QUEUES AND A’S: WaitTime technology uses overhead cameras to monitor concourse traffic flow. (Courtesy WaitTime)

Niners become latest to sign WaitTime to shorten lines

The San Francisco 49ers have signed a multiyear deal with WaitTime Technologies to help streamline the process for their new all-inclusive concessions model for 60,000 season-ticket holders at Levi’s Stadium.

In October, the 49ers announced they would fold the cost to buy general concession items into the price of season tickets for the 2020 season. They’re believed to be the first big league team to run an all-inclusive food program at such a massive scale.

WaitTime is designed to help resolve issues that could potentially arise from such a large-scale initiative. 

The Detroit company, founded by Zachary Klima in 2014, produces a multifaceted system using artificial intelligence to help teams reduce wait times for lines at concession stands and restrooms in real time through the use of digital wayfinding displays on the concourse. 

For building operators, a dashboard function in tablet form allows them to track fan movement and make adjustments to add staffing at concessions if necessary. WaitTime’s technology has another component that focuses on social distance across all levels of arenas and stadiums. 

The 49ers are WaitTime’s first NFL account. The tech vendor already has its system in place at AmericanAirlines Arena, KeyBank Center, T-Mobile Arena, Wimbledon and the Melbourne Cricket Grounds, among other venues.

At 6-year-old Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers plan a full rollout of the system over two years,  starting with multiple video monitors pointing season-ticket holders to the appropriate stands for hot dogs, soda, bottled water, peanuts and nachos, among the 15 items that are part of the Member Inclusive program. 

The system will be integrated into CiscoVision, the stadium’s IPTV provider, said Moon Javaid, the 49ers’ chief strategy officer. WaitTime will be activated whenever fans are allowed back for NFL games, team officials said.

Levy, the stadium’s concessionaire, is revamping its operation under the new business model, and as a result, some concession stands may be relocated to meet demand now that fans don’t have to reach into their pockets to pay for food and drink.

“You might not know where your favorite stand is now, necessarily, so it’s about how we can make sure that our fans can get around the stadium in the best way,” Javaid said. “A lot of things will be new this year, so it’s important to communicate with fans in that way.”

As part of the deal, 49ers will incorporate WaitTime technology into Executive Huddle, the data analytics hub situated within the stadium at the 50-yard line. The team runs that system with founding partner SAP. Inside that room, officials collect nine data streams in real time to resolve issues, for example, in the parking lots, entrance gates, concessions and restrooms. On the food side, the new data piece will assist with inventory control, a critical piece of the new program. 

“We built the Executive Huddle two years ago, and it’s a platform we continue to develop to keep improving things,” Javaid said. “The latest additions will be with WaitTime so we can analyze what’s going on with the Member Inclusive experience for fans.” 

In addition, as part of WaitTime’s artificial intelligence, 40 cameras will be placed overhead on the concourses to help the 49ers understand traffic flow and how fans migrate to concession stands. It’s the core of WaitTime’s system as the team tests setups inside the stands to see which leads to the best customer experience, Javaid said.

RIGHT THIS WAY: WaitTime will direct 49ers fans in Levi’s Stadium through displays on the venues CiscoVision network. (Courtesy San Francisco 49ers)

“It could be small things, such as moving a soda machine or a trash can over to minimize seconds in a transaction and how we queue people,” he said. “Ultimately, the stands aren’t generating revenue for us because it is all-inclusive, so it’s about maximizing that experience.” 

Javaid declined to disclose the 49ers’ investment in WaitTime. The 49ers researched similar systems in the retail space, including IntelliVision, before choosing WaitTime for its focus on sports venues, he said.

In general, teams pay $1,000 a camera plus a licensing fee, and those costs can be offset by selling sponsorship for the wayfinding monitors, Klima said. 

The Miami Heat sold that inventory for WaitTime’s video monitors at AmericanAirlines Arena, where the technology has been in place for three years, said Matthew Jafarian, the NBA team’s executive vice president of business strategy. Levy runs the arena’s food service. 

In Miami, the main concourse’s circular design makes it challenging for fans to see concession stands around corners. Video monitors, equipped with a stoplight-style format, direct fans to the shortest line, whether it’s Papa John’s pizza or Chicken Ciao, Jafarian said. 

The Heat integrated WaitTime into their mobile application, which has resulted in the most positive feedback from fans using the system.

Besides improving the fan experience, the system produces revenue in three ways, Jafarian said: It steers fans to concessions and bars typically out of their view, provides exposure for sponsors such as American Express and its membership rewards program, and drives postgame traffic to 601, the arena’s high-end restaurant. At the end of the third quarter, all WaitTime monitors switch to a full-screen ad pointing fans in the direction of the restaurant, which is first come, first served.

On the operations side, Levy personnel have access to a tablet programmed by WaitTime that operates as a security camera system for the concessionaire. At any given time, Levy can see what’s happening at concession stands during an event and decide whether adjustments need to be made with additional staffing, Jafarian said.

In Buffalo, the mobile application piece is what really drove the Sabres to use WaitTime, said Scott Miner, director of business solutions for Pegula Sports & Entertainment, parent company of the NHL team and operator of KeyBank Center. 

The 24-year-old arena doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a broad solution with dozens of video monitors as a wayfinding device. Instead, Pegula Sports installed a half-dozen screens while promoting WaitTime alerts within the team’s mobile app for fans to get a head start for buying refreshments before intermission of hockey games.

“Our arena has famously narrow concourses and it’s tough to get an idea of where things are to begin with,” Miner said. “The concourses are bare during the first and second period, and when the second horn sounds, you couldn’t get through there if your life depended on it.”

“It’s a way to educate fans and keep things moving as fluidly as possible,” he said.

Pegula Sports and Delaware North Sportservice, its food provider, saw a slight uptick in revenue, but most important was the decrease in wasted food as a result of greater fan awareness of concession stands such as Beef on Weck, a local favorite, situated in the upper deck.

“Buffalo is a hot-dog-eating, beer-drinking town, and there’s only so many units you can sell in 2 1/2 periods of a hockey game,” Miner said. “What we were able to do is reduce spoilage because we were catering more to what they wanted.”

Internationally, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, a 100,000-seat venue, is home to cricket and the Australian Football League, a rugby-style sport. The building, which opened in 1853, plays host to a few concerts a year, plus the occasional WWE event. All told, it holds 75 events annually, said Greg Wiggill, the Melbourne Cricket Club’s enterprise applications and business support manager. 

The cricket club runs the stadium. The average AFL crowd is 50,000 to 55,000 and the stadium is filled to capacity about five times a year, Wiggill said.

The stadium is a marquee venue in the Asia-Pacific region, and the cricket team is conscious of resolving long lines forming at concession stands and bars as tens of thousands of people all stand up at once during AFL’s short match breaks to get food and drink. It’s among the top complaints by fans attending events, Wiggill said.

Over the past four years, officials have slowly rolled out WaitTime features to reduce congestion. It helps that Melbourne has big concourses over four levels. The team started first with the operations dashboard before expanding to video monitors listing wait times near food stands. 

“It’s something great for the fans to give them instant feedback on expected waits, and even if it’s a longer wait, we can set their expectations early,” Wiggill said. “Part of the psychology is not knowing (how long to wait). The system puts people more at ease.”

WaitTime’s system has been received warmly by Australian sports fans, resulting in some creating a game revolving around whoever gets back to their seats first after buying beers, he said. 

“They’ve had a bit of fun with it, and it’s going to continue to grow,” Wiggill said. “We’re now looking to solve a problem outside the stadium with people waiting to get inside the building. We plan to test with WaitTime to put some high-quality cameras down there, which is another pain point.”

For WaitTime, it all plays into the social distance measures to which teams are paying greater attention during the COVID-19 crisis. Klima’s in-box is full of emails from teams inquiring about how the technology could be applied in that manner. WaitTime’s artificial intelligence can post “threshold alerts” to notify venue operators of potential violations in social distancing as part of identifying safe spacing across sports venues. WaitTime first tested that feature last year during the U.S. Open tennis tournament to help manage crowd flow at the 14 practice courts with general admission seating.

“It only took a global pandemic to really have people take our software seriously for what we’ve been marketing for years,” Klima said. “We already had the social distancing part of our algorithm built out. It’s another switch we turned on when it came to rewriting the rules of the new normal.”

Editor’s note: This story has been revised since it was first posted.