration, unattended pantry systems can offer high quality fresh food, including full meals, at all times of day and night.

To date, smart fridge kiosks have seen roll out in a diverse range of locations including hospitals, university campuses, airports and office buildings. The key offer is compelling – quality food, with several operators investing in chef-curated menus, available from what to all intents and purposes is a souped-up vending machine. Some kiosk companies have also integrated machine learning into their management software, so buying patterns are analysed and inventory is managed in response to demand.

For the hotel industry, there are numerous ways pantry kiosk offers could evolve. They could simply be seen as an upgrade to existing snack machines and placed in the foyer, restaurant and other key locations, giving guests a 24-hour option for purchasing a meal. They could be paired with microwave or oven facilities for warming or even cooking dishes, and could be stocked from the hotel’s own kitchens.

Another compelling possibility is replacing the traditional mini-bar in rooms with a smart fridge ready stocked with both food and drink options. Not only would the payment-controlled access solve the age-old logistical challenge of verifying what guests have actually taken, it could also be a viable alternative to room service.