Bonnaroo Introduces iBeacons to Deliver a Rockin' Fan Experience

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Mobile data is this music and arts festival's jam.

The fan experience takes center stage at music and arts festival Bonnaroo. The event based in Manchester, TN, hosts 80,000 attendees, according to Bonnaroo's website, and these patrons have a significant economic impact during the four-day festival. According to a study conducted by Bonnaroo and economic development consultancy Greyhill Advisors, festival-goers contributed more than $50 million to the city and statewide economies in 2012. So every year Bonnaroo is pressured to put on a stellar customer experience performance that convinces patrons to return.

However, each attendee marches to the beat of his own drum, and knowing how every patron experiences the 700-acre festival can be a challenge. For the past five years, Bonnaroo relied on radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, like tracking wristbands, to monitor how attendees wandered throughout the festival. Bonnaroo obtained insights from the technology early on: After using RFID devices for a year, Bonnaroo discovered that about 20,000 attendees weren't enjoying the festival from Centeroo—the main hub of the “musical utopia” where attendees can check out performances and vendors, explains Jeff Cuellar, VP of strategic partnerships for AC Entertainment—the cofounder, owner, and producer of Bonnaroo. To better understand where and how these attendees were experiencing the festival, Bonnaroo worked with mobile app developer Aloompa to deploy iBeacons throughout the grounds for its most recent festival this past June. 

“We wanted to see what data we could get out of it…[and] how we can take our event forward and provide more options and things [to provide] a deeper experience for [Bonnaroo's] fans,” Cuellar says.

iBeacons are small, wireless devices that send targeted communications to iOS users who are within a certain proximity of them. Bonnaroo implemented more than 110 of these devices throughout its festival grounds and camp site (where about 95 to 96% attendees stay during the event, according to Cuellar) to track where attendees went, at what time they went there, and how long they stayed. Bonnaroo could only track attendees who downloaded the festival app and gave the brand permission to send geo-targeted push notifications; however, Bonnaroo didn't identify these users on a personal level. The festival then monitored their travels through real-time heat mapping. 

Although the majority of iBeacons solely tracked data, some of the devices sent push notifications about nearby attractions or amenities. For example, if patrons walked by one of Bonnaroo's water fountains, the brand sent them a message reminding them to stay hydrated, Cuellar explained. Or, if guests passed the festival's emergency services, Bonnaroo would send a notification advising them to visit the medical staff if they're not feeling well. To avoid coming off as intrusive, Bonnaroo implemented a few censor restrictions. For instance, if a patron walked passed an iBeacon, realized that he was going the wrong way, and passed it again, Bonnaroo would only send him one push notification, Cuellar says. In addition, if an attendee passed an iBeacon and didn't have a phone signal, Bonnaroo would cancel the push notification to prevent it from popping up in an irrelevant context later on.

Cuellar relates these iBeacons to a mobile information booth and says that they enabled guests to discover new festival features.


Because the communications centered around services, Bonnaroo implemented iBeacons near festival amenities. The brand also considered which staff members would benefit from this tracking data, Cuellar says. For instance, Bonnaroo placed iBeacons near festival entrances to help security officers keep track of incoming traffic.

However, Cuellar says that Bonnaroo didn't send any promotional or marketing messages this year because the brand wanted to focus on the contextual data and avoid any Big Brother associations.

“There definitely is that fine line of marketing to someone versus interacting with them,” Cuellar says. “We didn't want to dilute what we were trying to do or what we were trying to gather by marketing to folks.”

In terms of results, Bonnaroo received its highest number of app downloads this year, according to Cuellar. However, he says that it's hard to attribute this feat to the iBeacons because the brand neither promoted the technology nor incentivized attendees to download the app for this purpose. Still, feedback from Bonnaroo's post-festival survey indicates that attendees considered the push notifications helpful. Cuellar attributes this receptivity to the fact that the brand didn't debut the feature with promotional messages.

“People know when they're being sold to,” Cuellar says. “The fact that we came out this first year with it and didn't sell to people—I think that they were impressed…. We spent money and we weren't expecting a return that first year.”

In addition to the positive feedback, Bonnaroo took away a few major insights. For instance, Bonnaroo brought the excitement of Centeroo to its camping site with the introduction of pods: community centers that include everything from a coffee house to a ceremony venue where attendees can get married. The iBeacon technology proved to Bonnaroo that attendees were willing to leave Centeroo to visit these camp ground pods, Cuellar says, and that the company should continue to invest in areas outside of the main venue. 

The experience also forced the brand to weigh the technology's pros and cons. One major benefit of using iBeacons was that it allowed Bonnaroo to communicate with festival-goers via devices they already relied on—their smartphones—Cuellar says. However, there are a few drawbacks. For instance, the iBeacon effectiveness was dependent on whether attendees' devices were charged or received a signal connection. 

But it looks like Bonnaroo will continue to experiment with iBeacons. Cuellar says that the festival is expanding its use of the technology next year. 

Photo Credit: Bonnaroo

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