App to the future

Vision explores how venues and event organisers are using smartphone apps and other digital technology to create an immersive, connected experience for their visitors

Imagine walking into an event and immediately receiving a personalised welcome message on your smartphone, or entering a sports stadium and being navigated to your seat by your mobile device. Imagine being at a trade show and receiving a text alert when one of your LinkedIn connections was nearby, or being able to order food and drinks from your seat while you watched your favourite football team.

These aren’t far-fetched futuristic ideas; they are already being made available to venues and event organisers keen to use next generation digital systems to create an immersive, connected experience to improve fan and visitor engagement.

One of the most significant developments in this area has been Apple’s location-based iBeacon technology, which has already been used by several major events to engage their attendees and provide a more interactive experience.

This new proximity-detection technology allows event organisers to interact directly with visitors by sending location-specific content and alerts to their mobile devices when they approach different ‘beacons’ – low-powered transmitters that can sense the proximity of nearby mobile devices and send and receive notifications using Bluetooth LE.

One of the first major events to utilise the technology was last year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) film and interactive media festival in Austin, Texas. Organisers offered an innovative iBeacon-powered app, developed by Eventbase, that allowed visitors to register for nearby sessions, network with other attendees and participate in discussion forums and live audience polls. The beacons also delivered notifications to app users containing messages about the sessions they attended and the places they visited.

The ability to find out more about the people around you and instantly connect has the potential to transform the event experience entirely

Jeff Sinclair, Co-founder, Eventbase

Eventbase co-founder Jeff Sinclair says the company has received a great deal of interest from other event organisers looking to deploy beacons at conferences, trade shows, festivals and sporting events.

"Beacons make it possible to deliver highly relevant information and services to users in a particular area even when indoors, where GPS location is often not accurate, or when users do not have a reliable internet connection," he says. "This is an exciting technology for event organisers looking to provide the ultimate attendee experience."

Eventbase also developed the official event app for the 2015 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, which used beacons to detect other attendees nearby and enabled users to connect with them. The app’s iBeacon-enhanced networking also integrated with LinkedIn to notify attendees if any of their first-degree connections were in the area and offered an ‘Icebreaker’ feature that connected attendees based on their similar interests and prior session attendance. Other features included beacon-triggered prompts that offered users more information about the specific film exhibits they were looking at, allowing them to read background information on the producer and campaign.

"We're excited to be pioneering the use of iBeacon technology for attendee-to-attendee networking," says Sinclair. "The ability to find out more about the people around you and instantly connect has the potential to transform the event experience entirely.

“If we can send attendees home with even one new connection or experience they wouldn’t have had otherwise, then we’ve done our job.”

According to William Thomson, an event consultant with Gallus Events, beacons could revolutionise the event experience for both organisers and attendees.

Since 2011, Eventbase has delivered a native mobile app for SXSW that allows fans to build their own personal schedule, filter by track or topic, and see a map of what’s happening and how to get there

“The idea that your phone can whizz away downloading information and telling interested parties about you while you walk around an event is a very interesting proposition. This should allow you to concentrate on doing the things you are there to do like learn, network and enjoy the experience,” he says. “From an organiser’s perspective, beacons have many useful applications. From reducing the lines at registration, to removing paper from exhibitors – they are multi-functional. Many of these benefits are shared with attendees and when you have a technology that benefits the organiser and the attendee you are very likely to see a good level of take up.”

Beacons and other technologies are also being used in the sporting world to bring live events firmly into the 21st century. And with recent research highlighting how sports venues are “competing with the couch” – with a surprising 57% of fans saying they preferred to watch sport at home versus live in-person – it has never been more important for venues to enhance the viewing experience for those watching in the stadium.

The San Francisco 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium – dubbed the most high-tech sports venue in the world – has been using iBeacon technology in its official app to guide fans to their seats or even the nearest toilets via their smartphones, while also allowing them to order food and receive alerts about special offers at concession stands or other in-venue promotions, such as discounted upgrades to better seating. Thanks to the stadium’s free high-speed Wi-Fi, the app also allows ticketholders to watch high-definition instant video replays on their phones during matches.

According to John Paul, founder and Chief Operating Officer of VenueNext, which developed the Levi’s Stadium app, the platform not only gives fans an entirely new way to experience live sports, music and entertainment events, it also transforms the way venues use technology to improve their business and operating performance.

“We asked ourselves two questions when we started VenueNext,” he says. “How can we significantly improve the live event experience for fans, and how can we improve the business for venue owners and operators.

levi stadium
The San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium uses iBeacon technology to guide fans to their seats

“We want to delight fans and become the nerve centre for all live events. Today, venues have systems that exist, but they are disjointed and isolated. We’ve created a way for these systems to talk to each other so that fans have a completely seamless and much better experience than ever before. And because of our platform’s ability to connect fans with the stadium, venue operators and event producers can take full advantage of the flood of data and analytics collected by our unifying technology to create a smarter venue.”

Other sports teams have also embraced the power of in-venue apps, with the Brooklyn Nets, Manchester City and Real Madrid all utilising Cisco’s StadiumVision Mobile system, which enables fans seated in the stadium to access live video and relevant event information on their mobile devices, including instant replays, alternate camera angles and data channels featuring stats, trivia contests and multi-player games.

But while these innovations help enhance the experience for fans at a sporting event, the main draw remains the action unfolding on the field, according to Chris White, General Manager of Cisco’s Sports and Entertainment Group.

“The entire fan experience will always be based on the excitement of the live event,” he explains. “Nothing replaces that, but the opportunities to customise that experience, through analysis of data coming from everything being connected to the network, is incredibly powerful, and it excites us about the future. Nothing will trump being in a stadium with 20,000 or 80,000 screaming fans as the game comes down to the last play or shot. But there isn’t any reason that experience can’t be enhanced when it is connected.”

And with tech-savvy event goers demanding more and more connectivity from venues and organisers, White is in little doubt about the fate of those events that fail to innovate and match their attendees’ expectations.

"If you haven't got a connected experience, you shouldn't even put the event on.”