Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Theatre Raises the Curtain on Guest Wi-Fi

When England’s Birmingham Repertory Theatre – better known as the Birmingham Rep – planned to move back into its home in the centre of Birmingham after a two-year refurbishment, it knew that alongside its many other improvements it needed an up-to-date Wi-Fi network for staff, theatre-goers and thespians alike.

Its communications team knew that the public has come to expect free Wi-Fi in venues such as this, especially as the Rep shares its building with Birmingham’s central library. However, they also realised that if you plan it right, there is a lot of value to be had on the host’s side from providing guest Wi-Fi. In particular, it was a golden opportunity to learn more about their audience, as long as they could avoid the alienating errors made by other locations.

“We’re all experts in marketing and data collection, so we knew what we wanted,” explains Richard Leigh, the Birmingham Rep’s campaigns manager. “We knew we wanted Wi-Fi and that we wanted to use it for data collection, but none of us is particularly technical, which is why we had to find a company to help us get there.”

Into the breach stepped local IT partner Tek-nology Solutions, an Aruba reseller who understood exactly what the Rep needed, which was a Wi-Fi infrastructure that could be used both internally by theatre staff, and by suitably authenticated guests of various kinds.

Leigh says the most important things was that the solution adopted needed to be user-friendly, and able to collect data without being intrusive. He knew from experience elsewhere that asking too much would put people off, in which case they would not register and the theatre would get no information at all. So he and his team had to judge how little information they could request while still getting useful results.

“People grumble about the amount of information demanded by other venues,” he says, adding that the Rep team understood they could avoid that trap while still gathering actionable data.

The answer was Aruba ClearPass, with a registration and login page designed to collect just enough information without frightening people away. The decision was to request only a user’s name, email address and postcode.

“Offering Wi-Fi is a way to be helpful, but we can also get a rough idea where they’re coming to us from, hence the postcode,” Leigh explains. “We want to know if we are still attracting the same people as before our redevelopment. Do people still recognise us? We get a lot of people coming in to see how the place has changed.”

The Rep team did consider other possible solutions, such as developing mobile apps that could push notifications to users, but decided that data capture via ClearPass was a much more attractive route for several reasons. “If the Library of Birmingham wanted to create an app for the whole building, we’d be prepared to go in on it because it would be worth it for a chance to capture the additional foot traffic, but I don’t think the business case is strong enough for a Rep-specific app,” says Leigh.

The Aruba Networks system is really helpful – every month, ClearPass delivers me a load of potential new bookers. That’s fantastic!
Richard Leigh, Campaigns Manager, Birmingham Repertory Theatre

He adds that the app approach poses several problems. “The first is the high barrier to entry. The likelihood that customers will download an app and keep it on their phone is much lower than the likelihood that they will share their email address. Then it is upkeep – the ability to continue messaging those customers over time would be dependent upon both us and them continuing to use the app.

“Thirdly, we’ve made the switch to a responsive and designed website, so we would rather encourage mobile users to visit us via our primary sales platform. And lastly, we have relatively few zoneable areas. Phones are turned off in the auditoria, so the only places we could set up to have specific actions within the app are the foyer and restaurant.”

“On the other hand, email addresses and phone numbers are platform agnostic and can go directly into our customer database. Plus, if they’re using the Wi-Fi they’re probably tech-savvy, so email is probably the best way to reach them.”

As well as providing guest Wi-Fi and a staff network, ClearPass also makes it relatively simple for the Aruba installation to provide Wi-Fi for a vital third constituency, which is the many visiting theatre companies who come to use the Rep’s theatre and other facilities.

“It is quite a game-changer in the studios, rehearsal rooms, and so on,” Leigh explains. “Visiting companies bring laptops and expect this kind of thing nowadays, not least so they can communicate with their producers and creative teams in case of script updates and so on. They have a different network but share our infrastructure – no complaints have made about it through to me so I assume everyone has been happy!”

He adds that the best thing about the guest Wi-Fi is how well it works in terms of returning value to the Rep. “Every month, data appears on our shared drive in a file called ClearPass Signups. That’s all down to our IT partners, but it’s fantastic! We have to de-duplicate the list against the booking system [to eliminate existing customers], that’s a bit awkward, but then we can send a welcome message with an offer of an introductory discount.”

And his advice for anyone else planning a similar guest system is to think seriously about what extra value you could get from it, and then get the necessary systems and linkages in place ahead of time.

“It’s all about linking to your existing systems – the box office, in our case,” he says. “Ultimately, I want to convert our Wi-Fi users to bookers. I’d advise finding a way of making the link to the existing systems right from the start, because you’re going to need to get it in there eventually.”


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