Top seed

Top seed

Meeting immovable deadlines, delivering service to nearly five million customers and adopting new technologies are just some of the job descriptions of the IT team at the All England Club. Sarah Aryanpur reports on their year-long mission to ensure the two weeks at Wimbledon are free from glitches.

Chris Lee, IBM’s project director at Wimbledon, is based at the All England Club. He believes the partnership has flourished because there is no complacency.

“It is a privilege to work here and everyone continually tries to improve the service Wimbledon offers. There is a total focus on all the stakeholders year-on-year,” he says. “Of course, it is a non-negotiable mission critical event.”

Wimbledon is the largest of four grand slam events IBM handles. Because it is imperative for the global audience that the systems stay up, there are significant back-up facilities and secure servers. In the case of scoring, if all else failed the BBC would still be able to get the scores on screen by entering them manually.

“Someone is in a truck monitoring the service and graphics. If everything goes wrong they can key in scores straight from the umpire’s chair,” says Lucas. “We shadow the main show courts. Courtside, people are watching and putting in statistics. There are three levels of back-up for the scores?–?some systems aren’t quite so noticeable but we try to ensure no one will notice if anything does go wrong.”

Lucas says they do have a ‘batphone’, which of course is red, linked to the BBC. If it does ring, watch out. But the attention to detail means it does not ring that often. He is clear that the championships would never rely on a system that had not been thoroughly tested but the All England Club is something of an early adopter.

“Wimbledon was effectively first off the blocks with on-demand technology for its website,” says Lee. “Every year the number of visitors to the website has been ramping up?–?it started at around 200,000 in 1995 and last year reached over four million. In those first years it wasn’t known as on-demand.”

“There is a very dynamic management team at the club,” says Lucas. “In 1995, it was taking the lead in this arena. Because of the relationship we have with IBM, big decisions can be taken with a mutual understanding.

We were a very early intranet adopter. We introduced the Wimbledon Information Service and then suddenly everyone was talking about intranets. Ours is second generation already. We were effectively just trying to provide something useful for our users. Technology delivers it. It is not the role of technology to be ostentatious.”

Although Wimbledon has massive peaks and troughs in its use of IT, it aims to use innovative technology across the globe throughout the year. “We want it to be used all year round and in the merchandising and e-commerce business technology is very important,” says Ritchie.

Off the net

The All England Club is very keen to expand its internet business. “The more eyeballs the better for the event,”

Lucas says. “There are about 500,000 people who visit the event and another four million who can’t get there, so the website is as comprehensive as it can be. We are interested in using the internet to facilitate that as best we can. The championship is developing video and live streaming as well as providing fascinating statistics and graphics. There is a huge amount of work in development.”

CEO Ritchie wants to expand retail and e-commerce and as Ralph Lauren is supplying the new clothes for officials this year, the Wimbledon Collection will be part of the retail offering. “The whole CRM and fulfillment package has to be supported on a global basis, outside of the event itself, without diluting the brand,” he says.

“Everything flows from the event.

Ticketing is only a small proportion of the income,” says Ritchie. “The event with its TV audience, official suppliers and sponsors is the core of everything we do. It is an amazing and massive spike to our year and managing that is crucial.

Most business is cyclical but ours has to be leveraged out of a two-week event, so service levels are non-negotiable; we cannot tolerate anything going wrong in that time. We won’t expand ticket revenue, but we will make the most out of the internet, new media and e-commerce business.”

He adds: “It isn’t really about technology, it is about the business and the business insight, the business needs. The solutions and any business transformation have to ultimately deliver the Championships. That has to be translated into projects, using technology.”

Year-long preparation

The IT department works year round, defining an IT strategy, which maps very closely to the business strategy and how the business needs IT to support it. There is an IT steering group to help prioritise the strategy and relationship, as well as look at successful pilots.

Lee says: “The planning is top class and moves forward every year. The brand is already at the top of the pile, but to make sure it stays top, there has to be a step change each year?–?you cannot take your eye off the ball. You have to deliver the club requirements.”

In preparation for the event, a ‘big spring’ test is run, pulling all the different companies together, except for the BBC. The idea is to run the technology together as closely as possible to the real event. A huge number of PCs begin arriving at the All England Club in the weeks before the tournament.

This coincides with the qualifying stages and then the press start arriving. The draw takes place on the Friday before the tournament begins and there is a technology dress rehearsal the same day.

The technical infrastructure has to ensure the internet is fed from the live scoring system and all the relevant statistics are provided. There is also an intranet and real-time data collection pushed out around the world.

“We have teams on all the courts – seven show courts and 12 outside, taking scores through the data feed infrastructure,” says Lucas. “These feed TV graphics?–?real-time feeds are not on the outside courts yet?–?but we can do web feeds from the umpires’ chairs and there is also a RF feed. In essence, the most important role of the technology infrastructure and the network is to disseminate the information.”

But no amount of testing can simulate day one of Wimbledon, says Lucas. “The biggest activity takes place on that first day, and you can never be totally sure what will happen. Over the years it has consistently been people from outside who come in and switch on some technology that we didn’t know about that causes the problems. You can never be entirely certain of the impact.”

Making a recovery

The All England Club uses standard business recovery systems?–?mirroring the key servers and UPS?–?and carries out extensive training for staff. IBM handles the relevant work in the spring test and dress rehearsal, as well as providing data entry specialists for the event itself.

Although it is keen to move forward, Wimbledon will only rely on proven on-demand technologies during the fortnight. It uses three server farms in the US to ensure it can cope with website demands.

The server technology uses automatic services with built-in nodes for resilience and redundancy, and provides whatever is necessary for scalability, availability and security.

During the fortnight IBM uses spare capacity from its financial services and life sciences arenas.

Managing Wimbledon takes priority and it uses Tivoli’s Intelligent Orchestrator, which dynamically moves loads from one node to another depending on website traffic loads. “Reliability is all,” says Lee.

Looking east

Ritchie sees Asia as a key expansion area for the All England Club and it now has 15 shops in China. “We are utilising and optimising what we’ve got,” he says.

“In the Far East, especially in China, TV coverage is only available in certain areas. But online access to the championship is different. We can put an online shop and merchandising on the back of that association, rather than through broadcasting.”

Technological innovation is critical in this strategy. “IBM shows the Wimbledon team its R&D shops each year and these sometimes act as a catalyst for us,” says Lucas. “It keeps everyone thinking about the art of the possible. We do a proof of concept, for example with SMS utilisation. Many people in the Far East have mobile phones so we have developed a system where you can buy something for a friend and then fire off a text telling them to go to the shop. “An SMS voucher can then be redeemed direct from the friend’s phone and they can pick up the gift. We are constantly on the lookout for technology innovations we can use.”

The hottest ticket

Outside of the tournament itself, there are ongoing internal business development changes. Wimbledon has automated several previously paper-driven systems, which were labour intensive and costly.

It began using CRM in 2003 to handle the huge numbers of people coming to the club – players, officials and support staff. The end users have taken to it really well, according to Lucas, for example at the player reception.

Sustaining its position at the top of the pyramid is not easy – it takes skills, expertise and constant innovation, according to Ritchie. “The tennis and the experience it offers up is key. Watching Murray play in the middle Sunday last year was amazing. We are very lucky,” says Ritchie.

“It is a global event, and the visitors are a general global mix who come to see the tennis but who also want to have a good time. We have nine televised courts and lots of virtual viewers, but we physically cannot get any more people in – so it is still the hottest ticket in town.”

When Ritchie landed the job of CEO, some of his friends joked that he would be part-time, given that the main event runs for only two weeks a year. Ritchie laughs: “I haven’t worked this flat out since Channel Five launched.” The 2006 Championship is his first in charge.

“It is a real hardship working at Wimbledon,” Ritchie jokes. “I would be a poor manager if I couldn’t motivate people here. But once everything is in place you just have to hope it doesn’t rain too much.”

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