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The realities of social distanced seating

Softjourn, a global technology services provider focused on working with ticketing services, provides a deeper explanation of three social distance algorithms, and 11 additional areas that need careful consideration.

Everyone is scrambling to determine how to safely bring back live events. It’s clear that social distancing is an important part of the answer. For the last several months, ticketing platforms have been inundated with requests from venues and event organisers to help them add social distancing to their venue mapping and seat picking tools.

Ticketing platforms and other companies have created algorithms that turn venue maps into adequately spaced seating charts, often referred to as checkerboard seating. However, social distancing in venue maps is not a cure-all; if it was, live events would be back by now.

Its impact on ticket inventory can hinder as much as help in organising live events in a post-pandemic world. There are also many other areas to consider in addition to capacity and sales.

How Venue Mapping Tools Can Include Social Distancing

While limiting seating is necessary as a safety precaution, it also has an impact on other areas.

As one example, the DLR Group published research that showed implementing social distancing guidelines in a minor league stadium limited capacity to between 17 and 20% of actual size. Because of this, event organisers and venues will need to investigate alternative means of revenue generation beyond ticket sales.

Incorporating social distancing involves both technology and a lot on the operations end. Ticketing platforms and venue mapping/seat picking vendors have already produced ways to generate venue map layouts with spaced out seating in various configurations.

Some services use algorithms that account for the rise between rows, using this to determine if one or two rows is necessary between patrons to maintain six feet of distance. A steeper rise can allow event organisers to place patrons one row apart, since additional physical distance is built into the existing row configuration. An algorithm that understands this can generate seating charts with more specificity for the venue.

Over the last few months, venue mapping tools (VMTs) have been modified to generate social distanced seating in several ways.

Capacity Percentage

A percent of capacity can be considered. Let’s say local regulation states capacity can’t be more than 25%, initially. Using this figure, the VMT generates a venue map that blocks seats along narrow aisles, first rows along aisles, and then groups available seating together in different configurations to get that venue to the planned 25% capacity. In this scenario, a patron choosing seats sees exactly what options are available.

This method benefits the venue because they can start to plan other event logistics earlier. They know what seats they can physically block if they are worried about patrons moving. The venue will also know what 25% capacity means in real terms.

There can be downsides to this methodology. A fully mapped out venue means that, for example, patrons from the same household attending an event in a pair who only want two seats might be required to purchase a group of seats. Social distancing guidelines would require venues to sell the seats in a group, and not only the two desired.

Patrons could either see this as a bonus since they can spend a little more to have extra distance around them, or it could discourage them from making a purchase, since they are asked to buy more than they initially wanted. This is especially true since patrons can expect to pay higher than usual prices for tickets due to limited supply. This can result in lost sales.

Best Fit

Another social distance method can take advantage of best-fit algorithms at the time of seat selection. Once a patron has chosen their seats, all the surrounding seats are blocked to create social distance.

Depending on the type of venue or layout, spacing may be one or two rows or seats around the seats purchased. Those seats become unavailable for the next patrons buying tickets, as the system is tracking all seats in carts and blocking in real time. If a purchase does not take place, all seats would become available again.

This method also has its pros and cons. Patrons see all possible seats available for purchase and only need to buy the tickets they want. The venue or event organiser shouldn’t lose out on possible sales due to patrons opting out of the additional expense of buying more than needed.

However, the downside is that event organisers won’t know their exact venue map until right before the event, which can make it harder to organise other aspects of running a social distanced event.

Historical Data

Yet another method involves the use of historical data when generating social distanced seating. Using data from previously held events that are similar but without social distancing, organisers can anticipate how many types of seating groups might be needed. This data is entered into the VMT and considered when the venue map is generated. For example, if 20 sets of four tickets were sold for a previously similar event, and now only 25% of the venue can be sold to have a safe social distanced event, then the new map should include a similar number of groupings.

The plus for organisers is that their map is based on historical data. They will be more likely to sell all tickets for their event and patrons won’t have to buy additional seats to get the two tickets they want.

Options for presenting venue maps and seat picking are continually evolving, especially since social distanced events will be here for a while. It pays to make venue mapping and seat picking as optimised as possible. However, this is only one part of running successful social distanced events. There are other considerations that are just as important, if not more so.

11 More Reopening Considerations

While checkerboard seating is a commendable solution, it’s not the only one, nor will it work for every situation. Many areas of event planning become difficult when social distancing, higher cleanliness standards, and careful monitoring must be applied.

The following 11 areas of the event planning process are considered from a general perspective, within social distancing terms. Organisers should consider them from both an employee and customer perspective to keep everyone safe. The answers to each will vary for every event, venue, and proposed audience.

Parking: For venues with garages or parking areas, will vehicles need to be parked in every other space to meet social distancing guidelines? At sporting events, tailgating can sometimes be as popular, if not more so, as the game itself. How do you approach social distancing in this scenario?

Security: It’s a common topic that event organisers will need more staff. Many of those staff may be volunteers. What level of risk do you assume for them? How should you direct them in handling unruly patrons? If cost for paid staff rises, how does that impact the event’s profitability? 

Entry: How will access control work, from both a patron and employee viewpoint? Timed entry has proven to be helpful for many venues, allowing for controlled entry during spaced intervals. Implementing timed entry will likely depend on the location and its staffing.

Some locations are taking temperatures or using thermal detection; how this is implemented will vary by venue, if considered necessary. As for ticket scanning, options being explored include mounting a scanning device on a podium and enabling contactless tickets that can be registered at a distance with NFC or RFID technology.

Bag/coat check: Is bag check or coat check a workable consideration? Is there a way to revamp it to account for distancing measures?

Payment: Contactless transactions are being adopted quickly. Accepting mobile phone transactions onsite or using physical kiosks are two options ticketing platforms and event organisers can offer patrons. However, in some locations, accepting cash is required by law. Considering how to safely accept a cash payment, whether for onsite ticket sales or another purchase, is important.

Merchandising: Processes adopted by retail stores could be used for events as well: a limited number of patrons inside a store, careful monitoring of patrons’ proximity, and contactless payments to avoid the need to exchange cash or credit cards.

Social distancing enforcement: How do you apply social distancing not just for venue entry, but also concessions, rest rooms, and other areas? Many retail stores have stickers or tape to show how far apart patrons should stand. This means fewer patrons would be able to queue. With limitations on capacity, this could even out.

Enforcing social distancing guidelines is another topic. Technology could play a role here in the form of colour-coding tickets. SimpleTix has developed such a system for drive-in theatres. QR codes make tickets easily scannable. Distinctive colouring ensures that they are also viewable from a distance. This allows ushers to direct drivers toward the correct showing area.

Another product that aims to help is Kinexon’s SafeZone tags, adopted by both the NFL and NBA. The tags have a proximity sensor and can be worn as a wristband or ID badge; the tags emit a red light when a person wearing the sensor comes within six feet of someone else. If they do not move apart within five seconds, the tag sets off an alarm. The tags also serve as a method of contact tracing.

Additional questions arise when using such a product: how would wristbands be passed out to patrons, can they be tailored for same-household groups, and how do you ensure patrons wear the device consistently?

Concessions: What concessions should be offered? Are alcoholic beverages limited more than usual, and how do you keep track of how many are had? Do you offer pick up or seat delivery of orders, and if so, how will such a system be implemented? Many we’ve spoken with are opting for in-seat ordering, with delivery of the order. This keeps patrons in their seats and allows event organisers some level of crowd control.

Seating levels: How do venues with different levels of seating account for social distancing? If, for example, balconies extend over orchestra seats, how do you assure the safety of those on the floor?

Cleanliness: How will cleanliness standards be realised and kept consistent? Venues may need to change their internal infrastructure to support more rigorous standards. This may also have an impact on the number of events that can be held at a location, as time slots would need to be further spaced out to allow for the deep cleaning needed between shows.

Exit: Much like timed entrances, timed exits may become necessary. A source we spoke with noted that just 25% capacity in a venue would likely take 1.5 hours for all patrons to exit in a safe, social-distanced manner. In the event of an emergency such as a fire, getting out of a building quickly may take precedence over social distancing.

Social Distancing is Part of a Larger Picture

Even though there are other channels for patrons to get a temporary live event fix, nothing will ever replace the real thing. As time passes, events will eventually resume. Successfully reopening venues and restarting events will take cooperation between industry professionals, venue and event folks, ticketing platforms, and other third parties.

While we don’t know exactly what the future is going to bring for events, we do know that they will go on. We also know that tech is going to play a part – social distancing algorithms is just one part!

Image: David Joyce / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Edited for size