RFU Technology Director Jonathan Conn has just helped relaunch the East Stand of Twickenham after a major renovation built on digital foundations.
The project aimed to modernise the matchday experience at the 109-year-old stadium by creating a high-tech hospitality service across 6,700 square metres of dining spaces in eight new facilities staffed by a total of 250 chefs.
Conn oversaw the installation of data-driven restaurant seating, a "silent kitchen" that ensures dishes are served at the perfect time, a network that makes the East Stand the first fully Wi-Fi-enabled section of Twickenham, and a completely cash-free payment system.
The renovations followed the RFU's objective of driving innovation and attracting new rugby fans while preserving the game's traditions.
"Our biggest challenge is probably keeping pace while protecting the elements of rugby that we think are a part of what makes it special, but also looking to take advantage of new opportunities to engage," says Conn.
Conn left a career as a management consultant to join the RFU in October 2017, just before the rugby governing body launched a new strategy that would guide its plans up to 2021.
His role in the strategy is to grow digital engagement with rugby fans, develop tech that supports both professional and amateur players, enhance the RFU's web platform and help deliver a world-class stadium experience.
The new East Stand is therefore a big move for the RFU and Conn. Their concept was to bring all the services in-house, which would allow the RFU to give every fan the best possible experience while also cutting the costs of using external operators.
The design was largely led by a new vision for hospitality, but tit gave the RFU the chance to deploy a wide range of new IT, all underpinned by a network upgrade that made the East Stand the first fully Wi-Fi area of the stadium.
"We worked with 02 to implement Cisco HD Wi-Fi throughout the East Stand at our concourses," says Conn.
"We have the aspiration to work towards being a connected stadium. We're not fully connected everywhere and that's going to be a phased approach, but we're adding more and more requirements in terms of how we use space more efficiently."
In the kitchen
Techology plays a fundamental role in the RFU's efforts to elevate hospitality at Twickenham.
The stadium uses the Open Table platform to manage bookings and an integrated till operating system and Quick Service Restaurants (QSR) kitchen management software to get food and drink out to the guests at the right time, temperature and quality.
A new intelligent kitchen allows waiting staff to place an order through a tablet and automatically tell chefs when they need to prepare each dish. The system then assembles the different plates into table orders that can be sent out to diners at the requisite time.
Kitchen chaos caused by staff shouting at each other and trying to manually coordinate orders has thus been replaced by automated guidance that creates a "silent kitchen".
"We've got about 15,000 hospitality guests, who all want to eat roughly at the same time," says Conn. "They're all watching the same game, which only lasts 80 minutes. It steps up the pressure and it's really become operationally about how we deliver a standard service within that window, and that's what's driving on every opportunity to make things more efficient."
Twickenham welcomes 82,000 ticket holders to every game through its networked gates, including executive box holders who can use an online portal can use to make food and drink orders without using manual forms, phone calls or email.
To move the fans around the stadium, the RFU uses Internet Protocol television (IPTV) to continuously stream media across a network of 900 screens spread around the site, which helps fans avoid crowds by guiding them to different locations.
"We have the ability now to send messaging to move people to different areas of the stadium," says Conn.
"It's something that we really have to work on because whilst people complain about queues, it's very hard to get them to move away from the queues. We've tried a lot of different things but the sheer spikes that we have in the surge just before kick-off and just before half-time means it continues to be a work in progress."
At the end of every game, the RFU can show fans a live feed of the queues at local stations and tell them the average train times for each of the nearby rail services. This reaped rewards when a train strike was recently called.
"By using the station cam we could communicate clearly to people what the extent of the queues were and we could also communicate the train time," says Conn.
"We can also therefore point out that there's still a lot of entertainment going on at the stadium. We have a number of bands playing, we've got our West Stand Village, there's a lot of different tents out there and activities. Again, it's trying to communicate the opportunities to stay involved and explore that match day experience rather than go stand in a queue and get frustrated."
Further efficiencies have been driven rolling out cashless payments across all 550 tills in the stadium.
"Cashless helps speed up the transaction and therefore helps us mitigate against the queues to give a better experience," says Conn.
"It also helps us minimise the need for high risk and expensive operations in terms of moving money around the venue.
"The key thing is that when you're dealing with hard cash, when you come to reconcile at the end of the day, it's been too easy to be quite a bit out and not really have a clear explanation. Now we can monitor all the tills and all the transactions in real time and the reconciliation of a match day can have almost pinpoint accuracy in real time. We can know exactly where we are and how we perform."
Smaller suppliers played a big role in supporting the cash-free project. Conn likes to blend the IT giants with more niche providers in his vendor strategy.
"We try and keep an open mind," he says. "We recognise that there's no one party that can answer all our challenges and we don't know everything that's coming and the opportunities, so we've just got to try and be as flexible as possible, as open minded as possible, focus on key things which we think will make the biggest difference and deal with other opportunities as they come up."
With a successful launch of the East Stand now complete, Conn's focus turns to supporting the year's remaining internationals while developing other ideas.
The RFU has been working with IBM to identify the areas of focus for the next 18 months.
Current projects include a digital refresh of the website and the underlying data to make sure that it's flexible enough to accommodate any new addition, and exploring how data can further personalise the fan experience.
Conn is also exploring digital ticketing, a stadium app that the RFU is developing with British Airways, and other ways in which digital can enhance community rugby participation while reducing administration.
"The reality of it is, we can't protect the future but we've got to make sure that some of the investments we make at this stage are robust enough that they can support that flexibility," he says.