"If you think about a theme park, you spend most of your day standing in line," says Alex Bäcker. "The ability to completely eliminate those lines, or reduce them to a short duration, it's really revolutionary."
Bäcker is the kind of person who can solve problems. Back in the early 1990s, he did just that for Argentina at the International Olympiads of Informatics, when he represented the country in a massive problem-solving competition. Much more recently, though, Bäcker came up with the solution for the problem that always mars a day at a theme park. It happened while he was in line "for the umpteenth time" at Knott's Berry Farm. It's both a testament to Bäcker's quick thinking and the line's length that he had an answer for the great queue quandary by the time he reached the front. Bäcker invented QLess.
That was more than six years ago. Since the initial idea, Bäcker and his team in Pasadena have done "hundreds" of releases of QLess. It's a system that they've tweaked a lot over the past few years. They've made alterations based on the needs of certain industries and specific businesses. For example, if they're working with a venue that requires a lot of walking, they'll consider the speed at which people would walk. Overall, they've helped out over 10 million people globally. Small businesses and universities rely on them. As for the theme parks, unfortunately, none in Southern California have picked up on the service yet.
Bäcker is quick to point out that QLess isn't an app. You don't have to have a smart phone to use it. It's also not like Disneyland's Fast Pass, which is probably the closest comparison in the local theme park world. With a Fast Pass, you have to go to your destination to get a time. When you return, you still need to stand in line.
That's not how QLess works. With QLess, you make a phone call -- from any kind of phone -- or send a text message. You'll receive information regarding the current wait time and number of people who are already standing by for service. From there, you can decide whether or not you want to get in line.
QLess calls this "mobile queueing." It means that you can wait for your turn anywhere. You can go about your business and QLess will continue to alert you as you approach the front. If you get distracted and can't make it back to the physical location in time, you can move yourself further back in line and give the amount of extra time needed to make it to your destination.
Right now, QLess is picking up steam in a few different industries. It's becoming a popular tool for retail outlets, where long lines can hurt business. "It's like pouring water down a funnel too fast," says Bäcker of lines at shops. "You're going to lose a lot of water."
Government agencies, including a few DMVs in Kansas and Missouri, have adopted QLess. So have health care centers and universities, including West Los Angeles College, who uses it for services like admissions and financial aid. QLess is making advances in the service that could be particularly helpful for health care professionals and patients. Bäcker mentions their "flex appointment" innovations, meaning that you can change your appointment if you're running late and you'll get a notification if the doctor is behind schedule.
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Meanwhile, though, it's the possibility of theme park use that's QLess's holy grail. "It lets people do other things, explore the rest of the park, buy souvenirs, eat and drink," says Bäcker. "These parks have so much invested to make it an interesting place and usually you only see a small fraction of it."
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