From consumer-facing digital apps, maps and cashless payment solutions to cutting-edge event production, access, ticketing and organisation technology – the industry is experiencing the dramatic evolution of ‘real life’ and virtual events. Access investigates.
Whether it be in-seat ordering, till-less food and beverage outlets, mobile ticketing, NFTs, cashless payments or digital site maps, smartphones have become the indispensable tool at the heart of the event experience.
With that in mind, it is hardly surprising that major outdoor events offer charging points for phones, and venues are increasingly providing at-seat power options, but most important of all is having robust connectivity and networking systems behind the scenes that can support the burgeoning digital activities.
Among the companies providing such a service to major events and venues is PMY and its sister company, Etherlive.
“Tom [McInerney] and I started Etherlive 14 years ago when there was really not much going on in the world of technology at events,” says PMY executive general manager Chris Green.
“The aim was to bring the quality of IT services that were available in the business world into the events industry, knowing that it was going to become more critical for the delivery of events.”
PMY works with customers, including The Open Championship and Principality Stadium. It develops, implements, manages, deploys and commercialises digital technology and data projects at the events. Meanwhile, Etherlive specialises in providing internet connectivity, wired and wireless networking, Voiceover Internet Protocol (VoIP), streaming, CCTV, people counting and consultancy services. Its clients include RHS Chelsea and AEG Presents’ BST Hyde Park.
“We started delivering that core connectivity, networking, WiFi and wired connections into the events world and, from there, our offering grew to encompass everything at an event that needs that service; from CCTV systems, contactless payment systems, ticketing and access systems – anything that requires a network we have become more involved with,” says Green.
At BST Hyde Park, Etherlive creates a highly complex fibre ring infrastructure that provides a robust network to support the cashless payment systems, CCTV, sponsor activations, broadcast streams and the media village.
Green says a key development is that whereas event environments of the past would primarily require internet access for downloading content, far more content is now being uploaded: “Now as much goes up as comes down, and that’s really changed the connectivity requirements on site because there’s so much synchronisation and uploading of documents, photos and videos, not just from the audience but from the production teams as well.”
On average, each year the company sees a 20% rise in internet bandwidth requirements from clients, driven by factors such as enhanced security provisions, live streaming and cashless payments.
McInerney says, “The rise in requirements for cashless solutions is driven by the lingering impact of the pandemic, and younger age groups who don’t expect to bring cards with them to an event. They certainly don’t expect to pay in cash.”
Intelligent Venue Solutions (IVS) director Paul Pike has been engaged in the evolving world of cashless payment systems for many years. This year he has been busy integrating the technology at countless events over the summer, including Festival Republic shows up and down the country, The 150th Open Championship and Green Man festival.
Pike says that the use of closed-loop RFID systems for cashless payments at events is becoming increasingly scarce: “Since Covid the use of cash versus cards at events has flipped in terms of percentages, it used to average around 20% cards and that is now at least 80%. In the past, the only obstacle to people using cards at outdoor events was infrastructure but hardwired internet services have become pretty well standard.”
IVS has partnered with EPOS (electronic point of sale) company Bleep, and Pike is now working with Imagination, and Consult Hyperion founder Dave Birch, to develop a white-label cashless payment system that will be integrated into event apps.
The Bipass app is currently being piloted at events prior to being launched early next year. Pike says it will not only benefit eventgoers by enabling the swift purchase of products, while providing access to targeted promotions and discounts via sponsors, but will enable event owners to gain a better understanding of who is at their event. He expects it to result in increased value for sponsors and therefore increased revenue for event operators.
Says Pike, “It will enable apps to be a one-stop-shop functionality wise, and as long as GDPR is respected it will enable a more robust relationship with users. This year, there has been a sea change towards looking at technology in a much more positive way and the fact everyone now has a smartphone means we have a direct communication channel with everyone who walks through the door. That has heralded a big change.”
While greenfield events are embracing evolving cashless payment solutions, bricks and mortar venues are taking it one step further; eradicating tills entirely and, in the process, enhancing revenues and the customer experience.
In-seat ordering at venues via the use of apps has been around for some time, led by companies such as Realife Tech, but among the new technologies designed to streamline the customer journey at venues is Levy’s Tap + Go system (pictured). In a European first, the technology was launched in August at Leicester City’s King Power Stadium (cap. 32,312).
The result of a partnership with autonomous retail specialists AiFi, the system enables event attendees to use their bank cards to tap in when they enter a retail unit where they select the desired items before heading off to their seats without the requirement to queue and pay at a till. Cameras are used to monitor the purchases, with the customers’ accounts then being charged.
Levy UK & Ireland commercial director Rak Kalidas says, “Combining a range of convenience and safety-enhancing techniques, frictionless systems have the ability to operate in a range of environments, including general concourse and hospitality areas – we believe that this will be a game-changer by making operations far more efficient, easier and exciting for everyone.”
He says the King Power Stadium launch has already proved a success, and Levi UK+I is now preparing to roll Tap + Go out at other venues in the coming months.
“We’ve seen it make a significant impact on the speed of service,” he says. “As a result, we’ve seen a steady increase in both usage and average spend per transaction. It’s been fantastic to see the fans take to the technology and use it time and again. It also enables enhanced data collection, allowing Levy UK+I to optimise the product mix based on consumer spending habits.”
On the face of it
With many people using facial verification technology on their smartphones on a daily basis, it was inevitable it would not be long before the tech began making an impact in the events industry. In April this year international venue management giant ASM Global began using the technology at Pechanga Arena in San Diego. Powered by software company PopID, part of Cali Group, the technology enables fans to verify payments and authenticate tickets with facial recognition at terminals throughout the venue. The technology is currently being launched at other ASM Global venues in North America.
ASM Global has also been at the forefront of using artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance security and reduce queues at its venues. In July, it partnered with Evolv Technology to roll out a security screening system that uses AI to scan guests in real-time. Its AO Arena in Manchester became the first arena in Europe to use Evolv Express technology, which screens guests as they arrive at the arena, without them having to stop or remove items from pockets or policy-compliant bags.
ASM Global director of safety security and risk Gary Simpson said, “The detection technology has been used for some time in America, but this is the first such deployment at an arena in Europe. Given the positive experience at the AO Arena we are planning a further roll out to other venues in Europe as part of our VenueShield programme.”
Alongside cashless payments, the use of QR codes became ubiquitous during the pandemic and are now regularly used for event ticketing. Ticketing service provider TICKETsrv has developed a mobile system for outdoor events that enables ticket QR codes to be scanned, tickets to be issued and payments to be made all via one small portable device.
The integrated on-the-day sales and event admission system records card and cash payments, and produces a QR coded ticket and/or receipt that can be set to scan at a separate checking point. It can also be used for ticket validation of advance online sales, QR coded badges and hard copy tickets.
“Our USP is that we offer incredible flexibility in terms of the scanners we use, they can work anywhere, you can literally just walk up and start using them in the middle of a field,” says TICKETsrv head of sales & marketing Sally-Ann Jay.
“When it becomes necessary to open more gates, change venues or use an additional area of an existing venue in order to accommodate space requirements, the flexibility of the system really helps.”
As well as being multi-functional and mobile, Jay says there has been considerable investment in making sure the technology can speed up attendee access: “We’ve worked really hard to make sure that our software is really good at grabbing the QR codes in order to speed up the process of checking tickets on the gate.”
NFTs in action
Blockchain ticketing has been around for some time but the use of blockchain-based NFT (non-fungible tokens) ticketing is still in its infancy in the festival and wider events industry.
An NFT is a physical asset that has become digitised, with its value largely based on the fact it is unique data stored on blockchain.
This year saw Lost Village become one of the first UK festivals to deploy NFT technology at scale, working alongside NFT event ticketing service SeatlabNFT.
According to SeatlabNFT, its app was downloaded more than 4,500 times during this year’s 15,000-capacity weekend event. Attendees were encouraged to do so by the promise of an NFT membership card that provided access to an exclusive area of the festival site.
“We’re excited to bring this innovative technology to the UK’s festival scene and show people that ticketing can be much more than just a form of access control,” said SeatlabNFT CEO Ryan Kenny. “We wanted to demonstrate that the opportunity to connect with fans begins when they buy tickets rather than ends as it does with current marketing and sales channels.”
SeatlabNFT recently appointed former Ticketmaster head of commercial partnerships Paul Kelly as head of global strategy, while Ticketmaster itself has announced that it has partnered with Flow blockchain to enable its clients to issue NFTs.
The operators of independent festival Lakefest are working with Steve Jenner’s blockchain and NFT specialist services operation MetaFests to use NFT technology at next year’s event.
Lee Martin, the founder and director of the 20,000-capacity festival, said the aim is to streamline operations and harness new revenue streams. Eventgoers will be able to use the NFTs to redeem on-site perks such as VIP upgrades, merchandise, F&B and meet-and-greets.
“It will allow more effective connections with our audience, offering enhanced value to visitors, partners and artists,” he said.
NFTs have been used at festivals for some time, most notably by Coachella. It sold NFTs providing holders with lifetime access, as well as exclusive on-site experiences and digital collectables. The event’s first NFT release in February generated almost $1.5 million in additional sales.
Senbla, the promoter of Cambridge-based Strawberries & Creem (cap. 10,000), claims it was the first UK festival to offer NFT merch and experiences. For the 2021 event it partnered with NFT platform Serenade to allow consumers to buy tickets through NFTs and gain access to experiences during the event. Serenade has since announced a music industry advisory board that includes experienced concert promoter Toby Leighton-Pope.
Services such as MetaFests are hoping that the use of NFTs within the festival industry will snowball, but its founder Steve Jenner admits there is a “mood of reserved caution around the hype”.
Exploring the metaverse
Since Facebook rebranded as Meta in October last year, the buzz around the Metaverse has remained pretty constant. The metaverse is a virtual world, made up of permanent, shared, 3D virtual spaces involving augmented (AR) and/or virtual reality (VR) technology.
Promoters and artists are embracing the virtual 3D ecosystem, not as a replacement for live events but rather as value-adds, with benefits including additional revenues and awareness building opportunities.
Recent exploits include the band Bastille partnering with EMI Records, creative agency WPP and Epic Games, to combine virtual production technologies and live performance to enable avatars to react with the band as they performed live.
Among the most widely used metaverses by artists and event organisers are Fortnite, Roblox and
The Sandbox. With 80 million users worldwide, it is hardly surprising that Fortnite has been used to host numerous shows by acts including Travis Scott and Marshmello, while London’s The O2 was recreated in Fortnite for a show by Easy Life.
Roblox has 20 million users who play a range of games on it created by other users. Unique, tailored, event experience can be created with customisable avatars. Countless acts have staged virtual shows on Roblox. The BRIT Awards hosted a metaverse VIP Party on it this year, and more recently DJ duo The Chainsmokers announced plans to invite Roblox players to create and perform in their own virtual music festival (pictured on page 24).
A virtual world hosted on the Ethereum blockchain, The Sandbox has potential for micro payments and NFT usage. Such is the breadth of its appeal that it has partnered with clients as diverse as adidas, Snoop Dogg and the Care Bears.
Jonathan Brigden, MD at creative agency Studio Giggle, says, “The experiences you design can become permanent, ever evolving company attractions that inform your live event, and provide an immersive meeting place for people and staff globally. They also do away with ‘Zoom fatigue’ and provide a place for personal expression and fun.”