Ascot Racecourse ‘race’ ahead in tech track
Ascot Racecourse is a dual-purpose, 70,000-capacity, British racecourse, located in Ascot, Berkshire, England (UK), which is used for thoroughbred horse racing. It hosts 13 of Britain’s 36 annual Flat Group 1 horse races and three Grade 1 Jumps races.
George Vaughan, Head of Technology, Ascot Racecourse, UK, shares tech-heavy details exclusively with ‘Coliseum’ at the Coliseum Online Week EUROPE Worldwide held in March 2021. He explains how Ascot Racecourse is embracing technology-driven change whilst always ensuring that tradition associated with the iconic racecourse does not get eclipsed by cutting-edge tech and a perfect balance is maintained between the two.
“What makes us unique is that connection to history and the sense of tradition that underpins everything we do. Anything we introduce from a tech perspective has to enhance rather than intrude.”
Balancing tradition with technology
Ascot Racecourse – A British institution:
- Ascot Racecourse was established in 1711 and has enjoyed over 300 years of racing;
- The first Royal meeting took place there in 1768;
- Royal Ascot is one of the global racing events of the year and annually the venue welcomes over 600,000 visitors;
- Royal Ascot is broadcast in over 200 countries and is the most valuable race meeting in Britain; and
- Racing is the second-highest attended sport in the UK after football.
Ascot’s technology aspirations
Sport meets lifestyle
Stated George Vaughan, “Ascot Racecourse is a unique racecourse and coming to this venue is a unique experience for our visitors. Unlike football, rugby or cricket, racing doesn’t generally have fans, it has customers. On a capacity Royal Ascot day, we might welcome 70,000 people through our gates and although they could stay with us for up to seven hours, on an average they actually only see 11 minutes of racing. This is an important consideration because what often equates to the half-time break for a football or rugby match basically makes up more than the full time we have to showcase our sport. So, for us, customer service is more important than anything else. Having people on site for that long means the experience has to be as consistent and enriching as you can make it.”
He maintained, “For me, Ascot isn’t just about sport. For many people, it’s a lifestyle event, one of the highlights of the British social calendar. Visitors will come through the turnstiles and the first thing they often do is take a photo of themselves and post it on social media to mark the fact that they are here.”
Drawing comparison between a traditional venue and Ascot Racecourse, Vaughan stated, “Although we host 26 race days in total every year, Royal Ascot is our showcase event. This also makes us the perfect template for a Smart City in many more ways than a traditional stadium does. When people visit a stadium, they come in, go to their seats and that’s where they will remain for the majority of the time. At Ascot Racecourse, the scenario can be very different. People come to the venue and they may watch each of the races from different locations. They will also come to Ascot to enjoy a fine dining experience, they will come to socialize and it’s very different to some of the mechanisms that exist in traditional stadiums and venues. With this in mind, much of my upgrade proposals were driven by other sectors and I expanded on a theme I had already successfully pursued when I was previously at Twickenham Stadium in Twickenham, England.”
Ascot’s technology driver
Smart City template:
Said Vaughan, “Tradition is no longer a refuge for stadiums and sports venues, particularly in a post-Covid world, and going back to doing things as we did them before isn’t a credible option. Returning customers already expect more. From a tech perspective, understanding our audience demographic (which is very evenly split across ages and gender) meant exploring other sectors to understand how they operated. So, to better understand our audience, I went to airports, retail establishments, hotels, and restaurants to learn more. Now, the learning has to continue because I also believe that the pandemic means we have other challenges to address. I’m not just competing with other venues for my customer’s attention, I’m also having to convince them out from their comfortable living rooms again – equipped with the very best home technology – with a reason why they should forgo their sofas and 75” screens to battle the rain, travel congestion and large crowds to return to my venue. Some will have been lost to this new world – just like cinema has conceded customers to streaming and restaurants have lost diners to Deliveroo – and the change isn’t going to stop there. Playing it safe may not cut it anymore and we need to be innovative, daring and brave if we are to meet their expectations.”
Ascot’s technology upgrade
Present landscape (Vaughan speak):
- State of the art audio system – He informed, “We have done a very large state of the art audio system upgrade in conjunction with Bose and SSE, with almost 3,000 speakers being installed across the venue and over 120 new amplification systems put into place.”;
- Leading-edge signage and on-chip Internal Protocol television(IPTV)-“We have installed over 500 new Samsung signage screen TVs, many of them running on-chip IPTV so we have no need of set top boxes any longer.”;
- NFC digital ticketing – “We have introduced near-field communication (NFC) digital ticketing which has been an collaborative effort with key partners including Vivaticket, ProntoCX, Skidata, Apple and Google;
- In conjunction with Pronto, NFC also allowed us to launch global first initiatives like the Golden Ticket campaign for Royal Ascot at Home in 2020 and the recently launched Ascot Fan Pass;
- Integrated POS and mobile POS – “We have a fully integrated point of sale (POS) and mobile POS application that went live in 2019 with Kappture.”;
- Future-proofed contactless and payment technologies – “We have gone live with new acquiring partner, Worldpay across all of our POS systems for payment and also integrated MasterCard’s Pay By Bank technology across the same environment;
- Advanced cross-estate CCTV installation – “We have upgraded the CCTV setup across the entire estate, introducing the latest, state of the art monitoring solutions, with integrated AI.”;
- Wireless charging with integrated data app in boxes – “We have integrated wireless charging with all of the boxes that have been refurbished using Chargifi. Ascot has over 210 boxes, more than any other venue in Europe.”;
- Modern infrastructure implementation – “Last year, we completed a complete core infrastructure upgrade which provides us with a robust and up to date foundation for these technologies to sit upon.”;
- Augmented reality (AR) programs – “We have run several augmented reality (AR) programs for customer engagement using Looking Glass and will explore new initiative as customers return to our venues.”;
- “Working with Realife Tech (an experience automation platform based in UK) we launched a click and collect ordering system for customers, which was first used at this year’s Royal Ascot, the first time we welcomed customers back to site in almost 18 months.”; and
- Smart sensor and monitoring – “We have done a lot of smart sensor and people movement exercises with leading-edge companies such as Utterberry, to help us better understand customer behavior.”
NFC mobile tickets mean one will be able to access the stadium on matchday using an electronic ticket on his or her smartphone, instead of a physical ticket or card.
UtterBerry is a provider of Artificially Intelligent wireless smart sensor systems for infrastructure monitoring and the development of Smart Cities. Its patented technology has been used in a variety of major national infrastructure projects in the United Kingdom including London’s Crossrail and Thames Tideway.
From venue to home – Ascot’s Golden Ticket
Vaughan took the online audience through three of those tech pieces – the first one was something which is really exciting in terms of NFC ticketing.
“At the height of the pandemic, we wanted to look at how we could repurpose an existing asset to engage with an audience that couldn’t come to us. We took NFC and pushed it out to people at home and it became an excellent engagement and data capture opportunity. Creating the Ascot Golden Ticket, we sent customers a ticket for every day of Royal Ascot 2020 and then randomly changed the color of a small number as a mechanism for people to win a prize. It was a perfect example of being able to repurpose an NFC ticket for data capture and fan engagement for people watching the event at home. It is now also a great opportunity for sponsors and partners to connect with customers through technology as we move the idea forward.”
Looking Glass AR
Vaughan continued, “Another thing that we ran – we started in 2018 and ran in 2019 and would have spilled into 2020 had we had customers, was augmented reality (AR). We ran a number of applications which again were excellent data capture exercises – AR linked to our app to play back specific and unique content around the venue. For example, if somebody stops by a billboard and holds their mobile or tablet up to the screen, it plays back some unique footage and they were then asked to enter a competition and their details captured as part of that program.”
Small Movement Utterberry Pilot
Ascot Racecourse did a lot of smart movement pieces with Utterberry. Showing a conventional badge, he said that the badge contained within it two smart pieces of technology which monitored access and movement as well as being able to facilitate payment.
Added Vaughan, “We measured movement in real time within the venue so you could see where groups of people were congregating and how quickly they came to certain spaces. And that was quite an exciting opportunity for us to understand when certain spaces were overpopulated because as an event progresses over the day you could see when it became densely populated and you could issue alerts and triggers and warnings as a consequence. This is a technology we will continue to explore because when we go back to the idea of marrying tradition with technology, those swing badges are quite important to people but they are also an identifier for our staff and enclosure members.”
He asserted, “For Ascot, the evolution never stops because technology is always changing. Going forward, we have a whole host of projects already running that will begin to go live as we move into the latter part of 2021.”
Next phase technology
2021 & beyond
- Kappture boxes project – “We have a unique project that is running within our boxes with Kappture which will allow our customers to go online, book the requirements for their boxes and then settle during the day of the event.”;
- Full ticketing platform upgrade – “We are going through a full ticketing platform upgrade which should be completed by the autumn with Vivaticket.”;
- ICX program – “We have an intelligent customer experience (ICX) program underway (with the assistance of winners) that will help us better manage our data in the future and draw in information streams across all our systems.”;
- Ascot Fan Pass – “We have the Ascot Fan Pass.”;
- AR Phase II – “We will again start to explore what else we can do with Augmented Reality (AR) as customers return to site.”; and
- Voice-activated hospitality – “We are working on a really exciting project with Amazon for corporate boxes and spaces within the venues, which is still at the fledgling stage, that we will hopefully be able to tell you more about in the near future”.
His funda is – “Complacency is not an option. Comfortable is a fleeting experience. Challenges will only become more frequent. What one has in place today may not be relevant tomorrow. We have to be aware of the world around us and the ever-changing expectations of our customers. Avoid tunnel vision and keep an eye on what other sectors are doing, not just your own. As my old driving instructor used to tell me – ‘Don’t just look at the car in front of you but look at the car in front of that car’.”
Kappture is a leading provider of electronic point of sale (EPOS) and mobile payment software in the stadia, retail and hospitality industries. It has designed a solid, reliable, user-friendly suite of software and hardware to engage customers and help entities drive business forward.
Not just glamor
Ascot Racecourse is not just about glamor and glitz and about people who ‘live life kingsize’ visiting the historic racecourse. It is about a racecourse which has ambitious technical goals to be met and deployment of leading-edge technology. Ascot believes in deploying razor-sharp technology but at the same time maintains the days-of yore-tradition of the racecourse and in doing so strikes the perfect balance as Vaughan sums up by stating, “That was a quick overview of what we have done and where we are and the fact that we are very keen to deploy technology but we know it will have to be mindful of the fact that there is an expectation and there is a tradition that associates it and with Ascot it goes back to 1711 which is about 300 years ago and that is one of the things that makes it quite attractive to the audience.”
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