Holograms and VR are interesting, says Eventbrite's Elsita Sanya, but IoT is where the real innovation in live entertainment is taking place
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Adam Woods talks to some of the boffins behind contactless payment systems, as the implications of the pandemic make their tech a no-brainer for event organisers
By Adam Woods on 08 Oct 2021
To get the obvious dark joke out of the way, most festivals literally went cashless in the pandemic-stricken calendar of 2020/21, and not for strategic reasons. But now, after the better part of two years on pause, the survivors are gradually returning to a changed world in which actual cashless systems, once a matter of preference for live events, seem destined to become the standard.
As shows and festivals come back online around the world and begin to thrash out solutions to Covid safety, staff shortages, visitor flow, and our own increasingly cash-free habits, cashless and contactless options are a must-have, whether based on RFID, mobile pay, barcoded tickets, or some hybrid of the above.
“I think [cashless] was maybe 30% before the pandemic,” estimates Event Genius founder Reshad Hossenally, “and now it’s probably close to 80%-odd, maybe more.”
Nor is this likely to be a temporary shift. “In the festival world, the biggest change we are going to see when everyone is back is that cash and tokens will be out,” says David De Wever, CEO and partner at Antwerp-based PlayPass.
Before Covid, cashless festivals weren’t always to everyone’s taste – an NME column from 2018 was unambiguously entitled ‘We need to talk about cashless festivals, because they f***ing suck’ – but things are different now.
“Cash is no longer a preferred payment method, as cashless systems allow for a cleaner and safer experience for everyone”
The pandemic isn’t over yet, but event management technology – of which access control and cashless systems are just the most visible applications – will certainly be an important tool in the process of piloting the live business back out of the wilderness.
According to recent research, 63% of fans have greater event health and safety concerns than before, and 66% of fans are more worried about venue hygiene [source: Performance Research]. Meanwhile, the most mature markets are well along the road of phasing out cash, with hard currency in Sweden down to 9% of transactions in 2020, against 14% in the Netherlands, 23% in the UK and 28% in the US [source: McKinsey].
It all adds up to a major opportunity for cashless specialists, many of whom offer ticketing, access, marketing and travel within the same system, and whose technology easily flexes to encompass any number of testing and vaccine
passport options. Where festivals have returned in 2021, the majority have come back in cashless form, usually in tandem with some form of digital access control – whatever the particular situation has required.
“As a result of the pandemic, we’ve seen a huge increase in demand for our solutions,” says Jason Thomas, CEO of global cashless provider Tappit. “Cash is no longer a preferred payment method, as cashless systems allow for a much cleaner and safer experience for fans and staff. RFID solutions work perfectly for festivals, but we’ve seen a real increase in demand for our white-label mobile pay solution, which works for events and venues with their own app or digital ecosystem.”
But while certain markets in well-vaccinated nations have bounced back to life, 2021 has not been quite the wholehearted return to action we were all hoping for – even if early signs were good.
“We’ve seen a real increase in demand for our white-label mobile pay solution”
“Around April, May, suddenly everyone was active,” says De Wever. “At that stage, a lot of them needed proposals for Covid testing and all different kinds of extra technology. Then it went quiet for a bit, particularly the big festivals.”
Most of those big festivals decided against risking a 2021 return, and even now, with pockets of events carefully raising the curtain again, just about everyone in the event technology business has seen too many false dawns to indulge in too much unvarnished optimism.
“What we have seen this year is some of the mid-sized festivals are trying to have an edition, depending on the country,” says De Wever, speaking in late August. “UK, Belgium, France is busy at the moment, but apart from that, it is still really flat in a lot of countries. We are just watching what is happening at each national level, and we also have some promoters who are taking the initiative themselves.”
One such example is Barcelona’s Cruïlla festival at the city’s Parc del Fòrum, which decided to proceed in July, safeguarding fans with an antigen testing regime made possible by PlayPass’s RFID system.
“[Cruïlla director Jordi Herreruela] decided he was going to test everybody, every day, no matter what,” says De Wever. “The procedure was that people had to create an account and buy a test for each of the days they were going to the festival. When you arrived at the festival, you swapped your ticket for an RFID wristband and took a test.
Intellitix saw its 2020 calendar wiped out and executed a quick pivot, developing a Covid-screening and assessment tool
“The company doing the testing linked the ID with the barcode on their tests, and when you got the results back after 15 minutes, that was linked with the wristband. Then you could scan the wristband to see if it was valid and if the result was positive or negative.”
This year’s patchy albeit largely cashless revival comes on the back of an extremely lean period in which, like so many other companies in the live space, the survival of the key cashless players was far from guaranteed.
Most also count sport as another key market, and consequently found themselves hit hard across several sectors. Like many others, Intellitix saw its 2020 calendar wiped out and executed a quick pivot, developing a Covid-screening and assessment tool.
“2020 was getting it into the hands of the essential businesses, making it work for construction, manufacturing, food processing, retirement homes, schools, healthcare,” says Milan Malivuk, chief strategy officer at the Toronto-based global provider.
“But the reality is, as busy as we have been with that, we are very keen to get back to what we do. So, we are obviously trying to bend over backwards to make things happen, but not to the point where we are willing to cobble together some half-assed deployments that aren’t going to be successful.”
“We were in a growing industry where every year you could expect growth and suddenly it was completely finished”
PlayPass and its French rival Weezevent announced a merger in March 2020, retaining both brand names but creating a 100-strong team with offices in Antwerp and Paris, as well as Canada, Switzerland, Spain, and the UK.
“We were in a growing industry where every year you could expect growth,” says De Wever. “And suddenly it was completely finished, and we lost 90% of our revenue, so that was quite confronting. And like a lot of businesses, we started to evaluate the best options of how we make sure we can survive this, and how we can become stronger after.”
The two companies had been in discussions before the pandemic, De Wever reveals, but the tempest of 2020 focused the need for mutual support.
“We had already had some discussions with Weezevent before. For my part I always considered them the biggest competitor. A lot of companies claim to be a European leader, and I don’t think there was one, but now… let’s wait until 2022, but I think we can say we are in a position to be the European leader.”
The immediate function of modern event technology this year has been to help get the show back on the road in difficult circumstances. But the deeper promise of such technology manifests itself on several fronts. As well as timely safety capabilities, it also potentially offers better experiences, shorter queues, and transactional efficiencies in a sector that, as most festivalgoers can probably confirm, could sometimes do with them.
“We are quite optimistic that Covid has pushed technological advancement in a sector that typically is slow to change”
“What Covid has done, in our opinion, is to accelerate something that was coming already – this attitude of ‘what’s the quickest and easiest way to transact?’ That’s the expectation now,” says Sam Biggins, commercial director at UK-based food and drink ordering app Butlr.
“We are quite optimistic that, although Covid was a terrible thing, it has pushed technological advancement in a sector that typically is very slow to change. Music venues have been operating in almost exactly the same way since their inception. Same with festivals. I don’t think the first Glastonbury will have been very different to Glastonbury these days, in terms of technology at least.”
And for promoters, efficiency isn’t the only win to be had here. The promise of teched-up festivals is that they belatedly offer promoters the opportunity to know their customers, learn from their movements around the site and create opportunities to communicate, preview, reward, and strategically market to them.
“We have been doing this since 2010,” says Malivuk. “And the reason people have used us is because they want to know who is inside their event – for marketing, for the ability to re-engage, build brand connections, the ability to improve traffic flow inside the event. And it’s about facilitating cashless transactions and speeding them up, gathering more data and increasing the average spend per person, typically by 30% to 40%.”
Tappit’s Jason Thomas agrees. “In this market, the solution that will provide real value is one that can go beyond simply delivering cashless functionality, to provide a frictionless fan experience and enable event organisers to understand each and every fan – connecting what they bought, when they entered the venue, when they left and how to maximise this,” he says.
“Providing real-time data to deliver real value for organisations will make the difference between success and failure”
“Data is the most valuable element of the cashless solution, and as we work with our clients throughout the process, we help provide insights and ways to make events even more profitable. Making consistent connections between a fan or consumer and ensuring you know their preferences is crucial in building strong brand loyalty. Providing real-time data and insights to deliver real value for organisations will make the difference between success and failure.”
On the one hand, some operators note that avid data capture isn’t necessarily the way the wind is blowing in the wider world. “We were on the BBC recently and it was all around data-less ordering,” says Biggins. “Some solutions will mine users’ data and it’s ludicrous and it’s intrusive. You don’t need someone’s date of birth to place an order. We are of the opinion that the less data you take, the more seamless the experience.”
But for broad-ranging event management systems, suggests Hossenally, a restrained data-driven approach, deploying closed-loop systems that enable organisers to bank all the data generated by their events, offers benefits on both sides.
“With the onsite experience now, there’s a lot more that can be enabled that promoters didn’t really think about before, because they didn’t have the technology solutions to do so,” he says. “It’s a real opportunity to be able to create that full end-to-end journey, from the company buying the ticket to accessing the event to paying onsite.
“It’s about understanding that customer and having a 360-degree view of their spending habits. It’s not necessarily all about Big Brother but how, in order to generate more revenue, promoters have to give more to the customers in the form of a better, more tailored experience: rewards, loyalty, all that sort of stuff that promoters couldn’t really do before.”
“Now with 5G, you can have 150,000 people in one place and have reliable connectivity”
Gradually, other barriers to seamless operation are being removed, too, including the perennial difficulty of networks for mobile solutions. “We have held off on releasing a mobile solution for a very long time, purely because network infrastructure wasn’t there,” says Malivuk. “But now with 5G, you can have 150,000 people in one place and have reliable connectivity.”
Intellitix acquired a mobile-first company called CrowdBlink in January 2020, on which it has built “a lightweight version of Intellitix, with a ticketing solution, access control, and cashless.” The future, Malivuk suggests, isn’t necessarily increasingly complex systems but more accessible ones, aimed at smaller events.
“Intellitix has always been a no-brainer for events over a certain size,” he says. “But we always also had a lot of demand from events that want what we do but the numbers don’t make sense. CrowdBlink doesn’t do everything Intellitix does, because that’s kind of the enterprise option, but for smaller events that just want to sell tickets, scan people in, conduct transactions but at a lower price point – that’s what this is for.”
As a dedicated payment system, UK-based Butlr also has an ambition to strengthen the technological hand of those it works with, which includes independent festivals and up to 700 venues. At Brighton’s On The Beach, Butlr displayed QR codes on posters and screens around the event, which allowed customers to order using their phones and receive a push notification when their order was ready to collect.
“We had four members of staff, compared to 50 on the main bar, and we were responsible for 50% of the takings,” says Biggins. “We want to avoid those scrums at the bar, five-deep. In my opinion, those should be a thing of the past. But as with all things, it takes time for adoption.”
“We want to avoid those scrums at the bar, five-deep. In my opinion, those should be a thing of the past”
At festivals of the future, he says, Butlr plans to spread its PickUp points around a site. “So rather than having one big bar miles away, we will have points really close to the stage. You scan a QR code, choose a PickUp point, and pick up pre-made drinks. That’s our vision of the future and we are starting to do it now.”
The wider future, of course, is a carefully managed return to business, as events attempt to gauge demand in a market where they haven’t drawn an audience in eighteen months or so. For cashless technology, the picture is a combination of the highly ambitious and the very down to earth.
“In five years from now, I think we can expect truly immersive and customised event experiences,” says Thomas.
“The launch of ABBA’s live event experience has shown just how creative events can become. Connected devices and 5G will all create the perfect environment to deliver a unique and tailored event experience for each and every fan. The right cashless solution will connect the fan’s experience to their purchasing preferences. Delivering deep and meaningful engagement can be endless, and the connection between brand and consumer will continue to grow stronger.”
And then there is the down-to-earth side.“I think there’s core tenets that are fundamentals, like, can we make it more invisible?” says Malivuk. “That’s the future of it – being less obtrusive. That’s where everyone’s interests align. If you improve the festival experience, that’s where you are going to see more revenues. Just make it suck less to buy things onsite. If you focus on that piece, everything else follows. Make all those steps that suck, suck less.”
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