As the group announced its enlarged footprint in Asia Pacific with a new regional HQ in Singapore, TheStadiumBusiness caught up with ASM Global’s President Ron Bension to discuss the next strategic steps for the world’s largest venue operating and content creation business.
Bension is at home in LA. He’s relaxed, affable but apologetic over his internet connection (“it’s better in our venues”) and time is precious. So we get stuck into Asia without blinking:
“Off the back of one of the most important projects in the region – Kai Tak Sports Park in Hong Kong – we’re seeing a tremendous amount of opportunity in the market,” enthuses Bension.
Bension describes KTSP as the most significant venue investments in the region with “multiple venues, a huge footprint for which we are providing both consulting services, as well as operating and providing content”.
The Hong Kong project will undoubtedly provide a springboard for ASM Global’s further reach into mainland China. And the choice of Singapore as the new regional headquarters is partly because “there’s a lot more to the Asian market than China,” explains Bension. “There are huge opportunities already in Japan, Korea, Malaysia and the broader Asian market. Having a base camp in Singapore allows us greater movement but also sets the tone that it’s not just about China. We’re already working with our colleagues at AEG on non-China markets”.
Bension describes the group’s new Singapore executive team – Paul Sergeant and Ed Sanderson – as an “incredible operating duo” who have “years of experience in the regional market… with a pipeline of business already in hand”.
“We interviewed dozens of people and nobody came close to Ed’s experience, network and contacts in the region,” he says adding that along with Shenzhen World Exhibition and Convention Center – “the greenest and smartest venue in the world” – there are six future arenas confirmed to be managed by ASM Global in the region.
Describing Singapore as “a business development and operational hub” Bension exlains that “Paul will oversee the consulting team and has already been working with our team at KTSP. And Ed is out there to develop new business, meeting with municipalities and investors to show them how we can help them get their projects built.”
Reporting into ASM Global APAC Chairman and Chief Executive Harvey Lister AM, Bension says its new regional office shows “we’re investing in personnel and plans to ensure we’re at the forefront of a significant growth curve” for the region.
This is about a business with “global capability, global knowledge, global awareness” but, he adds, able to “deliver locally. So if there’s a project in Korea, we can provide that global knowledge and scale – this offers a huge upside.”
In a region that has more than its fair share of empty and under-utilised facilities, often built for one-off major events or national glory, will we see less ‘white elephants’ in the future?
“In some cases nothing is going to help an oversized venue built in the wrong location,” accepts Bension but adds that “a unique aspect of ASM Global is the ability to provide content. In many cases, we’re able to bring content that nobody else has access to – whether that’s booking talent, or touring talent through our relationships with Live Nation and AEG Live.”
Historically AEG’s footprint in Asia was driven out of Australia with long-term operating agreements for convention centrea, with a number of arena operations added over the years. Aside from these building types – with their focus on live music and conference content – does Bension see the same degree of opportunity for ASM Global in the stadium space, working with sports team and government agency ownership groups?
He pauses, then describes stadiums as a “low volume, high value business that you have to understand at the beginning of operating.” Bension argues that ASM Global’s stadium operations are “more occupied than any other stadiums in the world and that’s because we go in with our partners at the beginning to bring in the programming and special events perspective, perhaps considering other sports, as well as concerts and unusual content.”
Bension says that the “real value may – sometimes – be simply to explain” to the client “you’re not going to get 100 events a year in this building but let’s discuss what we can get and what that business looks like.”
Coming out of Covid
For Bension, Covid remains the biggest “operational challenge for our sector right now” – adding, by way of example, that “we’re sending teams in Hong Kong for the project and they are having to quarantine for two weeks in secure facilities.”
He adds: “We’re in pretty good shape in the US and Europe is not far behind. But some Asian markets will take longer.”
In terms of reopening, the business executive splits the operations in two markets: live entertainment (arenas and stadiums) and the other being conventions and exhibitions.
“Live entertainment calendars are full for 2022 and I believe 2023 will be even better.” And “the other piece is touring” where promoters need to join the dots on a concert route “but not all the dots are there right now”.
Where they can, Bension says “audiences are returning at pre-pandemic levels and enthusiasm. The laggard will obviously be the meetings and conventions sector where some of the planning is 18-30 months out. A lot of postponed events are still holding back because of local health and travel restrictions. There are some data points in the US where conventions are going well but others were attendance levels are down.”
It’s poignant to consider that the foundation of ASM Global – the merger of SMG and AEG facilities – is still relatively young. Eight months of negotiations took place before the deal was cemented in October 2019, bringing together more than 300 arenas, stadiums, convention centers and performing arts centers across five continents under the one umbrella: ASM Global.
However, AEG retained ownership of its real estate holdings outside of this venture, including its entertainment districts and owned venues in Los Angeles; London; Berlin and Hamburg, Germany, as well as its sports, music and sponsorship divisions.
In fact, Bension would argue that the merger is only really getting started: “Remember that this company was only formed 25 months ago – and for the past 20 months we’ve been dealing with the pandemic. But, we didn’t sit on our hands during this time.”
Reflecting in a whirlwind
“We closed 27 venue deals during a global pandemic,” enthuses Bension. “That’s a 10% growth in our business.”
ASM Global has taken the pandemic-enforced operating hiatus “to not only grow our business but also look at how we improve our business,” says Bension.
“We’ve developed technology partnerships with the leaders in their fields. For example, Honeywell in building controls and with Mobilitie for venue telecommunications and networking. We’ve added senior people in the sponsorship group who do an incredible job for our clients to combine fans and brands together. We created VenueShield, the industry-leading reopening safety protocol. We’ve signed up three new buildings in the Middle East.
Describing it as “a whirlwind 24 months” Bension says the time has “prepared us for coming out of Covid at full speed. All of our venues are prepared for when the markets open.”
Back of house intelligence
This enforced ‘downtime’ actually “gave us time to reflect on what our clients need,” says Bension. “Our business is to perform for our clients – the owners and developers of these buildings – and the fans and guests which they attract.”
Drawing on his background in theme parks (as Chair & CEO of Universal World Parks & Resorts in the nineties), Bension has been looking closely at the business intelligence needs behind the venues – and how that can be used to improve the guest experience.
The fan-facing tech is constantly evolving and being rolled out across the group’s portfolio, but it is “back of house” where big changes are coming
“People may call themselves facility managers but I would argue that’s the easiest part. The more difficult role – the one that we bring – is the added-value in content and presentation, in engagement, and now increasingly on the tech side.”
This may well be ASM Global’s ‘secret sauce’ but how do you – operationally – measure that?
Bension responds: “We’re developing a proprietary customer experience programme that will track the customer journey, the fan reaction through the entire journey – pre-, during and post-event. With this our clients can monitor how they are performing in a post-pandemic world where maybe tastes, peoples’ concerns and behaviours have changed”
Set for announcement next week, the programme is based on “a technology partnership – along the lines of those already signed with Mobilitie and Honeywell – “with the best-in-class customer experience tracking software. We’re really excited about this.”
In addition, Bension states that the group is “actively engaged in doubling down on our marketing tools across all of the channels – social, digital, email – creating best in class tools both at a local as well as at a national overlay” so we can really “help our partners sell tickets, communicate with fans.”
“Global deals with best in class providers” is a narrative which returns several times during our discussion, with Bension clear in his belief that it’s a better approach than an “in-house resource which will eventually get stale”.
Farewell caretakers. Hello Ringmasters
The goal is “real-time operations” where “providing these tools to our clients – like tracking the customer journey – is the next stage”.
So – in Bension’s view – what’s ASM Global’s emerging unique proposition:
“Our value proposition? As the largest provider of content and venue management in the world, we bring a global scale of business intelligence. And we bring that knowledge and tools down to a local, a unit level with the best talent in the market. We have people who wake up every morning thinking about how they can apply all these tools to improve the venue experience.”
In fact, he says, “one of the first things I did was to change the ‘boiler click’ on our signoffs. Everyone should expect us to be great operators. We’re no longer just caretakers. I don’t want us to be just in charge of bathrooms and beers.”
“We bring the best of both worlds together: ringmasters helping to fill the venue and deliver the experiences.”
Busy in the pandemic
ASM Global’s venue deals in past 24 months:
- RAC Arena, Perth, Australia
- Brisbane Entertainment Centre, Australia
- Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, Australia
- Cairns Convention Centre, Australia
- Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre, Australia
NEW ACCOUNTS AWARDED – EXISTING BUILDINGS:
- Tacoma Washington Theaters
- Pantages Theater
- Rialto Theater
- Theatre on the Square
- Cowtown Coliseum, Ft Worth Texas
- Dayton Convention Center, Dayton Ohio
- Nashville Superspeedway, Nashville, TN
- Södra Teatern, Stockholm Sweden
- Mosebacketerrassen – Stockholm, Sweden
- King Center for the Performing Arts at Eastern Florida State College – Melbourne, FL
NEW ACCOUNTS AWARDED – FUTURE BUILDS:
- Kai Tak Sports Park, Hong Kong – under construction
- Bangkok Arena, Thailand – opening 2023
- Em Live, Bangkok, Thailand – opening 2023
- Bahrain International Exhibition & Convention Center (opening 2022)
- Ithaca Convention Center, Ithaca, NY (opening 2024)
- Jeddah Arena –Saudi Arabia( opening Dec 2025)
- ICC Jeddah – Saudi Arabia (Convention Center opening December 2025)
- Becketwell Derby – Derby, UK(opening spring 2024)
- Cantừ Arena – Cantừ, Italy (opening 2023)
- Newcastle Gateshead – Gateshead Quays, UK (Arena & Convention Center) (opening 2023)
NEW VENUE OPENINGS:
- Coca-Cola Arena, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
- Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas,NV
- Coca-Cola Music Hall, San Juan Puerto Rico
- Capital One Hall, Tysons, VA
- Lynn Family Stadium, Louisville, KY
- Norton Health Sports & Learning Center, Louisville, KY
- Panama Convention Center, Panama City, Panama