BUCKS STOP HERE: At Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, officials are developing a more extensive mobile ordering system for concessions. (Don Muret / Staff)

When fans return to sports venues,  they’ll see more touchless options for ordering and buying Concessions

The global Pandemic of 2020 could finally be the tipping point for greater adoption of mobile payments in sports concessions as part of a new age in contactless food service at arenas and stadiums across North America.

As teams and their food providers push toward a cashless business model in general, the mobile payment piece is a critical part of their overall strategy to protect fans and staff in the post-COVID-19 environment, while expanding data in customer buying habits to generate higher revenue.

“There’s a huge focus on enabling mobile ordering and pushing fans to do that,” said Geoff Johnson, chief innovation officer with Bypass, a mobile point-of-sale supplier. “It could be the only way to do it at some venues to eliminate all points of friction.”

Bypass and competitors like Appetize and Square are front and center in the movement, working closely with clients to upgrade facilities. Appetize, for example, has a system that places QR codes in-venue for fans to scan and directly order food and drink while keeping a safe distance from crowded concession stands.

“The tech guys’ phones are ringing off the hook and maybe this is the event that drives mobile ordering,” said Mike Plutino, founder and CEO of consultancy Food Service Matters. “Some are more bullish about it than others, but clearly it’s driving the notion of getting more people not to wait in a concession line.”

Kevin Anderson, chief strategy officer for Appetize, whose investors include 32 Equity, the NFL’s investment arm, and Oak View Group, owner of VenuesNow, agrees with Plutino’s assessment. The shift to mobile payment is happening with sudden frequency at other food outlets.

TOUCHY, TOUCHY: Kiosks such as those at Dell Diamond in Round Rock, Texas, may disappear post-COVID-19. (Courtesy Round Rock Express)

“You’re seeing quick-serve restaurants completely changing overnight to an online and mobile ordering model,” Anderson said. “Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen our customers reach out like never before, saying, ‘What do we need to change our model?’ They don’t think people want to wait in congested lines and pass cash and credit cards back and forth.”

Venue managers now spend every waking moment preparing for a major shift in operations, said Milwaukee Bucks President Peter Feigin. Food service is a big part of it, considering it’s typically the second-biggest revenue source behind ticket sales.

The Bucks’ home court is Fiserv Forum, which opened in 2018. Fiserv, their naming-rights partner, and a leader in the financial technology space, recently acquired Bypass, the arena’s point-of-sale provider. The purchase was completed in March, and now they’re working together to build a robust system with emphasis on mobile transactions. Levy runs the arena’s food service.

“We see it headed to a place where it’s completely contactless and more mobile,” Feigin said. “We’re working through an infrastructure where we want to reduce the touch points, from raw food and beverage to delivery and how you do that. Part of that is in the payment system. We’re all exploring what works best.”

Mobile payment options have been in place at arenas and stadiums for about 15 years, but the use of smartphones to pay for food and drink hasn’t gained much traction. The technology stands at 2% to 5% of total transactions at arenas and stadiums, according to concessionaires.

“Mobile ordering has never taken off like it should have,” said Todd Merry, chief marketing officer of Delaware North Sportservice. “It’s an amazing idea and then people don’t use it. Every one of our point-of-sale in sports is enabled for mobile wallets. It’s changing customer behavior that’s the big challenge for us.”

That behavior may change now with greater urgency as part of a new era in the sports food business, experts said.

For the most part, mobile ordering involves downloading an application and navigating three to four steps to find the in-seat menu. Fans may not want to take the time to complete the process for an app they don’t want to keep on their phone, Anderson said. As the technology evolves, point-of-sale vendors have streamlined it with QR codes to make it a better and now safer experience for fans.

“It requires no app to download, and orders can be done in seconds for both pickup and delivery,” Anderson said.

Sportservice research shows that 80% of its patrons have smartphones, and COVID-19 could be the difference-maker for mobile payments, Merry said. As fans return to live events, there will be increased awareness to avoid touch-screen kiosks and self-serve soda fountains, both of which were trending before the coronavirus shut down the world. Some grab-and-go stands offer hot items, but that could change as soda companies Coca-Cola and Pepsi push to limit offerings to prepackaged products, Merry said.

Delaware North Sportservice uses Grab, another mobile ordering system using QR codes, at its airport locations, and plans to expand the technology in sports after venues reopen their doors, spokesman Glen White said. The concessionaire uses a mobile program using text messages at Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves, as well as Major League Baseball’s mobile application at other stadiums.

KNOW THE CODE: Appetize uses QR codes to streamline mobile orders. (Courtesy Appetize)

Appetize has three newer mobile features tied to QR codes in place at a few venues. The technology originated in business dining campuses before expanding to sports. The system should be part of mobile ordering at five MLB stadiums this season after Appetize won the business, including Dodger Stadium and Globe Life Field, the Texas Rangers’ new home.

The firm’s “virtual hawker,” for example, allows fans to scan a QR code on the seat in front of them. A menu pops up to order concessions filled near their seat location for pickup. The same ordering methods are part of QR code stickers for “virtual waiter” on tables in clubs and suites, and “virtual kiosk,” with codes on walls and posters next to concession stands. The virtual ordering features can be integrated into the teams’ mobile apps, Anderson said.

“If I’m sitting in front of a pizza stand in the venue, for example, I can scan a QR code that takes me directly to a mobile website powered by Appetize to order directly from that stand,” he said. “I don’t have to wait in line. We’re getting a lot of interest (from teams) as they revamp their model for more mobile-driven pickup or delivery in-venue.”

Anderson would not disclose the cost for teams to use Appetize at their venues. Apart from MLB, the vendor has point-of-sale systems in place at U.S. Bank Stadium, Madison Square Garden, Lambeau Field and MetLife Stadium, among others. Appetize recently picked up Moda Center and SAP Center as new clients, he said.

Bypass’ new owner, Fiserv, a payment processing firm, processes four out of every 10 credit card transactions in the U.S. and compiles extensive data on mobile trends, said Brandon Lloyd, Bypass’ founder and CEO. During the shutdown, a major spike has occurred in mobile payments in other businesses as consumers stay at home during the crisis, although Lloyd would not disclose specific figures.

Mastercard has seen a 40% increase in contactless payments, including mobile and tap-and-go tech, compared with a small percentage before the pandemic, according to CNBC.

“We’re seeing demonstrable pickup in mobile wallet use that outstrips any growth prior to the crisis,” Lloyd said.

For Bypass, the cost to install a mobile point-of-sale system runs between $600,000 and $1.2 million, depending on the size of the venue and the system. Some teams spend much less, $20,000 to $40,000, for a temporary fix to go contactless. During the shutdown, Bypass has been flexible with teams to spread those investments over a longer period of time, Lloyd said.

As it stands, there’s no consensus for which platform is the safest approach to mobile ordering technology as teams prepare to reopen their buildings in the coming months. In Bypass’ discussions with teams, the major theme remains contactless with a focus on mobile payment. The key question is fulfillment, which has always been an issue for concessionaires using those systems.

“One customer wants to do kiosks and mobile ordering for the entire venue,” Lloyd said. “In another case, they don’t want any kiosks in the building. They don’t want anybody touching a device. We had one client get into an argument (among) themselves. One person said they would put digital boards up to alert fans when their order is ready. The other person said they shouldn’t do that because it forces everyone to gather around that screen. We’re enabling both methods. Some want to text the guest, which we particularly like (and which was part of Bypass when it launched in 2010), and we can make that happen. It puts people in a spot where they don’t have to congregate as much as they would have before the virus.”

The Bucks, through their deals with Fiserv and Bypass, are in a great position to drive a higher level of mobile adoption at the arena and the Deer District, their entertainment zone across the street in downtown Milwaukee. In the home of Miller Brewing Co., mobile should play a much bigger role apart from the “Beer Button,” which has produced “tens of thousands” of mobile orders since the arena opened two years ago, Feigin said.

“The Bypass purchase was fantastic for us,” he said. “Fiserv was kind of our master system, and now it seamlessly works together. It’s all the same people and they’re pouring a ton of capital into research and development and execution. The thing that everybody has to figure out is the delivery system. For us, it will be reengineering the way we do food and beverage.” 

Editor’s Note: This story has been revised since it was originally posted.

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