How the Atlanta Hawks bet on experience — and safely opened Georgia’s largest voting precinct
Originally published on Forbes.com
Almost one year has passed since the sports world went dark overnight as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — and everybody is still adapting.
The NBA is no exception, despite successfully concluding their 2019-20 season in a bubble environment at Disney World in Orlando and launching the 2020-21 season in December. The NBA and its 30 teams have spent every day for the past 11-plus months maneuvering and adjusting to the most complex and unpredictable environment the league has ever seen.
The realities of that environment have become even more pronounced behind the scenes — and especially for team employees. Staff members still need to come into the arena for work. Practice facilities need to safely stay open for practice and training. And when nearly half of the NBA’s organizations committed to opening their arenas for the election, teams were charged with opening and maintaining virus-free polling centers and voting sites.
In the midst of the pandemic, the Atlanta Hawks have been at the forefront of all the above. They were able to quickly pivot and adjust to unprecedented circumstances, leveraging technology to capture employee feedback and sentiment, enable employees to safely return to the arena, and stand up an early voting location that saw more than 50,000 voters in the primary, general, and run-off elections.
The result has been a safe and successful return to work, an enhanced voter experience, and the state’s largest polling site, all while reporting zero COVID-19 cases from their arena.
Finding a way to re-open safely
When the pandemic brought the Hawks’ 2019-2020 season to an early end, the organization needed a flexible, efficient way to keep employees safe and monitor any potential COVID-19 symptoms.
They leveraged Qualtrics to design a symptom checker and self-certification solution that asked employees who had to work on-premise each morning to report any symptoms, recent travel, and exposure to people with COVID-19.
It’s been a really great way for us to keep our employees safe and make sure the arena is running smoothly
“We still had people who were going to have to come into the arena,” said Rusty Parker, Director of Research and Insights for the Hawks. “And we needed something that would allow our people to indicate if they were at all symptomatic before they came in. The system we put in place was tremendously successful. If employees had no symptoms, they got a big green check and had to show that check in order to enter the arena. And if they were symptomatic, they got a big red ‘X’ at the end and instructions for what to do. So it’s been a really great way for us to keep our employees safe and make sure the arena is running smoothly.”
Safely running Georgia’s largest voting site
The Hawks became the first NBA team to pledge their arena as a polling center in late June, becoming the largest-ever voting precinct in the state of Georgia. With more than 300 voting machines across the arena floor and concourse and 60 check-in locations, they used Qualtrics to monitor the safety and wellbeing of employees and volunteers who oversaw the process.
It was absolutely critical to have a live, real-time pulse on every worker and volunteer and make sure that we were keeping things as safe as possible
State Farm Arena sits in Fulton County, the state’s largest. More than 520,000 votes were cast in Fulton County for the general election — and more than 40,000 of those votes came through State Farm Arena, with zero COVID-19 cases being reported amongst voters or poll workers as a result of entering the facility.
“Setting these stations up was a huge undertaking that required a lot of hard work from a lot of people,” said Parker. “The shifts were usually 10 to 12 hours long, there were poll workers that were greeting and directing voters, scanning their IDs, collecting information. It was an enormous effort. So it was absolutely critical to have a live, real-time pulse on every worker and volunteer and make sure that we were keeping things as safe as possible.”
Designing and improving the fan experience
As fans start trickling back into arenas at limited capacity, teams remain focused on finding creative ways to deliver memorable and emotional experiences for fans — and at the core of that is ensuring franchises are capturing real-time feedback from fans and taking action. The Hawks saw the value of that feedback last season after learning from fans how the organization could improve their in-person experience.
Concessions, the parking experience, the halftime show, all of those things are connected and make up one large, holistic experience.
“We wanted to make sure fans were getting the full Southern hospitality experience,” said Parker. “We were going to focus on making moments and using every single game to find the things we could get better at. What scored high? What scored low? Where is there room for improvement? What kinds of open-ended responses are fans providing?
“One thing that we uncovered was that fans couldn't see the statboards well because the font was too small,” he said. “So we made an easy adjustment. Some of our guests said they couldn’t find a particular menu item they’d heard about, so we made some signage changes around the concourse. Those kinds of small things go a long way and improving them makes a big difference. Concessions, the parking experience, the halftime show, all of those things are connected and make up one large, holistic experience.”
The Hawks continue to use Qualtrics for their fan surveys this season, too. They added a new section of questions related to the COVID-related precautions that they put in place in the arena, with attendees responding positively.
In a season defined by unpredictability, with fewer fans, a heightened need for safety, and expectations that are constantly shifting, the Hawks are finding success by putting the experience of fans and employees first.
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