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Auditoriums Meet

When Victorian architecture meets network cabling

With just eight weeks left until the event, The LEVEL Summit (LVL) caught up with Jasper Hope (JH) Chief Operating Officer of The Royal Albert Hall to discuss the challenges of technology and how efficiently these can be embraced in a venue as historic and the Royal Albert Hall (RAH).

LVL: How has technology impacted the visitor experience over recent years? Is this a positive or a negative for audiences?

JH: Technological developments in recent years have had a radical effect on all sorts of aspects of the visitor experience. The rise of desktop internet use and subsequently the development of smartphone and tablet devices has meant the buying and selling of tickets, the marketing of entertainment products and services and the ability for venues, promoters and artists to communicate with customers far more quickly and directly have all become digitised activities to a greater extent than ever before. It really wasn’t that long ago that we were still accepting postal booking forms for some shows, and payment by cheque, and taking 3 weeks to process 14,000 orders manually for the Proms onsale as a result. This year we sold over 100,000 tickets online on day one. That change has brought benefits for both customers and venues and is unequivocally positive to my mind.

LVL: How has RAH’s approach to technology and its resources evolved in the last decade?

JH: Like everyone, I’m sure we’ve recognised the incredible rise in online ticket sales and that’s where our focus has been up until now. Rising ticket sales have characterised our business in recent years and being able to process them faster and more efficiently for customers has driven our approach. We are not at the cutting-edge of technology, but we use it to solve often quite complex business issues. Going forward, we’ve recognised that crucial though the commerce is, it’s not the only reason people want to interact with the Hall online. There are many other connections around our charitable status, our educational project delivery, our incredible archive of performance history and many other areas which need more resource and more thought around how we deliver them at the highest level. As we go, we find we’re spending less on in-house equipment, preferring to look for opportunities to virtualise resources and adopt SaaS (Software as a Service) wherever possible. This trend will continue as we look for opportunities to move more resources to the Cloud.

LVL: Do you have a CIO or CTO? Why (not)?

JH: No we don’t, we have excellent people within our IT, Ticketing Services, Marketing & Digital departments instead, reporting to a Director of Customer Relations. It’s perhaps different for new buildings without our history and heritage but I believe very strongly that a truly unique venue like the Hall needs first and foremost a vision that’s about the kind of live entertainment it wishes to host and the kind of service it wishes to offer its customers who come to enjoy that entertainment. Technology has a role to play in how we operate and how some things can be made easier but it is not (and I don’t think will ever be) chief in our thinking.

LVL: What are the key technology challenges in a building as old (and as busy) as the Royal Albert Hall?

JH: Well, the Victorians created a magnificent auditorium which can handle an unrivaled number and type of production but it turns out they didn’t consider network cabling I’m told. Grade 1 listed buildings are not the easiest to work in and it takes significant planning when we need to introduce new systems and services. Aside from that, and nothing to do with our age but rather our popularity, the biggest challenge this year has been dealing with the scripted routines which sometimes clog access for the public to our website. We’ve introduced new technology this year which provides 24 hour monitoring of all activity and blocks suspect traffic immediately but the scale of the challenge is huge – on just one particularly busy day recently we blocked over 800,000 routines.And finally, our most regular challenge with many areas is finding sufficient downtime for upgrades – it’s never easy when your box office runs 24/7 but of course it’s essential and means long overnight sessions for some of the team.LVL13-RAH

LVL: What are the main capital investments in technology over the coming years? Where is the ROI on these?

JH: We have a programme of continued investment in virtualisation and shared storage platforms and we see the costs as justified in terms of reduction in expenditure in hardware and improved resilience and uptime. Investments in data security are also a high priority for us always, something that is essential if you want to be in the ticket business. We’ve also just completed a new digital strategy and the next step is to appoint an agency to help us spec out and design a new website. The returns from that might be seen in faster and more sales, more cross-selling, possibly lower call-centre costs and some other areas too but the reality is that life has moved on and we just need a new website which is more suitable to how customers now interact with us.

LVL: What’s your view on the WiFi challenge for venues? Will RAH invest in BYOD for all patrons? And how will you offer/manage access (ie VIPs only, guest events only…)

JH: We already offer WiFi in public areas and throughout all backstage areas but not yet in the main auditorium. Provided we can meet customer expectations it’s high on the list of things we plan to introduce. Providing coverage where there are lots of people in an intimate and ornate space like the Hall is a challenge for sure, we are not about to spoil the beauty of the space for the sake of WiFi, but we do want to roll it out.

LVL: Are there are any new technologies you’ve seen or experienced which have impressed you?

JH: Not really – I know Twitter’s supposedly worth $10bn but I just don’t get it, give me an auto-reverse Sony Walkman any day for an impressive new technology of its time.

LVL: Is technology enriching the experience for your guests – or is it reaching the point where it is interrupting/diluting the performance itself?

JH: Technology doesn’t interrupt performances, people do that themselves. Why anyone would want to come to the Hall for one of the most intimate and incredible live music experiences in the world and then focus on a tiny screen is beyond me but I concede I may just be old-fashioned and if it helps them enjoy the show more then I won’t stand in their way so long as they’re not disturbing others.

Jasper Hope joins the promoter debate at LVL13.who's speakingThe Royal Albert Hall recently went back to its roots by hosting TEDxAlbertopolis. This was an afternoon of thought-provoking talks exploring how art and science fit together in the modern world. Join in the discussion about the inspiring debate #TEDxAlb