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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

RFU technology director Jonathan Conn on transforming Twickenham’s East Stand

When the Rugby Football Union (RFU) opened the doors to Twickenham’s East Stand last month, many may have merely thought of this as an operational, catering and engineering project. After all, the aim has been to offer world-class hospitality in over 6,700sqm of dining spaces with four new restaurants.

But technology has played a huge part in the project too – particularly when it comes to fully enhancing the experience for the fans and customers that visit the stadium in the months and years to come.

Jonathan Conn, technology director at the RFU, explains that his team’s remit is to provide the systems and support for the administration of the game, as well as the various England teams – both in terms of infrastructure and operations at home and in the various competitions. In addition, his team has to look after the digital engagement web platforms, the traditional corporate IT that supports 300 staff at Twickenham Stadium, and the same support for those out in the field.

The recent focus for Conn’s team has been on the revamp of the East Stand, and Conn explains that a project of this scale required a number of different parties involved.

“This included professional services, but also trying to make sure all of the different departments are represented across the organisation. People such as [catering, conference and events director of Twickenham Stadium] Nils Braude is one of our key stakeholders given that during the actual match they are effectively the key operational side of delivering a match-day experience, and so trying to balance the needs of what the teams are and making sure we translate that in the underlying tech requirements in terms of what is needed now and what is needed in years to come because it is a fast changing world from an IT point of view, “ he says.

The key aspect of using technology is to make the customer experience more seamless.

Braude explains that this meant implementing various products into the stadium. For example, the stadium has Quick Service Restaurants (QSR) kitchen management software, which splits down orders into the various production areas of the kitchen, and then translates this to the kitchen manager so they can combine it altogether for the table.

The idea, is to give a much more streamlined operation which has been particularly important as the stadium is giving people an option to choose from an a la carte menu; something Braude claims is a first in a hospitality environment of this scale – just under 7,000 people are on the East Stand catering side on a matchday.

This forms part of what the RFU calls a ‘silent kitchen’ – which ensures that the chefs and waiters in the kitchen can ensure all times are in sync and deliver dishes at the right time, without staff shouting orders at each other.

In addition, the stadium has worked with OpenTable to develop software to help maximise the number of people that can sit in a restaurant without manual intervention.

“So rather than someone sitting and plotting where 1,000 people are going to sit, the software does that for us – it gives us the best table configuration to use the space most efficiently,” Braude says.

The organisation has also gone cashless across all 550 tills in the stadium. This has meant payments can be made more swiftly, but more significantly, the stadium has integrated software with the cashless systems which gives it visibility of the spending patterns across the different levels of stands and bars and for different event types.

“This gives us a historic view of stock moment and revenue patterns across location which then helps us open or close areas required with revenue and cost in mind rather than gut feel. This has helped tremendously, particularly for planning for what people are going to eat; it drives a lot of efficiency which historically hasn’t been possible,” Braude says.

The transaction data is handled by WorldPay, meaning it is only anonymous data on revenue and stock that the stadium handles, rather than personal data.

Putting the foundations in for the future

Conn says one of his biggest challenges is getting the best out of the big technology companies that the RFU works with – citing a new partnership with IBM and the longstanding relationship England Rugby has with O2 as examples.

The East Stand will be the first section of Twickenham that is fully Wi-Fi enabled, while the organisation is using IBM’s cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities in a bid to help grow the game at a community and professional level, while developing its relationship with supporters further.

Another aim of the organisation is to become even more data-driven.

“We will be looking at personalising the experience further on the East Stand, so there are things like a stadium app that we’re working on with British Airways,” Conn says.

“We’re also working on improving the current event day, as an awful lot goes on around the stadium on matchday so we want to make people aware of the opportunities to try and make it as enjoyable as possible.”