Phased Return: The re-opening of sports and entertainment venues

The New Normal

Jon Leach, Director, Buildings and Places, AECOM, looks at how sport and entertainment venues can return to service in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

A key challenge that the sport and entertainment sector must overcome is how we adapt and move forward in the face of an everchanging, post-Covid-19 environment.

As an industry we have to rapidly establish agile and adaptable procedures, policies and protocols to enable safe and managed return to existing sport and entertainment venues, as well as introducing safeguards to the design of new venues for a future in the “new normal”.

At AECOM we have been combining expertise in sport and entertainment with that of other sectors, including healthcare and aviation planning, with the aim of creating smarter and more resilient infrastructure.

Re-Occupancy Plans

When working with our clients to create processes that communicate robust, consistent and scientifically verifiable methodologies for re-occupancy, we must acknowledge the inherently unique situation and requirements of any particular site or venue. This should include various layers of engagement including operational measures for re-occupancy, venue capacity and fan engagement analysis, and technology implementation.

Personal Measures:

  • The management of risk begins with individuals taking responsibility for themselves.
  • Individuals who are symptomatic must not come to the venue, and those who are not symptomatic should take precautions to prevent the risk of exposure. This may include the mandatory use of face masks, and it is important that the venue communicates not only current government advice but also provides clear and up to date guidance to all patrons in the build up to an event.

Health Screening:

  • Screening techniques can be undertaken for players, officials, staff and fans to identify people who may be at risk of being infected.
  • The incorporation of personal health and temperature checks, for example as seen at airports, could become a part of the entrance requirements via temporary overlay facilities.

Physical Measures:

  • Wherever possible, measures should be taken to reduce the need for physical proximity and/or physical contact.
  • Transactions with staff should be reduced wherever possible. Where this is not possible physical protection, for example screens, will need to be provided.

Hygiene Measures:

  • As well as the possible introduction of sterilisation booths for fans and staff, the deployment and positioning of sanitisation stations will need to be considered alongside a new regime of cleaning and maintenance. This may include:
  • The use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
  • General disinfection, decontamination and material disposal procedures for each function area.
  • HVAC system decontamination requirements.

Venue Capacity and Fan Engagement Analysis:

There are a number of ways in how we approach spectator occupancy for both indoor and outdoor venues. There will likely be a combination of short- and long-term modifications to event-day operations.

Crowd Management and Distancing Measures:

Wherever possible social distancing should be encouraged throughout the venue’s operation cycle. Active measures should be taken to reduce density and dwell times at known ‘hotspots’, which can be supported by crowd modelling studies, additional wayfinding, management and stewarding.

This is probably the most challenging aspect to manage in practice, and can include consideration of:

  • Staggered and timed ingress and egress strategies with pedestrian models and flow rate analysis.
  • Additional scanning equipment may limit the requirement for physical contact during bag searches and other security measures.

It is possible to stagger arrival times to ensure entrance queues, ticketing and security checks are well managed. Indeed, staggered arrival times communicated via fan-apps, and ticketless/contactless entry and payments, are both supported by existing technology but require clear communications with event operators and emergency services.

Managed egress, including in the event of an emergency are also a key part of these considerations.

New revenue opportunities:

The provision of additional entertainment and activities for those arriving early may need to be considered, for example additional fan zones and sponsor activation.

F+B, WC and Premium Hospitality planning:

The scaling-back of F+B offerings may be necessary in the short term, but ticket packages and fan engagement apps can be developed or adapted to include pre-ordering of F+B from additional collection points, or “to-seat” delivery in advance of the event.

Venue Capacity, Fan Engagement Analysis and Technology

The requirement for more frequent and extended breaks during events might be required in an effort to control social distancing at concessions and WC facilities.

Seating reconfiguration studies:

Where a venue has reconfigurable seating, it may be possible to increase spacing and introduce more aisles and spacing between families and individuals. In stadia with fixed seating this becomes especially challenging, but whichever way the seating is configured a substantial drop in total capacity would be anticipated in most cases if distancing rules are strictly adhered to, and therefore combining social distancing with medical screening and mandatory PPE may be the best overall solution in the medium-to-long term.

Technology Implementation

Re-creating the “electric” atmosphere. With the likelihood of reduced attendance at many events, at least in the short to medium term, the potential loss of event-day atmosphere, both for the fans and for the athletes, is a key aspect of the user experience that may be addressed.

AI crowd noise simulations are already being used for some broadcasts, and the same methods could be used within the venue itself through existing or upgraded PA and AV systems to augment the venue acoustics and recapture that crucial electric atmosphere and home advantage.

A combination of sounds from spectators located in remote locations - combining the real with the virtual to create a new form of immersive experience, is a further step.

The shared virtual experience is already an increasingly prevalent technology, and its role in ensuring safe social distancing whilst enhancing the fan experience is a very exciting prospect.

The rise of eSports:

The growth of eSports, in terms of followers, brand growth and revenue has been significant in recent years and, during the current pandemic situation, has become a way of sports brands and personalities to maintain fan engagement as well as strengthening links between the real-life and virtual games. This growth seems set to continue, even once our venues see a return to full capacity in a post-pandemic world. Modern venue designs are already packed with technology, and the requirement for 5G connectivity and enhanced infrastructure for the latest communications and audio-visual facilities, whether built-in or event specific, is a key aspect of their design.

Remote broadcasting and media:

The media and broadcasters are ensuring the infrastructure is in place to enable remote production and broadcasting. This has the potential to transform international coverage of events now and in the future.

Investing for a new future

The “new normal” is a much-heard phrase, but the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented for our generation, and its impact on the sports and entertainment sector now and in the future requires positive action.

If and when a vaccine to Covid-19 is found, none of this will be a wasted effort. For future pandemics and general venue and event operation, much will have been learnt about fan and staff behaviour and communication. This can yield positive changes that could ultimately streamline the fan experience and improve a venue’s operational dynamics in the long-term.

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