Tally Wade takes a look at the options available for processing card payments at outdoor events.
It is a sign of the times that the use of cheques is pretty much dead and we are carrying less and less cash, preferring the ease and convenience of card transactions. This proves no problem in the environment of most retail exchanges, but take the purchase of a coffee / pint of beer / ice cream / hot tub to the middle of a field and you could be in trouble.
Many outdoor event organisers take cash only onsite, but this can impact significantly on trade. I know from experience how quickly cash disappears at a show, but not only does a shortage of cash at an event prevent any further spending, a study by Dun & Bradstreet found that people are prepared to spend 12-18% more on the same item when using plastic over cash. This ability to spend and over spend can only be a good thing for an event, as exhibitors will be happy and more likely to come back. It also means that organisers can more readily accept people turning up to buy tickets on the day, sell associated event items such as show guides and show merchandise, and reap rewards on any concessions they may take a cut on such as the bar.
So, what are the options for those wanting to ‘cash in’ on plastic? In order for a credit or debit card payment to work, the technology reading the card needs to be able to connect and talk to Visa, MasterCard or American Express so it can handle taking the payment from the customer’s bank or credit account. This can be done in a number of ways in remote locations – some merchants use a mobile phone app – but the most reliable is the use of a portable PDQ (process data quickly) machine. PDQ machines can be hired from a number of suppliers, but the most important consideration is how the device is going to connect to the merchant to process the transaction.
“There a number of ways to get connectivity to a site,” says Dominic Hampton of Attend2IT Event IT Solutions. “With internet, you can use physical lines, such as ADSL (copper phone lines), FTTC (optical fibre and copper broadband), fibre (super fast optical fibre broadband) or PTP links (a direct link back to an area with internet access).
“However, best of all for reliability and speed is satellite, to which a site can connect for the duration of an event. The choice of how a site connects to the internet will depend on how many PDQ machines are being used and the site location.”
PDQ machines will use internet connectivity to communicate with the merchant (Visa, MasterCard or American Express) and authorise a transaction.
GPRS (mobile network)
GPRS is a mobile data service that allows mobile phones to connect to the internet and can also be used by PDQ machines to process transactions. “GPRS is fine in an area where there is signal,” says Hampton, “but it can run into problems where tens of thousands of people turn up for an event in the middle of a field, which is usually only home to a few cows.”
Matthew Griffiths is sales manager at Wireless Terminal Solutions. He supplies terminals that connect with GPRS and is careful to complete a full site search before taking on a contract. “It is important to check what connectivity there is at an event site. If there is limited connectivity we recommend an organiser use another option,” he says.
“It also really makes a difference which terminals you use, how they are configured and the quality of the SIM cards supplied. Often when a trader has a problem connecting with a PDQ machine on a remote site it isn’t that the network can’t stand up to the traffic in the area, but that they either haven’t configured their terminal correctly or the SIM card it contains is not up to scratch.”
So why would some traders have problems and not others, and how can an event organiser be confident that their exhibitors will be able to take transactions successfully during an event using mobile networks?
“Many exhibitors will have their own PDQ machine, usually supplied by their bank. Banks are by far the largest supplier of PDQ machines, but they are cost driven and will supply SIMs that cost around £1.50,” explains Griffiths.
“Our SIMs cost us double that and this shows in the success of the connectivity of the device. We also understand how to configure devices for the networks available. If there are any problems, every member of our team is technically trained and can help a customer configure a device over the phone while they are at an event if something goes wrong.”
The cost of a PDQ machine set up for use in a remote location is also a key consideration. “We supply PDQ machines at £60 plus £21 postage. We usually work with an event organiser as a ‘preferred supplier.’ We take an exhibitor’s list and contact exhibitors on behalf of the event offering our machines,” says Griffiths.
“Many exhibitors who attend only a few events a year like our service as we are able to create a temporary merchant account for the duration of the event, rather than them having to be tied into a long contract where they are paying £10-15 per month for a facility that they won’t use.”
Some events with connectivity nearby get complaints from exhibitors that the connection is slow or doesn’t work at all. “It doesn’t actually have much to do with the local masts and how much data they are able to handle. This may not be the case for events attracting tens of thousands of people all using their phones for calls and data, but for events of up to 10,000 people, a mast even in a rural area should be able to cope,” says Griffiths. “In our experience it is more to do with how the terminals are configured and the quality of the SIMs used. We supplied terminals to Gardening Scotland, which in previous years had trouble with PDQ machines connecting. Nothing has changed but the terminals and now the transactions are going through just fine.”
So, what can you do if you have an event in a field where tens of thousands of people do turn up? How do you ensure connectivity when the local mast just won’t handle the number of phones and data transmitting devices on site? “Some companies offer VPNs (virtual private networks), where they purchase a virtual network from a mobile phone provider to try and overcome this problem. They may also have a repeater in the middle of a field to help control overloading the system,” continues Griffiths. “Despite the extra cost, I would be wary of investing in a VPN as I have heard some less than great reports about how successful they actually are. I would always recommend getting Wi-Fi to the site through a satellite link up or a hard wire. We have worked on some events where ‘cells’ have been dotted around to help boost the signal, which have worked. The Territorial Army also uses this technology for its communications.”
Some organisers / landowners may find that the ADSL / telephone line route is a cheaper option long term if they are planning on holding regular events from their site. “To connect to ADSL does have an initial cost as BT need to pull a cable through from the nearest exchange,” says Hampton. “Anyone who lives in a remote area will know that the further from the exchange you are the less reliable the line, and it is likely that you will also have to pay for ducting for the cable. If this is the case, you may as well go for optical fibre broadband, which will speed everything up. This may cost a few thousand pounds but could be a longer term solution.”
Be aware that each PDQ machine onsite will need to be connected to this line somehow, and a specialist event IT company will be needed to help sort it out. In addition, connecting through a standard phone line can be slow, as Hampton explains: “If a PDQ machine is connected to a standard telephone line it will literally ‘telephone’ the transaction back to the clearing centre and can be slow; reliable but slow.”
It is widely accepted that by far the fastest and most reliable way for PDQ machines to connect to merchants to process transactions is via the internet. “Provided there is enough redundancy in the infrastructure onsite,” adds Hampton.
Many providers of Wi-Fi to outdoor event sites will have a satellite or two. “With a satellite, all you need is power and sky,” says Hampton. We can get around 30-50 PDQ machines running comfortably from one satellite but we usually use two so there is redundancy in the system.”
If you think ‘satellites’ sound like an unaffordable, James Bond mega villain-type option, they needn’t be. “We try and get the message across that connectivity can be provided even for the smallest of events,” says Hampton. “We operate by charging the event organiser a small fee to set up a basic wireless infrastructure from which they can connect to the internet to do any social media marketing, etc they want to do onsite, and maybe a PDQ machine to take ticket transactions at the gate. This might cost around £1,000 depending on the site layout. To add any further PDQ machines for trade stands is a small extra cost. This then gives the organiser the option to monetise the option for traders to take advantage of a PDQ machine for the duration of the event.
“Our connectivity infrastructure will always include redundancy so traders can be added into the mix. It may be a central mast on site with a satellite link – we usually use two in case one goes down. We can also utilise any physical internet connection to the site if there is one, even if it is a bit rubbish. We pull everything into the mix.” So, an organiser could make his outlay back and then some by charging exhibitors for PDQ machines and connectivity.
“When traders book their pitches, they can tick a box saying they want the extra service, then we provide the extra machines and the connectivity to make them work. In my experience most organisers underestimate how much exhibitors are willing to pay for connectivity. They more than anyone know how accepting plastic will increase their sales. The other great advantage of connectivity via internet is that you can sell access to the internet to exhibitors as another revenue stream; they can then use it to access social media or resell to the public, creating ‘hubs’ perhaps around catering and hospitality stands.”
RFID token systems
Another type of cashless payment system already becoming popular on the festival scene is a modern version of token systems, using RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology to replace cash transactions. Customers upload money onto their RFID chip (usually in the shape of a wristband, card or even dog tag) then they can pay for food, drink or other products on site simply by tapping the chip onto an RFID portal.
“There are many advantages of such a system,” says Paul Reed, general manger of the National Caterer’s Association (NCASS). “When there’s no cash on site there is less opportunity for theft. What’s more, RFID providers believe that customers spend up to 30% more when they can’t see the cash they’re parting with.
“Queue times at trade stalls can also be dramatically reduced – by up to three times – and for organisers there is the opportunity for better site management and safety precautions as you can use the cashless system to track where everyone is and adjust bar stock levels in the appropriate areas. These systems can even work out which acts result in the highest beer sales! You could also use your findings to charge more for the better pitches and less for the quieter ones.
“Of course, organisers will still have the same connectivity issues to consider, but another potential issue is where cashless money is held throughout the duration of the event and the question remains, ‘Whose money is it?’ at any point during the event. At what point does money go from being the punters’, to belonging to the traders they’ve bought from? And at what point is it the organiser’s?”
Reed suggests that if it isn’t kept in some form of escrow account and properly accounted for, there is an opportunity for the money to be spent by the organiser. Even though that could be considered fraudulent, it is not currently preventable. So what is the future for a technology that could offer so much?
“For the past two years we have been gathering support for a cashless code of conduct across the industry,” says Reed. “RFID providers are keen for this to be put in place to protect their sector and event organisers have been made aware that there is notable reticence among traders to work using cashless systems until potential issues have been eliminated.
“With the support of Steve Heap from the Association of Festival Organisers, we have been working towards a solution that will protect traders, enable RFID systems to grow and protect the good reputation of the industry. We are submitting our proposals for the code of practice and a debate will be held at the AFO conference in November in Stratford with a commitment to have the RFID code of practice in place for the 2017 events season.”
A straightforward alternative to providing traders with connectivity and PDQ machines is to provide event attendees with the means to withdraw cash. Josh Bentley, director of Cash on the Move, says that providing cash machines on site can increase spending without costing organisers anything. “Cash still represents 50% of total payment transactions in the UK,” says Bentley, “and people are used to paying for cash at convenient locations. We generate our revenue from the end user by charging a withdrawal fee, which means the organiser of the event doesn’t usually incur any cost.”
The amount generated from a cash machine will depend on its location onsite, whether there are off site cash machines offering free withdrawals nearby, the number of people at the event, and what there is onsite for people to spend their money on. “Large events easily cover the cost of the machine, but at smaller events we do have a minimum amount that an organiser needs to make up if there is a shortfall of revenue generated from the machine,” says Bentley.
In terms of logistics, the cash machine(s) are positioned on site, staffed, insured, stocked and topped up with cash throughout the event as part of the service. “16 amp mains power is required for all our vehicle and cube based solutions, although our fleet does include a limited number of fully independent vehicles that do not require an externally supplied power source,” says Bentley.
So, does providing cash machines do away with the need for card payments altogether? “Not necessarily,” says Bentley. “We recommend giving attendees at events as many payment options as possible to make purchases. Some people prefer to use cash, some prefer the ease of card payments. The introduction of card payments at events hasn’t affected us greatly and organisers have reported that having both card payments and cash machines combined has increased spending all round.”
Attend2IT – 01763 877 477 / www.attend2it.co.uk
Cash on the Move – 020 7794 3664 www.cashonthemove.com
Nationwide Caterers Association – 0121 603 2524 / www.ncass.org.uk
Wireless Terminal Solutions – 0845 459 9984 / www.wirelessterminalsolutions.co.uk