A Conversation with George Vaughan, Ascot Racecourse

The Head of Technology at Ascot Racecourse discusses the challenges of the current climate, new and innovative use of existing NFC technology to drive customer engagement, and the post-pandemic future of the sports and entertainment sector.

Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been abbreviated and lightly edited for clarity. To read this interview transcript in its entirety, visit www.sportsvenuebusiness.com.

George, can you start by telling us about yourself and your career journey, including any standout moments?

I’ve been with Ascot Racecourse since March 2018, so just over two years now, and during that time, I’ve been working on modernising the venue from a technology perspective.

Prior to this, I worked for the RFU at Twickenham Stadium, where I delivered a number of unique projects in the run up to the 2015 Rugby World Cup and then put the foundations in place for the venue to become the largest open-loop, cashless stadium in the world at that time.

Back in 2012-13, one of my very early drivers at the RFU was to get the venue to embrace the idea of contactless card payments, being acutely aware of the success the technology was already enjoying in transport and travel. And now, fast forward seven or eight years, and we as a global society are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is starting to reject cash completely, as it represents a key transmission risk. The reality is that more and more venues followed the example first set at Twickenham, and that trend will accelerate as we look to finally welcome customers and fans back.

Ascot has been working hard to progress our technology offerings to customers, and over the last 18 months, we have seen significant upgrades to our audio-visual estate as well as further investment into our app, access control, and digital ticketing. The aim is to give people something unique, but that ambition comes with a greater challenge because most people’s home environments are now more sophisticated than ever before.

Looking at the customer from a number of points of view has always been my focus. Across all the work I’ve done in sport, I’ve always tended to spend a limited amount of time looking at what other venues are doing because that is only a very small part of the true picture. If you all fish from the same pond, you’re ultimately all going to serve the same catch.

Consequently, much of what was achieved at Twickenham, and what my team and I are now completing at Ascot, has been inspired by learnings away from sport. In this changing world, I believe to truly understand your customer doesn’t mean focusing on the short amount of time they spend with you, but instead, understanding what they do for the majority of the time they are somewhere else.

What are your key objectives for the next 12 to 24 months? And have those objectives had to morph due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

The big focus is on upgrading our ticketing system, moving from our current platform onto a more expansive solution, with our existing ticketing provider, Vivaticket. Alongside that is the development of a defined CRM platform and the opportunity to enhance the visitor experience through the app and NFC ticketing.

“I’ve always tended to spend a limited amount of time looking at what other venues are doing because that is only a very small part of the true picture. If you all fish from the same pond, you’re ultimately all going to serve the same catch.”

– George Vaughan, Ascot Racecourse

Having launched NFC ticketing in 2019 and being able to offer customers an alternative to a physical paper ticket is a significant step forward. Because we work closely with key innovators in this field, such as Apple, Google, and ProntoCX, we are able to bring an element of creative thinking to a space that has traditionally often struggled to be inventive.

We will also be upgrading all of our payment devices to the latest VAS-enabled, Verifone P400s, which will in turn allow us to explore opportunities around loyalty programs and more mobile-driven initiatives. These new Verifone devices will also allow us to explore NFC technology for betting and drinks vouchers, all as part of the digital ticket.

Beyond that, I’d love to get us to the point, and we’re not that far off it at the racecourse, when people in our venue paying with their smartphone can be offered the chance to sign up to a loyalty scheme via their mobile device in no more than two clicks, as part of the overall transaction.

The end goal is always mobile. I purchase my ticket using Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, or Android Pay. I have that ticket downloaded to my mobile wallet. I use my mobile to travel from where I am to where I need to get to. I use it to scan myself into the venue. I use it to make any purchases that I want to buy whilst I’m there. I find my way around the venue and get information on the event via the Ascot app. And I even use my phone to bet. This is the ultimate objective, and it makes perfect sense, as it already buys into the behaviour pattern of most people. We might forget our wallets. We might even forget our house keys. But how many of us generally forget our mobiles?

We are also working with Mastercard further to a body of work completed during lockdown which will see us deploying their Pay By Bank app for payment, including at POS points, which further focuses on non-touch technologies.

Finally, Ascot is midway through a corporate box upgrade plan, led by our Head of Capital Projects and Estate Development, Liz Pattinson, where we are enhancing all of the boxes, including with new Samsung screens, Bose audio, wireless charging, and Bluetooth speakers. We have to be mindful that whatever we do, the average person at home often has technology that is far better than most modern stadiums can manage so the process of change is a constant one.

You recently launched the concept of a Golden Ticket for Royal Ascot Week. Can you tell us more about this initiative and its drivers?

I was quite excited by the Royal Ascot at Home campaign, as I immediately recognised an opportunity for us to create something innovative with existing technology that didn’t feel linear.

With the investment in NFC ticketing already made, the concept I wanted to explore was the delivery of the digital ticket as a companion piece to the “At Home” event. We were already asking people to celebrate and dress up at home, so why couldn’t we give them a commemorative ticket that they can put into their digital wallets as part of that experience?

We emailed all our customers a digital ticket and encouraged them to download that ticket to their smartphone wallet. Every participating customer was then automatically entered into the competition, and at the end of each day, a very small number of those tickets changed to gold, meaning that they’d won a Porsche driving experience. It was as simple as that.

In the process, what it demonstrated was a new way of utilising NFC ticketing, during a time when people couldn’t be on site. It gave the ticket relevance, and more importantly, demonstrated the huge marketing and sponsorship potential of the platform.

We will be exploring further opportunities throughout the summer for other race days, but the possibilities are endless. From sponsor activations on the ticket, to new customer signups, and an on-site or at-home digital “scrapbook”, which if fully completed, could then reward customers. There is a lot to get excited about.

Moving forward, how do you see technology evolving in the sports and entertainment sector?

I think technology was already changing the world of sport before COVID-19 struck, but its role, and indeed the dependency we have placed upon it, has increased significantly since the start of the pandemic. We, just like every other venue, have been forced to confront the challenges presented by the coronavirus.

“We shouldn’t be naive and assume people are going to change their working practices, change their shopping habits... but continue to do exactly the same thing they’ve always down when it comes to the consumption of sport.”

– George Vaughan, Ascot Racecourse

It’s encouraged us to recognise that a connected world means you don’t have to conduct every meeting in person, you don’t have to be in a conventional office space to be productive, and there are major benefits to be had from reshaping the working week to suit the employee rather than just the employer.

Another focus should be the key communication mechanism that many brands will use to engage with their fans and customers – their app. But to really make a sports app relevant, you need to give it a 365 appeal. The most successful apps are the ones people come back to on a regular basis.

So outside of key events, engage with your sponsors to offer fans exclusive offers only available in the app that they can redeem throughout the year. These could be drink offers they can claim as part of their weekly supermarket shop, exclusive partner tech launch events, or VIP experiences only open to subscribers of the app.

From a sponsor-partnership perspective, this represents the perfect way to capture data, understand fan behaviour beyond the venue, and give customers true value through their association with a sporting brand.

Finally, how do you foresee venue technology evolving over the next two to three years?

I believe that technology initiatives planned by many venues for the next two to three years will have to be reassessed and, in some cases, accelerated because of the pandemic. Pre-order apps, voice-activated speakers, and anything that provides customers with limited touch points are all likely to come to the fore.

A venue’s ability to connect with the customer at home, the person who can’t make it to the stadium or wasn’t able to get a ticket, will also become more important because we already know technologies like VR and AR can provide another layer of engagement for the viewer at home.

In numerous companies, people have already accustomed themselves to performing their business roles in a completely new fashion. We have quickly learned, because we had to, that you can exist as an employee away from the main office and be more productive in the process.

In my view, the traditional workplace is already dead, and if anything good comes out of this lockdown, it’s the realisation that the simple removal of something like a regular two-hour commute from someone’s day is going to make them a more focused employee while doing something good for the planet.

And this change will influence a shift in customer behaviour. Whether we like it or not, until a vaccine is found, anything we want to do, which requires us to engage or integrate with crowds, whether it’s shopping, going to a pub, visiting a stadium or racecourse, will involve more checks, longer queuing, and ultimately take more time.

I believe there may be a group of people that elect to consume their sport in a different way because of the pandemic, perhaps by not even coming to a venue at all. That doesn’t mean we’re going to suddenly have empty stadiums, arenas, or racecourses, but I do think we shouldn’t be naive and assume people are going to change their working practices, change their shopping habits, change the way they consume media, but continue to do exactly the same thing they’ve always down when it comes to the consumption of sport. We won’t be immune to this.

Learn additional insights from George Vaughan and his colleague, Liz Pattinson, Head of Capital Projects and Estate Development at Ascot Racecourse, during the 2020 edition of ALSD International, taking place at Liverpool FC’s Anfield Stadium on October 12-13.

This interview content has been reproduced courtesy of Sports Venue Business.