Fans are returning. And the iconic Wembley Stadium has a new front door (and letterbox) to welcome them. TheStadiumBusiness connected with Stadium Director Liam Boylan to talk pixels and pavements.
Gone are the brutalist concrete pedestrian flyovers and in their place a new set of Olympic Steps – delivered by surrounding landowner and developer Quintain – rise from Olympic Way to the stadium’s main podium.
“I’ve seen so many different plans, designs and ideas with Quintain over the years but it’s better than anything we could have hoped for,” observes Boylan. “They really have put out their best product on this and I’m delighted. After all, this is our front door.”
Constructed in 1974, the pedway ramps were a legacy of the stadium’s previous transport arrangements which required the separation of foot traffic arriving from Wembley Park underground station over a coach park that no longer exists. The ramps also provided an unimpeded east-west vehicle route in front of the stadium. They were supremely functional but no longer compliant for wheelchair accessibility. The new arrangement creates a more visually-appealing entrance to the iconic venue, as well as releasing valuable land to Quintain.
Boylan adds: “Our transport management has evolved over the years. It used to be three hours to get away from Wembley. Tom Legg, Head of External Operations and his team has now got that down to 60 minutes. But we don’t need that east-west traverse now and this has allowed Quintain to get on with the stairs.”
To enhance accessibility, a new set of glass-framed lifts were also part of the Quintain scheme to provide access to the upper deck. An enlarged platform at the top of steps features embedded light wells running down to the VIP entrance below, providing an improved experience for Club Wembley guests.
The new steps (and adjacent light poles) are illuminated – providing an eye-catching arrival or departure ’moment’ for today’s selfie-generation.
“At night the backlit stairs come into their own,” says Boylan. “We’ve already seen the reaction from our first fans coming back. And we’ve even had our VIP guests requesting to exit via the GA stairs to experience the effect.”
The upgrade has been developed in partnership with the Football Association (Wembley Stadium’s owner) and Brent Council with the aim of further enhancing Wembley Way’s pedestrian experience with shops, cafes, and restaurants.
James Saunders, chief operating officer at Quintain, says: “We wanted to create an area around the national stadium that is full of life and a destination in its own right and the introduction of an iconic set of steps helps us realise this ambition.”
But, the most eye-catching elements of the new entrance are a replacement 460sq m LED façade on the outside of the venue’s Great Hall (dubbed LES, the large external screen) and two satellite 230sq m displays (of course known by Wembley’s ops team as “LES’ Ears”) above the revamped main entrance.
Replacing an earlier installation from 2014, the new screens are the most publicly-visible element of a recently renewed sponsorship agreement between consumer electronics group LG and The Football Association. LG have been a partner of both the England team and Wembley Stadium connected by EE (to give the venue its official name) since 2017. Its two-year extension also now adds England Women’s and England eLions rights.
In addition to the landmark external screens LG is currently replacing the venue’s 1,200 dated plasma screens with LED products. In addition to the new Wembley screens across the stadium, the firm will also showcase its premium LG SIGNATURE range of home entertainment and home appliance products to visitors in the premium Club Wembley areas inside the stadium.
The new stairs rise to a podium level where the “letterbox” – an opening punched through the original 1999 design – provides access to the stadium’s ticket desk, store and tours entrance.
“Above the letterbox we had an area of hard signage but this has been replaced a new LED panel across its full length,” explains Boylan.
While ‘LES and his ears’ do the big branding on event days, the letterbox sign provides effective crowd messaging and wayfinding. As such for big events the display content runs with the commercial team for the event promoter, hirer or commercial partners. The letterbox display content and messaging sits with Event Control on event days but the stadium’s commercial team have non-matchday usage.
GET THE MESSAGE
“For us this is brilliant. From a crowd management perspective sending messages down through the stewards is great but the minute you get a message on the digital screens people believe it. It comes from a position of authority and our visitors react to it far quicker,” enthuses Boylan.
He’s adamant that “the more digital you have, the better it is for more moving crowds. We have better control on the messaging. There’s no loss on the cascade down. People don’t break their stride they can read it from so far away. The flow is quicker, smoother with less pinch points. Fewer people are stopping to make a decision.”
On the back of just two test events with real crowds – most recently the 8,000 attending the Carabao Cup Final – there’s been a “massive difference in crowd operation” says Boylan. Such an improvement would be welcome any time but in the current COVID-safe era – with enhanced safety and hygiene protocols – any smoothing of crowd ingress and egress is especially important.
Wembley has also added magnetic arch metal detectors after the turnstiles (in response to new legislation and guidance on venue safety following the Manchester Arena bombing) on all entrances, which require further crowd management measures and take up valuable footprint within the stadium.
“The Mag Arches on turnstiles are a Post Covid addition because we can no longer carry out pat down searches,” explains Boylan. “We were planning to bring them in due to Martyn’s Law and our stance on counter-terrorism but the pandemic expedited that and the staff are still getting used to them. We will get slicker with this as we build up attendance.”
IT MATTERS MORE
The partnership with LG feeds into a wider narrative for the stadium going forward. The message is simply: It Matters More at Wembley. Boylan explains: “You can go to any venue and see a great show. We cannot rest on the iconic name of Wembley because, to be honest, we have a billion pound stadium just down the road from us and many others wanting to take our crown. We have to ensure that for everyone coming here that it will matter more to them.”
The new tagline is also central to discussions with partners. For example, with “EE and our other partners we’re looking at how to use the screens for fan engagement, perhaps taking ideas from esports.”
It’s forming a new approach to stadium sponsorship: “We want to stay number one so we are asking the partners: What can you do to help us achieve this? I need to push the bar and I need the experts in their areas to help us move forward.”
Take sustainability – one of the top three points in Wembley’s manifesto as a venue. Guided by the FA’s Sustainability Team (FAST) the venue’s sustainability strategy has already delivered some key wins. Just on the energy front, all of Wembley Stadium’s electricity comes from renewable sources and the switch to LED floodlights has cut the related electrical load by 40%.
“Clients are asking us what are we doing from sustainability. We need to show what we are doing, how we will make a difference,” shares Boylan. “It requires change but it becomes good business practice.”
Boylan says that there are clear benefits from replacing the existing 1,200 plasma TVs with new LED screens through the LG partnership: “We had to have a strategy to bring the stadium forward. Plasma isn’t great from a sustainability perspective. By switching everything to LED it helps us reach our goals but also gives us a better product.”
He says the partnership with LG has also helped to educate the venue team and himself as to the best way to operate the screens with sustainability in mind: “I don’t know their world but they come with options and concepts that we would not have thought of. For example, the best modes of operation to improve sustainability. LG have really engaged with us, especially on an operational level. Of course, as an operator it still has to work – people have to be able to read it at distance – and it’s a big balancing act between power consumption and usability.”
He adds that there is “more technology coming from LG, more wayfinding inside the stadium” and lots of other ideas.
Meanwhile, there’s the challenge of delivering the next government-sanctioned pilot event through the Events Research Programme.
Last week Wembley may have hosted just 8,000 fans in the second pilot but admits Boylan “there was far more planning required than a 90,000 sell-out event, with huge pressure on every one of the teams here.”
More fans will be there in a few weeks’ time – walking up the new steps, capturing memories below the big screens and being safely-guided via the digital messages on high.
“I am so, so proud to be part of this wonderful team we have here at Wembley,” concludes Boylan. “Bring on 21,000 for The Emirates FA Cup Final in a few weeks and we have another huge step to switching our sector back on.”