Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Just the Ticket – Phil Mead, MD, NEC Arenas designs excellent customer service to drive sales

Phil Mead, MD, NEC Arenas

The NEC Group is a high visibility Birmingham–based business, but how many of us are familiar with much of the detail behind this well-known business? 
More especially, I wondered, as I went to meet Phil Mead, MD, NEC Arenas, are we aware of some of its recent success stories, demonstrating that a focus on strategic investment and the customer can pay off handsomely?
The NEC Group – Vital Stats
The NEC Group, wholly owned by Birmingham City Council and Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, delivered annual revenues of £109.8m and an operating profit of £24.1m during 2009/10. 
It includes 4 business units – Exhibition (The NEC Birmingham), Convention (The ICC Birmingham and Dublin Convention Centre management contract), Arenas – including The LG Arena, The NIA and The Ticket Factory and, in addition, their Catering arm including NEC Catering and contract catering business Amadeus.

NEC Box Office to National Ticket Agency
“Three years ago, when I joined The NEC Group, our box office business was simply the box office for The Group,” says Phil Mead, MD, NEC Arenas on meeting him at The NIA Birmingham.
“It was clear to me that we had the resources to target a wider market. Big ticketing agents were seen as a ‘necessary evil’ with their inflated prices and poor service.” 
Having researched the market and their capabilities Phil could see that there was a market opening for them. By taking the service ethos from their venues business into ticketing they were able to launch their own business, ‘The Ticket Factory’.
“We launched in November 2007,” says Phil, “when we were doing around 1m tickets a year.  Now we’re selling upwards of 3m a year – a near trebling of ticket sales in as many years, all through good service.”
“Improving customer service was a key strand of our strategy for success.  Our call centre is now more accessible with 24 hour support and training support has been enhanced across the board for our staff.”
The Birmingham-based company has enjoyed robust growth  in three years, evolving from The NEC Group’s venue box office to acquiring major national ticketing contracts, including UK box office for Haymarket Exhibitions and the Chelsea Flower Show, selling two million tickets a year.
“Last year we acquired a specialist business, Bookings Direct, and now we’re the national ticketing agent for 3A Entertainment’s artists with current tours including Kylie, Eric Clapton, Boyzone, Van Morrison, Roger Waters – the Wall, Paul Weller, WWE and X Factor.
“As a result we are being recognised more and more as a national ticket agency – most recently with being one of only four national agents to have an allocation of standing and seated tickets for Take That’s Progress Live 2011 Tour.
“With over 10 million hits to The Ticket Factory’s website from 41 different countries, social media platforms including – You Tube, Facebook, Twitter and Posterous – were key in keeping our customers in touch.
“Through re-tweeting positive experiences from customers and posting ‘behind the scenes’ vodcasts of our contact centre, we were able to reassure other customers that it was worth continuing to try.
“We were able to offer a heightened level of customer service through these online channels by sending direct messages to customers who had queries about the orders they have placed, without them needing to go back on the phone to our contact centre.
“The success of our approach is clear through the 50% increase to both our Twitter and Facebook accounts from the tour announcement to the on sale day.”
Phil explains the advantages of cross selling, “with a database of around 1m registered users this gives us good marketing reach.  In general when world music sales are down we have more than doubled our sales in the past three years.”
Phil’s focus on improving customer service to drive growth of the Arenas business wasn’t restricted to their ticket sales.

Improving Customer Experience at The NEC Arenas

LG Arena Main Entrance
 “Our infrastructure in Birmingham was getting a bit tired and the customer experience was suffering as a result.  So we needed to re-invent The NEC Arena.  The O2 development in London helped as it raised the bar for the Arena experience in the UK. 

“It was clear we could not go to the City and get £20-30m so we commissioned a feasibility study, led by Masons, around improving the customer experience and went out to market our title rights – leading to the now well recognised LG Arena name. 
“We gained some gap funding from AWM, given NEC Group’s economic impact on the region, estimated by KPMG to be worth c£2bn a year. 

"The Group generates around 4.1m visitors through 900 events annually maintaining 29,000 people through our impact on indirect employment. We also arranged a loan through the City which we were able to repay because of the sale of the title rights and the uplift in sales which we experienced following the investment we made.
“We wanted the customer experience to match the act our customers were coming to enjoy. We have taken concert hospitality to a whole new level, with our three amplify packages, providing a great sense of arrival at LG Arena, with visitors initially seeing our Living Wall and passing 13,000 shrubs that form part of this wall.

Living Wall at LG Arena
“Amplify Air is the coolest area with limited capacity where guests dine over a four-course meal before enjoying the show from the spectacular show-deck overlooking the Arena bowl.”

Phil and his team worked with a team of professionals, including Yorkshire architects, DLA, structural engineers, cost consultants and utilities to remodel the LG Arena.  The entrance and its adjacent storage area were converted into the ‘ForumLIVE’, which can accommodate up to 6000 people as they’re moving into the arena, providing them with quality entertainment in line with the main act. “I don’t know any other arena in Europe where this interaction happens,” adds Phil.
“DLA Architects had a really good interior design arm that helped the customer experience.  The comfortably-padded, bigger seats are just part of a range of major improvements at the venue.  There is also no more hopping up and down in the queue as there are double the number of toilets, as well as improved sight lines and we created more of a horse shoe bowl in the arena itself.
“We designed a permanent seating structure which created more room under the seats so there’s been a whole change in the customer experience.  When the LG re-opened last October, 96% of our customers thought the re-development was either ‘good’ or ‘very good’.”
NEC Arenas was one of the first arenas in the UK.  Now there are 16 arenas across the country with over 5000 capacity and Phil Mead is Chairman of the Arenas Association. 
“We have 13% of the market share for arenas with more than 5k capacity in the UK,” says Phil. “We invested £29m to do all the work. The timescale was impressive – we had our last show in April with ACDC.  We re-opened for the Horse of the Year Show in October 2009.
“We upgraded ForumLIVE separately which speeded up the process and meant they were closed for a very brief three month period in what turned out to be a very well managed project.”
Now Phil has turned his attention to The NIA. “It’s effectively an ageing asset and so we’ve started down the same process – only this time we’ve taken on a new internal member of staff to conduct our feasibility study.  Our aim is to work up headline design and costings by end January.  We’re also going out to market for a naming rights partner again, together with other opportunities for additional income.”

NIA Birmingham
 “By improving the customer experience and quality of service people are prepared to arrive earlier, enjoy a meal and other entertainment and of course this in turn increases spend per head. 

"Whilst we’d originally been focussed on designing the visitor experience around sport – in line with our current offer which will remain important – now we’re looking at large theatre experiences including comedy, shows like Walking with Dinosaurs, as well as providing pre-show experience.
“We also became very conscious that our design at present is very inward facing.  So we see an opportunity to open out The NIA onto its location surrounded by Canals and just a few paces away from The ICC development, Brindleyplace and Broad Street.”

International Venue Management

Phil’s customer service ethic has not been confined to ticket agency sales and arenas management.  “We’re following a third business strand,” says Phil, “international partnerships.”
Convention Centre Dublin
“We’ve just formed a partnership with Global Spectrum in Philadelphia.  They have expanded from two venues to 81 across the USA, Canada and Asia (including Singapore). 

"They have formed a partnership with The NEC Group to benefit from our experience and resource in venue management in Europe.

“In Dublin we have signed a major 20 year contract, a Public-Private partnership venture with Treasury Holdings to manage the inspirational new Euros 380m Dublin Convention Centre, designed by architect Kevin Roche.  The largest lift takes an articulated lorry up to the auditorium and the second lift takes a transit van.

“Sales have gone well there - it has been brought in on budget – a huge budget.  I believe this is one of the best of its kind, a state of the art venue for Europe which is selling Dublin as a leading destination for business and leisure hospitality.... this together with the City’s new amazing Grand Canal Square Theatre, designed by internationally celebrated architect, Daniel Libeskind.

“In spite of the economic challenges we’re optimistic that by building our strategy to focus on customer experience and excellent service we can continue to develop more opportunities like these.”

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