Geek Theater

To hear the techies tell it, the 8,000-capacity Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, N.M., is going to have transporters, cold fusion and Segways.

OK, maybe not, but a technological company called Cerelink expects to use the arena as a kind of high-tech laboratory, a place where it can test some nifty ideas that could be used at other venues. For instance, Star Center is expected to introduce advancements in concessions and retail.

The events center, which is scheduled to debut this winter and already has Juan Gabriel and Blue Man Group on the books, is expected to be home to minor league hockey’s New Mexico Scorpions and an Arena Football 2 team.

Cerelink was founded by four former Intel managers (Intel has a nearby manufacturing plant) to focus on “community and economic development” and to “implement social change.” It approached the city with the concept of the arena as technological testing ground. The city bit, providing money for a feasibility study and technical deployment.

This is the first arena Cerelink has worked with. Even venue GM Sean Langer admitted he was in the dark on the stuff Cerelink was cooking up.

“What I know about it I read in the paper,” Langer told Pollstar. Cerelink CEO Richard Draper and COO Rod Sanchez explained.

“We really looked at this from a design team approach,” Sanchez told Pollstar. “We took some surveys and, with the collaboration of Global Entertainment – the developer for the arena – we were able to find some things that could benefit from technology. One of the chief complaints of people who go to stadiums is they don’t want to wait in line for food.”

With the help of IBM, Cerelink is installing about five food-ordering kiosks into the walls of the arena. Patrons will be able to choose a concession stand via touch screen, place an order and pay at the kiosk by credit card. Cerelink will monitor the feasibility of the kiosks for the first half-dozen events.

“They should alleviate long lines and get food faster,” Sanchez said. “At the concessions, it should reallocate human resources from cashiers to food preparation.”

IBM introduced similar technology in fast-food restaurants in Europe, but this will be the first time the food-ordering kiosks will be available in an arena environment, Draper said. The city allocated partial financing of the project, and companies are providing equipment at cost to help with the deployment, the Cerelink executives said.

“The city wants something like nothing else,” Sanchez said.

No patents are involved because “we’re hoping that other arenas will come to us and say, ‘We heard what you did in Rio Rancho and we have another problem we’d like you to solve.'”

Rio Rancho is the fastest-growing city in New Mexico, Draper said, and the population is expected to climb from 85,000 to 140,000 in five years. Meanwhile, a college campus is under construction that will bring in 15,000 students. A new city hall is also in the works, and a new retail development is near the events center. All of this worked into Cerelink’s other project.

“The question was, ‘How do we tie all of these entities into the infrastructure?'” Sanchez said. “The next survey point we saw is that people arrive a little bit early to an event. They like to go retail shopping, but they go and browse. They don’t want to carry bags to a concert or sporting event.

“So we’re developing a plan with the retail developer to create a ‘hybrid store.’ People can go in and browse, but items can be electronically sent to their houses the next day. It’s a seamless environment using the events center as the center point.”

Draper foresees linking the venue to “digital homes” in the area and suggested that retailers, restaurants or nightclubs will be able to send e-coupons to concertgoers via cell phone to advertise their after-show events or sales. Cerelink is leaving headroom in its technology for future experiments at the venue, Draper said.

Cerelink is also working on a wireless communications infrastructure in Uganda and another project in South America.

The company has six employees and an Italy office, but Draper and Sanchez sounded prepared if their ideas at Star Center were successful.

“The payoff is, if there’s a significant Return On Investment (at the Star Center), we’re going to move forward,” Draper said.

– Joe Reinartz