Video Dining: Restaurants Add Video conferences and High Tech to the Menu

April 13, 2011

Feature VidConfBy Heather McNeill
The table is set, the meal is on, and your presentation is ready to roll. It’s a meeting like any other but for one thing:
The attendees are miles away from one another – linked only by a broadband Internet connection, a microphone and a video camera. This is video dining, and it’s arrived at a restaurant near you.  The technology behind this trend is nothing new. Over the past several years, video conferencing technology has greatly improved, with state-of-the-art systems offering high-definition video and clear audio, as well as the ability to include even more locations in one video call. Along with the latest advanced systems entering the market, popular programs that have offered free video calling on the computer are now extending their reach into video conferencing. Both Skype and iChat, for instance, have recently introduced this capability, which anyone with a laptop can access remotely.  State-of-the-art videoconferencing at a private dining location is showing up at more restaurants, including Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar in St. Louis.  Fleming’s offers a private room and the technology to connect with friends, family and business associates, wherever they may be. All of the national restaurant group’s 64 locations now have a TANDBERG video conferencing system, which has several major advantages over traditional meetings. “With the cost of travel, people are trying to save money,” said James Martin, operating partner of Fleming’s in St. Louis. “This system allows them to get some balance out of their lives. To see people over a videoconference, it really helps everyone out, and it’s green.”  Fleming’s St. Louis location is currently the only restaurant in Missouri that offers this kind of advanced videoconferencing system. But other video dining options are out there. They are also making connecting with people across the globe easier than it’s ever been. Restaurants are proving to be an ideal setting because all the participants in the videoconference can share a meal and conversation, even if they’re not all in the same room.

State-of-the-art systems like the one at Fleming’s provide what videoconferencing experts call telepresence, the sense that the person on the screen is in the same room with you. Not only does the sound reach you without a noticeable delay, but “the gaze” of the speaker seems directed at you, instead of the camera. For these reasons, advanced voiceconferencing systems have been widely adopted by businesses. According to Fleming’s Web site, more than half of the top 25 Fortune 500 companies, 21 of the world’s 25 largest banks, and 17 of the globe’s 25 biggest brokerage firms use TANDBERG technology.  This level of videoconferencing requires a strong and reliable Internet connection, a high-definition camera, and a unit combining numerous “feeds” from different locations into a seamless video call. At Fleming’s, highdefinition audio and video signals are transmitted through a private Wide Area Network (WAN) Internet connection.  A 50-inch plasma television screen and video camera allow the participants to see and be seen. At any Fleming’s location, you could have a call that included the restaurant group’s 63 other  locations, as well as five other satellite sites. “If a company knows there’s a Fleming’s in Philadelphia, they might have 10 people there, and they might have another 10 to 15 people at the  company’s campus in another location,” Martin said.  “This system enables all those people to be in the room.”  If six restaurants participate in a call, a picture of all six restaurants shows up on  the television screen. The more restaurants involved, the smaller the pictures will be, and the last  speaker to talk shows up on the screen last. The system’s camera can pan to anyone who asks a  question.  The TANDBERG system also offers the ability to hook a computer up and do a  PowerPoint presentation. The speaker can switch back and forth from the Power-Point to the  speech. The videoconference also can be recorded and put on a DVD. According to Martin, the  system has been used by a variety of restaurant patrons. “What we’re seeing is a lot of people using it to have dinner and have a meeting or a training session. Instead of sending people across the  country for a meeting that might only be 1-1/2 to 2 hours long, they have the ability to have them all in the restaurants at once,” he said. “They can all have dinner, watch the presentation, and then go home to their families – it’s a win-win situation for everybody.”  The TANDBERG costs $250 to use.  The private dining rooms have a minimum rental cost that varies throughout the year, Martin said. Fleming’s private dining director in St. Louis can facilitate the arrangements for the TANDBERG videoconference and your plans for the meal.

Restaurants across the state also are offering other types of video dining technology, most notably satellite broadcasting. Unlike videoconferencing, this technology is similar to a live television program that is distributed privately to different locations by satellite. The technology has been embraced by different groups, including pharmaceutical companies desiring to widely disseminate information about a new product, and corporations who want a single message broadcast to numerous employees at one time. The presenter might be an expert in the field,  whose live, recordable broadcast can reach numerous people in one sitting, requiring little travel  or other costs incurred by attendees. As an example, a program filmed by the vendor at a studio  can be watched at any of the participating restaurant’s locations that are equipped with a satellite suite. Groups as far apart as Missouri, Ohio and Florida, for instance, can watch the live,  high-definition broadcast at the same time over dinner in the restaurants’ private dining rooms. In  most instances, these viewers can phone in, text or e-mail questions while the broadcast is  taking place, and they can be answered by the presenter. In Missouri, Ruth’s Chris Steak House offers satellite broadcasting service from Advantage Broadcast Solutions, a division of ESSRX, at  its Kansas City and Clayton locations. Morton’s The Steak House and Maggiano’s Little Italy, both of which have locations in the St. Louis area, have satellite broadcasting service provided by  VELOCITY Broadcasting. The Capital Grille restaurant, which has a location in Kansas City, has  partnered with ConneXion360 to provide  this technology. Satellite broadcasting enhances the  private dining options at the restaurants. Morton’s in Clayton, for example, can accommodate up  to 64 people in its private dining room and 136 for other events utilizing the entire restaurant. “We’re not open to the public for breakfast or lunch, but we are open at those times  as a corporate  function space,” said Gina Sparks, sales and marketing manager for Morton’s in Clayton. “Groups  can have the whole restaurant to themselves.” At the Ruth’s Chris Kansas City location, the private dining room can accommodate up to 65 guests for a private inner function or other events. “We can arrange something for any time of day, including an all-day meeting with breakfast, lunch and  break sessions,” said Terra Blazek, sales and catering manager for the restaurant. ADVANTAGES   OF VIDEO DINING Whatever video dining option you use, this technology has advantages over traditional meetings: relatively low cost compared with staging multiple meetings across the  country, a low carbon footprint, and intangible benefits employees gain from staying close to   home. In our state, you’ll find video dining in restaurants as well as plenty of locations where you  can park your laptop for an impromptu video conference. The technology underlying these  systems  may be advanced, but the basic principle behind video dining is simple – it’s just another means of bringing people together over a good meal.    MM&E

(Heather McNeill is a contributor from Kansas City, Mo.)

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