Using Technology to Engage with Guests at the Bar

Direct messaging and augmented reality give venues a new way to interact

Photo illustration by Jeff Quinn.

While visually based mediums like the recently launched IGTV are a major draw in the digital space, some forward-thinking hospitality operators are taking a guest’s bar experience a step further with interactive technology. From text messaging applications to multisensory modalities—like augmented reality and virtual reality (AR and VR)—the hotel bar of the future is emerging in the present.

Back to the Basics with Text Technology

“Guests want to be able to interact with us the way they communicate on a day-to-day basis,” says Zachary Jellsen, a guest experience manager at Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. “Text messaging is a medium we use more than any social media app. Just think about how many texts you’ve already sent and received today.” Attracted by its convenience and personalized touch, Kimpton started working with Kipsu, a real-time text messaging and digital engagement platform for the service industry.

Photo courtesy of Kimpton Hotels.

Kimpton uses the platform as an opportunity to interact with guests personally during their stay. Each text message is sent to a guest by a real person, sans automation, software, or bots. “Working closely with each participating hotelier, Kipsu ensures that messaging avoids a promotional tone and instead encourages true conversational interactions,” says Eva Dixon, Kipsu’s marketing manager. With the emphasis on this strategy, Kimpton staff can share property events, on-site happy hours, and more, personalizing recommendations and conveying the information at a more appropriate time of day—say, 4 pm—than at check-in.  

One of the unique characteristics of the platform is its ability to store guests’ preferences from visit to visit, says Katherine Wojcik, Kimpton’s director of beverage programs. “After a round of drinks,” she says, “a guest may share through a text that they enjoyed the cocktails at the bar. With photo messages as part of the exchange, guests might send a cocktail image through that we could then use on social media and engage with them there.” When the guest makes a return visit, those types of interactions allow Wojcik and her team “to suggest something similar, call attention to new drink offerings that the guest might enjoy, or even [offer the guest] the same cocktail as a welcome.”

Streamlining Experiences with Augmented Reality (AR)

Along with its Project: Aloft Star, a showcase of emerging musicians that perform at the chain’s hotels in partnership with Universal Music Group, the Aloft Hotels brand is piloting an augmented reality drink experience that offers concert attendees a free cocktail via the hotel’s app. In practice, guests hold their mobile phone up to a branded, app-activated coaster and watch their drink come to life on the screen. A few minutes later, a server delivers the actual cocktail.

Aloft drink options that are available through the AR experience are simple—variations of a Michelada or Old Fashioned, for example—but layered with computer-generated enhancements that heighten the visual aspect of cocktail consumption. The ability to overlay this optical stimulus gives bar staff the chance to seamlessly combine the digital world with the physical one, making for a new type of social media fodder.

Photo courtesy of Aloft Hotels.

Creating Immersive Experiences with Virtual Reality (VR)

User-experience technology is not only making a splash at bars in the States. The Lobby Bar, at London’s One Aldwych hotel, is upping the ante on its beverage offerings with a virtual reality cocktail experience. Guests who order The Origina whisky cocktail enhanced by cherry notes, balanced with fresh grapefruit juice and chocolate bitters, and lifted by a splash of Champagnebegin a multisensory journey with a VR headset. The experience starts with 3D aerial footage that showcases the origin of the drink, starting in the Scottish Highlands, sweeping through Covent Garden, and ending up at the Lobby Bar. The cocktail is then presented to the guest the moment the two-minute video ends.

Pedro Paulo, the bar manager at Old Aldwych, implemented VR in an effort to break new ground in London’s highly competitive luxury hotel market, and he conducted extensive research on the concept last year. The boutique hotel was one of the first to use an all-in-one VR headset with a built-in screen, and the result has been the sale of about 50 Origin cocktails a month, at £18 each.

Key Tech Takeaways

For venues aiming to tap into tech, a common theme is apparent: Regardless of the medium, keep it simple and worry about the bells and whistles later. For text tech specifically, Kimpton’s Wojcik recommends taking baby steps and remembering first and foremost that people appreciate communicating with a real person. “You can make a joke via text just as you would in-person at the bar,” she says, “so take advantage of the opportunity behind the screen as well.”

Aloft Hotels found that with AR, it’s easy to get caught up in frills. When integrating this technology, the hotel chain recommends using a property’s bar staff training sessions to help staff achieve seamless execution.

With virtual reality, Paulo encourages bar professionals to experiment: Get behind a headset and take note of the visual and auditory elements that create a personal emotional response. “Great cocktails rely on superb presentation, elevated with a sense of drama,” he says. “The presentation of the cocktails in your program can only be elevated further with the dynamic storytelling element that VR brings to the table”—or in the case, the bar.


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Shanika Hillocks is the Influencer Marketing & Consumer PR Manager at E.& J. Gallo Winery and a freelance F&B and travel writer based in New York City. Her work can be found on outlets including Condé Nast Traveler, ChefsFeed, and VinePair. She can often be found exploring the NYC culinary scene, at a bar enjoying a Rye Manhattan served up, and on Instagram at @shanikahillocks.


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