“You never want to profit from such a tragic sort of situation but we’ve certainly been in the right place at the right time”
For many businesses, coronavirus is the toughest situation they’ve ever had to face. While for others, business is booming as the pandemic triggers a surge in interest for their products.
Mobile order and pay solution provider Wi5 is a company in big demand.
Its target audience – the hospitality industry – is looking to transform the way it operates.With the world facing disruptive social measures until at least the end of the year, it’s unlikely to be business as usual for hospitality companies, including pubs, restaurants and fast food outlets, for some time unless they adapt to the new Covid-19 world.
The Fintech Times caught up with Prask Sutton, founder and CEO of mobile order and pay solution provider Wi5, to discuss its ‘huge growth’ as the hospitality market shifts towards contactless ordering and payment.
Wi5 is a mobile order and pay solution that allows consumers to make fast and convenient in-venue transactions on immediate connection to guest Wi-Fi – without any need to download an app.
Customers enters a bespoke URL, connects to guest Wi-Fi or scans QR code with no apps required. They can then order from mobile-optimised, dynamic menu with no registration or form filling before paying via Apple Pay, Google Pay or credit card with no logins or authentication.
The business was incorporated at the end of December 2016, became part of Telefonica’s start-up accelerator Wayra in 2017, and developed through ‘lots of testing and experimentation’ in 2018 and most of 2019 “just to get things right”.
According to Sutton, the aim of Wi5 has always been to allow brands to interact with people but without the barriers to entry that are associated with having to download an app or use a particular device.
“Rather than looking at building apps, we took the time – and it was a long period of time to do this – to build an application that builds applications so scalability and automation are at the core of the business so that we can scale nationally, globally without too many issues,” Sutton told The Fintech Times.
“What we found quite quickly is that if it’s about browsing content and engaging in some way, it’s great and it works. There were just few kinks that we needed to iron out.”
“We validated the fact that people were very happy to use our kind of system because there’s just no barriers to entry versus downloading an app. But then we realised that the Wi-Fi side of it was quite limiting and there’s lots of people in this space that were just doing really cool stuff, such as the likes of Wireless Social, an amazing company doing such brilliant work and we just thought well, let them do that.”
“That allowed us to effectively evolve into an order pay and mechanic or solution because the payment was always a big part of it, it was just finding the right niche or sector where you can take payment but there is ashort journey that bridges the offline and online bringing almost like an e-commerce experience in store for people. The food and beverage hospitality sector was a natural thing to go for as we’ve always talked about being in the food space and a lot of us have sort of been involved in food in various forms over the years and other tech companies involved in this space.”
Before the arrival of the coronavirus, the company was well on its way to making inroads into the hospitality industry with client partnerships with pubs, bars, restaurants, stadia, sports venues, music venues, entertainment venues not only across the UK but in the US and Europe, such as Pizza Hut and Bounce, The Home of Ping Pong.
“We were in a position in November last year where we felt confident to go to market and then things really started kicking off in January this year and we were effectively just doubling the number of hospitality operators like restaurants, bars, pubs every month,” says Sutton. “It was totally exploding and then obviously Covid-19 hit.”
“We started working from home the day that the PM advised and then lockdown kicked in a week later. There were about two weeks where I think the industry was in shock and people just weren’t sure what was going to happen. It’s still a bit of that, but then after that, things definitely started picking up again. And not only did things pick up to the rate where they would have been before but accelerated right past that.”
“We went from a ‘nice to have’ to ‘we should have that, it can improve our bottom line’ to ‘hang on, we absolutely have to have this if we’re going to be allowed to reopen’. You never want to profit from such a tragic sort of situation but we’ve certainly been in the right place at the right time in terms of how hospitality businesses have to get into state effectively in order to operate in the new world. People are very comfortable paying for things, so it was always going to happen. This just accelerated it.”
Wi5 gives brands a choice of how customers can order – Order at Table, Click & Collect or Pay at Table.
Order at Table– Customers browse a digital version of a menu, add items to basket and make payment. The order is then delivered directly to the customer’s table.
Click & Collect– This supports both ‘in-store’ and ‘order ahead’. Customers can browse a digital version of a menu, add items to basket and make payment. Customer receives an SMS when they can retrieve their order from the bar (or pickup location).
Pay at Table– Customer orders from the wait staff as normal. Customer then opens the Wi5 application and enters their table number in order pay their bill without assistance from wait staff.
Wi5 believes many businesses are going cashless as it’s a desire driven by the consumer, especially as so many people now have attitudes towards things that are markedly different from just three months ago.
The company commissioned research to assess the current perceptions of UK adults to the hospitality industry, and how they expect to react once the lockdown measures for Coronavirus are lifted.
The study found that as well as an emphasis on sanitisation and distancing, customers are anticipating a change in the way they order and pay, with the majority now less likely to use kiosks, and much more likely to want to use their own devices.
When asked what activity they’d be more likely to do after the lockdown measures are lifted, over half in the study they would now be more likely to pick up food for take away, and nearly half said they’d use mobile to order ahead more than before.
“Touch screen kiosks were relatively popular before the pandemic hit but now people don’t want to touch those things with a bargepole,” says Sutton. “Anything that’s a bring your own device solution just appeals to people because there’s a realisation that this virus is real and there are things out there that we’ve been warned about before, but people don’t really take notice until something like this happens. Nobody knows if this is a one off, but it has definitely changed how people feel they want to interact with businesses.”
A more positive finding through Wi5’s research is that the majority of consumers do expect to return to ‘everyday’ hospitality venues (quick service restaurants, restaurants, cafés and bars) as normal within a few weeks of re-opening.
But recovery will obviously be a challenge for all hospitality businesses – of all shapes and sizes – and the comeback won’t happen immediately. Restaurants may need to operate thinly, with covers reduced, to ensure social distancing and be deemed ‘safe’, while some reports suggest people may need to be limited to the time they can spend in the pub and the amount they can order.
Sutton says: “Businesses can’t isolate customers fully without completely rebuilding their business in terms of the layout. So, we have to really think about how they going to be able to operate given all these restrictions. We can’t solve the whole problem ourselves but certainly in terms of being able to order, pay and minimise contact with serving staff and lessen the number of footsteps that staff might need to make, we can.”
“Whereas previously the focus was on more how our solution can increase their efficiencies, now, it’s as equally important for this idea of social distancing and minimising contact.”
“We can help automate a lot of the steps that would have been manual in the past that required staff to fulfil. From our perspective, Covid-19 aside, the reason that pubs just seem to love us so much, is because in many pubs and bars the order and pay part of the user experience is the bottleneck and we can remove that bottleneck. With the pandemic in mind, improved efficiencies can help in terms of limiting contact with bar staff or serving staff.”
Despite its success post lockdown, Wi5 insists it has not tried to exploit the vulnerability of hospitality businesses and actively made a decision not to promote its products or services to new customers – “We’re not going to be trying to sell to anyone if anybody wants to come to us that’s obviously up to them,” says Sutton – but instead take the time to ‘build some tools that we thought might help’.
One way it believes it can help is through data playing an important role in helping businesses move forward.
“Data doesn’t lie and that will be an interesting and most valuable part of the business as we see patterns start to form. It’s too early to really gauge or to form any conclusions from it, I think over the next three months, I’d say by the end of July, we’ll have some really interesting take on what’s happening and probably be in a relatively good position to start projecting what it’s going to looks like.”
“This is an area where we seek to help clients and the operators that we work with. That predictability and being able to solve. Many restaurants and bars have variable costs. If we can offer degrees and predictability, they can manage budgets better, save money where they can and spend when they can. All of these things will help them be better, leaner businesses and more profitable businesses.”
“If there’s one aim I have for Wi5, especially in terms of the hospitality industry, it would be to see if we can’t work with all these businesses to increase their wafer thin margins because they shouldn’t have to operate, given the service that they provide and the joy that they bring so many people and the needs that they service, on such thin profit margins.”
Another ‘tool’ Wi5 has introduced is Gather, an online forum for owners and senior executives of restaurants, cafés, pubs, bars and nightclubs in the UK, to openly discuss all of the issues and trends affecting the hospitality industry.
The aim, says Sutton, is to help businesses navigate these unprecedented and unpredictable challenges, and coming back stronger on the other side.
“Probably within about 24 hours, we had 250 people signing up from CEOs of huge fast food chains to people running small chains of grocery stores. And people were really just coming together in a way that I could only assume wasn’t being done before.”
“The hospitality industry is a very close knit one and it’s built on relationships. But the level to which people were bending over backwards just to help each other is inspiring and just people generally being really appreciative and checking in on their neighbours.”
Sutton is confident, too, that things will get better.
“I’m an eternal optimist – I think you have to be if you run a start-up – but I genuinely believe that we’ll get through this and the businesses that can survive, especially with the government’s aid, will be stronger as a result. It will change and people’s behaviour is going to change. But I can’t imagine that in a year from now, pubs aren’t pubs, people aren’t quarantining and places are relatively busy.”
Beyond Wi5, we asked entrepreneur Sutton what else he had in the pipeline…
“I’ve got a physics background and an interest in teleportation. I’ve been looking for a person that could actually help me with the investment, because I’ll do the science. Although I’ve been warned don’t, ever speak to anybody in press about teleportation!”
Our lips are sealed.