The Future of the Live Fan Experience
Alison Birdwell leads Aramark’s Sports & Entertainment unit, which offers food and beverage, retail merchandise and facilities services to stadiums, arenas and amphitheaters.
In conversation with All Access Interview Series host Jim Andrews, Alison shared her unique insights on how COVID, technology advancements and data science are reshaping interactions between fans, teams, and concessionaires at stadiums, arenas and other venues. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: Even as we have entered 2021, there are still many unknowns when it comes to the fan experience at stadiums, arenas and other venues. How is Aramark planning for this year and are there particular insights that are guiding your thinking?
Alison: It’s a day-by-day situation now. We did our planning last May for returning to business whether whole or in part and continue to tweak that as we learn new information. It’s proven to be a playbook that has worked well.
Jim: Any lessons learned from those venues where there has been at least a partial return of fans?
Alison: The most surprising thing is how the different jurisdictions are dealing with the rules of engagement, with everything from no fans to in some cases half the building full for some of the college football games we hosted last fall. We have learned different things from different types of events and different levels of attendance and have been able to put that to good use for ourselves and our clients who are considering reopening. For example, mobile ordering. We have data on how many people are taking advantage of that, in what scenarios and even who’s coming to games. With the NFL, we saw a much younger fan coming to games in 2020, which stands to reason with the older demographic not feeling as comfortable with attending a game.
Jim: In the course of a year, cashless and frictionless interactions have gone from cutting-edge to essential. Can you discuss the implications of that for Aramark and your venue clients in terms of the work involved in meeting the expectations of fans returning to events?
Alison: Some of these things are the make or break in terms of getting local health departments comfortable with our plan. In addition, we have had to work with our technology partners to pivot and apply some of these solutions in areas that we hadn’t focused on previously.
For example, how we have traditionally served food in a suite obviously varied from a concessions environment. Some of the touchless technology may have been perceived as a luxury for a suite, but now may become a staple of suite service.
Some of our partners have created updated solutions as a result of COVID that will allow us to do things we would never have considered prior to the pandemic.
Jim: It seems fair to say that the food, facilities and retail services business has, like others, become a technology business. Does that mean more partnerships with tech companies and/or building out your own innovation capabilities at Aramark?
Alison: In some cases, we’re seeing tech that bolts on to some of the solutions we already had. In others, it’s tech being applied in ways it was not originally intended. For example, we were working with one partner who has a frictionless market model. We were looking at it originally for an inventory-control environment rather than as a full-service public concessions area, but now we are expanding our view on that.
Necessity is obviously the mother of invention. I think about the Kansas City Chiefs, who are a client of ours. When they opened to fans in the fall, it was in a zone environment, where fans did not have full run of the stadium. So then you have a service challenge of having a burger concept that only one-fifth of the stadium can get to, how do you provide the same level of experience and service to every fan?
Technology, in particular a kiosk ordering system, allowed us to address that. We created a concept where you could get all the favorite selections from around the building in one place. We are now in the process of implementing that in other venues. It was something we hadn’t thought of before, but it now it seems like a no-brainer!
Jim: Everything the industry went through collectively over the past year really highlighted the importance of partnerships and relationships. With so many changes and likely some pivots still to come, what would you say makes a good venue partner for Aramark?
Alison: When COVID struck, you might expect everyone to go look at the contract and the legal implications, but with the majority of our partners, we never pulled out the contract because we were both invested in getting through things together and finding the best way to proceed for both parties, and for the fans, employees and everyone involved. That is the making of a true partnership.
Jim: I’ve spoken to a many team executives about the importance of being data driven. Is data an important part of your business as well?
Alison: Indeed, and it continues to grow. We have a data science team that we have added people to even through the downturn in our business, because it is so instrumental to us. Through COVID, they were able to help us in ways we never anticipated. Just one example, as we ramp up, they have created a labor-management tool that not only helps us right-size our business but also helps our clients determine
where and what concessions and premium options should open and how they can be optimally staffed from labor, safety and customer service perspectives.