Lessons on going cashless from stadium operators' warm-up

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A movement to eliminate cash for routine transactions has been building for years, with sports stadiums often seen as an ideal setting to test whether consumers are willing to ditch cash for a full day out.

High-capacity U.S. stadiums see this trend as a way to radically reduce spectators’ time spent waiting in line for refreshments, and cut the cost and risk of directly handling cash. In the process, facility operators have shared some lessons that may translate to other industries.

For one thing, it requires long-term planning and testing, according to those who designed the technology and processes for Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium (MBS) and Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field to go cashless this year.

For the internal team that developed MBS, streamlining food and merchandise purchases was a top priority for the venue that opened in 2017, where the NFL’s Falcons play. But the new stadium wasn’t immediately ready to go cashless, so operators launched using a simplified “whole-dollar” pricing model for refreshments, which account for the bulk of stadium purchases.

“Whole-dollar pricing for food and beverage was instituted to help with the speed of service for fans so the transaction times weren’t slowed by having to make loose-change exchanges,” said Jason Kirksey, an MBS spokesperson.

Last year MBS began a slow rollout of the cashless model, to gauge fan reaction and behavior and make adjustments, he said.

This month, MBS was ready to go fully cashless, instituting payment terminals with two promotions encouraging consumers to use cards or contactless payments. Customers paying with a SunTrust Bank payment card will get 5 percent back on purchases at the stadium through January of 2021, and Apple Pay users will receive varying instant rewards indefinitely, Kirksey said.

All shops and roaming food and merchandise vendors at MBS accept only cards or mobile payments, and prices now include exact cost and taxes, to the penny.

For spectators who arrive without a payment card, MBS has provided kiosks throughout the stadium that convert cash to a prepaid Visa card, so funds unused at the stadium can be spent elsewhere, Kirksey noted. Ready Credit Corp., with NCR, supports the cash kiosks.

With the cashless concept, the stadium—which already had the fastest service speed of any NFL venue in the U.S.—is now among the most efficient with more flexibility, he said.

Tropicana Field, where Major League Baseball’s Rays play, came at its cashless conversion from a different direction.

The venue’s catering firm, Chicago-based Levy Restaurants, devised the cashless strategy through E15 Group, a data-driven payments and technology firm it created in 2014 that’s increasingly critical to the company’s success.

“When we started talking to Tropicana Field, almost immediately we saw an opportunity to increase speed of service by transitioning the ballpark to cash-free,” said Jaime Faulkner, E15’s president, who launched Levy’s tech unit in 2014 after working for years at financial consulting firms including KPMG and Arthur Andersen.

At the first events held this year at Tropicana Field, transaction times for food and beverage purchases were cut in half, increasing convenience for fans and ballpark personnel, said Faulkner.

Tropicana Field accepts only cards at all vending locations in the ballpark, and for those who only brought cash, there are about a dozen kiosks available that convert cash to a closed-loop gift card available in $10 and $20 increments. The gift card is usable only within the park.

Digital payments are essential to driving the ballpark’s sophisticated systems for measuring product demand, she said.

Using analytics, E15 determines the ideal mix of merchandise and pricing at entertainment venues, with cashless payments part of the equation to create more flexibility and optimize pricing and profits, Faulkner said.

Though E15 has created cash-free operations at various different entertainment and sporting events, Tropicana is the first full sports venue it’s converted to card-only, she said.

“We are exploring further opportunities to develop cash-free environments at many venues, as our numerous pilots have shown tremendous adoption rates and overwhelmingly positive responses from our guests everywhere it has been introduced,” Faulkner said.

One concern that neither the MBS or Tropicana Field faced is rising opposition to cashless businesses in certain cities and states, where lawmakers in these jurisdictions claim businesses that eschew cash discriminate against consumers without payment cards.

Laws banning cashless businesses are in effect in Massachusetts and Philadelphia. New Jersey, New York, Washington, D.C., Connecticut, Rhode Island, California and Oregon, among others, are considering similar bills.

The cash-access provisions these stadiums provide for those without payment cards may exempt them from rules strictly banning cash.

But some observers are skeptical about whether banning cash at sporting events is without consequences.

“Cash is still the top form of payment in the U.S., and for stadiums to ban cash, you have to wonder if they’re really serving a fan base of families,” said Crystal Wright, a communications and government consultant for Cardtronics, the nation’s largest independent ATM operator.

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