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On the frontline | Venue Inc’s Matt Lynch on bringing US-style ‘proactive stewarding’ to the UK

  • Matt Lynch founded Venue Inc after spells as head of guest experience at the Atlanta Braves and Wembley Stadium
  • Aims to bring US-style stewarding and frontline staff engagement to UK stadiums
  • New stadiums, such as Tottenham Hotspur’s, are helping to change the game

To UK and European audiences, the American preoccupation with “fan experience” can be puzzling. On the eastern side of the Atlantic, the only thing that matters to fans about what happens inside the stadium is the action on the pitch, with the hours that surround the main event expected to be tolerated, not enjoyed.

Matt Lynch, founder and executive director of guest experience consultancy Venue Inc, is committed to changing that, and is part of a rising tide that is affecting how clubs and fans alike are viewing the match day experience.

“In the US, I worked for several years as a director of guest services,” says Lynch, who served in that capacity for Major League Baseball side the Atlanta Braves for over half a decade. “You would find this role at every stadium in the US, every team will have one. There’s a real focus on the frontline staff members, a real focus on their engagement with the fans”, something which tends to be conspicuously absent in UK venues, where stewards are generally understood as being there for crowd control purposes.

England’s Football Association was among the first major rights-holders in Europe to recognise the growing need for this role, and appointed Lynch as its head of guest services in 2014. Off the back of that stint, he started Venue Inc to work with clubs, rights-holders and stadium operators, advising them on how they can improve their match day experiences for fans by ensuring their frontline employees – the stewards, ushers, and service staff inside the stadium – are fully engaged, and proactive in helping guests.

Staff-focussed as well as fan-focussed

Lynch’s initial focus when he goes into a new venue, he says, is on “a staff member’s journey”, with his first question being “how does it feel to be a staff member here?”

A major part of the problem, Lynch explains, is that where frontline staff in the US tend to be employed directly by the stadium or the team, their UK equivalents are from third-party agencies and may never work at the same venue twice – never gaining a feeling for the venue or the events they’re working on.

“If I’m honest, I haven’t found a stadium outside of the NFL [that is] willing to put in the time and resources to engage directly with the staff members,” he says. “I find that I’ll go to a stadium once, then I’ll go again and there’ll be a completely different workforce. I won’t see the same person twice. That’s a real disadvantage because there’s never a staff member gaining any knowledge. Even if you don’t provide them with the knowledge from the start, staff members will gain knowledge about where things are and how you get there or whatever it is.”

The US model means even staff members who don’t receive training will gain knowledge of their environment over time, developing a connection with the stadium, the team and the fans.

“Typically [in the UK] there is no training programme, no engagement programme for staff,” he says. “There is this lack of focus on the staff member and I would say that in the UK that’s because there’s a real focus on safety, there’s an assumption that the frontline staff are only there in case of an emergency.

Safety is very important, but I find that it’s somewhat a veil of safety.

“Everything’s done because of safety reasons, but if you walked up to your steward and said, ‘where’s the nearest first aid’ or ‘where’s the nearest accessible toilet’, they wouldn’t know, they wouldn’t have any idea. I think there’s a lack of venue knowledge from staff members. When I walk into a venue I start talking to staff, asking, ‘what do you know about this place? What seating rows are up and what are down? Where’s the nearest great hot dog?’”

Year-round effort

During his time in the UK, Lynch says this has already begun to improve, with the arrival of the NFL International Series one of the biggest drivers of the trend. Lynch and Venue Inc have worked closely with the frontline staff at Wembley and Twickenham, where the London games have been held, to bring American-style stewarding to the stadiums.

The move is part of the NFL’s wider charm offensive, and Lynch believes it is particularly important for the London games, where guests may know little to nothing about the sport or the venue and are relying on frontline staff to guide them through their first American football experience. Though they are brief tenants in these stadiums, Lynch says NFL UK is engaged in a “year-round programme” to work with stadium staff, which is not just focussed on education but also on simply engaging frontline staff with the product.

“It could be that we’re going in to tell them about the games being announced and give out some caps and some footballs,” he says. “We’re typically engaging with the frontline leader, the supervisor-level steward, so it’s a year-round commitment.

“The staff need to know that they are representing the NFL on game days, they’re trying to be part of the experience in some way. You’re taking a staff member who’s typically told, ‘just stay over there and evacuate the building if we need to’.  You’re taking that staff member and saying, ‘hey, give kids high fives! Be a part of the experience, know what teams are playing, know what the whole day is about’.”

The NFL, Lynch says, is “focused on every single detail of the fan experience, and they know that the staff member plays a role in that experience. That’s an important aspect and that’s why the NFL spends so much time and resources on engaging with that staff member.”

Post-game surveys carried out by Venue Inc show that fans leave NFL games in the UK with a positive impression of frontline staff. Equally as important, says Lynch, staff have been asked to respond to surveys of their own, and it was found their satisfaction also improved when they were more engaged.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, venue staff were happier when they felt like their role “matters to the experience, and fan expects them to be a part of the experience and have knowledge to help them in whatever it is they’re trying to do.

“What we’ve seen since especially last year is that the fans are saying, ‘this is important and we feel it, we feel like that staff member is here to be a part of the experience’.

“If you spend all this money on a ticket, and you wait six to eight months for the event to come around, and you show up, you can expect the first staff member that you run up to give you a high five and say, ‘welcome! You’ve finally made it!’.

“I think that’s an important aspect, that the staff member isn’t downbeat, makes eye contact and has idea what’s going on. I think that does influence the fan and whether or not the experience is going to be memorable or as exciting as they thought it was going to be.”

Spurs changing the game

Venues across the UK and Europe are increasingly focused on creating a full match-day experience, rather than just providing fans a seat to watch the game, particularly new stadiums which are being built from the ground-up with the game-day experience in mind.

Lynch has been particularly impressed with Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur’s plans for their new stadium, which is set to include a taproom for an on-site brewery among other novelties. He has been working with the club “to get them to see the benefit of engaging directly with their frontline staff, so that when they open their new stadium and the season ticket-holder shows up, that that staff member knows where that new brewery is, they know where that new food court is.”

“I think we’ll really see it in action at Spurs, we’ll see a different offering where fans want to show up early because the food is really good and they have a beer that’s not a Carlsberg for £6,” says Lynch. “Years ago, I spoke to someone from Manchester United and they asked, ‘how can we get people to show up here earlier?’ And I said, ‘well maybe not provide a cold concourse, with some beer because you made a partnership agreement with someone in Asia, so your fan doesn’t even know what the beer is’.” Several clubs have now begun signing non-exclusive pouring rights agreements with their beer partners, allowing a greater range of products at concessions stands within their stadiums.

“It’s all the little things that you’re not getting right but you’ve got to change all those things and that’s hopefully something Spurs are really getting,” Lynch concludes. “They’re not just providing a cold concourse and really bad areas with white walls, there’s going to be a lot of stimulation that is also offering great food and beverages and great spaces, not just in hospitality but in general admittance. I think that’s going to change the game.”

This article features in SportBusiness International’s 2018 Fan XP report. Browse the sections of the report or download the full PDF document here.

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