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Catching the Eye of the Beholder

Posted: 11/1997

Catching the Eye of the Beholder

Telephone Booths and Enclosures

By Debera Bell-Beam

Superman made them famous. In fact, he made them almost
clichi. Today, nearly every action movie carries on the
tradition of the mad dash to make a critical call, whether it be
into Superman’s walk-in or a super cyber booth or even the
super-small shoe-boxed variety.

Regardless of style and shape, there are probably few people
who can say they have never sought out a payphone. Even those,
however, must confess they’ve seen payphone booths and
enclosures, if on no other occasion but in passing through the
parking lot of a convenience store, waiting at a filling station
or strolling through the lobby of a hotel.

You might think of the payphone as an unsung hero. Maybe, but
perhaps even more unsung are these booths and enclosures that
embrace callers if only to provide a moment’s respite from
bustling surroundings or a private minute for heated
conversation.

Historically, phone booths have filled two practical
functions: to deaden ambient sound and to increase user
friendliness. Today, however, that focus has turned from use to
investment with the dollar as the almighty tender of the bottom
line. That’s right, downsizing, the skimmer of corporate fat has
now hit one of our most common sights: the phone booth. The
result is an economies of scale, of sorts, with smaller booths
and enclosures for the most part supplanting Superman walk-ins.

But it’s not all bean counting. Or maybe it is. Because tied
into guarding payphone dollars is increasing them. This means
filling dead space with eye-catching advertising to fill minutes
between calling card and dialtone, a movement still to catch
hold, but one that also discourages miscreants armed with spray
cans and markers in search of a suitable tabula rasa.

With that, the lifetime cost of a booth is also factoring into
buying decisions, says Tom Matthews, vice president of Acoustics
Development Corp. (ADCO), St. Joseph, Mo. Twenty-five years ago,
the Bell Company made booths built to last 100 years. Then there
was a swing toward buying the cheapest product on the market. It
looked good on the business analysis sheet, Matthews notes.
Today, all eyes are focused on buying a less expensive booth or
enclosure that often needs replacement after 18 months.
"That doesn’t make sense in the long haul," Matthews
says. "You need to look at lifetime cost, which combines
expenses associated with acquisition, maintenance and
repair."

With cost touted the number-one consideration in many sectors,
there’s a lot of refurbishing going on. "I guess they’re
tired of trashing them, so they send them to us, and we make them
like new," says Leona Elder, vice president and general
manager of Amtel Service Corp., Banning, Calif. The sardine can,
also called the silver wrap, remains a hot–and reasonable–
seller. "People are looking for a really good deal right
now, because there’s so much product out there that needs
refurbishing," Elder says. "It saves customers 35
percent to 60 percent against the cost of a new one. And, it just
needs a good facelift."

Product quality sometimes is measured by weight. Take two
pedestals that look the same. You can’t tell the difference
between them when driving down the street, because they have same
box that is painted the same color. But, one weighs 80 lbs, the
other 50. "Go for the gusto," says Robert E. Driver
Jr., president of Houston-based Myrmidon Corp. "Quality and
durability. It’s going to take a lot more abuse."

Driver says his company remanufactures almost entirely Bell
equipment. He says it’s dependable and reliable, unlike some
produced after deregulation. "We take them apart and put
them together. We build them twice," he says. "And we
learn what was a good idea and what was a bad idea."

Bell equipment doesn’t come cheap, he points out, but it’s a
good product that comes at an economic price when you consider
the long haul. And, Driver says he tries to help customers get
the biggest bang for their buck. In fact, he tells some callers
to "call five people on Friday afternoon to see who’s the
hungriest," to find the best deal.

Matthews says any changes in current looks and functionalities
likely will be found in high- end areas such as airports. One on
the horizon that will occur as a result of technology is video.
As phones adopt a video component, their booths and enclosures
will be adapted to make the adjustment. ADCO has launched a
multimedia, kiosk cabinet–a communications device with a touch
video screen. "We believe that some time in the future the
high-end payphone will be something between current payphones and
the multimedia kiosks of today."

ATCOM/INFO, a San Diego-based provider of public
communications and interactive information kiosks, recently
released its latest Payphone Cyberbooth, which fits into a
standard payphone booth while providing high-speed Internet and
e-mail access. "By using fewer and smaller components, the
Payphone Cyberbooth reduces capital equipment, installation and
maintenance costs," says ATCOM CEO Neil Senturia.
"These two factors make the Payphone Cyberbooth the ideal
choice for cost- and space-conscious providers."

So, phone booths are likely to meet technological advancements
head-on, but they will continue as ambivalent creations, existing
in a tension that cannot be resolved. Well, think about it. One
the one hand, you want to attract attention to them. On the
other, you have to protect them from some of those whose
attention you caught. Depending on where the phone’s located, you
would look for different features, perhaps stressing durability
or look. But, you really need both. You want it to look good, so
it will attract customers. You want it to be durable, so it
continues to look good. But what looks good and is attractive may
vary from location to location.

After all, the booth is in reality a billboard. If it looks
dirty and beat up, it says something about your business,
Matthews says. If it’s an advertising billboard, it says
something about someone else’s business, whether that business
belongs to the location provider or is part of direct
advertising–a trend that has caught a toehold and the attention
of some.

"Advertising is a sleeping giant in the industry.
Someone’s going to snowball with that one day," says Bill
Cox, national sales manager for Houston-based Quality Enclosures.
He has customers who use enclosures to provide advertising as
another source of revenue. "We originally designed our
product to accommodate advertising about eight years ago.
"It’s never really caught on, but I do think we’ll see the
day when it does. I think it’s out there."

Besides generating new revenue, advertising on the booths
makes life easier for the site owner, Cox says, because people
are less likely to fill them with graffiti when the canvas is
already filled.

Then there’s the privacy issue. It’s hard enough to make a
necessary, maybe really important public call. Manufacturers face
the challenge of providing some privacy with limited space and
dollars weighing in. They get around that by making smaller
outside cabinets with privacy established via unit separation.
Inside cabinets are already pretty small, so their size is not
likely to change, but today they’re often accompanied with some
sort of stool and workspace to help business travelers. In fact,
many inside units are being set up to accommodate lap-top
computer access.

The next stage is to actually make the computer and video
screen part of the sit-down unit, Matthews predicts. If the
sit-down is no longer just a phone but enables people to shop on
the Internet, send e-mail, access files and communicate with
their offices, then that space becomes more than a payphone as it
migrates into a greater revenue producer, Matthews says.

The coming video screen also gives you the ability to
advertise. Customers can find services that might include
checking into making travel plans that include arrangements for a
rental car. "You just have to open your imagination to
figure out what else you can charge for," Matthews says.
"Clearly there’s a value-added that can command a price. And
one of the overarching objectives of people in the payphone
business is to figure out how to increase revenues, especially in
the high-end locations. That phone is an extremely valuable
point-of-sale device in a very valuable location, and the
enclosure will start to change to reflect successes that people
have in selling things besides phone calls through that
point-of-sale device."

The considerations are endless, filled with subtle
distinctions that appeal to emotion. Stainless steel, for
example, communicates that sense of cleanliness you’d expect to
see at an eating establishment. It makes you feel comfortable,
that it’s a good, clean place to make a call. The right height
with simplistic lines makes the call easy and the experience
comfortable.

But the final issue is that even with a technological boom
that is changing the course of human endeavors, you have to be
careful about submitting new designs to the marketplace, Matthews
says. Any departure from the traditional look is a difficult
sell. After all, despite passing generations and advancements,
you can still find the red, cast iron British walk-in and, of
course, Superman’s ubiquitous black dash-in complete with
accordion door.

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