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One sector, in particular, that has felt the effects of the pandemic is sports and hospitality. Ready to fight back in 2021, Levy has adapted its business strategy, focusing on digital technology to provide its legendary food and drink experiences this year and beyond. 

2020 was the year that shook several sectors and forced businesses to stand still. Sporting events at arenas and leisure venues were put on hold last year as most of us stayed at home. Now, the sports and hospitality sector is opening up once again as we start to venture out and gain a bit of normality. The sector has changed its business strategies and is relying on digital technology to operate safely. 

One business that’s put digital first is Levy UK and Ireland. The sports and hospitality sector of Compass Group UK and Ireland is the market leader in the provision of legendary food and drinks experiences at some of the UK’s most significant sporting arena and leisure venues, including the likes of The O2 Arena, Twickenham Stadium, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and the All England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon. With strong client partnerships, Levy creates bespoke food concepts, service standards and pioneering design, and implements a guest-first approach at every venue. With a company-wide passion for food, Levy creates menus and food experiences that feature fantastic seasonal dishes, with a strong focus on British ingredients. 

Marketing Manager, Emily, caught up with Rak Kalidas, Commercial Director at Levy UK and Ireland since Oct 2018, to discuss the impact the pandemic has had on Levy and the rest of the sports and hospitality sector, and what changes they have made to adapt and cope with the changes in 2021. 

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E: Tell us about your role at Levy and a brief history of your career to date.

R: As the Commercial Director at Levy UK and Ireland, I oversee the strategic design and implementation of commercial projects across the Levy portfolio of stadiums, arenas, and conference and exhibition events venues. I work with our teams to design bespoke, industry leading business strategies for some of the UK’s most significant events and hospitality venues. As part of my role, I have strategic oversight of marketing and innovation channels, and support the mobilisation and operational delivery of projects at Levy venues. As well as my specific role for Levy, I am also Head of Diversity and Inclusion for the wider Compass UK & Ireland group. Overall, I have more than 20 years of experience across the broader food, beverage and hospitality industries.

E: How has 2020 impacted your overall operations with the reduction in events and the closure of many hospitality venues?

R: Two years ago, it was almost inconceivable that stadiums and venues would lie empty for the vast majority of 2020. While few industries, if any at all, have been able to navigate the coronavirus crisis unscathed, it’s no exaggeration to say that events hospitality has been one of the hardest hit sectors. Stadium and arena-based hospitality providers are part of a fairly limited cohort where their entire operational model has been all but impossible to deliver during the pandemic.

We know it remains a long road to returning to a life that’s similar to before the pandemic, and an even longer one to fully recovering – especially as we have seen how quickly official guidance can change. However, we have seen the positive indicators that the recovery will be eminently possible. We worked hard throughout 2020 to conduct a series of test events at venues including Edgbaston, The Twickenham Stoop and the Oval – the latter of which involved over 2,000 cricket fans – which were all met with an overwhelmingly positive response. We were also busy in the run-up to Christmas preparing for the gradual return of fans to venues that were announced in November. We used the insights gained from test events around the customer journey, health and safety, interactions in venue spaces, managing guest expectations and more to guide our preparations for the return of fans to venues as restrictions lifted.

Seeing fans return to Twickenham, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Stamford Bridge and elsewhere allowed us to demonstrate that it is possible to deliver safe and enjoyable experiences in stadiums despite the pandemic. It’s been fantastic to see the return of fans to sport again, and we can’t wait to see this more as we move further into 2021.

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E: How has the hospitality industry changed this year and have you seen any success stories of businesses using digital technology to adapt their strategy to cope with the changes?

R: A technological shift was already well underway in many stadium and arena venues pre-pandemic. Levy and its partners have been pioneering the use of pre-ordering systems, dynamic queuing, cashless payment solutions and other technologies for several years. For example, the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium became the first fully cashless venue in the Premier League when it opened.

These kinds of innovative technologies, which have always helped to improve the speed and quality of customer service in venues, have been repurposed to allow for the safe return of fans to venues across the country. By analysing every step of the customer journey, we have looked to implement technology solutions where they will be most effective and enable guests to move more seamlessly through venue spaces, avoid congestion in normally busy areas and enable a greater level of hygiene, health and safety. We have seen a rise in the use of personal devices in stadiums for activities like pre-order and payment. Operators should be mindful of this and may look to introduce or upgrade fan apps to create a much more digitised stadium experience.

E: What business plans have you had to put in place that you hadn’t even considered a year ago?

R: While there will be, understandably, some changes to the experiences that we expect to deliver in a post-COVID world, it’s often been a case of building on existing plans and trends rather than implementing wholesale changes. We’ve always observed strict hygiene standards and cleaning protocols in our venues for example, and many of our venues are already partially or fully cashless.

Naturally, the entire industry is currently looking towards recovery, identifying what this may look like and how it will manifest itself in real terms. Before the pandemic, our industry had made great strides in implementing greater sustainable and ethical practices into our business models, and Levy has been at the forefront of this shift. In our continued response to the impact of the pandemic, we’ve always been clear about seizing the opportunity to continue driving these principles, rather than finding excuses to renege on them.

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E: How important is digital to Levy, how is it used to reach your audience, and has digital become more of a priority for Levy this year?

R: Digital has always been important to Levy for communicating with our audience, but more so than ever during the pandemic because of lockdown measures and the lack of in-person meetings or events. As a business, we’ve used the pandemic as an opportunity to reflect on our work and how we communicate and deliver our services. We’ve also tried to be forward-looking and forward-thinking throughout the crisis, using social media and blog posts to offer insights and thought leadership that is both optimistic and pragmatic about the situation our industry is facing.

Digital has also been vital for staying connected with colleagues, clients and our wider industry partners. Our digital channels offer reassurance that we, as a business, are not only thinking the same things and having the same conversations as our venue partners but that we’ve worked hard to develop practical solutions to address each aspect of the reopening. The monthly forums we’ve hosted with our venue partners have also given our clients the chance to engage with each other, share tips and offer advice on best practice around everything from health and safety to seat-mapping software, e-ticketing and more.

E: Have you seen more of a digital demand from your customers over the last few years, and how have you adapted your online presence to cope with it?

R: Before the pandemic, we certainly saw a rise in digital interaction between venues and their guests. This was happening inside stadiums and arenas because of the technological shift that had been occurring for some years. There are more app-based engagements around food and drink, for example, and greater use of digital ticketing solutions. Fans are also increasingly looking to engage digitally with clubs outside of the matchday experience, on social media and elsewhere.

E: Did you have to change your commercial approach in 2020 to remain agile and how did you do this?

R: We were unable to offer our services to guests inside stadium and arena venues throughout much of 2020 due to COVID-19. But outside of this, we largely took a ‘business as usual’ commercial approach. Clients understandably wanted to know what we could offer them once their doors could open once more, even if the specifics of in-venue experiences are different in the short term. Likewise, a digital-first approach to pitching for prospective clients doesn’t impact the longer view of what we’re looking to deliver to our partners over a five-year or ten-year period, which remains unchanged. We’re still just as committed to reducing food waste, using technology to enhance experiences, and designing plant-forward menus that are good for people and the planet, and delivering on these core values will always be at the heart of what we do.

E: As the Commercial Director at Levy, how does digital play a part in your role?

R: Being active on digital and social channels is a key part of my role, lockdown or otherwise. As the Commercial Director at Levy, I need to be visible to both current and prospective venue partners to increase potential touchpoints and ensure I’m consistently advocating for the great work that we do. Digital also offers a great opportunity to listen and learn – whether that’s engaging with a client or picking up insights and advice shared by others across the industry.

E: What does the digital future look like for Levy and its customers?

R: We’re going to see the digitisation of venues being accelerated throughout 2021 and beyond. That means more e-ticketing as a standard and increased use of guest data to create more impactful experiences that appeal to each individual.

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