I recently took my daughter to her friend’s birthday party at Stars and Strikes Family Entertainment Center in Woodstock, GA. As we were walking down the ramp to meet the awaiting chaos of elementary school hyperactivity, my daughter tugged on my shirt.
“Look, Daddy, a Star Wars guy!”
Lo and behold, coming at us, then passing us and going down the very same ramp, was a smiling-faced robot delivering pizza to one of the bowling alley lanes. The Pro AV writer in me took over: I left my daughter with the party and headed to the manager’s office to find out more.
For the record, it was not the “Star Wars guy” (R2D2), but you can see where an imaginative mind can make the mistake. The robot is called the BellaBot from Pudu Robotics, and these fun little characters joined the Stars and Strikes force this past December. There are two in use at the Woodstock location, and they are currently being used at all 16 locations throughout the Southeast in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee.
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“We actually initially tested a different robot in a couple locations,” explained Caleb Wisterman, senior regional manager, FOH and bar operations, on how the company landed on the BellaBots. “We saw [at the IAAPA convention] a booth that was set up with the BellaBot and quickly realized that the features they had and what they were able to do were really more on point for what we needed for our buildings.”
Stars and Strikes is a venue built for kids of all ages (parents included, with a sports bar in the middle) that is loaded with fun activities like a bowling alley, video gaming area, laser tag, and bumper cars. What’s more fun than surprising a group of kids with a talking robot that has an array of digital facial expressions and can carry pizza and cake?
Okay, I tell you what’s even more fun: BellaBot sings "Happy Birthday" and has a little light show when it brings out the cake. I also thought I heard it randomly talking and playing music as it motored around the venue, and sure enough, both are functions that can be programmed (more on that in a bit).
But BellaBot is not all fun and games. It’s a valuable addition to the service team. “Most of our locations, the kitchen is on the other side of the building from where most of our guests are eating, which is typically at the lanes or up in the main bar area,” explained Wisterman. “It alleviates some of that stress put on the team. Even on slower shifts when we have a lot less staff on, we can utilize those to run the food out.”
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Your Regularly Scheduled Programming
Imagine if you would a group of 10-12 elementary schoolers and their parents wandering from the bowling alley to the bumper car venue. Throw in hundreds of other regular daily guests jumping around with excitement, and it was simply remarkable that these robots bobbed and weaved around the crowd as if it was a human itself.
And did I hear it say, “Excuse me?”
“It has several sensors and cameras on the front,” explained Wisterman. “That’s how it is moving and getting around people. It actually has a few warning messages. You’ll hear it say, ‘Excuse me’ or ‘Trying to deliver some food.’”
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Programming was an arduous task, and there was some trial and error to make sure everything worked properly—but once that’s out of the way, BellaBot steals the show.
“It takes three or four hours,” said Wisterman of the initial programming. “There is a program installed on there and your laptop. You basically take the robot and walk it through your entire building. It has a laser scanner that scans all the hard objects, tables, booths, bar area, and gives you, I’ll call it a blueprint of the building. Then you connect to it via Wi-Fi from the laptop and take the robot and station it where you want it to stop. Then you go back in, and you draw out the specific route you want it to go.”
Another cool feature is that if you’re out and about enjoying a different room, BellaBot has the lane number on its back of where it is heading to (Lane 12, for example). So, if you’re hungry and see what looks like your meal, don’t worry, you don’t have to be the person asking a robot if, in fact, it is.
Does this display allow for other branding opportunities? Wisterman explained that to a degree, yes, it just isn’t sophisticated. The messaging only allows for letters right now, so there is not a ton you can do.
An Experience Ahead of Its Time
Obviously, in a place with as many flashing lights, video games, and loud noises, Stars and Strikes needs to keep up with innovative technology. Judging by the reaction of the kids, other guests, and most importantly, myself, BellaBot has been a huge success. But so has everything Stars and Strikes has turned to in the new normal of guest experiences.
"We really tried to embrace technology these past few years, and not just with the robots,” said Lauren VanBuskirk, director of marketing for Stars and Strikes. “We also have kiosks where you can order your own food and beverages. You can order right from the lanes on your lane scoring tablets. It’s those tools we’ve embraced that put us on the cutting edge of the guest experience and helping our staff as well.”