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We’ll need to think smart ahead of Euro 2021

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(Image credit: Shutterstock / carlos castilla)

The European Championship is one of the biggest tournaments in football, with tens of millions watching the finals on television and tens of thousands flocking to stadia to watch the action live. The last time the Euros were hosted in England back in 1996, nearly 80,000 fans packed into the old Wembley Stadium to watch Germany beat the Czech Republic in the final. With rumors swirling that England may be the sole host of this year’s delayed Championship, what can our stadia do to prepare to welcome crowds back in such a short amount of time, with the added challenges of mitigating Covid-19 risks?

A lot of people are talking about looking to smart solutions to help venues reopen post-lockdown and support the kind of crowds we could expect. From smart devices to smart cities, technology is helping to revolutionize all aspects of our lives, and stadium management is no different. But what does a “smart” solution look like, and how could one help to overcome some of the large challenges faced by venues as they look to reopen and possibly host a major sporting event with as little as two months to prepare?

Major problems

One of the major problems facing venues across the country is the continued reliance on paper-based, manual processes. Rotas are drawn up using physical timesheets, facilities management staff record problems using a pen and paper, and the all-important post-match reports have to be written up based on the events notes, with key data often being inaccessible until a week after gameday (which is simply not enough time to enact proper, insights-based changes before the next round of matches). Whilst this clunky and clumsy operation does work, it’s neither intuitive nor streamlined, and means that the data collected cannot be fully utilized in time to make a meaningful difference to matchdays. 

These paper-based processes are also prone to human error. If venue management teams are trying to look after thousands of workers on a single matchday (from caterers and cleaners to stewards and onsite medical teams), it is almost impossible to avoid incorrect data entry or, when it comes to relying on a single team to analyze thousands of paper forms, incorrect data analysis.

Many in the stadia industry still rely on this same slow process, including some of the UK based possible venues for a European Championship. Added to this, venues will have important additional tasks and challenges to overcome this summer, including the need to integrate some form of track and trace system to monitor and contain potential Covid-19 outbreaks. Given this summer will also be the first time in over a year that English stadia have been open for full capacity, venues will have very little time to properly upgrade their processes to match the level required to host a major sporting tournament.

A digital solution?

The above may not sound good for England’s chance at hosting the Championships, but I’m optimistic venues will be able to upgrade their processes and manage the finals without a hitch. How?  Thanks to innovations in operational and staff management technology, the industry can finally step up to the next, digitally enabled level.

A smart stadium is relatively straightforward to implement and requires just two major changes. The use of mobile devices by staff and contractors, and the deployment of sensors across the venue. These two technologies work together by connecting staff members with real-time visibility of problems arising within the venue; wireless sensors strategically placed throughout the stadium can track key assets, from making sure toilet areas are sanitized to monitoring lights and screens for the first sign of faults. The sensors can feed back this data in real time to central management teams and the relevant staff on the ground, alerting the right people to the right tasks and ensuring action is taken as and when required.

Empowering frontline staff

The incredible insights gained from wireless sensors are just part of the solution, though. As every stadium professional will know, the key to running a venue smoothly and effectively is good staff. Over the past year we have come to recognize what an incredible job our frontline workers do across all industries, and the importance of frontline roles to almost any and every facilities management operation. The use of digital technology to empower those frontline staff and contractors is what really makes a stadium smarter.

We already see mobile based solutions, such as that being used in Ireland’s most recently digitally transformed venue, Thomond Park, being used within the industry to empower frontline staff. As well as data from the wireless sensors being loaded onto the app and generating workflows in real time, these systems also allow staff members to update their location through the use of wireless “tag” technology. This means that venue management teams can gain real-time insight into which staff members are where, helping them to coordinate quicker and more effective responses to problems as and when they arise.

Mitigating Covid risk

Mitigating Covid riskThat same wireless technology can also be used to help keep frontline staff safe from Covid related risks. Assuming outbreaks will still be a potential issue by the time of the European Championships, tracking and containing outbreaks will be crucial to protect both staff and members of the crowd. Using those same tags, managers can track which members of staff are working and accessing certain areas. This technology allows for insight into who has worked where and who has come into contact with whom. Then, if a staff member or contractor does display Covid symptoms, venue management will be able to easily recall accurate data on who they came into contact with and ask that they go into isolation and take a test – a localized, stadium wide approach to track and trace.

It's important to mention that the stages are entirely digital. Whilst many stadia at the moment rely on printed accreditation (if you watched the recent Six Nations matches, you’ll have seen the paper access cards with name, photo and written information), printing these cards is expensive and inefficient. Digitizing this process means a standard QR code being printed for each member of staff or guest containing all of the info needed about who they are and where they should be. This not only saves paper, it also saves time and allows for easier data collection and for details to be updated in real-time without the need to issue new physical ID.

The commercial case

Digital transformation in stadia also has a strong commercial case. Not only can wireless sensor technology be rolled out rapidly (many hospitals were able to adopt mobile-based connected solutions within a week during the pandemic), it can also enable quick insights to help inform commercial decisions within a venue. For example, via a crowd flow sensor, management teams will be able to see data that shows them the number of people in a concourse that contains a food and bar unit. This can be compared to the number of sales in that unit to determine whether new strategies such as a different layout or implementing a pre-order system would be more effective at encouraging sales.

The absolute driving force behind the stadium management industry is a determination to ensure the fan experience is the best it can possibly be. By digitalizing venues, empowering frontline workers with real time data and protecting staff by instituting localized, stadium-wide track and trace operations, stadia can spend less time managing people and more time getting on with critical operations. Some smart thinking along these lines will go a long way to preparing England’s stadia in time to host the European Championship this summer.

Mike Elliot, CEO and Founder, Over-C

Michael Elliott is an entrepreneur and expert in connectivity and digitalisation. He is the CEO and Founder of Over-C, a leading provider of digital platform management, which uses location, sensor data to empower front line workers.