SEAT founder launches venue business-strategy firm

Christine Stoffel

Christine Stoffel, founder of the popular SEAT conference, has banded together with some top sports & entertainment industry executives to form The Executive Advocates (TEA), a venue business-strategy consulting firm with a wide menu of potential services.

Joining Stoffel in the founding of TEA are partners Katee Panter and Douglas Moss; Denise Taylor, CIO for Westfield Inc., will serve as an advisory board member to TEA.

The 20-year technology veteran Panter, who was most recently senior vice president of enterprise technology for New York icon venue Madison Square Garden, said in a prepared statement that “TEA’s mission will enable businesses to derive value from their people and technology investments.” According to the press release announcing the firm, TEA’s service offerings include: executive recruitment and placement, strategic technology roadmap consulting, tech solution and design, real estate-technology project management and financial oversight, all based on “insights & research from years of technical and executive leadership.”

“TEA are the voices of industry leaders and venture backed company Chief Marketing Officers brought together to support organizations with transparency, integrity and candor,” said Stoffel, in a prepared statement. “We are championing the drive for excellence from the top down, in every organization starting with executive recruitment through providing consultancy expertise on experiential technology solutions and design. It’s exciting to bring these offerings to our industry peers, colleagues and friends across the globe with this talented group.”

Venue consulting firms on the rise

Moss, a 30-year veteran of the sports and entertainment industry, has a resume that includes serving as president of the Buffalo Sabres, Phoenix Coyotes and International Hockey League, senior vice president of business operations for the Anaheim Ducks and president of Madison Square Garden Network.

“I look forward to be working with [the TEAM team] and our colleagues around the globe as we continue of journey of connecting technology, business and people,” Moss said.

The launch of TEA follows another recent high-profile gathering of minds in the venue consulting arena. A firm called 27/17 Innovations was formed by former Corning and IBM executive Todd Christner, calling itself in part “a firm focused on the end-user experience as the sustainable source of competitive differentiation, regardless of industry.” May the battles for RFPs begin!

Westfield brings high-density Wi-Fi to LA’s Century City mall

We’re gonna shop in Century City… Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR (click on any photo for a larger image)

It might not look like a stadium, but if you take a close examination of the technology being put into the renovation of the Westfield Century City mall, you’ll see a familiar use of wireless and networking technology aimed at improving the visitor experience while also benefiting the mall’s bottom line.

Some of that has to do with the fact that the mall’s new IT team includes veterans of the sports-arena networking market; the other has to do with the fact that shopping malls, like stadiums, struggle with some of the same issues around bringing connectivity to crowded public areas and trying to connect digitally with the people there, in this case shoppers and visitors rather than ticket holders.

So as part of a $1 billion redevelopment of the historic mall space, bringing high density wireless connectivity to the venue via a Wi-Fi network was a necessity for mall owner Westfield, as it seeks to enable the digitally connected future of the next-generation of bricks and mortar shopping malls. Now nearing the completion of its makeover, which is being rolled out in the fall of 2017, the “new” Westfield Century City will eventually be host to more than 1.3 million square feet of commercial space, with more than 200 shops and restaurants, and other amenities including a mid-mall concert and entertainment space with professional staging and lighting infrastructure.

A Wi-Fi AP nestles in with other components in a mall walkway. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

The historic shopping spot on Santa Monica Boulevard is also now getting a dose of newly designed outdoor gathering spaces, from hanging couch-beds to small grassy hills where visitors can just hang out and connect as part of their Century City experience. Having reliable, high-performing Wi-Fi to cover those spaces was a necessary shopping-list item, according to Denise Taylor, chief information officer for Westfield and point person for the new network and all its connected features at not just Westfield Century City but for other similar ongoing projects at some of the company’s 35 mall properties in the U.S. and the U.K.

Technology enables the new mall experience

Editor’s note: This profile is an excerpt from our latest STADIUM TECH REPORT, our Summer 2017 issue that has in-depth profiles of network deployments at the Atlanta Braves’ new SunTrust Park, the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field, and a profile of a new Wi-Fi network at Red Bull Arena. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

In an age when shopping malls may seem less relevant due to online shopping, many of the larger malls worldwide are rapidly shifting their business models to become more of a destination location for entertainment events, eating or “showroom” shopping, instead of just a place to go and buy things. And in a world where staying connected is as accepted and expected as breathing, a mall without wireless connectivity sounds like a place nobody would want to visit.

“I knew I had to integrate a physical and digital environment,” said Taylor, who left stadium-ownership concern AEG (where she oversaw tasks like bringing wireless networks to stadiums like LA’s Staples Center) to head up Westfield’s digital departments a couple years ago. “A big part of the mall transition was [installing] enabling technology.”

One of the new ‘hanging couch’ gathering areas. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Since its opening in 1964, Century City has been known for being part of the wave of “outdoor” shopping malls, becoming part of the cultural landscape of LA and the Southern California lifestyle. (It was even the subject of a song by rockers Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.) But like many sports venues that have been around awhile, these days Century City was lacking in a modern digital infrastructure to connect with its digital-device carrying customers.

According to Taylor, before the makeover project started the mall had no communication equipment rooms, no network backbone and maybe a couple hundred digital “endpoints,” including security cameras and intercoms. When the renovation is complete, Westfield Century City will have more than 2,000 end devices, including approximately 515 Wi-Fi APs, numerous digital displays, directories and LED sign boards.

One of the centerpieces of the renovation is a dedicated event space called The Terrace, which will be booked in part by Westfield’s own event production team.

The event space is just part of the new business plan for the mall and its visitors, a model for the future that includes on-location digital advertising not just for mall-based retailers but also for other brands who want to connect with the people at the mall, either through digital displays or app-based communications. While some of the plans are still concepts, without a baseline of a high-performing wireless network, none of the future ideas would be possible.

Ward Ross (L) and Denise Taylor

“If there is a fashion show at the mall event space, it’s important for visitors to be able to share what’s happening right at that moment,” said Taylor. “That called for a big shift as to what a good Wi-Fi experience was.”

Building for stadium-type foot traffic every day

If there was one thing that “floored” Taylor coming into the job, it was the steady, unending flow of people into the venue — a pace and total much different from stadiums, where people arrive sporadically for games and concerts.

“What really surprised me was the footfall,” said Taylor during an on-site visit by Mobile Sports Report in May, after the mall’s Phase 1 opening in April.

With its cellular system still tied up in the terms of a previous contract, Westfield Century City turned to Wi-Fi to bring a higher level of wireless connectivity to its public spaces, teaming up with Cisco and CDW for Wi-Fi gear and implementation efforts. Taylor also brought in veteran stadium technology expert Ward Ross as a consultant to help lead a somewhat different deployment at a venue that was never really closed for business, even as major construction efforts took place.

The need to ensure the deployment fit into the mall’s visible aesthetics, Taylor said, was particularly challenging, in an environment that “was never [originally] designed for central cabling or a communication infrastructure.” There was also the need to run construction efforts through leased retail spaces, a process that took “lots of effort and lots of conversations,” according to Taylor.

“The finished product is an amazing job of architecture,” said Taylor, who showed off the results of the work in a walk-around tour of the completed areas. “We had a big learning lesson on how to hide APs in a modern outdoor center.”

Though the initial public-facing service was gated to limit speeds, the plan is to eventually increase the bandwidth available to visitors as more of the mall’s construction and renovation is finished. With access to the “hidden” SSID that was running without restrictions, our tests over multiple places in the Phase 1 area saw Wi-Fi speeds in the 50 to 60 Mbps range for both download and upload.

Touchscreen kiosks, LED boards and better parking services

While video boards, Wi-Fi and a stadium app may be the primary technologies for stadiums these days, for shopping malls Taylor said there is a much different first priority: Where to park your car.

“I thought parking was important at arenas, but at malls the number one issue is parking locations,” Taylor said. At the time of our visit not all of Century City’s parking initiatives were live, but future shoppers there are in for pleasant surprises when it comes to the mall’s use of technology to eliminate as many parking pain points as possible. Ross and Taylor showed the under-development VIP reserved parking area, where customers can reserve and pay for a larger, centrally located spot that is held for them in a special garage area. When it’s working, customers will be able to pull into the spot by finding their name on an overhead screen — and then just leave when they are ready, without having to worry about parking tickets or paying attendants.

A ‘grassy knoll’ relaxing area. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

In other areas of the mall’s planned 5,000 parking spots, development is underway to bring a system of red and green lights that hover above each spot, letting drivers know if a space is open or not from far down the row.

“Both here and at Westfield Valley Fair [a mall in Silicon Valley] we’ve taken down lots and rebuilt and reconfigured them,” Taylor said. Future visitors can expect more wayfinding and tailored validation schemes for parking as Taylor seeks to use technology to bring “a VIP concept” to perhaps the most painful part of a visitor’s experience.

Once inside, more technology is visible in the form of touchscreen kiosks for mall directions, and big stadium-like LED screens for information and advertising. As the mall refurbishing is completed and the Wi-Fi network services more customers, Taylor is also looking ahead to when she can use network analytics to offer a more customized list of services to visitors via a forthcoming Century City app.

“We want to build a view of our customers, to let them know what’s relevant to them — if they want to see a show, or hear about a sale at Bloomingdale’s,” Taylor said.

The Wi-Fi network and its connected technologies also will let Westfield and Century City offer more information and opportunities to the retailers leasing space there, as well as other brands and companies who might want to advertise in one form or another to reach the demographic that physically shows up at the mall.

“Our primary customer used to be the retailers,” said Taylor of the role of mall-based IT. “Now we reach consumers, retailers here as well as other brands who are looking to connect. It’s a huge shift in thinking.”

Artist rendering of the event space being built at Century City.

Another artist rendering of what the completed renovation will look like.

Red and green lights will alert drivers to taken or open parking spots. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

A digital-display kiosk next to a concierge stand at the mall. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

T-Mobile Arena lights up on Vegas Strip

Inside the main doors to T-Mobile Arena.

Inside the main doors to T-Mobile Arena.

Though we haven’t yet been to a live event at T-Mobile Arena, a summertime visit to the new venue revealed a sparkling 20,000-seat arena with a well-planned Wi-Fi network that seems ready to handle the expected crowds that will soon repeatedly fill the venue.

Thanks to a personal technology tour hosted by Cox Business, the entity behind the Wi-Fi network at T-Mobile Arena, we saw many of the 520-plus Cisco Wi-Fi APs, including many that were housed in custom enclosures that the Cox team designed specifically for T-Mobile Arena. Both aesthetics and functionality came into play for the innovative enclosure designs, some of which can be tilted for more exact event-by-event tuning. The arena, a $375 million joint project between AEG and MGM Resorts, opened on April 6, 2016.

Getting ready for the Golden Knights

Editor’s note: This profile is part of our latest STADIUM TECHNOLOGY REPORT, which includes more stadium profiles as well as looks at Wi-Fi at the Mall of America, and analytics software being used by the Cleveland Browns. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY of the report today!

With two 10-gbps pipes providing backhaul, the arena’s network should be able to easily handle the traffic generated by its upcoming list of events, which will be heavy on concerts until the NHL expansion franchise (recently announced as the Vegas Golden Knights) arrives. There is also a cellular DAS inside the venue, built with equipment from JMA Wireless.

Wi-Fi AP enclosures can be tilted to optimize coverage.

Wi-Fi AP enclosures can be tilted to optimize coverage.

Construction details that we saw that you may not have heard about include the fact that a large percentage of the bowl seats are on moveable tracks, allowing for maximum flexibility in configuration. To compensate for the lack of fixed infrastructure the Cox team used the hanging scoreboard as a prime placement area for Wi-Fi APs, helping solve the traditional bottom-of-the-bowl coverage issues.

Another place where T-Mobile Arena has turned stadium design on its head is with its two “sky lounges” and another exclusive-seating club area at the very top of the building, changing the old “nosebleed seats” section into ultra-lounge type areas that should prove popular for both sporting and entertainment events. The sky lounges in particular are striking, twin triangular decks that jut out over the lower-bowl seats.

From a technology perspective there is also a section of premium seats with tabletop-mounted small TV screens, as well as extra wireless coverage for the press box section. MSR is looking forward to attending a live event at T-Mobile Arena soon, to fully test the impressive looking network installed there. Enjoy the following photo essay: Credit all photos, Paul Kapustka, MSR.

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Panoramic view of the arena seating bowl.

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One of the distinctive “sky lounges” that juts out over the lower seats.

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Close-up of an AP enclosure with the “skyline” art in the background.

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A Wi-Fi antenna points down from the rafters.

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Wi-Fi APs (and speakers) visible on the bottom of the main center scoreboard.

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A Wi-Fi AP enclosure for outdoor lounge area.

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Inside that same AP enclosure.

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One of the under-seat AP enclosures.

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See you soon!

T-Mobile Arena opens in Las Vegas, with 565 Wi-FI APs

T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, on the official April 6 opening. All photos: Cox Business (click on any photo for a larger image)

T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, on the official April 6 opening. All photos: Cox Business (click on any photo for a larger image)

If they build it, will professional hockey or basketball teams come? The first part of that question has already been answered, with the official opening of T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on April 6, just in time for a kickoff concert from the Killers. With 565 Cisco Wi-Fi access points, the arena is well-enabled for wireless access; the big question is, will an NHL or NBA team soon call the place home?

With no deal announced for either league it’s an open-ended question. For now, the 20,000-seat venue, located just west of the strip near the New York New York hotel/casino (right next to the freeway) will have to be satisfied hosting all kinds of events from concerts to one-off sports events like the Harlem Globetrotters (April 19) and a WWE event in June. Fans at any event will be able to use free Wi-Fi provided by Cox Business, which is the “exclusive Technology Integration/Telecommunications Services Provider,” according to a press release from the official opening ceremonies.

While we haven’t visited the arena yet — we are looking forward to a hosted tour during this summer’s SEAT Conference in July — the $375 million multi-purpose venue, owned by a joint venture between AEG and MGM Resorts International, looks pretty cool with its overhanging lounges and outdoor plaza with real, live trees, a rarity on the strip. Inside, the tech underpinnings sound state of the art, beginning with a 10-Gigabit fiber optic network that serves as the arena’s backbone.

Special shrouds for the Wi-Fi APs

Custom shroud for Wi-Fi APs at T-Mobile Arena

Custom shroud for Wi-Fi APs at T-Mobile Arena

According to figures provided to us by Cox Business folks, the 565 Wi-FI APs include a mix of indoor and outdoor models from Cisco, some designed for office-type settings and some designed to withstand outdoor temperatures and weather. According to Cox its on-site engineers also designed a “vanity cover” type of shroud, which is more aesthetically pleasing to the eye while also helping keep the AP safe from “disruptions,” like possibly being bumped or some other physical intrusion.

The arena will also use Cisco’s StadiumVision system to provide synchronized content feeds to the 767 4K-capable digital displays throughout the venue. Thanks to the Cox sponsorship, that content could include “all 60 channels of high-definition news, sports and entertainment content from the Cox cable channel lineup as well as live in-house feeds from the arena,” according to Cox.

We have also heard reports, but have not confirmed with the company, that Mobilitie will be providing the in-venue DAS. Mobilitie’s involvement is not a big surprise, given that the company partnered with MGM in the past to bring Wi-Fi to the resort company’s casinos. Back when the T-Mobile naming sponsorship was announced, there were reports of special discounts and VIP access for T-Mobile customers, but so far none of that information was easily discovered on the arena’s website. Stay tuned for more updates as we get them on the DAS/cellular side of things; anyone who visits the arena soon should take a speedtest and post the results here in the comments.

Jeff Breaux, vice president of western operations, Cox Business, (left) and Derrick R. Hill, vice president, Cox Business/Hospitality Network, gesture toward the exterior digital signage at T-Mobile Arena.

Jeff Breaux, vice president of western operations, Cox Business, (left) and Derrick R. Hill, vice president, Cox Business/Hospitality Network, gesture toward the exterior digital signage at T-Mobile Arena.

Stadium Tech Report: Partners the key to fast Wi-Fi deployment at Staples Center

Staples centerDuring the 2012 NHL playoffs, no other team could stop the Los Angeles Kings. But as the Kings’ fans were celebrating their team’s run to the Stanley Cup, their cheers from Staples Center stayed inside the walls. Without a Wi-Fi network or good cellular connectivity in the venue, fans there were shut off from sharing their joy with the outside world — a frustration they let team officials know about, in no uncertain terms.

“Not having Wi-Fi was really impacting the fan experience, especially during that championship run,” said Denise Taylor, chief information officer for arena owner AEG. “Our fans went through a lot of pain. And we heard them.”

Fast-forward to the 2013 playoffs, and while the LA Kings weren’t as successful on the ice, at least the fans were able to stay fully connected while at the games thanks to a new HD Wi-Fi network and a neutral DAS deployment at Staples Center. With some impressive help from infrastructure partners Cisco and Verizon, AEG was able to get Wi-Fi and a full DAS deployment installed in both Staples and the adjoining LA Live center in just two and a half months, despite nearly constant activity in the venue that never sleeps.

With its network now in place, AEG and Staples are keeping all the Los Angeles teams’ fans connected while busily looking for more opportunities to not only further enrich the fan experience, but to also add to the teams’ and facilities’ bottom lines. And AEG is already learning lessons about how to better deploy Wi-Fi at its arenas and venues worldwide, including the knowledge that fan network use is showing no signs of slowing down.

Building a network in a building that never sleeps

According to Taylor, deciding that Staples Center needed a Wi-Fi network was the easy part “It was a must-have,” she said. “We knew had to get it in immediately.”

The LA Kings celebrating the 2012 Stanley Cup win at Staples Center

The LA Kings celebrating the 2012 Stanley Cup win at Staples Center

The hard part? Building that network into a building that hosts not one but two NBA teams, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers, as well as the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, plus is host to numerous concerts special events and the Grammy Awards. When the business plan was put in place in late 2012 to deploy the networks, Taylor said there were only four “dark” nights during the two and a half months of construction.

“That’s when it pays to have really great partners,” she said. Though there was heavy lifting necessary to retrofit the 20,000-seat venue, including opening up walls to install conduit and access points, Taylor said AEG’s partners worked around the busy Staples event schedule, with most work taking place between the hours of 2 a.m. and 2 p.m. When the dust settled, Cisco had installed a total of 463 APs in both Staples Center and L.A. Live, meaning that fans could stay connected inside the stadium and outside at the adjoining cluster of stores, restaurants, movie theaters and other facilities.

Almost instantly, fans were talking about events, sharing pictures and messages on social media networks. “It was a great feeling to see people talking about the games,” Taylor said. “Our partners really delivered.”

Future Advice: Don’t make any small network plans

LA Kings fans, who previously couldn’t even use the team’s app while at Staples, are now the biggest network users. According to Taylor, an average of 3,000 fans are connected to Wi-Fi during LA Kings games at Staples Center, just ahead of the facility’s average NBA game network user number of 2,410. Even at this early stage of the game, Taylor is seeing that her team’s predictions for network usage might have been low.

“We had originally designed [the network] for use by 25 to 30 percent of a capacity crowd,” Taylor said. But during a recent concert run of four sold-out shows by the band One Direction, Taylor said 35 percent of attendees were using the network during those shows.

“Use of mobile phones in venues is just going to grow and grow,” she predicted. “We’re seeing more and more penetration every day.”

And while pure connectivity is great, Taylor and AEG are now moving forward to enhance the fan experience in multiple ways, including implementation of mobile ticketing apps and apps for ordering food and concessions from your phone.

“We’re in the early stages, but all of that — concessions, ticketing, team apps — is in the works,” Taylor said. “Having a real HD Wi-Fi network creates so many business opportunities, for teams, venues and owner groups. There’s the whole area of captive analytics, which has tremendous potential upside. It’s just a question of how you monetize this big digital asset you have in your hands.”

More lessons: Don’t skimp on 2.4 GHz, and pick good partners

When it comes to Wi-Fi technology, the future is devices that work in the 5 GHz unlicensed spectrum band, which has tons of available bandwidth. Many newer devices, like Apple’s iPhone 5 series, include radios for connecting to 5 GHz Wi-Fi. But Taylor said venue owners and operators need to make sure they don’t skimp on building in support for the 2.4 GHz band, where a large legacy of devices still operate.

“Designers may prefer the 5 GHz range but if you only support that band the truth is you would eliminate a good portion of consumers,” Taylor said. “There are also back of house management applications that still require 2.4 GHz support. So you still have to build for the lowest common denominator of devices to make sure you are engaging every fan who comes in, even those with older phones.”

And since most networks built now are going to be put into arenas that already exist — meaning retrofits — there will probably be a Staples Center-like challenge of doing deployment work around events. That means, Taylor said, that owners and operators need to find partners who are “willing to work hours that aren’t always 8 to 5.”

As AEG develops overall plans for site operations at its numerous international locations, Taylor said that wireless networks are no longer seen as a luxury.

“The two most important things are having HD Wi-Fi and a robust DAS,” she said. “You give the fan what they want, and take advantage of all the opportunities to monetize the network. It’s just not an option anymore.”

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