Of Man and Machines

Can Technology Alone Meet the Responsible Service Challenge?

Checking IDs, preventing underage drinking, monitoring the rate of patron imbibing and watching out for could-be drunk drivers; servers must be ever-vigilant in undertaking these tasks seamlessly and often simultaneously. What bar, restaurant or nightclub owner hasn’t wished for a silver bullet to guarantee responsible service of beverage alcohol?

Recent advances and product introductions have some owners wondering if technology might just be that silver bullet. ID scanners can quickly validate a driver’s license, pour systems can dispense an exact amount of liquor, POS systems can flag a patron who’s consuming drinks quickly, handheld breathalyzers can determine someone’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC). And there are often added benefits, such as a record of the data that can be presented if an alcohol-related incident does occur, or the ability to retain customer ID information for marketing purposes (with patron’s consent where legal). But is it the industry’s cure-all?

“These devices are great, but they’re just another component to help you do your job better,” said Larry Moore, a TIPS (Training for Intervention ProcedureS) master trainer. “In 30 years running bars, restaurants and nightclubs, I’ve seen all this technology and used a lot of it myself. Some of it’s really useful — ID scanners are a particular boon to the operator — but they have to be used smartly. You still have to train for proper ID checks, interpersonal skills and how to use the equipment.”

As a professional trainer, you’d expect Moore to weigh in on the overriding importance of training. But during a panel discussion at the Alcohol Responsibility Conference hosted by Health Communications, marketer of the TIPS program, in Orlando, Fla., last month, Moore’s fellow panelists — three vendors and an operator — all agreed with his position. The devices, they said, are not the “silver bullet;” rather, human beings are what make the technology truly effective.

Based on that discussion, here are some points to ponder as you consider the role of technology and training in responsible sales.

Device Reliance
Operators must train users to “interact with the device and with the individual presenting the ID,” said John Aristotle Phillips, chairman/CEO of Aristotle International, which markets age verification systems. “There has to be a guest interaction by the employee,” agreed Brett Stallard, president of We Scan IDs.

“So many [employees] just swipe and return,” Stallard said, going on to explain that the device can only evaluate the ID; it can’t determine if the ID matches the individual presenting it. “I could hand you a female’s license and it could clear as a valid, of-age ID, but if you don’t look at it and look at me, you’ll never realize I’m pulling one over on you.”

Perfect Pour Systems
Liquor pour systems certainly have value in controlling costs, but the human element is necessary to make them effective in preventing overservice. “A perfectly poured ounce handed to a perfectly drunk person is a problem,” quipped Moore. “The pour system can’t evaluate the individual ordering the drink.”

Michael Camire, director of food and beverage at Hollywood Slots, Hotel & Raceway in Bangor, Maine, said that while he considers the Easybar system that was installed when the property opened in July 2008 to be state-of-the-art — 80 spirits run through 60,000 feet of tubing from a central warehouse and are dispensed in 1-ounce increments; the system links to the POS system — a strong investment in training, reinforcement and enforcement mirrors the investment in technology.

“The system is only as good as the people operating it,” he said, noting that all property employees are TIPS trained. “We rely on our bartenders to track the rate of consumption and look for behavioral cues, and do reinforcement training and mystery shops to ensure they’re always on their toes. We have technology on our side, but it comes down to them doing the right things.”

Breathe Easy
Coin-operated breathalyzers in bars may seem like a novelty for customers, but those who drop money in the slot and take the test might just get a serious wake-up call. Venue owners installing these machines are cautioned not to allow patrons to use the devices to see how high they can get their BAC, but to present them as a way to ensure guest safety, said Felix Comeau, president of Alcohol Countermeasure Systems Corp., marketer of various alcohol testing technologies. One is a personal breathalyzer, intended as part of an intervention strategy when management suspects a patron is intoxicated.

“The manager might take a customer relations approach and invite the guest to take the test privately — outside the arena of the open bar — and talk to the guest about the [manager’s] desire to protect him or her,” explained Comeau, noting the personal interaction is crucial. “The device can provide accurate information about their states, but someone has to convince them to do it and then talk with them about getting a cab or a designated driver.”

Bullet-proof Proof?
“I run into colleagues all the time who think they’ve got a device so they’re completely compliant,” Camire said. “They’re blind to the reality that you need good training along with as close as you can get to foolproof technology.”

In some cases, however, technology might mitigate liability and exposure to risk, according to Aristotle, who noted, “We see it as an important component to an affirmative defense.” Moore added that some states consider certain technologies as “reasonable effort, but you still can be sued.

“If an owner installs a device and walks away thinking he’s untouchable, that’s just stupid,” Moore said. “From the minute a guest walks into your place, you have to own them or they will own you. Training and technology together can make that happen.” NCB

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