The accomplishments in commercial development, digital media, and the leisure & entertainment spheres make Nigel Robbins an instant thought-leader on all aspects of bringing extra value to customers. For decades he built revenue and delivered growth in diverse markets like Japan, China, Australia and Europe.

The successful implementation of a true digital-first strategy for the SSE Arena in Belfast under his helm instantly became, even beyond the world of ticketing, a shining example of a successful data-driven operation.

Our VP of Commercial Operations, Martin Gammeltoft, sat down with Nigel who in his previous roles was the managing director or CEO responsible for establishing MTV in parts of Asia and the Pacific. Mr. Robbins’ commercial development assignments in digital media and leisure & entertainment include Group Commercial Director at UTV Media plc and The Odyssey Trust Company.

We first met Nigel back in 2017 when he was on a panel talking about customer experience. Nigel spoke passionately about how he and the team at the SSE Arena in Belfast had worked with setting up customer moments and showing key customers that they valued them. Nigel stated that “Customer moments represent the single biggest opportunity in marketing”, and we felt that warm, fuzzy feeling of an instant connection.

Good afternoon, Nigel. A pleasure to get to talk to you about a shared passion – customer experience and special customer moments. I know that you have now moved on from your position in the SSE Arena, but could you tell the story of what you did there to go beyond just good customer experience?

Thanks, Martin, it’s a pleasure to speak with you, as I’m a huge fan of Activity Stream’s core objectives. In my view, you are leading the way in the development of fresh thinking around customer engagement in a way that makes great use of digital platforms.

During my three years with The Odyssey Trust, which, among other things, is responsible for the development of The SSE Arena in Belfast, I was tasked with the development of a digital strategy that puts the customer first. This may sound rather trite and it’s a bit of a cliche, but it’s an important one! We wanted to go beyond just paying lip service to that sentiment and make the digital strategy part overarching initiatives to deliver the best experience every time for customers. That said, the Arena is not where it wants to be yet, but we have laid the foundations for what the team hopes will be an ability to create and deliver meaningful ‘customer moments’, and effectively measure the Odyssey site’s ability to super-serve customers at all touch points and at all times.”

This is the ambition of many venues I’ve spoken to, so I guess the question is…what did you actually do?

Yes, this may all sound a bit highfalutin…it simply means there is a real desire within The SSE Arena to utilize technology and the new platforms available to engage with customers in new and exciting ways. One of the important ‘foundations’’, once high-speed WiFi had been installed at The SSE Arena in Belfast, was an integrated venue app. This was developed with the excellent LiveStyled team in London, and it turned out to be the first UK arena app. The app, for The SSE Arena, has served as a testing tool to determine what customers really want from their venue experience, and how we can better serve them.”

Good strategy – I like the step-by-step approach. What did you learn?

One of the things the digital marketing team was keen to change was how customers were treated when making a complaint – and what kind of follow up mechanisms were in place to deal with those complaints. So the app was, and continues to be, a great way for the Arena to discard the ‘go home and fill in a form’ approach and create something more instant – and, importantly, more geared towards satisfying customers who, for one reason or another, didn’t have a great night. Of course, those customers are in the minority, but you’ll only ever get them back if you take their feedback seriously and DO something about it.

But…even better than dealing with a complaint are the times when a venue is proactive in reaching out to customers, and we quickly realised that the app was a great way for us to put in place some initiatives that helped the Arena engage with venue goers when everything was just fine – one could argue that those ‘customer moments’ are even more effective than reacting to a small number of complaints; and of course these happy customers – let’s call them ‘neutral customers’ – are in the majority, so proactively reaching out to them is a strong way to encourage repeat business. This is very much in line with what you are doing at Activity Stream, with the customer moments observations, which I think is very powerful.

We used the app for this communication, too, and it has set The SSE Arena and Odyssey site on a journey to create the most digitally integrated leisure & entertainment destination on the island of Ireland, which is what the team are aiming to achieve in the next 24-30 months.”

It sounds like a very strong ambition – what happened when you started this?

Good things! By utilising data generated by the app, and by tracking customer behaviour, we were able to adapt and further develop the various service offerings available via the app – including fast-track access to F&B and Merchandise, special offers and discounts including the highly popular ‘Appy Hour’, along with bespoke environments within the app for Belfast Giants fans and SSE Airtricity customers. And the Arena team was able to respond instantly to customers who experienced bumps in the road, such as longer-than-expected queueing times at really busy events, or finding that a product they wanted had sold out due to high demands – or even having a drink spilled over them in the venue. In these situations, we often utilized the app to generate an instant ‘digital voucher’ for the customer to redeem at their next visit, or in some cases tickets for future events, where warranted. By being generous and reacting quickly, we experienced a very high satisfaction rate from customers who might otherwise have voiced discontent to friends or via social media or simply never returned.

We used the same tools to proactively engage with customers who deserved a Thank You for repeat business or long-term loyalty. One fun example that springs to mind is a Belfast Giants Ice Hockey team fan who turned out to be the Arena’s most prolific purchaser of Heineken, using the app, we rewarded the customer and presented the lady with a signed Belfast Giants jersey and special recognition. Other initiatives like this, large and small, can generate great goodwill with customers and they are generally feel-good moments for all concerned. By utilizing the data available – and this is where I see the great advantage of combining Activity Stream’s system solutions with a venue’s existing infrastructure – and by having a dedicated team responsible for those ‘customer moments’, venues can really change the customer engagement landscape and use data analytics in refreshingly different ways.”

You had a dedicated teamwork on this?

It’s very much a team effort and it’s also work in progress. I would be exaggerating to say that this system is now fully established at The SSE Arena, but I do believe that both the Odyssey site and The SSE Arena are perfectly poised to capitalize on the opportunities that its development plan will yield. The Arena’s activities are led by a highly capable Head of Digital Marketing & Development and the aim to create a ‘single customer view’ utilizing system solutions what will eventually support a seamless digital infrastructure site-wide.

It’s a two-year project since the SSE Arena and the Odyssey site have multiple systems and customer touch points, not all of which are able to communicate with each other. This will be the same for many venues and certainly for sites or complexes that have evolved over the years. In the Arena’s case, multiple-systems include IPTV hardware, Triple Play software, the integrated venue app, WiFi, chip & pin, car park readers and barriers, Ticketmaster’s evolving technology, websites and portals, and various IT systems…all of which need to be brought together in a way that the Digital Marketing team – and other key departments – can utilise for truly effective customer engagement.”

Back to the proactive communication – how did you identify which customers to reach out to?

In terms of the venue app, the Arena and LiveStyled teams worked closely together to ‘cherry pick’ data for upcoming events or to help inform marketing campaigns or ways to optimize customer offerings across hospitality, for example. LiveStyled generate regular data analytics reports covering ARPU, repeat business and all kinds of variations based on customer preferences and purchase histories. But everyone recognises it can go much, much further, and the aim within the Arena is to identify customer engagement solutions that can be integrated effectively with the existing infrastructure, and to also build resources in-house so that paying attention to customers and making it personal becomes as much a part of the norm as taking the macro level approach or using anonymised data to create campaigns or inform decisions. Both need to go hand in hand, in my view, to achieve customer engagement nirvana!

The SSE Arena, Belfast has a positive and deepening relationship with Ticketmaster, an area the team are looking to take much further with the launch of Ticketmaster’s Transactional API in the UK market, which will help take customer relationships to new levels for many venues, large and small, who will have far greater access to ticket purchasing data. For now, a great deal of useful and actionable data is generated for The SSE Arena via many sources, including LiveStyled, the app development team based in London, which helps inform decision making around consumer offerings in the venue. The number of consumers actively engaging with the Odyssey’s assets on an annual basis is close to one million, and that represents a great opportunity to get it right. Most definitely, data analytics – along with the all-important human touch – will further shape the way customers experience leisure & entertainment destinations in the coming years.”

I agree it’s just as much about getting the organization started on working with generating these special moments for customers. But, still, it all comes down to the big question: is it a good investment of time and resources, in your opinion?

It’s not only a good investment, in my view – but it’s a vital one for any forward-thinking organization committed to customer service excellence and of the repeat business that springs from that. The all-encompassing system software and customer engagement platforms – and here I include websites and apps – are the lifeblood of any effective digital infrastructure, and it’s generally the more cost-effective part of it compared with the hardware – in The SSE Arena case, this included WiFi installation, IPTV network and supporting equipment. But investing in people is also an essential part of the digital journey because smart people need to utilize smart technology in ways that the end-user – the all-important customer, a real live human being – is going to love enough to keep coming back for more. Customer moments are an excellent way of ensuring that this happens.”

Let that be the inspiration for other venues. Get going, it’ll be good for business! Thank you so much for your time, Nigel, I really enjoyed hearing about your experiences.

My pleasure, Martin. I believe Activity Stream will be among the market leaders in this sphere for a long time to come, and I would encourage venues of all shapes and sizes to take a closer look at what you are already doing to positively shape customer experience on many levels.”