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08 February 2019 An Event In Review: SMART Retail and Hospitality 2019

The overwhelming message that was constant throughout SMART Retail and Hospitality 2019 was that knowing your customer is still chiefly important within these industries but that data, how it is collected, understood and utilised, is key for the future.

We here at SMART Global thoroughly reinforce this message as it was clear from our SMART Government event also that data is key. In response to demand, we are hosting a free to attend SMART Data breakfast with leading industry experts on Thursday 7th March in Belfast. More details can be found here.

Now here are the key messages from our SMART Retail and Hospitality conference, in partnership with Velocity Worldwide, held on Tuesday 5th February in the Europa Hotel Belfast.


The event was opened by the CEO of our event partner Velocity Worldwide: Enda McShane. Enda set the scene for the conference and why Velocity Worldwide was so keen to get involved. He stated that he was delighted to be on board because of the cleverness of the idea to get retail and hospitality industries together to create solutions when Belfast was most in need, in light of the Primark fire. He then went on to speak about technology and how the cost of inaction when it comes to implementation would affect the future of business in both industries. His message was that understanding customers and their data is the future of business, as is understanding actionable data and having the technology in place to utilise this data is key.


Our next speaker Aodhán Connolly, Director of the NIRC, joined us for an update on the state of retail in Northern Ireland. While there are positives to be had, with Northern Ireland showing a rise in sales post-Christmas/January period compared to the rest of the UK and the fact that retail provides 10% of all jobs across the country, the retail industry is successful but extremely volatile. The Northern Ireland consumer is reactive if there is a wider issue such as job cuts we react with curbing our spending habits. We also have lower wages and higher costs in comparison to the rest of the UK, so that has an impact on how we spend. Shopfront vacancies also play a huge part in the volatility of the retail sector here.  The need to invest in better technology across the sector is becoming increasingly apparent with the struggle to make consumers actually spend their money and invest their time in brick and mortar stores opposed to shopping online. Businesses must utilise new technology to better understand their customers and show what makes their product and customer experience memorable. Aodhán closed with a brief note on Brexit and reiterated what all businesses in Northern Ireland know to be true: no deal will be catastrophic for the economy and the retail industry. A deal will still mean some costs when it comes to tariffs and checks but nevertheless, a deal is necessary to protect consumers and business.


Rajesh Rana, President of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and director of Andras House, joined us next to discuss the state of hospitality in Northern Ireland. The local hospitality market has been booming, with eight brand new hotels being built in Belfast alone, with a 40% growth in hotel rooms across the sector. This increase initially will be positive but with a glut of hotel rooms, revenue will fall until demand catches up with supply and this is predicted to happen throughout 2019 until 2020. To claw back that revenue, hotels must set themselves apart from their competitors and recognise the three emerging trends within hospitality: personal, personalisation and personality. Though they sound very similar, these trends are different in how hotels have approached them. Rajesh then gave examples of how hotels like the Ibis have implemented a team to handle check in face to face with no desk as a barrier thus creating that personal connection, how Hilton Worldwide is personalising the experience with their app allowing customers to check in, choose where their room is and turning their phone into a digital keycard, and Holiday Inn are injecting personality into their legacy brand by implementing an open lobby system. These trends and the examples of how they have been implemented show us that the customer experience is still king when it comes to hospitality but that businesses must adapt to new technology to keep themselves current.


Conall McDevitt, of Hume Brophy, spoke on the timely and thorny topic of Brexit. The crux of the discussion is that Brexit is just not good. Especially for us here in Northern Ireland. Irrespective of a deal/no deal in all possible variations of Brexit that exist in the future, change is coming to Northern Ireland on 29th March. Businesses go from having a voice, influence, status and rights in Brussels to being left out in the cold. Conall then went on to say that the biggest disadvantage to Northern Ireland in Brexit was the lack of devolved government which allowed the Tory/DUP coalition. It is his view that in not being able to influence our politicians or enter into debates on what is actually going on, our impact in the technical operations of Brexit was not as big or as important as it rightly should have been. He advised that to minimise the impact of Brexit that Northern Ireland must protect the retail, hospitality, technology and all the other sectors. We must make our voices heard. People with influence such as political and industry leaders must use that influence to get organised, push the agenda and help build a new relationship with the EU. The 29th of March will bring about a time to think differently and act on those thoughts. Conall closed with stating that we as citizens must demand that we have institutions who work for this region and not against it.

After the first break of the day, we began our popular breakout sessions.


Our first panel of the day “At the Coal Face of Hospitality” with Rajesh Rana, Terry McCartney and Andrea & Anthony O’Neill discussed looking at collaboration between all sectors not just retail and hospitality, how hospitality must create unique customer experiences to stay relevant and how we must all work together to solve the issues prevalent in the industry and create sustainable solutions.

Next, on the main stage, Jonah McLachlan of Fathom UX spoke to us about defining a customer lead strategy. He stressed that understanding customers is a paramount factor and that any product, he used a website launch as an example,  you launch must be accessible to all your customers, have an ease of use and benefit them above all else.

Damien O’Driscoll of Positive System Solutions then gave a presentation on unified commerce. He stated that a cohesive omnipresent system was key to creating a seamless experience across all channels and optimising the customer experience. A good technology foundation is necessary but an investment in a solution that will revolutionise your commerce and business.

Then our final panel of the day “At The Coal Face of Retail” with Caroline O’Neill, Claire Beswick, Chris Suitor, Gavan Wall and Cathy Martin discussed how you must marry your online social presence with your bricks and mortar shopfront to successfully evolve and grow. These factors are no longer standalone and must be utilised together. They then went on to say that all retailers must collaborate and work together. It is key to drive the economy forward. We must create think tanks and plans of action which then must be enacted as there is no room for complacency in the current climate.


Meanwhile in our breakout session, first up was Joe Keating of Glantus who gave a presentation on “Robotics In Retail”. Joe stated that RPA, robotic process automation, will remove the unnecessary cost of expensive knowledge workers who are doing simple repetitive unskilled tasks, freeing them up to more important and pressing work. He also stated that it will streamline systems and reduce employee error thus saving businesses millions.

Our next session was taken by Cathy Martin, CEO of Belfast Fashion Week, who provided a workshop on how to “Instagram With Influence’. Cathy spoke of how Instagram has revolutionised how consumers shopped online with clickable shop links in photos and examples of how local businesses such as Spoilt Belle Boutique were utilising this to sell out their products in days. She then talked through the benefits of Instagram when it came to marketing your business and shared all her industry tips and tricks to make the most out of Instagram for your business.

Adrienne Hanna of Right Revenue joined us next to give a presentation on maximising revenue in the hospitality industry. Adrienne stated that the key to maximising revenue was understanding who exactly your customer is and what they buy. You must collate data and create a persona of who your average customer is and then market to that customer specifically. It is truly all about people and you must understand the customer and their culture to make a profit.

Emma Gribben from Digital by Emma finished off our breakout sessions with a presentation on Online Reputation Management in Hospitality. Emma stated that with the growth of social media use, that online reputation is everything. You must be acutely aware of what is being said about your business online, respond accordingly, address any issues and learn from that experience. She also encouraged businesses to constantly interact with their customers before, during and after their stay to keep that connection and to encourage return custom.


After lunch, we returned to the main stage with Dervla Kearney from the Consumer Council who gave us an overview of who exactly the council is, what they do and how they can help your business. Their main functions are to undertake complaints from consumers, carry out research on consumer issues and promote discussion and information about consumer issues. Dervla also went on to explain the function of the newly assembled insight team. Their purpose is to provide robust insight on specific consumer issues in Northern Ireland and they seek to deliver strategic outcomes through a combination of gathering evidence, analysing data and producing insight. Their ambition is to be the go-to organisation for all the consumer issues and insights in Northern Ireland.


Our next speaker Orla Ward gave a presentation on O’Neills Sportswear have been in business for an astonishing 101 years and how the brand has grown and evolved over the years to facilitate that longevity. The brand remained ahead of the game, always implementing new technology to make their products the best they can be, they stayed true to their core business of sportswear, kept a close-knit core team of managers and long term employees to help the brand flourish and they continued to expand by opening stores and diversifying the products they sold. O’Neill’s is known worldwide for their quality products with celebrities such as Ed Sheeran donning their jerseys and their products being featured in Vogue. Crucial to all this success is their focus on a people driven future. The company has never forgotten their roots or their core beliefs and will hopefully continue to flourish for the next 100 years.


And finally, to close out the day, Charlie Boyle of Customer Service Excellence Ireland gave a presentation on ensuring customer excellence. Charlie began his presentation by stating that the four pillars that made up customer service excellence were: awareness, measurement, training and recognition. He then went on to facilitate an interactive exercise with the speakers, delegates and exhibitors in the room by dividing them up into teams and giving them a case study to play out. He then went on to say that we are in the midst of an experience economy and that selling our customers an experience is a big part of customer service. The customer experience has become just as important as the product being sold when it comes to customer service.

Naomh McElhatton, CEO, SMART Global thanked everyone involved in the conference: “It is with thanks to all our speakers and SMART Retail and Hospitality 2019 partners including Velocity Worldwide, Belfast City Council, Ulster Bank, Scaffold Digital, Customer Service Excellence Ireland, Select Wifi, Positive System Solutions, Power NI, Loyal Be, Review Hub, The Belfast Chamber, The Consumer Council and the Federation of Small Businesses Northern Ireland.” she said.

By Sarah-Louise McGrath, SMART Global

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