SOUL TRAIN: Does Your Venue Have Soul?

In this latest feature article, Nicholas J.S. Brice, Speaker, Masterclass Facilitator, Coach & Consultant at 360 Degree Vision, highlights the importance of building ‘soul’ into sports & entertainment venues.


“In the future, the system must be first.” Frederick Taylor (c.1911). Does this ring true today? Even with all the innovation we’re experiencing with digital transformation, most venues are still ultimately gathering places for human beings to have great experiences.


When we use words like soul in business, it is easy to think we’re losing our pragmatic business minds and diving into woo-woo, New Age hippy land. 


Since the arrival of scientific management with Fredrick Taylor in the 19th and 20th century, the process of intelligently breaking human systems down into separate functional working parts and getting work done in a programmed, “best” way has created some big gains in productivity in manufacturing. What was once a world of small businesses, craft skills, local community entrepreneurship and hard work, evolved into one dominated by large-scale industrialisation – albeit with it, some tribal characteristics in the form of ‘them and us’ divisions: our department, your department, management and staff..


This revolution raised the value we place on mind and action – analysis, strategy, process and practicalities – right action is key. Concerns about, heaven forbid, feelings – that don’t tick the tangible, bottom-line word box of facts are quickly dismissed as pink and fluffy – or just plain weak. Sometimes, this business warrior spirit brings with it a preoccupation with winning in the more masculine sense, manifest in a win-lose attitude, silo-thinking and internal rivalry. Paradoxically, this adds to delay and cost in key projects, when more collaborative, empathic endeavours may be more effective and efficient.


The modern venue is a system for creating compelling experiences. We can try to strip emotion out of the equation and run a venue from the neck up – relying heavily on the science of metrics, digital tools, processes and organisation structures. Most decisions for how we spend our time and money as customers are made with emotion though and we surely need to maintain this kind of intelligence too. 


A successful venue will want us to experience things we want to repeat as well as invest/spend more on.  So, this means a venue needs to have both a body/mind (or ‘system’) as well as heart and soul to deliver exceptional performance in the eyes of the fan, customer, visitor…


So, with these thoughts in mind, I often use the following definitions of intelligence:


BODY: To observe, sense and do.

MIND: To think, analyse, judge and strategise.

HEART: To feel, create, express and empathise.

SOUL: To intuit, lead, act with high principle and serve.


In the 1980’s, I worked alongside Time Manager International to develop the culture and customer experience at British Airways and American Express, and in the 90’s/00’s at Sun/Kerzner International at The Lost City and Atlantis amongst other blue chip programmes. Since 2010, I’ve been helping the board launch and develop the values and customer experience at Brighton & Hove Albion FC’s American Express Community Stadium (The Amex) and more recently at Tottenham Hotspur’s new White Hart Lane stadium.


Nicholas has been helping Spurs launch their values and customer experience at the new White Hart Lane stadium. Image, courtesy: Populous


I’ve found that applying a combination of some key principles and methods can help venues deliver exceptional performance.


This may require a more holistic, people-centric approach than purely scientific management. When I use the word holistic, I don’t mean new age or hippy. I mean I mean both/and, inclusive, as opposed to either/or, exclusive. The word holistic is derived from the Greek word holos, meaning where all the parts are present and working together. 


Top venues need a performance improvement plan for the BOTH the whole culture AND each individual part as they each impact each other – team performance and individual performance, rational/facts and emotional/feelings, technical aspects and human components of the experience, recognising the importance of both the ‘bottom-line world’ and the world ‘beyond the bottom line’ – as one of my early mentors Claus Moller described it. There may be one set of rules in the bottom-line world but others we need to consider too, and even some that are unique to a given situation.


This can be frustrating for busy executives who are looking for the comfort and ease of simple, practical ready-made solutions to technical problems. However, your progress may depend on solving some more complex, people problems over time – that may be holding you held back in OK or just good, when you aspire to be great.


Having said this, here are some general actionable steps you can consider and apply to your challenges that I’ve drawn from a range of my past projects. I cover and bring these to life in my keynotes, masterclasses and consultancy, to help a bespoke process for each unique situation. 


1. Get on the Balcony – Identify the Adaptive Challenges

To be true agents of change, we need to be able to experience both the perspective of a team player and a member of the crowd. We need to connect with people, listen to them, understand their values, issues, fears and then step back and identify the real drivers of current choices. Then we can identify the real challenges we’re facing and the real results we need to achieve. Then, and only then, can we consider the ‘how’.


For example:


  1. External: Your venue may have a clear need to upgrade the customer experience to win spend/customer engagement across diverse groups with varying customer journeys with key touchpoints – club and corporate hospitality plus events – e.g., conferences, concerts, theatre, parties. You may have a team of people who are used to a very different way of delivering experiences with much smaller team though – such as the Ticket Office manager who is on first name terms with many customers and enjoys a close personal relationship as he gets them tickets. This was the situation at the Amex Stadium in Division One in 2010 where crowds of 7000-8000 were the norm, but 30,000 plus, a different approach to delivering great experiences is needed. You may have some event staff who operate more like night club bouncers than professional event hosts for example.
  2. Internal: At the Amex, leaders and staff had spent 11 years at the Withdean, a small, cramped athletics stadium with limited funds. A successful move to new facility operations would require enhanced operational excellence, big increases in matchday operation headcount from 400 to 1200, and an uplift in the volume and diversity of catering and refreshment provision – to be ready and up to scratch in just 8 weeks in a new working environment! The prevailing culture of a fragmented, small, local club needed to shift as fast as possible to a modern, “one team” sporting and hospitality culture with a top-class customer experience to build and maintain sales and attendance. This needed to be achieved without losing the heart and soul of the Club that people prized.


Often, with technological advances, prevailing perceptions and habits may need to evolve if the investment potential for the customer experience is to become a reality. For example, some managers may be grounded in out of date, perhaps more masculine and top-down management, rather than the more gender-balanced, diverse and flexible leadership skills and tools needed to develop and deliver great experiences through today’s multi-generational workforce.


2. Specify Outcomes and Measures

What needs to change – your values, communications, skills, structures, systems and processes? Often, it will be a combination. What will success look like? Who are the key stakeholders? What ideas and values are at the heart of the change and will crystalise the clarity and develop the unity essential to enable real progress to be made fast?


Some sample outcomes from the Amex programme:


  • To deliver sustained “top of the league” customer experiences for fans, community, corporates, conference clients and delegates in order to drive sales of season and matchday tickets, food/beverage, non-match-day events and conference business
  • To support and enable people to move to the new venue successfully
  • To create and sustain a climate that inspires fans, customers, players and employees to want to do their best to help the club succeed


How will you measure progress? Examples include mystery shop/customer feedback, social media themes analysis, customer spend, attendance increases/season ticket sales, industry surveys/awards, away supporter feedback, commercial revenue/spend per head, League position.


3. Co-Create and Deploy Venue Story, Strategy & Road Map 

Some examples:


  • Equip leaders to engage their staff with a clear and engaging story, strategy and road map to enable the change at every stage – at both venue and team and individual levels
  • Articulate end-to-end Experience Journey Maps for key customer segments e.g. Family, Young People, Loyal/Die Hard, Disability, Premium Social Groups, A, B, C etc.
  • Identify emotional journeys too – e.g. when/where are the pain/hassle points – empower teams to find solutions
  • Work with leaders and staff to co-create and share a clear set of core values or organising ideas that encapsulate the heart and soul, as well as the head and the hands – and adopt the actions and behaviours that reflect them:
    • Amex Stadium: Creating Memorable Experiences by recruiting for and living four core Team Brighton values: Treat People Well, Exceed Expectations, Aim High: Never Give Up, Make it Special
    • The Spurs Way: People who work with three key qualities: Drive, Dare, Respect 
    • The Spurs Difference: Creating 6-star experiences through three principles: Be Like Family, Keep it Flowing, Play to Win
  • Work with people to help them understand the expectations and values of each key customer segment and be able to describe the level of service across the customer journeys that will meet and exceed those expectations. Keep revisiting through great team briefings and review/feedback. “An individual without information cannot take responsibility. An individual given sufficient information cannot help but take responsibility.” Jan Carlzon
  • Articulate/co-create critical standard processes where needed and establish accountabilities and owners
  • Implement cross-function review meetings and celebrations to maintain a one team, one vision climate
  • Get key leaders and staff involved in targeting the key standards of service for each customer touchpoint and input to/know how performance will be measured including through mystery shop feedback
  • Develop team leaders properly – induction, customer experience leadership (incorporating gender balance and diversity), emotional intelligence, performing under pressure and others as required by your challenges
  • Cultivate aligned behaviours and communications in key staff (e.g., HR practices for recruitment, in-house writing style, values in action, appraisal system, team briefing)
  • Have a selection of key champions create a video to communicate with staff, train them in narrative techniques to help them do it well (I have a great venue example I can share with you) – these people can become a useful sounding board to refining the overall approach too
  • Keep to short, sharp planning and learning events (2-3 hours) to minimise impact on the business and to keep coming back to the big picture/values/organising ideas
  • Stage launch events that model the quality of customer experience in all respects – e.g. use of football-themed stilt-walkers, jugglers, football freestylers, comedic waiter, supporters singing group as lunch entertainment
  • Maximise involvement through engagement methods – pinpoints, graffiti walls, actors playing bad service examples, human continuums, posters, roleplay, actors playing customer types with VerbatimPlayback® etc)
  • Develop and coach high potential professional staff/leaders to host events and facilitate key sessions themselves when possible
  • Provide one-to-one coaching/support for key managers to support their adoption of the values/ethos and provide emotional support through periods of disruptive change
  • Flexible and inclusive delivery formats to include the variety of different staff groups – e.g., office staff, matchday stewards and catering staff – weekdays, evenings, weekends


4. Create Tracking and Monitoring Methods

  • Annual development plan/budget, monthly forecast, report of spend against budget
  • Monthly project meetings with heads, executive and board with updated presentations to share results and to plan for next month/quarter – secure empowerment and funding for initiatives people in the organisation have identified
  • Monthly sessions with managers and champions to feedback mystery shop scores and discuss concrete ways to ensure continuous improvement
  • Creation of ad-hoc mystery shop measures to test new experience initiatives and feedback impact
  • Periodic one-to-one coaching clinics with key managers and professional staff to provide private sounding board for their plans and challenges


The Amex “Team Brighton” culture project won three Gold National Training Journal Awards for Leader Development, Change Management and Learning Partnership. Image, courtesy: KSS


5. Measure Results and Inform Further Initiatives

At the Amex, here are some of the identified performance against the metrics developed in 2) during the first season:


  • All key customer service metrics showed rapid development as tracked through mystery shops in first season
  • HRD clinics for key managers used to explore performance against plan – high level of implementation supported
  • 97% reported very good or excellent overall rating of training programme effectiveness
  • All managers coached to give club and team story, strategy and road map presentations to their teams
  • New contemporary writing style developed in key communication staff
  • In its first year, the Amex Stadium wins Stadium Business Award for Best New Venue in the World, Top 5 shortlists for Best Customer Experience and Best Overall Venue in the World 
  • Venue Team of the Year award in November 2012. 96% of Season 1 ticket holders repurchased on first issue in May 2012 although the team finished 10th in the Championship
  • Additional close season ticket sales took the club to 8th position on sales in the entire football league, including Premiership clubs. 
  • The Club achieved a history-making 2-year increase in average sales and attendances in the country since 1888, the best-ever for the Championship


The Club and venue have gone on to win Family Excellence Award 2013; Best Stewarding and Safety (Global) 2014; Best Club to Work For UK 2015; Best Matchday Experience: Championship 2016, Best Premier League Matchday experience in 2017. Sales of food, beverages and merchandise have been above all predictions and are industry leading in 2018 for F&B. The matchday attendance is now 30,000+.


The Amex “Team Brighton” culture project won three Gold National Training Journal Awards for Leader Development, Change Management and Learning Partnership. 


Most recently, as promotion to the Premier League became a reality, all leaders received performance conversations training in setting expectations, coaching and reviewing performance, as well as this year unconscious bias and diversity awareness.


I hope these ideas give you a great platform to build on. If you’d like to experience a keynote for your leaders around these examples or a masterclass to work through some of these principles and methods, do get in touch.


Nicholas J.S. Brice, Speaker, Masterclass Facilitator, Coach & Consultant at 360 Degree Vision



Nicholas J.S. Brice


Phone: +44(0)7778-356954


Nicholas J.S. Brice is one of a host of expert speakers from across Europe and North America that will be sharing invaluable insights during ALSD International – Europe’s leading conference and exhibition for the Premium Seat & Hospitality sector – taking place at Croke Park Stadium this October.



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