Ahead of this year’s Summit, TheStadiumBusiness took the opportunity to survey our global stadium community to identify and track the key trends in the sector.

We reached out to 450 C-level stadium, arena and sports venue executives across a host of leagues and 22 countries. This wasn’t a forensically scientific undertaking but more of a ‘check the pulse’ on a patient that has been in and out of limbo since the pandemic-driven event restrictions first struck in March 2020.

TheStadiumBusiness asked for responses to four questions around business areas, technology investments, operational challenges and, the big one: what’s the one question you want answered?

We promised anonymity (and aggregation) in the results but in producing this short summary, we grouped responses across venue type (stadia/arena), main sport (football, NFL, NBA etc), venue capacity and job function.

So, one year on from the first lockdown, what’s the state of our sector? What’s on our collective minds? And what plans do we have for getting our fans back?

GETTING FANS BACK – SAFELY

No surprise that it’s the last question which tops the responses. Some 82% of respondents have (or are planning to) undertake significant investments in complying with ‘COVID-safe’ guidelines. These range from the simple but effective, measures of sanitiser stations, screens/barriers, queue management systems and – in every venue – signage and messaging. Several respondents had completed basic reviews of rapid tests but had not made much progress to implementing an access solution. Equally, there was little coordinated or concerted effort evident around integrating vaccination certificates – or even test results – into ticketing and access control.

This observation was echoed by no fewer than eight venue CEOs, with responses like this: “Where are the government pilot projects which will provide the evidence and guidance on smart, covid-safe access control?”

Many venue operators were concerned over mixed messaging to customer groups and stated that they were working on messaging strategies to encourage the return of fans. But, only a few of these efforts were league-wide. “Where can we get a template for safe reopening?” was a response shared by many.

The longer term impacts of this pandemic were of concern to several venue leaders: “How can we best manage reopening with guests when our guests are so divided on the safety issues?” And “How can our sector work more closer together in the future to share ideas and best practice in a post-Covid era?”

Others identified the need for the sector to collaborate and coordinate on government lobbying: “We’ve really seen the need for a venue trade body to lobby, steer and have a voice in government.”

Our sector was one of the first to close and it is evident we will be one of the – if not THE – last business sector to reopen fully.

INVESTMENTS & INTERESTS

It is apparent that, in global terms, the sector is very much ‘watching and waiting’ for government guidance and its green light to re-open. In the UK there is a roadmap for gradual opening – running through to a 21 June reopening for full-scale attendance, at the earliest. In the USA, each state has its own timeline with many operating now at limited capacities. The picture is a patchwork of national guidance, regional controls and local licensing. But, WE (venue owners and operators) appear to be “on the back foot” waiting for signals from on-high.

But, on an encouraging note, our sector is not standing still. Every executive which responded provided a list of capex investments across their facilities. Being COVID-safe was a goal of some two-thirds of respondents but management teams have also used the ‘lockdown pause’ to explore a host of operational areas for improvement.

These included improving the fan experience – listed as the most popular goal (75% of respondents). This fundamental business driver was highlighted throughout the response matrix. From being a ‘nice to have’ and ‘interesting concept’, the fan experience is now at the heart of venue operations.

43%of respondents said they were (or planned to) invest in data capture and analysis to measure the fan experience as a business KPI, but also to provide better evaluation of sponsor spend and investment when it came to renewals. Two-thirds of respondents were ‘nervous or very nervous’ about falls in sponsorship income and renewals: “We are going to work double-hard to deliver value for our sponsors after not delivering anything in 2020.”

On a positive thought, over one-third of venues had developed “digital engagement strategies to connect with fans” when their doors were closed.

MID-TERM UPGRADES

Nearly half of respondents stated that they intend to upgrade their venue’s premium and hospitality spaces (47%) in the next 12-24 months but over half of these conceded that they had “concerns over the design of hospitality post-COVID. Will our customers want to be packed in a small suite, next to people for a long period of time?”

Bars and restaurants were also a popular selection for upgrades (32% respondents), along with general admission concourses (30% to install artwork, decorative finishes, signage, etc) and retail kiosks merchandise areas (22%).

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Top Areas for planned investment (2021-2022):
Suites/Premium Hospitality Spaces
Contactless/Touchless Systems
Concourses (GA areas)
Bars/Restaurants
Retail/Merchandise/Kiosks
Screens/Digital Signage
WiFi/DAS/Network Infrastructure
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Over a fifth of venues are looking to invest in digital signage and LED screens over the next 24 months, and a substantial number will spend on WiFi/DAS upgrades (18%). But top of the technology shopping list for our venues are contactless systems for payment, access and catering (36% of venues expect to implement such systems within the next 18 months).

SUSTAINABILITY & ACCESSIBILITY

Amidst the devastating impact of the pandemic on stadium finances, it is heartening to note that over one-third of respondents confirm they have ‘sustainability’ as a priority operational focus going forward. The elimination of single-use – and in some case all plastics! – in event delivery remains a key goal. Others highlighted the need to “do away with paper ticket waste to move to digital” and the challenge of “adapting older venues to emerging sustainability requirements”.

Worryingly only 7% of respondents stated that they will invest further in accessibility (such as ADA/DDA compliance). Are all our venues so well-designed that we don’t need to do more to welcome guests with disabilities?

LONG TERM IMPACTS

Looking further ahead, almost every respondent had concerns over the long-term impact of the pandemic on attendance levels. This response captures the general tone: “After the pandemic will people be as likely/willing to return and fill seats as before?”

Others noted the challenge of the digital economy and how it may erode the desire to attend live events: “How do we get our nextgen fans off the couch and off the screen – and into our venue?”

One closing thought from an NFL stadium CEO: “Many of us have missed a trick this past year. We should be reminding people – especially politicians – how our venues are a fundamental line item in the cultural capital of any society. We must do more to communicate how stadium and arena experiences can help individuals – and communities – recover. The shared live experience is vital for humanity’s well-being.”

All these topics – and many more – will be explored at #SBS21 in Manchester. Pre-register here!

Lego-teamwork photo by Hello I’m Nik 🎞 on Unsplash

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