Coronavirus has turned the humble QR code into an everyday essential

Venture outside and you’ll soon see them. Printed on posters and signs, pasted on pub walls and hotel lobbies, sellotaped to picnic tables in beer gardens: QR codes. As the hospitality industry begins tentatively to open up, bolstered in the UK by the government’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ discount scheme, restaurants and hotels are turning to technology to deliver a dine-in experience that is as touch-free as possible. Suddenly, a card menu that gets passed through the germy hands of one customer to the next doesn’t seem so appealing. QR codes – the black, barcode-like squares that can point to text or a website – have been around for a while, but was previously dismissed as largely a marketing gimmick, at least in a consumer context. Now the QR code has found its time to shine. “Up until now a QR code, certainly to me, has just been a collection of black and white patterns on a billboard or on a bus stop or wherever,” says Edmund Inkin, who co-owns three hotels across Cornwall and Wales under the brand Eat Drink Sleep. “I’d never really thought of using them.” Now, visitors to Eat Drink Sleep hotels can access the food menu, drinks list and details on room bookings via QR code (QR stands for Quick Response).Nils Engelking, cofounder of Egoditor, a mobile marketing company that runs an online QR code generator and works with companies to implement them, says the coronavirus pandemic was something of a rollercoaster for the business. First, customer numbers dropped off, as shops and events were forced to shut down. The main function of a QR code, after all, is to link the digital world with the physical: people can scan the code in real life to get more information on their phone. “So if there’s no sort of life out there and people gathering, QR codes are not that much necessary any more,” Engelking says.As lockdowns around the world started to ease, however, the QR code found itself in its element: it was the perfect touch-free medium. It allowed people to interact with the world around them, while only touching their own smartphone. “Coronavirus just gave it a big push in terms of adoption in terms of technology and also in terms of the end customers,” Engelking says. He says that Egoditor has seen a huge increase in adoption, with a 25x increase in signups from restaurants in June compared to February, and 7x increase in signups from hotels. There has also been an increase in the number of customers actually scanning the QR codes, which Engelking puts down to them being implemented for more useful functions.Many restaurants and hotels are using QR codes to display menus, or to direct people to booking pages where they can order food or reserve rooms directly online. They are also starting to be used to help with contact-tracing – keeping a record of who has been where in order to be able to track those who may have come into contact with the virus. The NHS Test and Trace service’s new app, which is currently entering trials, will allow users to scan a QR code at venues in order to keep a log of where they’ve been. Currently, venues on the Isle of Wight are able to create a QR code to work with the Test and Trace system.Some offices are also turning to the tech to help with bringing people back to work. Software company SAP, which has reopened two of its buildings with a very limited capacity, has incorporated QR codes into its broader strategy of signage, sanitiser and distancing, in order to inform employees of updates. Scanning the QR code takes employees to information on the latest procedures and processes in place at the office.Facilities manager Sarah Woodman says the QR code approach means the company doesn’t have to print out so many materials and results in a touch-free experience. “People don’t have to touch things – they’ve got their own phone, they can scan it, they can touch their own phone.” One other advantage is that you can easily update the information that the QR code leads to without changing the code itself. When SAP started using a different car park, for instance, Woodman was able to inform employees simply by tweaking the text that the QR code pointed to.As well as perhaps finally finding their killer app, QR codes have benefited from technology moving on somewhat since they first began appearing in marketing materials. Whereas previously you may have had to install a special QR code-reading app in order to scan the codes, many newer phone models will now do this automatically through the main camera function. Engelking says that businesses are also using them better: if you hide a QR code in your marketing designs with no clear call to action, people won’t know what to do with it; if you put it front-and-centre on your restaurant table explaining that it’s how to access the menu, people will.One of Inkin’s main concerns in using the tech was whether it would fit with the atmosphere of the hotels; he wanted to make sure not to lose the human element of service. For this reason, he says, Eat Drink Sleep is generally “relatively resistant” to technology, using it only where it really enhances what they do. They considered online ordering apps, but decided it took too much of the dining experience away, opting instead to use a QR code menu but still have people taking diners’ orders at the table (from a safe distance).The hotel company also had their QR codes laser-cut onto wooden cards by a local company, to match more with its aesthetic. Inkin keeps some single-use paper menus to hand for people who really don’t want to use the technology, but he says that most visitors are more than happy to. He imagines that the company will continue using the tech even after coronavirus is a concern. “I think because it’s very likely we’re going to be needing to use this for 6, 9, 12, 18 months, and that these types of guidelines will be in place for us to be operating in a Covid-safe way, it’s going to become fairly hardwired both into how we do things and how our guests do things, what they expect.”Some businesses have gone beyond QR codes to use other touch-free tech. Hotel chain citizenM has launched a “contactless” experience through its new app, which lets visitors check in, create their own keycard, order food and drink, and even control the lights and air conditioning in their room. The app, says Casper Overbeek, director of customer experience, was already in the works before the pandemic hit, but the company fast-tracked some features relevant to a contactless stay when this suddenly became more urgent. “It really is a way to say ‘listen, you don’t need to touch anything you don’t want to,’” he says. Overbeek believes that even if contactless features are no longer necessary or desirable post-Covid, the frictionless experience offered by tech will be. “Any feature that we’re now building to make contactless possible actually also has a convenience element to it, and I’m sure that the convenience element will stay.”Vicki Turk is WIRED's features editor.