Wristbands no more? Front Gate eyes phones as tickets for festivals

Austin Business Journal - July 22, 2014

by Chad Swiatecki, Staff Writer

Front Gate Tickets is a sort of quiet disruptor in the American music festival landscape. With more than 60 festival clients, and designs on doing deals with many more, the Austin-based company that is partially owned by C3 Presents has built itself into a major power in the U.S. concert landscape over the last 12 years.

Its next big move comes next month when RFID radio chip technology it has implemented into festival wristbands for the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago will allow patrons to make concession and merchandise purchases by swiping their wristband instead of using cash or a credit card. If that test run goes well, many expect the technology to come into play at C3’s Austin City Limits Festival in October.

But the company isn’t done tinkering with wristbands and the festival experience, and is planning on doing away with general wristbands altogether soon in favor of smartphone-based apps to process admissions. That was one of many glimpses into the future of ticketing I got with my recent interview with Maura Gibson, Front Gate’s president and former director of ticketing for C3.

How did RFID technology come about and how long has it taken to implement?

With all fests you’re getting beat with counterfeits. It started with a paper receipt but for a three-day festival you’ve got this gross paper ticket by the end and that’s unfeasible. So it went to wristbands, but without RFID technology those are easily counterfeitable. The next step was how to put that chip in and scan it wherever you need to go somewhere. Our first time using it was with artist wristbands at 2009 ACL.

What are the next great innovations in ticketing?

There’s several dynamics. To enhance the experience is where we want to go, so if people say they want to know about offers you have at the festival using beacon technology. We know everything is going mobile via new apps and push notifications.

What is your view on the venue landscape? What do you see happening in Austin?

I always think that mid-tier venue, the 6,000 seater, is missing in every major market. That’s where the sweet spot is since there aren’t many acts coming out now that are arena bands. So that range of 6,000 to 8,000 people is missing in a lot of places. I know there’s Cedar Park Center but that’s a drive. There’s plenty of clubs and stages in Austin and I don’t know if Austin can support much more at the club level.

Does Front Gate have any ambitions of partnering with the University of Texas and Frank Erwin Center?

We’re really focused on the general admission space and we don’t have the tech to pick your seat, and I don’t want to offer something to a client that we don’t do really well.

Is that on the to-do list?

It’s in our (development) queue but keeps getting pushed down. At the top right now is getting reserved seats in our system. We’re doing lots of back end work and deprecation of old technologies, since most of that hadn’t been rewritten in 12 years. We had a rollout of our new front end a year ago. Even two years ago it looked like our website was built in 1996.

What’s one other big thing on your to-do list?

It’s mobile. There’s two schools of thought with regard to festivals, either ‘We love wristbands,’ or ‘Get rid of them altogether.’ Our goal is to make the phone the ticket. Not by scanning the bar code but that phone doing something when it gets near a gate. That’s a year and a half away and we’re on a tight deadline with that from a client. You’ll always need a wristband for something like VIP because you need a visual but the iBeacon technology has so many things coming with that that there’s so many things that are possible. We’re finally getting to a point where we can focus on all of those possibilities and Q4 of this year is when I say ‘Let’s start being insanely innovative.’

Will that involved much new hiring?

We already brought on an all new additional tech team in the last year. We knew to be the best in the festival space we needed to get more done. I’m not afraid to hire people.

Are you trying to grow aggressively?

We are being strategic. We’re absolutely going after the festivals we don’t have. And trying to get into each market and find the promoter who’s the tastemaker and help us grow the business in that city. There’s so many college towns with venues where I wonder why we aren’t ticketing those.