Live Issue O2: All the world's a stage

The festival season has come and gone and the format has changed forever. Mike Fletcher reports on O2's strategy to extend its involvement in events that will raise the company's profile among specific social groups.

The Metro Weekender on Clapham Common, staged over the August Bank Holiday weekend, brought down the curtain on a summer season of outdoor music events that has been more congested than the queue for lost property at this year's Glastonbury festival. Ten Alps Music Event's first foray into festival management brought together two existing single-day events under a headline media sponsor to form The Metro Weekender, headlined by Fatboy Slim and the Happy Mondays.

Matt Priest, former Radio 1 executive producer of dance music and the man behind this two-day finale of the festival season, notes that 2005 has seen event management in the outdoor music scene come of age under a variety of guises.

"Live music is so buoyant at present that it has given promoters the confidence to become involved with different event formats," he says.

"We've seen everything from Live 8 and Lovebox staged in an East End park to free festivals, badged by products such as Innocent Drinks and Ben & Jerry's. A high-profile brand, O2, has even developed the concept of a festival as a way to increase customer loyalty and give something back to its consumers."

The four-day series of debut O2 Music Wireless Festivals in late June meant that the mainstay of the UK festival season was launched via a debutante event as well as ended by one.

Priest and others have singled out O2's Wireless Festival activity due to its innovation of content and modernisation of the festival experience.

Through its partnerships with Clear Channel and external agency Sledge, O2 produced a multi-stage format in Hyde Park that included all the content revellers would expect from music events such as Glastonbury. But it also featured mobile phone-related interactive services and an exclusive experiential area for O2 customers and their friends, called the O2 Bubble.

It further gave music fans and the network's customers the chance to buy tickets for the events through O2 Active on O2 handsets four days before they went on general release, plus the choice of buying a four-day package or tickets for separate days.

"Staging our own festival was the next step after sponsoring the Capital Radio Party in the Park series," says O2 head of events, conferencing and corporate hospitality John Worthington. "We wanted a customer-focused event to fit our strategy of Your World and bring us into line with a wider spectrum of 'real' music.

"The main attraction of the O2 Bubble is Your Blue Room, in which XFM DJs and four raw live bands perform each day. So as well as the headline acts such as New Order, Basement Jaxx and Kasabian, our relationship with Clear Channel has enabled our customers to witness those acts of tomorrow that have yet to reach main stage status," he adds.

The Your Blue Room concept was first piloted at Southampton's Party in the Park event in 2002 and featured headphone sets that allowed visitors to listen to different types of music. Since then, Worthington and his team have added a tunnel entrance to provide more capacity, transformed it into a black-box environment and signed the two-year deal with Clear Channel that will see a host of raw acts return to perform live for next year's Wireless events.

"The bubble's shape makes it great acoustically and we've given it a clubby feel with comfortable seating and a bar area," says Worthington. "It's become an extra festival stage in its own right."

O2's Party in the Park presence has had elements such as a volleyball court and features designed for the younger target audience. For the O2 Bubble at Wireless, Worthington opted for four hot tubs and a cold tub from supplier Splash and Tickle, a smoothie bar, a Who Wants to be a Millionaire interactive gaming bubble and an area where visitors could have their photo superimposed onto the front of Q magazine.

O2 Angels carried out random acts of kindness across the festival site, such as sheltering visitors from the rain with branded umbrellas and giving guests the chance to upload tracks and ring-tones to their mobile phones via Hypertag Bluetooth technology. Corporate guests of O2 enjoyed a backstage hospitality area and were catered for by Eat to the Beat, which served food throughout the course of each day so guests wouldn't feel constrained by meal-times when deciding which bands to see.

"The Angels have long been a part of our internal communications strategy and we just broadened it out," says Worthington. "People get the concept of girls with wings on their backs straight away, and it's the simple things such as flexible eating times that are often the most effective."

O2 also teamed up with Nokia to help the handset supplier enhance its association with urban music through a bubble area called Nokia Raw. "We don't see each other as competing brands when it comes to event strategies, as Nokia is happy to align itself with anyone that complements its urban messaging," says Worthington. "It hooked into us for Party in the Park last year and seems to want to develop its urban content ideas much more with us because we're seen as a cool brand.

"Nokia Raw is a bubble that provides guitar and music coaching and launched at Wireless. The end result was a band put together from scratch by Nokia that played in the Blue Room.

"The concept was well received and adds to our remit of staging events that show we understand our customers. In return they leave feeling they've been well looked after by O2," he adds.

Since the mobile network launched in 2001, sponsorship and event management have always gone hand in hand. Six-a-side football tournaments and hospitality have featured heavily as part of its association with Arsenal Football Club, and, via its sponsorship of Big Brother in 2001, O2 also developed the mobile technology that paved the way for television viewers to interact with and influence a programme's content via text messaging.

Four years on and O2's continued sponsorship of the England rugby team, plus its £6m naming rights deal that has seen the Millennium Dome become The O2, will push the company further ahead in the event marketing arena, previously dominated by rival network Orange.

Scrum in the Park, an all-day rugby festival, attracted more than 25,000 visitors to Regent's Park on 14 August. The event, now in its second year, first attracted 15,000 people in 2004 in the aftermath of England's Rugby World Cup-winning year. This year's outing featured a training session with the England team, O2 rugby-coaching courses for children and interactive zones to test rugby skills.

O2 head of sponsorship and interactive partnerships Paul Samuels works with Worthington on all activities. "The key is to keep our customers at the heart of everything we do and make them feel special," says Samuels.

"So moving forward it's about how we develop this now that Wireless and Scrum in the Park have proved such big successes."

The 2005/06 football calendar is the final season that Arsenal footballers will wear O2 on their shirts and Samuels admits the brand is not looking for another football team to sponsor. "The focus is now firmly on music and our involvement with rugby," he says. "Only a segment of the O2 community may like a particular football club but everyone enjoys music and is keen to get behind a national sports team, and be involved in the wider context of sport that will occur at The O2 with the World Gymnastic Championships in 2009, and now of course the 2012 Olympic Games.

"Events such as Scrum in the Park and Wireless are fresh-thinking and The O2 will reward our customers by putting them at the heart of the activity that will occur there via exclusive access to O2 areas, phone-recharge units and the opportunity to buy tickets before anyone else," he adds.

O2 is an experienced player when it comes to changing consumer perception through a rebrand. The change from BT Cellnet to O2 in 2001 met with the same cynicism that the Millennium Dome's change to The O2 is now facing, but just as 45,000 Wireless festival goers and several artistes asked 'Glastonbury who?' as the festival's muddiest weekend ever was taking place simultaneously in Somerset, the mobile network with the most pro-active outlook on event marketing will make sure that the same will soon be said for the Millennium Dome. O2 customers are in for a treat and other brands will have to look at the company's event strategy to see what they themselves can do.

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