Technology touches it all: Self-service and other innovations are changing theatre operations


We often review the customer experience in this column, how we deliver it and how we measure it. We talk about the types of food and beverages served with the changing menu, and the options we have to provide creative space and content for eateries, whether combined with or completely apart from the film itself. The backdrop to all of these efforts is technology. Technology has changed the way we deliver product, content and communication to the consumer and has been on my mind since I arrived at the National Restaurant Association (NRA) show. Attending the technology-specific tradeshow for hospitality, HITEC, only reinforced my realization that technology solutions are the foundation for everything we are managing in food and beverage today.

Starting with the NRA, the most interesting new technology was in product, with a machine that produces frozen alcohol ice cubes to put in a cup and be combined with a mixer. It’s designed to freeze liquor into an ice form to store and then serve in a high-volume setting. Add the mixer and the liquor slowly melts in your glass. The name of the company unveiling this product at the NRA show is Beyond Zero. I wasn’t the only one to be impressed; their alcohol cubes were highlighted by the local news station over all the other things they could have reported on from that monster of a show.

There were other creative technologies at work with other products, but this one was creating just the right buzz to be noticed. Our technology behind the products themselves has been reviewed here in terms of the new beverage cartridge machines, such as the Coke Freestyle machines, the quick milkshake machines, and the quick-cook fryers and ovens that are turning concession stands into quick-service restaurants. None of this is possible without the technology of the machines that are supporting these offerings. Technology is driving the solutions.

I was also thinking about the way we manage customer interaction. The technology behind self-service, self-payment and choice has begun to infiltrate the food and beverage world in a way that is irreversible and all-encompassing, saving labor, time and money for the operator. Having iPads on the table to pick up, browse, and enter your order means you no longer have a waiter. You simply have a delivery to your table. The number of companies offering this software, with various hardware options, is growing faster by the day. It can be used by the waiter or by the customer, and it is a serious threat to pen and paper, or those waiters with excellent memories, such as myself, back in the day.

Self-help technology, as I call it, includes filling your own drink cup, adding your own topping, and picking and paying for your movie ticket from a kiosk. This is all self-service and the technology makes it possible for the theatre to have the consumers do all the work themselves. It’s brilliant, really. Sort of like those restaurants that charge you for the food but you cook it yourself, which I avoid since I go out for someone to cook for me. Can everyone see the lower labor cost?

Finally, the technology behind communication was well represented at both shows. Communication to the consumer is represented in the form of digital menu boards, digital auditorium notifications, social-media aps and websites. The explosion of social-media and website communication has all but erased the need to put any film times into the local newspaper—it’s all Internet-driven. Once we get the consumer into the theatre, our attempt to get them to the concession stand or café is all driven by menu boards that are moving picture images, visually stunning and accompanied by sound in some cases, not all. We are using technology to reach out to consumers in a way that static signs and posters are just not capable of delivering.

Today’s consumer is so inundated with all types of information and mediums that it is difficult to get through to them; our challenge is to deliver the message we want to convey in a quick, concise way. We have to reach them through all the social media they engage by targeting the right times with the correct medium. We have to then communicate to them in the theatre itself in a way that encourages them to consume food or beverages and then make it to the correct auditorium on time.

We are using technology to do this. The number of staff that we need to do these jobs is now minimal. We use staff to actually prepare and serve the food, and in some cases still check the tickets. Even that has gone away in some theatres. The technology being used to get the consumer into the theatre and educated on what to do and buy is doing the bulk of the work for us. I sometimes wonder if life truly is imitating art. If I think about the cars that are driving themselves and Amazon delivering packages with drones, it feels like we are racing to make the Terminator actually come true... But I will stay positive and just end by acknowledging that the technology we are employing today is foundationally expanding our abilities to serve our customers.