Card system vendor TouchNet has developed an extensive network of third-party vendors with its Ready Partner Program. The program is designed to provide TouchNet customers looking to add new services or features with a catalog of third-party providers that are validated to integrate into TouchNet solutions.
Among the ever-growing list of TouchNet Ready Partners is Starship Technologies – the company now renowned for its fleet of autonomous delivery robots. Robot delivery was already proving its viability before the arrival of a global pandemic, but in this new normal it seems that this service has only grown in importance.
Universities across the country are looking for new ways to keep dining convenient for students and workable for the institution. It’s an exceedingly difficult proposition now as campus dining has to strike a balance between efficiency and safety in the form of social distancing guidelines and altered dining schedules designed to keep foot traffic to a minimum.
Starship delivery robots
Starship Technologies and TouchNet work cooperatively via the Ready Partner Program to bring the delivery robots to TouchNet client campuses.
“With Starship as a Ready Partner, there’s no additional modules or requirements from the OneCard side because they’re using the standard declining balance,” says Dave Falldien, Manager, Sales Engineering at TouchNet. “All the campus has to do is contact TouchNet and inform us that they want a Starship implementation that accepts the OneCard student credential as a form of payment.”
For TouchNet campuses that have made it available, the student OneCard appears as a payment method for purchases made in the Starship app. Those orders are also reflected on the student’s account in real time.
“The leg work for TouchNet campuses to integrate with Starship is minimal,” says Falldien. “All a campus has to have in place from TouchNet’s standpoint is the third-party integration.”
Among TouchNet’s campus power users for the Starship app is the University of Houston. The University of Houston’s go-live date was November 11, 2019 when it logged 454 deliveries on day one alone. The service is currently offered at on campus locations such as Starbucks, Mondo Subs, Subway, Panda Express and one of UH’s c-stores.
“We’re always looking for innovative ways to provide food service and engage our students,” says Alexcis Mendoza, District Marketing Manager, University of Houston System. “We wanted the service to be inclusive and know that a core part of our student population relies on dining dollars as their means of purchasing. Because of this, it was important for us to launch with dining dollars as a tender option.”
“Because Starship and TouchNet had an integration that we were able to leverage, there weren’t any hurdles or delays,” says Mendoza. “We opened on day one with Cougar Cash fully integrated.”
The University of Houston peaked at 475 orders per day in November 2019. Then came the arrival of COVID.
“Spring 2020 was abnormal to say the least. It’s difficult to determine an accurate trend but our forecast pre COVID-19 would have seen the service continue to grow,” explains Mendoza. “With both new and repeat guests, it would have put us at 600 deliveries daily.”
Due to the significant reduction of in-person classes and campus population this fall, Houston has closed or reduced hours of operation for most of its campus retail locations.
“With the difficult decisions the university made this fall, the delivery service has seen a decline,” says Mendoza. “However, the service and amenity these robots provide is more relevant and important than ever before. We’re glad to have the opportunity to provide this innovative option to our students.”
The TouchNet Ready Partner Program
Now that we’ve got the details on robot delivery, let’s circle back to the Ready Partner Program.
“The idea behind the TouchNet Ready Partner Program is to help build a replicable platform for Starship and other third-party vendors in higher education,” explains Falldien. “The Ready Program is our way of vetting third parties for direct access to TouchNet technology.”
From the university’s standpoint it’s a plug-and-play type of scenario. The university can search the vendor database based on the service they’re looking for and then benefit from the assurance that the vendor is already validated by TouchNet.
“There’s always going to be configurations, but it’s minimal when going through the TouchNet Ready process because it’s an existing, pre-built standardized integration,” explains Falldien. “Vendors apply to join the program, then go through a validation process to gain access to the TouchNet API, endpoints, programming, U-stores, etc.”
TouchNet already boasts a roster of hundreds of Ready Partners but continues to look at new and different services spanning all facets of campus life including bookstores, admissions, events, publishing, parking, printing, and rec centers. Vendors in these spaces can tie into TouchNet’s API either through the company’s payment gateway for commerce applications or through the OneCard platform.
In general, the on-boarding process for third-party vendors to the Ready Program is seamless. There is a validation process that’s conducted by the TouchNet dev team, which helps to comprehensively vet the prospective vendor.
A solution for the new normal
As higher ed continues to adapt to the challenges posed by COVID, solutions like Starship and other TouchNet Ready Partners could offer respite in the form of new service models.
“The big one with Starship is being able to offer automated, contactless delivery,” says Falldien. “It was super convenient before, but now with COVID it’s helping to keep students fed when we’re reducing volumes in community dining halls.”
COVID has, in a sense, only accelerated what was already happening on campus with robot delivery. Robot delivery arrived on campus with the “wow” factor, but the pandemic has brought new levels of importance to the service.
“Even as we’re rolling out more order-ahead services, creating delivery points and options is now part of the requirement to keep everyone safe,” says Falldien. “Delivery was coming regardless of COVID, but now we’re taking what was originally meant to be a convenience and making it a proper service.”