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The RFID tipping point

RFID means increased revenue for festivals, so why are UK organisers reluctant to make the leap?

There’s a system that means people spend on average 15 to 30 per cent more at a festival. It’s a system that has been hugely popular for years in mainland Europe and the United States, but is only now taking hold in the UK festival market.

The name of this system? RFID.

RFID technology allows festivals to remove cash handling from their lifecycle, instead providing festivalgoers with microchips, often in wristbands, that they can use to wirelessly pay for food, drinks and activities at an event.

The system has faced an uphill struggle in its quest to become a mainstay at UK events, in part due to an incident at Download in 2015, when the festival’s entire cashless system crashed unexpectedly.

The failure of Download’s system can sometimes be a source of frustration for RFID professionals, says Serge Grimaux, CEO of Intellitix.

“I often compare what we do to the airline industry,” he tells Access. “You only ever hear about the planes that crash. You don’t hear about the thousands that are flying every second of the day.”

“Organisers saw what happened with Download. One story in the Daily Mail and we were hit with a block of ice,” adds Steve Jenner, UK business development director for PlayPass, who entered the UK marketplace in October 2015. “The reactions now are so much warmer and more positive than when we first opened up in the UK.”

The story now, more than one year on, is much more positive. So much so that both Grimaux and Jenner believe 2016 could be a turning point for RFID in the UK.

“Once you use RFID you don’t go back” -Serge Grimaux

“We think there’s going to be a tipping point, that’s what we’re building to,” says Jenner. “This year is going to be the proof of concept and the year that we get rid of the fear and negativity that’s been holding people back.”

“It’s all about who is going to take the first step, and what kind of influence that person has,” adds Grimaux. “We are extremely infectious and there is no cure. Once you start to use RFID then you don’t go back.”

Access caught up with PlayPass at Standon Calling in the UK and Intellitix at Snowbombing in Austria, two festivals that have been using RFID successfully for a number of years.

“I think Snowbombing went very well,” says Grimaux. “Because it was the second year we saw that people had expectations of the technology. People topped up pre-event more, they asked fewer questions. People know the system works.”

A fairer system

Although Standon Calling has been using RFID since 2013, this year’s festival marked its first partnership with PlayPass.

The festival’s founder, Alex Trenchard, decided to try out RFID after witnessing it in action at New Zealand festival Rhythm and Vines.

“We took a punt, and everyone was kind of scared and worried about how it would pan out, but ultimately I believe it was the best decision we made. It works for us,” he says. “It makes the on-site operations much more efficient and enables us to continue running our own bars. If we were still taking cash I think we would’ve had to have gone to a third party bar operator by now.”

Standon Calling is a small festival (welcoming just over 10,000 in 2016) and uses RFID partly in an effort to make its relationships with traders fairer.

“It’s enabled us to see what the traders are taking and create a fairer system,” Trenchard explains. “Most festival organisers like to have a flat fee that the trader pays in advance, and they want to do that because the alternative is a percentage deal. That’s difficult because often there can be a slight distrust.

“What RFID does is show, in black and white, what each trader takes. It makes it a lot simpler. It’s fairer for all because we can do a proper percentage of sales. It works really well.”

Standon Calling marked PlayPass’ first foray into the reticent UK festival market, and Jenner hopes that the success of the event will help turn the tide in favour of RFID.

“It’s a big deal for us,” says Jenner. “PlayPass is a European company and we’ve been going there for about four years. In Europe it’s standard. It’s weird for a festival not to use RFID.

“The UK is usually quite progressive with technology in the festival market. We led the industry for years, but now I think we’ve been overtaken technologically. What PlayPass is trying to do is correct that balance. By the end of this summer the UK market and media will see that cashless does work.” 

‘Old men and anarchic types’

Convincing the world that cashless is effective means coming up against the ingrained opinions of two very specific types of festival organisers, says Trenchard. “Bigger festivals are run by old men who don’t like change, and don’t like new things. They think cash works and they’re slightly suspicious of technology.

“Boutique festivals are generally run by slightly anarchic types, who think that all this data stuff is Big Brother. They don’t want to be associated with that.

“Frankly, the latter argument doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t use the data unless I have a very good reason to, for instance in a criminal prosecution.”

If there’s one particular aspect of the Big Brother line of thinking that particularly annoys Trenchard, it’s the idea that he might be spying on his customers.

“This year is going to be the proof of concept” -Steve Jenner

“Am I really interested in what someone I don’t know drank over a weekend?” he asks. “How does it benefit me to know that at 9pm John had a Bloody Mary?

“People think that they’re being scrutinised, but it’s not a Big Brother data conspiracy. It doesn’t hurt John for me to know that. In fact, maybe next year I’ll make sure they have enough Bloody Mary stocked so that he can have one at 9pm, because otherwise we might not expect that.”

“I can understand why people might think that about data tracking,” adds Grimaux. “But our aim is to provide a better environment for people, not track them down. I didn’t create a company to rip people off.”

For UK organisers still nervous about investing in RFID, Grimaux has a simple piece of advice: “If you’re an event organiser interested in the technology, then ask the person in front of you what they’ve done. Don’t ask what they think they can do, or what they hope they can do. Ask what they’ve done.”

“In real estate the rule is, ‘location, location, location’. In our business it’s, ‘track record, track record, track record’.”