Call me (definitely): PlexCall helps bring dinner to the cinema table


While continuing to report on in-theatre dining and service innovations such as Cinetopia 23 (FJI September 2012), we will expand our “Dinner at the Movies” menu to include the occasional special focus on food and beverage equipment and technologies such as PlexCall.

Unlike this summer’s hit pop-music ditty “Call Me Maybe,” moviegoers’ calls get returned each and every time while enjoying dinner at the movies and basking in a relaxing, luxury VIP treatment. PlexCall makes sure that cinema waiters know when and exactly where they are needed in more than 300 auditoriums across the United States.

“OK, so the best for last, right?” posted movie-diner Carrie B. about the service buttons she found at AMC Fork & Screen Buckhead in Atlanta, Georgia. “That’s right, there’s a little button at your table that signals the waiter that you need something or even if you want to ask them to have someone stop talking or doing something else that annoys you in the theatre :). The manager explained, briefly, the way they work, but suffice it to say, if you wait more than five minutes, the signal from the button alerts the manager, who will then come take care of whatever the situation or order is.”

Developed by Candler, North Carolina-based Embedded Processor Designs (EPD), the appropriately named PlexCall offers an all-in-one wireless system for customer-service management that includes front- and back-end hardware, networking and analytic software. After guests press the button located on their table, armrest or swivel tray, not only do the LEDs light up—and go off when serviced—but it also records the exact location on monitors that are strategically placed throughout the cinema, bar and kitchen areas. Red, yellow and green indicate tables “waiting,” with colors changing to reflect “urgency” status at theatre-definable intervals.

“Our PlexCall digital pager automatically alerts the manager when a customer has been waiting too long for service,” sales director Chris Pollak enthuses. “At the press of a button, the pager display will rotate through each area of your facility showing you a list of all red seats. We can also send e-mails and text messages. This is, of course, a very proactive way of reducing the number of unhappy customers.”

The first exhibitor customer was Movie Tavern. “They approached us during a restaurant show where we were showing our ‘intelligent’ pagers that had all sorts of entertainment options in addition to the expected restaurant pager functions.” Pollak recalls how EPD entered the “dinner at the movies” business. Before the first PlexCall system was installed at Movie Tavern in Denton, Texas, in August 2006, the exhibitor had said, “We haven’t found anything out there that will do what we think we need for efficient in-theatre dining management. Would you consider developing a system for us? And, basically, those talks resulted in what has become PlexCall.” Similarly, he notes that the pager has since evolved into a medical device.

Supporting both their InfoCube (Interactive Patient Flow Solution) and PlexCall product lines, Pollak assures, the underlying proprietary embedded processor technology has redundancies built in “that make sure that every call gets through,” not only at the cinema. “Our compact design connects the customizable button to a separate transceiver box that can be located underneath the table or elsewhere on the seat.” As for the necessary power requirements, the transceiver can be hardwired or use a standard “N” cell battery. In addition to offering a lifespan of about one year, “we provide built-in system diagnostics that tell you via e-mail about six weeks before the battery will no longer be viable.” The same e-mail notifications apply to other maintenance items as well.

“In cases of retrofits,” he details client preferences, “exhibitors often don’t have the time or money to put in hard-powered connections. It is just more efficient to go with batteries.”
At the back of the auditorium sits what Pollak calls the concentrator. “From there we can either wirelessly connect to the central server, or via CAT5 cable. The number of monitors is unlimited,” he adds. “Generally, they show the seating arrangements and map of the entire site. They also display a listing of the order in which the buttons were pressed. The calls are listed both chronologically by auditorium, row and table, and visually on a seat map. The waiters know which one came up first, so theoretically that’s where they’ll go. It’s first-in, first-out.”

Detailed statistical reports are also available that “let everyone know who waited the longest; how many “red seats” they had; the number of calls, average wait times and more.” Pollak has observed that “it all relates to the exhibitor’s goal of quality of service and quality of experience for their guests.”

A wide range of customized button designs that PlexCall makes available also helps with differentiation. “Theatre operators come to us with a certain type of chair and table. We can work with them on whatever needs to get done to make sure that it all fits and works together. They are looking for something that is unique to their particular style and unique brand.”

Of late, Pollak has observed a trend towards individual swivel-type tables. “Real estate is at premium, so they like a button with a very small footprint.” A new product combines PlexCall with an aisle light manufactured by EPD that not only illuminates the floor but also shows when a service button was pressed in the same row.

Given these customization options, it is not surprising that PlexCall’s other exhibitor clients have also been featured as part of this author’s “Dinner at the Movies” series, including National Amusements’ Cinema de Lux, Marcus Midtown in Omaha, Nebraska, and Southern Theatres at Canal Place in New Orleans, Louisiana. On the horizon for future reporting are Cinepolis Luxury Cinemas and an update on iPic Theaters.

When the last Studio Movie Grill opened in Wheaton, Illinois, at the beginning of June (two more are scheduled to open this month), the local Daily Herald reported, “Every leather chair at the new Studio Movie Grill is equipped with a tray and buzzer for personal service.” Four weeks later, Wheaton made headlines again, landing a spot on the list of “Movie Theaters Worth Traveling For” at “The eight theaters boast top-notch technology. A service button at your seat lets you order from a large menu including dishes such as carnitas tacos and pesto pizza.”

“We’re all about the customer experience,” declares Brian Schultz, founder and president of Studio Movie Grill. He explains to FJI how they “worked hand-in-hand with PlexCall to create the ultimate support for our service model. Use of technology is key to ensuring and measuring performance. PlexCall has been not only great to work with but also a key technology partner.”

In closing, we return to PlexCall’s first customer. “The call button is such an important part of the in-cinema dining experience at Movie Tavern,” notes Timothy Douglas, director of information technologies. “There is only one company we trust when it comes to call buttons and that is PlexCall. They have a great product and they stand by it. We love these guys!”