Since opening its doors 26 years ago, Mall of America (MOA) has welcomed over one trillion guests. Combining retail, entertainment, attractions, and a variety of casual and fine dining options, MOA is a mall unlike what came before it. Striving to maintain its uniqueness through continual improvement, MOA has always kept in mind how many changes should enhance user experience. Sure, there are the obvious ways to update a retail space—esthetic changes, new stores or attractions, etc., but recently, MOA made a huge technology upgrade to their existing system. The results of this digital transformation are affecting every visitor to the mall.
Integrating a new property management system
About two years ago, MOA decided they needed to overhaul their property management system. It all started with the escalators. There are 46 escalators throughout the 5.6 million square foot property, and they transport thousands of people every day. The old property management system had no connection at all with the escalators. If an escalator was down, the only way to be alerted was through guest complaints. MOA had a contract with a vendor to fix the escalators and were completely reliant on them to repair them in a timely manner. Wanting more control over this process and a more effective way to monitor systems, MOA started looking for a new property management system.
What they found at first was that all of the big fixes with escalators caused them to need to be recertified, a costly and time-consuming process. Doing upgrades on this scale didn’t suit their needs. They didn’t need to know full diagnostics of the escalators—they just wanted to know if they were working. Since MOA was already a Microsoft shop and had already performed some Microsoft Azure integrations, they decided to further integrate Microsoft technologies throughout their property management system.
It took about six months to integrate with the data they wanted—they would “go through a step, make sure it was working and then layer more on,” explains Janette Smrcka, IT Director at Mall of America. The initial step was installing a $100 power sensor onto the electrical feed for each escalator to see if they were running or not. Then they started to collect the data—time stamp, date stamp, if/when the escalators were running. They then started to feed that data into the IoT hub and started to create some flows from that and PowerApps.
Smrcka recalls, “Ultimately, we ended up with a PowerApp that our engineering team is able to carry around with them. They can see in real time which escalators are running and which ones aren’t.” Engineers can also have the app running across devices, and if something isn’t working correctly they can flag it—maintenance issue, guest concern, planned outages, etc.
MOA is working hard to get a baseline of data now to inform their plans for the future. They’re analyzing this data using Power BI in order to incorporate predictive maintenance into their property management system. Using the analyzed data in a more productive way could be game-changing.
“The shift to Power BI has really empowered our team members to be active participants with the data,” Smrcka explains. “The dashboards we’re able to create now allow them to explore, find patterns, and answer the questions they wouldn’t have thought about asking or questions that would’ve been time prohibitive to investigate.” Now Smrcka and her team are making sure that the data streams are providing the correct information to the vendor. Smrcka hopes that soon the maintenance schedule for the escalators will operate more like the change-the-oil reminders in cars—escalators will know when they need a repair and alert her staff to it.
Positive changes to user experience
Having downed escalators has a big impact on the user experience. Before the digital upgrades, guests could get lost or turned around in the mall. Using the Microsoft technology they implemented, Smrcka and her team fed the escalator data to their API. The data now feeds into their guest directories—100 user-facing kiosks across the mall. “By tying these into our API, we can dynamically adjust guests’ wayfinding. If one of the escalators is offline, we can send them to the nearest elevator or another escalator, so they can continue their path without needing to guess where they’re headed.”
Microsoft technologies also helped create a mobile app that helps guests navigate their way through the mall. Smrcka explains, “If the guest wants to download the app and turn on Bluetooth, we can actually provide them step-by-step directions on how to get somewhere.” The application receives escalator updates in real time and can take users on an alternative route. With as many guests that visit the facility, the impact of this is could be huge.
Since the beginning of MOA, they’ve prided themselves on innovation. As Smrcka says, “who puts an amusement park in the middle of a mall?” Now that MOA has extended their forward-thinking approach with a new property management system, they’ll continue to update their facility in order to greet a trillion more guests.