WaitWell’s crowd-control option sends a QR code to the user’s phone when it’s time to enter a facility (Illustration by Dan Parsons)
Shannon Vander Meulen has been attending the Calgary Stampede as a spectator for most of her life but, this past summer, she was there on business. Before the rodeo returned after a hiatus in 2020 due to the pandemic, the Stampede signed on with WaitWell, Vander Meulen’s new software company that virtualizes the experience of waiting in line. Rather than wasting time and risking potential virus exposure standing together in a queue, this year Stampede-goers scanned a QR code that sent a text message to their phone when their turn came up.
“It was a significant behavioural change,” says Vander Meulen, who was there to provide support to Stampede staffers and ensure everything ran smoothly. She got a lot of great feedback on the ground, she says. Customers appreciated the respect for their time as well as the facility of the app. And her client gained a lot of useful information about crowd volume and other lineup data. Vander Meulen is hopeful they’ll be on board next summer, too. COVID-19 may be an afterthought by then but, if WaitWell has anything to say about it, so will lineups.
Standing in line has never been a pleasurable experience but, with the pandemic, the heavy annoyance factor has been compounded by the genuine risk of having people packed together in close proximity. It was a concern for her customers that first inspired Vander Meulen, who owns the East Calgary Registry (which delivers services on behalf of Service Alberta and other government ministries), to launch WaitWell: “I was looking out the window of my office one day last April and I saw dozens of people waiting,” she says.
In Alberta, unlike most provinces, registries are privately owned, so a bad experience could send a customer elsewhere for their next road test or marriage licence. Add to that the potential for a super-spreader situation and Vander Meulen knew she had to do better.
Just a few days later she came up with the concept for WaitWell and brought it to the best software guy she knows: her husband, Steven. The couple rounded out their team with WaitWell partner Steve Drew, who had experience developing and commercializing software and launched a beta version at the registry in August 2020. In that first iteration, users texted a phone number and would instantly get a text back alerting them to their approximate wait time. Rather than being stuck in a lineup, they could go to the grocery store, pick up their kids or sit in their car reading gossip magazines.
When it came to building a client base, Vander Meulen didn’t have to work very hard—other local registries heard about the success she was having and wanted to implement the same thing. Before the official launch in October, WaitWell added a QR code scanning option, which brings users to a web page where they can input their name and group size. The University of Manitoba was an early addition to a growing client list that includes the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and telecom retailer Glentel.
Next up, Vander Meulen has her sights on pharmacies: “Normally you go to Shoppers and they tell you your prescription will be ready in 15 to 30 minutes and you’re kind of just stuck there trying to remember how much time has passed.”
Concerts, sporting events, a table on a restaurant patio: The potential applications are endless, particularly when you consider the crowd-control option that sends a QR code to the user’s phone when it’s time to enter a facility. “Gate attendants can just scan rather than wasting time looking up every customer,” Vander Meulen explains.
She says that this additional feature, along with a two-step waiting process (customers receive a message when it’s time to “line up” and a second when their turn has come), set WaitWell apart from similar operations like QLess: “We weren’t the first, but I believe we offer things that our competitors don’t.”
That includes the storage of all data in Canada, which is a key priority for Canadian clients. “Of course, there is always the risk that a tech giant like Google is going to add a similar feature,” says Carmi Levy, a London, Ont.–based tech analyst. But WaitWell’s ability to connect directly and build strong, local client relationships gives them an important edge.
“This is a perfect example of adversity driving innovation,” Levy says of the startup. “Being able to provide some sort of safe, in-person service has been one of the biggest challenges for retailers and other customer-facing businesses during the pandemic and, in many cases, they’re turning to tech.” Levy believes this sort of virtual option is the new baseline for millennial and Gen Z consumers. “You either have an app or you don’t exist,” he says, noting that this particular app gives consumers a product they value above all others: time.
This, in the end, may be the true genius behind the innovation: When consumers aren’t waiting in line, they are free to do other things, including spend money. In years past at the Stampede, people would wait two or three hours to get into the popular Nashville North tent. In 2021, they spent that same time grabbing a corn dog, playing ring toss or watching live music with a beer. When you look at it in these terms, any kind of reversion would be bad for business. At this point, there hasn’t been significant research on the cost of lining up, but Levy believes an app like WaitWell will drive that conversation in the not-so-distant future, when, he says, we’ll tell young people about how “back in my day people used to spend hours in snake-like formations waiting for their turn.”
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