Accelerating Innovation at The Ambassador Theatre Group

The Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) is the world’s number one live-theatre company with 45 venues in Britain, the US and Australia. With theatres such as The Savoy in London and The Lyric Theatre on Broadway New York, the group has a vision to become the destination of choice for customers wanting to experience live events.  Prioritising the customer journey and embracing digital was identified as a crucial starting point. 

We spoke with Malcolm Reid, Director of Product Engineering at ATG to hear how they embarked on this mission – from building the right culture and capabilities that could readily embrace innovation to delivering a top-notch end-user experience that could quickly scale.

Building a sustainable digital business

ATG’s far-reaching digital transformation programme touches all aspects of the ATG organisation, including the drive to bring a strong technology function in-house. This started with the hiring of a new Chief Technology Officer quickly followed by the building of a core technical capability that could readily embrace digital innovations moving forward.

“ATG had made the strategic decision to build up the in-house engineering team in order to deliver on our long-term vision.  We’re working to become the place people visit to buy the full experience for any live event, which firstly means delivering a superior customer journey and integrating with other companies’ ticketing systems.  To do that successfully, the company acknowledged that it needed to quickly embrace digital and build up its capabilities,” said Malcolm Reid, Director of Product Engineering, who was himself brought in by the CTO as part of the new hiring. 

In parallel, their ambition was to kick off the first part of the transformation project delivery at an accelerated pace. This was to be a complete re-imagining of ATG online, together with improved data integration, to offer a superb purchasing experience across multiple digital channels.  “This was a very fast-moving project. Essentially we wanted to have an end-to-end platform that would allow us to take full control of all the different parts of the purchase flow. That was absolutely the first thing that had to be achieved – and fast.”

In partnership with the management consulting firm that they had retained as part of their major digital transformation programme, ATG made the decision to build the new solution on JavaScript. NearForm came recommended by the consulting firm and were a natural choice because of their proven open source JavaScript and Node.js expertise and their ability to deliver custom solutions at speed.

The NearForm team consisted of a Solution Architect; back-end senior engineers specialising in micro-services, API and database integrations; and front-end senior engineers expert in JavaScript libraries for building user interfaces.  The goal was to architect a solution and develop a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to give ATG the ability to fine-tune the user interface and take control of the end-to-end purchase experience for customers – all the while transferring knowledge to the in-house engineering team that was being put in place. 

A Rapid MVP using a remote model

The NearForm team worked rapidly to bring the new ATG solution to life, with a purchase flow that gave ATG far more control over the customer experience than ever before. Within eight weeks, they had brought the project through design, build and delivery of the MVP.  The user-led design meant a laser focus on the end-user outcomes and on delivering an optimum UI, one that was fast, easy and safe. Using a one-team agile approach and a proven remote model with daily stand-ups and regular sprints, accelerated delivery was achieved. 

“It was a very fast process, and NearForm was instrumental in that,” Malcolm said. “It was interesting because, by working with NearForm, we took a true MVP approach. We didn’t just build it in eight weeks, go live and wash our hands of it. We built it very incrementally, managing and optimising as we went. We went live on October 31, 2018, with four shows, we had 60 shows by Christmas, and 700 not long after that. We changed, tested, and optimised the whole time, always analysing the user experience.”

The Result:  Fuelling digital transformation with a solid return on investment

Today the vast majority of shows whose tickets are available through the ATG platform offer customers the sleek new purchase flow and new features such as an impressive “show page” which is fully mobile responsive. Regardless of the device customers use, the overall effect with the new website is a clean, modern, and customer-oriented experience, along with impressive visuals that give a taste of the live-show excitement they’ll experience at the venue. The underlying technology NearForm enabled also gives ATG the power for further customisation in future.

That’s an important first step towards ATG’s long-term goal of delivering a complete and packaged experience to customers: one where customers can book not just tickets but all the extras to support that night out, from taxis to hotels, plus the ability to share a booking and collaborate with friends.

The good news for ATG is that the new purchase flow rapidly proved itself in terms of return on investment.  “The chief benefit for us has certainly been that we now have control over the purchase flow, but another important benefit is our conversion rate: the number of website visitors who follow through to complete a sale,” said Malcolm. “We’re seeing a 25% improvement in conversion rate for the new website compared to the old website and sales of upsells have also increased.”

Building the Culture & Capabilities to Transform

Today ATG’s own engineering team is in place, and handover from NearForm ensured a smooth transition from a consulting engineering team to permanent staff for ATG.  ATG’s new head of engineering worked well with NearForm and quickly got into the driving seat, Malcolm says.  

The partnership approach throughout the project enabled NearForm to share learnings with the ATG team, highlighting common pitfalls that they had experienced in the past and overcoming risks using best-practice standards.  The NearForm team provided guidance on architecture standards and consultancy on process improvements and on the policing of technical debt. They introduced agile working practices, further optimising ATG’s development processes for the long term. 

Working closely with key stakeholders meant NearForm was able to help ATG get set up for ongoing success – not only in terms of methodologies and processes, tools and frameworks but in terms of building up the technology function in-house and the JavaScript competencies they needed within the engineering team.  “The whole principle was that I could on-board permanent people and get them up to speed. The way NearForm partnered with us worked well in that regard”, noted Malcolm. “I was able to bring in the new guys and have the knowledge from the NearForm experts transferred over. The whole point of this is that we were transitioning from a consulting team to a permanent team.”

Read our Case Study in full here.

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