Interview: ASM Global’s Alex Merchán on pandemic challenges and changing fan habits

As the world’s leading venue management company, ASM Global was hit particularly hard by the pandemic as events around the world were cancelled to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The live events sector effectively ground to a halt for several months as restrictions prevented venues from hosting large crowds, while sporting events took on an eerie feel as they were played in front of empty stadiums.

Fast-forward two years, though, and venues around the world are once again hosting capacity crowds. COVID-19 is, however, still a major consideration for venue operators, with emerging variants keeping ASM Global on its toes.

“The ebbs and flows have been felt worldwide and we certainly have kept our finger on the pulse,” Alex Merchán (pictured), executive vice-president of marketing at ASM Global, tells TheStadiumBusiness.com.

“With venues on five continents, we are actively driving conversations on the state of live events in the US, UK and Australia, each opening and operating at its own pace and cadence based on local factors. Industry-wide staffing concerns presented another challenge, which we combatted through the first-ever ASM Global Job Fair and our company’s ability to leverage talent across the portfolio to support venues/events that might be in need.

“Communication and avoiding confusion amongst guests are critical and our efforts to communicate directly with customers have been essential to ensure guests were informed of requirements before the event. Keeping guests informed and maintaining clear messaging has been more important now than ever. The landscape has been complicated as we’ve come out of the pandemic and our teams have been prepared and resilient in their efforts to provide amazing guest experiences.”

Setting the stage

Back in June 2020, after around three months of no major events at its venues, ASM Global implemented plans to reopen its 300-plus facilities worldwide after successfully testing its VenueShield programme.

VenueShield was deployed in various stages worldwide in alignment with approvals from local government officials and healthcare experts at the time. Phases included new guidelines for environmental hygiene, workplace safety, technology and equipment, food safety and public awareness.

“VenueShield set the stage for the return of live events,” says Merchán. “We partnered with Drexel University School of Medicine and top experts to develop VenueShield. This addresses not just the highest of standards at the venue, but training and operational review for staffing.

“It also elevates the training/operations at each venue (across the system) and partnerships with Clorox and Honeywell have helped continue to elevate our efforts in working with industry leaders to continue to provide the best environments for fans, staff and talent/teams.”

ASM Global’s US-focused partnership with cleaning and disinfection products manufacturer Clorox is designed to enhance health and wellness at its venues. Clorox is providing disinfecting wipes, hand sanitiser and electrostatic sprayers for fans and guests.

The partnership with Honeywell is designed to enhance safety, cleanliness and operational standards at ASM Global’s venues. The two parties are working together on areas such as indoor air quality, safety and regulatory compliance.

Fans eager to return

The lingering threat of COVID-19 may have led to a reluctance from some eventgoers to return to packed stadiums and arenas. According to Merchán, though, the majority of fans were itching to get back to live events.

“One thing that our data and attendance at events confirms is that guests are excited to return to live events,” he says. “Nothing can replace the experience of seeing your favourite artist or team at your local venue.

“We’ve seen that level of response around the world. ASM Global’s footprint allows us to directly receive feedback and deep insights from guests across five continents and we have a strong understanding of that feedback, knowing that nuances and trends do vary by market and genre.

“The demographics of guests do show variations (rock show vs. adult contemporary) but for the most part, there is a strong desire to be back and enjoy in-person live events. By sharing not only local requirements well in advance but elevating our offering, we’ve experienced a positive return to live events.

“We also took the opportunity to elevate and further improve upon the offerings at events and our efforts have demonstrated strong response and positive feedback. Guests are looking for elevated experiences, broader menu options and unforgettable experiences, all elements we’re proud to be rolling out.”

ASM Global’s venues attract over 164 million guests annually, which the company manages using an integrated multi-channel marketing platform. The platform is used to curate messages and campaigns across its venue network to keep guests informed on the state of their event, upcoming events, and other products and offerings.

Creating new experiences

In December, ASM Global entered into a partnership with Utah-based tech business management firm Qualtrics to create new fan experiences at live events as venues adapt to a post-pandemic environment.

ASM Global is leveraging Qualtrics in the creation of a proprietary system to listen to fan feedback and work to create experiences that reflect the changing habits of spectators.

“Our strategic partnership with Qualtrics set up ASM Global Insights, the largest live event guest experience database providing rich metrics that informs the business,” says Merchán.

“Through these various touchpoints and data sources, we’re able to best understand what guests want from a live event, including additional features, add-ons and offerings. When compiled, this access and level of guest feedback informs our business to make the best business decisions across the portfolio.

“Insights is intended to provide a holistic view on the live experience and provide us with an advantage not available anywhere else in the industry. Guest feedback has validated many of the critical decisions made during the pandemic and has proven the guests do want to share their experience (yes, even the great experiences) and do so consistently.

“Guests are not shying away from live events; rather they’ve confirmed they want more options and flexibility. This feedback is allowing us to evolve our premium offerings, deliver elevated F&B options and personalise each guest’s own experience.”

Qualtrics is providing ASM Global and its partner clients and venues with industry insight into fan sentiments, needs and habits. The company’s Qualtrics XM platform is used to allow organisations to better understand what fans are thinking and feeling.

“Our partnership allows us to listen to our guests throughout the customer journey (pre-, during, post-event),” Merchán says. “Through a multi-channel approach, we’re able to capture rich guest insights through email, QR codes, quick response questions and surveys to formulate educated decisions about the venue offering.

“The partnership allows us to leverage guest feedback, appended by ticketing info, F&B and transactional information, and overall marketing engagement produces rich metrics and informs the business.”

ASM Global began its relationship with Qualtrics in the summer of 2021 and will conclude its systemwide roll-out of the platform later this year.

Image: ASM Global