Wednesday 25 November 2020 3:52 pm

How to stage a limited capacity match in the Covid era, from socially distanced seating to ordering drinks

Sports clubs across England are preparing to host limited-capacity events when lockdown ends next week, but Harlequins are one step ahead.

The Premiership rugby club had 2,800 at their home, The Stoop, for a match against Bath in early September, as part of a nationwide pilot scheme.

Here, Adrian Wells, chief marketing officer at Harlequins, explains how they managed every aspect, from ticketing and social distancing through to mascots and food.

Letting fans know what to expect

“We’ve got extra sanitiser, one-way flows, registering, health checks, a pre-survey you do before you go into The Stoop — all of those things for our operational staff. 

“When you add supporters it’s an added layer of operational complexity due to the sheer number of people, and the need to educate them about how to move around the stadium. 

“We spent a lot of time building communication with supporters around what to expect and how their match day would be different.”

Fans’ code of conduct

“We made a new spectator code of conduct that everybody had to sign up to before they came. It had things like ‘wear a face mask throughout unless eating or drinking’, and ‘respect social distancing’. 

“The next thing is they had to fill out a health questionnaire of six questions.

“So for example, if you’ve been in contact with anyone with Covid or had symptoms in the last 14 days you cannot come into the stadium. They had to sign up to that.

“We had just under 2,800 fans in the end and the remarkable thing for me was this level of agreement and almost obedience.

“The way people worked to those rules was remarkable. The fans were super loud and respectful of each other and the new approach.”

Ticketing and bubbles

“Working with the local council, we agreed that tickets would only go to people we knew and could identify as Harlequins fans. So no away fans, because then you’d be driving people to travel around the country. 

“The second permutation was season ticket members [only]. We know all of their details and can contact them.

“And we would only allow one ticket per member, so you couldn’t bring anybody outside the known group of fans.

“You have to pre-register your list of friends and family on our ticketing system. At the time, your bubble could be up to six people.

“Your contact details have to be up there for track and trace. Then you apply in the ballot for tickets.” 

How does a ballot work?

“We opened the ballot for three or four days. We pre-announced it, saying it’s not first in who has the best chance.

“And then we drew the ballot at random and communicated to them all whether they were in or unsuccessful. 

“We put a small number of people on hold while we checked everyone who had got tickets could come.

“Although we had a waiting list, in the end we were able to get everyone into the stadium who wanted a ticket.” 

Getting to and from the match

“We encouraged people wherever possible to drive, so we had additional car parking spaces. Or to take a bike — again, we had additional spaces — or to walk. 

“So, where possible, not to use public transport and help support the local community and council not to have a major demand on all the services.

Harlequins fans were given a 15-minute window in which to arrive for their limited-capacity game against Bath
Harlequins fans were given a 15-minute window in which to arrive for their limited-capacity game against Bath

“When the match finishes, the way we manage people out of the stadium is again in a phased process.

“Stewards help guide people out in sections and they are taken to the exits and depart.” 

Entering the stadium

“We allocated everyone a time they could arrive at the stadium, a 15-minute window. 

“That helped us ensure there were no queues. We went to print-at-home tickets only, so that we could avoid having to touch things.”

Moving around the venue 

“When they entered the stadium — with a face mask on — they were required to sanitise their hands. 

“There are one-way flow markers on the ground and posters advising you to maintain social distancing. Then they’re asked to take their seat.”

Social distancing and seating

“Your seat is socially distanced from others. We mapped out the stadium so that walkways, exit routes and toilets are all socially distanced. We used a bit of artificial intelligence technology for that purpose. 

“The AI tool maps the stadium according to group size and places spectators, starting with all the sixes, down to the ones. So you’re always 1m-plus between the next group of people in all directions.”

Food and drink

“We effectively closed off almost all of the bars and the food and beverage outlets around the stadium, and we introduced SeatServe, which is an app to order a drink or food to be delivered to your seat. 

“Spend per head was pretty good, slightly ahead of what we have on a normal matchday. SeatServe, given it was the first time we’d used it, was successful. 

Harlequins applied artificial intelligence technology to allocate seating so that groups would be socially distanced
Harlequins applied artificial intelligence technology to allocate seating so that groups would be socially distanced

“Your overall revenue is down because of the sheer volume of people who are not there. But as a test of a concept it worked and it’s something we’ll continue as we return.”

Match day entertainment

“Things like mascots, entertainment — anything that can cause a cluster of people or a queue — unfortunately was cut and instead we upweighted the digital plan — what you’re seeing on big screens and music. 

“Of course, it’s not as good as a normal match day and we were pretty clear in setting people’s expectations.”

How quickly can all this be put in place?

“We were given nine days for the Bath match. I’m not going to lie, that was a challenge to do it that quickly. 

“We internally felt we needed about three weeks to deliver it perfectly, but having said that we have now run a pilot and we’d be very quick to turn around our next event with fans. 

“Anyone doing it for the first time will find it challenging to do it in less than 10 days, from our experience. 

“We’ve shared all of our learnings with other Premiership rugby clubs and other sports [horse racing and football]. Through collective learning I think things will get quicker for everybody.”