Interview with Guy Dunstan, NEC Group Arenas General Manager
In this latest Industry Interview, Katie McIntyre garners insights from Guy Dunstan, NEC Group Arenas General Manager.
Firstly, as General Manager for the NEC Group Arenas (Genting Arena and Arena Birmingham), can you describe your key responsibilities? Please also advise RE: the name change from Barclaycard Arena to Arena Birmingham and what this means moving forward? As in are you going to be searching for a new naming rights partner?
I am responsible for the operation of the Genting Arena and Arena Birmingham, formerly the Barclaycard Arena. The recent name change of the latter has seen us move to a neutral brand that reflects the venue’s location in the heart of Birmingham city centre.
We are still in the market for a new naming rights partner, so we will continue to trade as this until a new partner is secured. As we’ve done successfully in the past, we want to work with partners who are a good fit, who share our ambitions and have similar brand and business objectives focused on customer experience, so we want to ensure we select the correct partner however long this may take.
Arena Birmingham is one of the busiest, large scale indoor sporting and entertainment venues in the world and accommodates everything from music, sport and comedy, to family entertainment and live theatre. What are the main challenges when it comes to operating and managing venues such as this and Genting Arena?
We operate in a challenging and competitive marketplace, so the NEC Group Arenas team is focused on developing and delivering plans that are activity designed to ensure commercial success and customer satisfaction. We need to make smart decisions about how we use our facilities, and how to best accommodate our tenants.
The fast pace of the arenas industry plays a big role in this, as turnaround times and an increase in back-to-back events means everything must be done as effectively and efficiently as possible. Thankfully, we have a highly skilful in-house team that has got this down to a fine art.
Another key focus as all large venues have, is ensuring the millions that visit us each year have the best experience possible, from the minute they look on our websites to buy tickets, through to the on-site facilities we provide on their arrival. The customer experience is something we continue to develop; we need to cater correctly for this wide and diverse demographic of live event goers, so they continue to visit us rather than a competitor venue.
There also continues to be a great demand to host both small and large scale events in Birmingham. The City is lucky to have not just one, but two premier league arenas to facilitate this. Not only does this demand allow us to contract more events, but also provides more options for touring productions.
Arena Birmingham, as it is now known, completed a £26m redevelopment back in December 2014, when it was renamed Barclaycard Arena. What were the key drivers for this?
Despite our strong market position, it’s important to constantly reinvest in our facilities, so that we continue to provide the best customer experience possible and maintain the NEC Group Arenas’ positions as premier league arenas. In 2009, we spent £29m to transform the NEC Arena into the LG Arena. By 2012, its sister arena (then known as the NIA) needed a similar redevelopment, to meet the quality offering that now existed over at the LG Arena. Eighteen months of work resulted in brand new facilities and the introduction of a new naming rights partner, Barclaycard.
All areas of the Arena were upgraded, including an increased capacity, to ensure that more people are able to see the world class events we host. A wider concourse with nearly 6,000m² of pre and post show space was built, the Firestone Stage installed (for pre-show entertainment), plus comfier seating, more toilets and food and beverage offerings.
The venue previously had a very limited hospitality offering, so the largest enhancement was the creation of two exclusive hospitality restaurants. These not only provide panoramic views of the Birmingham skyline, but also offer an exclusive entrance for hospitality guests.
The most dramatic element of the refurbishment was a brand-new glass façade overlooking the Brindleyplace canal side development, including an LCD ‘wonderwall’, distinctive copper fins, Sky Needles and a boardwalk. This now creates a dynamic scene on arrival for visitors and a focal point in the centre of Birmingham.
How are you utilising the latest technology and solutions to deliver the best possible experience at NEC Group venues?
The customer is at the heart of everything we do, so we have many digital solutions in place to enhance their experiences with us. As mentioned before, the experience for NEC Group Arena customers begins as soon as they are interested in buying a ticket. Those who subscribe to our email newsletters are notified of upcoming on sales and can often benefit from venue pre-sale access. The Group has also leveraged advancements in data segmentation, meaning we can more accurately target previous and potential customers for our shows.
We offer pre-payment options for parking so people can avoid queuing on site and offer contactless payment at both venues. We also recently installed an Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) camera operation system across all of our Arena Birmingham car parks, making the parking process simpler and quicker than queuing for the onsite ticket kiosks.
In addition, we also utilise digital screens to promote upcoming events, show times and for wayfinding purposes.
What developments are in store for Genting Arena moving forward?
We have just invested £815k in a backstage extension at the venue, which now boasts an L-shaped backstage area to facilitate load-ins/load-outs, and a new artist smoking area to the rear of the dressing rooms. Event teams can also benefit from an extended crew catering area, two new production offices and extra backstage storage space.
The venue continues to contract a great roster of events, with recent examples including Horse of the Year Show, BPM Pro, Metallica, the first night of The Killers 2017/18 tour, and the final night of Phil Collins 2017 tour. It is a great privilege to host shows like this, which highlight how diverse a venue the Genting Arena is.
How are you developing the fan experience and fan engagement at your venues?
Our aim is to provide the ultimate arena customer experience, so we need to understand the needs and wants of our wide and varying customer base. This year we launched the Superfan’s Fanclub, a first of its kind arena membership scheme aimed at those who regularly visit our arenas. To bring the Fanclub to market, we held many focus groups to understand exactly what our customers desired from a membership. We have over 1,400 members to date and of those who signed up to October 2017, 96% said they were thinking of renewing again.
Our advancements in data segmentation also feed into improvements in the fan experience; the better we tailor and market our products to those that receive our communications, the more likely they’ll engage with them. We regularly survey customers and track their experiences so we can then use this feedback to further enhance our services.
You are a Steering Group Member and former Chairman of the National Arenas Association. Can you tell us more about the Association; its goals, mission, etc. And what role do organisations and associations such as the NAA have to play?
The combined strength of our arenas nationwide, attracts international business and reflects the UK’s dominant position within the live event industry. Therefore, it is a passion of mine to ensure we have a forum of seeking commonality in the UK arena market.
The National Arenas Association (NAA) plays a pivotal role in enabling the top arenas in the UK to come together and share best practice which benefits the UK venue market. It facilitates regular management meetings, the Safety Advisory Group, the Event Managers Symposium and various other NAA sub-groups. The mission is to continuously seek to improve the consistency and quality of safety of the association venues.
How important is knowledge-sharing between industry peers and how do you keep abreast of all the latest developments?
Knowledge-sharing is key to maintaining a successful arenas industry not only in the UK but internationally. The ability for us to share experiences and visit other arenas on touring routes is invaluable; we can foresee any potential issues or works needed that may affect a production when it’s in situ, with a view to offering productions and our visitors the best possible experience when they visit our venues.
How is the Premium Seating sector evolving at NEC Group venues?
The demand for premium seating and ‘exclusive’ facilities has seen the hospitality sector become big business for the NEC Group Arenas. More corporate and private clientele are seeking to buy the best seats, the best view and ultimately the best experience possible, so it makes business sense for us to service this demand.
Our official hospitality provider, Amplify, has seen its membership database grow significantly in the last three years, with its net profit more than double (FY 14/15-16/17). This has extended the geographical scope of their client base, which was traditionally and predominately West Midlands based. These advancements have been supported with the extension of our Amplify hospitality offering at Arena Birmingham; with its two exclusive hospitality restaurants Quartz, and The Foundry. The redevelopment of the Arena really allowed us to capitalise on this growing market, with us now tripling our capacity for ‘hot ticket’ performances.
Half a million pounds was also spent in 2015 on refurbishing one of the Genting Arena restaurants, to ensure we present a product that exceeds market requirements.
What major advances/evolutions do you foresee for the sector in the next 4-5 years?
Technological advancements for in-seat ordering will make the service commonplace. Already on offer in some larger venues and stadiums across the world, this will take customer service to the next level. It will reduce the need to queue for food and beverages, speed up transactions and ultimately help drive up customer satisfaction scores.
The arenas hospitality sector will need to go one step further, and deliver the likes of merchandise pre-ordering and more ‘exclusive’ benefits for its customers. Show content will also become ever more diverse, as both mass market and new niche concepts are developed by event organisers, to run alongside the more traditional arena concerts and sporting events.
Mobile ticketing will also become more prevalent. We’re already seeing advancements in e-ticketing and festivals using ticket wristbands, so it’s only a matter of time before the traditional paper ticket becomes redundant.
Finally, the NEC Group officially backed the successful Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games bid. What will it mean for your venues, and the city as a whole, having won the event hosting rights?
The NEC Group focus is to create unforgettable memories and bring the live experience to life, and we have a rich heritage of doing so with sporting events. We want to create destinations of the future.
We already know what a great place Birmingham is for staging events, but winning the bid has strengthened our venues (plus Birmingham and other venues across the city) and put us firmly on the world map – showcasing what we have to offer here in the Midlands to a global audience.
It will prove to be a real legacy piece for Birmingham, and we are hopeful that the programme of events it’ll attract will reach far beyond the next five years.
Huge thanks to Guy Dunstan for taking the time to do this interview with us.
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