Simon Smith

Following dialogue and consultation early in 1954 between the Italian, French, and Belgian soccer associations in the Swiss town of Basel, one of the world’s most prominent sporting associations was born: UEFA (Union of European Football Associations). Over the succeeding half century, UEFA went on to initiate some of the world’s highest profile sporting events, most notably its apogee annual Champions League competition pitting Europe’s most successful domestic soccer clubs against each other.

Staging a competition with some of the highest global TV viewing figures and annually rotating the final throughout major European cities, UEFA has at the same time been inadvertently broadcasting to a wide audience something else: That there is a notable disparity in venue quality across the continent. From Belgrade to Barcelona and Genoa to Glasgow, the physical quality and operation management of stadia can vary enormously.

Recognizing this disparity, the not for profit Association of Professional Venue Management (A-PVM), established early in 2015, has set about making its mission the exchange of knowledge and the development and delivery of content and expertise within the industry to help bridge such gaps in quality between countries and their respective venues. Presiding over this newly formed association is UK-based Simon Smith, a man whose career path of sporting venue experience and excellence has fully equipped him for the demanding new role.

“It all goes back to where I grew up, in Northumberland in England, which is where I really got the bug for organizing sports,” Smith said. “It was driven by my grandfather who was a season ticket holder and put sports in my blood, so it was no surprise that later I organized a soccer team with old school friends and later colleagues at work.”

The boyhood bug and early incursions into sports management would take Smith via facility management positions in London, Cambridge, and Dubai to eventually setting up an English premier league soccer team’s training ground operations, a task he quickly realized was quite a baptism of fire, but was one that would also prove to be a platform for greater things ahead.

“It was a real case of get in and get on with it—build a new training ground and run the old one, see what works and what doesn’t work,” Smith said. “The first year was about building the new training ground and the second about running the facility and mobilizing its operation, supporting the activities of the team, and introducing new services and ways of working that really did support what we were trying to achieve as a club.”

The scale of the task and the vigour of how it was approached, not to mention its rapid success and widespread repute, did not escape the attention of the Football Association (FA), English soccer’s national governing body, who had their own designs on Smith for their recently completed national stadium and one of soccer’s most iconic venues.

“At the end of 2012, I got the call asking if I would like to be a director at Wembley Stadium and I thought that this was an opportunity that couldn’t be turned down,” Smith said. “I wanted to come to Wembley to share the passion and the vision that they had and to develop, build, and motivate a team of people behind me. Once you get in there, you start to understand more about how a venue that has around 35 major events a year—major being 90,000 people—really has to operate. Each level is a 1 kilometer circuit, so on an event day you could walk 15 kilometers. I hadn’t appreciated the sheer size of events at Wembley, and I don’t think anything can properly prepare you for 90,000 people coming through the door.”

Bringing his experience and nous in progressive venue management to bear on tackling events of such a large scale at an elite venue, Smith went about securing the optimum operational systems as a conduit to more fluid outcomes.

“I went down the road of ISO accreditation, as I try to apply a structure and organizational system,” Smith said. “It gives you the processes, policies, and structure for your whole team and, in fact, the whole of the Wembley division and the FA adhered to it, so it had a wider effect not only on the stadium services, but also in top Wembley events management. It made the business a lot stronger, too, and Wembley became the most accredited stadium arguably anywhere in the world.”

Benchmarking the performance of Wembley was next on Smith’s list and after a honeymoon period of some months to kick-start accreditation he took advantage of a trip to the U.S. to review best practices and visit some of the country’s finest sporting icons. The trip would also plant the seed for the future formation of A-PVM.

“My desire to learn best practices and understand what the market was doing was almost immediate from joining Wembley, so I went on a tour of the U.S., to the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia to Disney Orlando consultancy HQ and to Jacksonville to meet the director of the Jaguars, then also to the Dallas Cowboys, arguably one of the most glamorous stadiums in the world,” Smith said. “We got to meet the venue managers and see some event preparation, so I got a good feel for what needed to be done at Wembley.

“One of the founders of A-PVM was organizing the tour, so I made that connection and got to know about his experiences and background,” he continued. “Back in the U.K., I took up membership of the European Stadium Safety Managers Association (ESSMA) and with the connection to the European Stadium Suppliers Group (ESSG) in place from the tour we started to get into the European venue and managers association world, which was something I really enjoyed and thought was undoubtedly a benefit to Wembley.”

The European dimension and new channels of dialogue crystallized in A-PVM being formally founded in January 2015 to bring its body of expertise not only to stadia but to a much wider palette of venues.

“ESSMA is very focused on pure stadia, but there is a whole plethora of other venues out there—from cricket grounds to race courses, concert halls to convention centres—that aren’t naturally attracted to them and therefore the gap in the market offered something that A-PVM could offer to these other venue managers,” Smith said. “We can provide them with networking, case studies and interesting elements of events, educational programs, and we’ve also shown new suppliers new ways of doing business. Those are the core principles of what we want to do at A-PVM and, as its president, I have a sense of responsibility to go out and do something interesting and to try to enhance the careers, performance, and abilities of individuals and the venues that they work for.”

Spearheading an elite approach to venue management in Europe, Smith is aware that many challenges lie ahead for A-PVM and that it will be important to impress on emerging venues the benefits of keeping abreast of industry trends. The lessons learned from the U.S. venue tour are also key to what he believes will be important for the future success of European venues.

“In the past few months, I’ve had a look at a lot of arenas and I have to say that most of them are polar opposites—either really good venues that are working really well or ones that I think really need some expertise,” Smith said. “There are venues that have got lots to do to try to understand best practices and implement them—whether it’s in the sales and marketing or operation for the utilization of the venue, it can always be done so much better.

“With this in mind, I think there are a few different things that will drive venue management of the future and where we currently lie behind the U.S.,” he continued. “Technology is one and how we can make the best use of mobile technology. Space utilization is another issue, and we’re not very good at that in Europe, so moving away from the old-fashioned and inefficient ways of thinking will be key. For example, some stadia are using some of the corporate boxes as bedrooms for hotels and others as third-party office space. At Wembley, we have the University College of Football and Business and a very healthy meetings business. So I really think utilizing the space and increasing commercial revenue is very important.

“Another thing in terms of priorities is knowledge acquisition for education and learning best practices,” Smith continued. “There are numerous opportunities through IAVM webinars and sharing of best practices, which I think is really important. One of my priorities is to provide the ability for people to learn best practices from the U.S. and to find out how other people are doing things. It’s up to people like me to promote, push, and facilitate learning and best practices as part of education, as well as to inspire people to take that step forward to embrace it and want to be better and more efficient at their jobs. It’s important that venue managers come forward who are passionate about themselves, their performance, their market, and how they do their job each day.”

Just as UEFA has had a huge impact on today’s sporting events, the goal of A-PVM is to have a similar effect on venue standards across Europe so that future Champions League extravaganzas will have a much closer marriage between the quality of the event and that of its host venue. For the road ahead, there will be much outreach and learning from international partners and organizations.

“IAVM has been a fantastic support in all this and as an organization they’ve been exceptionally supportive and behind us from day one,” Smith said.” I hope our relationship will go from strength to strength and build on its great foundations. We look forward to the years ahead.” FM