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I recently had the pleasure of moderating a panel on “Re-opening with Confidence” at the ALSD International event, featuring four notable industry names:

  • Mark Kelly, Managing Director of Ashton Gate Stadium and Bristol Sport
  • George Vaughan, Head of Technology at Ascot Racecourse
  • Matt Roberts, Research and Analytics Director at Formula 1
  • Robert Fitzpatrick, Chief Executive Officer at The Odyssey Trust

As people at the coal face, I found it fascinating to hear from them with their various lenses: venue operator, technology leader, consumer researcher and campus owner.

I took five key insights from the session and wanted to share them with our PTI Digital audience.

We Aren’t Ever “Going Back”…

Robert was blunt in his assessment of the pre-Covid fan experience, saying: “We’ll have to heighten the experience far beyond what we got away with before.” The phrase “got away with” stuck with me. As an industry we can often be considered complacent, doing tomorrow what we did yesterday with an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach – often caused by the cyclical nature of event-driven businesses and the limited staffing footprints that support them.

George took this further and challenged the industry to look at leading examples outside of itself. “I always like to look at what retail are doing,” he noted, looking to ecommerce and the simplicity of experience to which consumers have become accustomed.

It’s time to embrace change as an industry. Challenge the norm. Push innovation. As our Chief Commercial Officer, Ben Wells, wrote before Christmas “If not now, when?”

…So, Don’t Throw Away What You’ve Done in Lockdown…

There has been plenty of good achieved during these challenging times when it comes to at-home consumer engagement, with brands using the circumstances to look at different ways to innovate. Matt highlighted the virtual F1 series, which saw fans compete against professional drivers, bringing them closer to their idols than an at-track event could ever do. George highlighted the repurposing of Ascot’s NFC ticketing investment to turn a behind-closed-doors event into a gamified competition, which saw a large uptick in engagement and new customer registrations.

If we aren’t going back to the world pre-pandemic, we must surely take forward those items that have been successful since.

…And Continue to Innovate

This is year zero, a learning year. We must continue to track consumer behaviour and confidence,” said Matt, reflecting on the quarterly research statistics F1 are utilising as they look ahead to the 2021 season.

It cuts to the harsh point: we simply don’t know exactly how live experience will look when fans return. Yes, with the latest government roadmap there is perhaps more certainty on when, but the how will be dictated by consumers with their feet and wallets – if they come, what they will expect, how they will behave if they do etc.

George followed on: “This is a chance to rethink the consumer experience and make consumers part of the story.

Mark added: “Bristol Sport will have a heightened fan-focus” upon the return of live audiences.

The industry may finally have awoken to the key to their future: fans, and not just fans in their conventional sense such as a season ticket holder, but fans as individuals, as consumers, as people.

Cautious Optimism is a Must

While highlighting the significant amounts of work Ashton Gate Stadium have completed as a venue in scenario-planning for the return of fans, Mark pointed out that even if “there may be a tidal wave of latent demand, it may not continue.” As the panel agreed: there will be an initial surge as people re-emerge, but this may not continue into the long-term.

Matt pointed to consumer confidence in a return to live events as being lower in early 2021 than it was in late 2020. Has, then, the latest lockdown hit hardest, to the fans’ pockets, to their apprehension about being back in crowded environments, to a lack of certainty in a Covid-free future -to their general feeling towards live events?

Moreover, Robert shrewdly observed that, while it may be commercially attractive for venues to sell as many tickets as they can, it could come at a cost.

We shouldn’t rush to capitalise on any latent demand we believe there is,” he pointed out. “If we rush this, it could send us backwards. Media images of fans not distancing, poor safety measures etc. could kill us.

Perhaps there is a harsh reality in this. The UK has certainly seen its fair share of Covid false dawns. Operators need to consider the weigh-up between maximising commercial inventory at their first event versus the potential for that to cause a spike and subsequent shutdown, which ultimately pushes them further back.

We are all hopeful for the vaccine and how this will influence not just live events, but life in general. However, caution is required as we ‘return to live’.

Attracting New Customers is Key

In either case, be it a mass return or a mass stay-away, we need to plan for new fans, new demographics and new audiences. If the old ones aren’t going to flock back, you need new ones.

By default, that means innovation. Catering to new demographics comes with new demands, new expectations and the need for individual experiences to be enabled in mass crowd environments.

Matt revealed up to 30% of those surveyed on live audiences returning are still showing reticence towards a return.

We can turn that tide with clear and open communication,” he said, but we will need to build an acquisition strategy around replacement to provide resilience.

Mark also talked about how the youngest generations, those 7-12 years old, must be a big part of the thinking. Bristol Sport will look to utilise this sporting reset to ensure there is a healthy pipeline of future fans by focussing below the line of Millennials and Gen Z.

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