Hogs for the Cause Adds RFID for Social Distancing, Contact Tracing

By Claire Swedberg

The New Orleans music and barbeque event will resume this summer with an RFID-enabled bracelet solution from Wrstbnd that will provide touchless entry and payment, as well as collect data regarding traffic movement and crowd behavior.

As festivals and public events reopen this summer, often at limited capacity, the strategy is usually twofold: providing a safe experience with limited risk of COVID-19 spread, while offering the same level of entertainment that existed in the pre-pandemic days. In some cases, RFID technology is being deployed to help this effort by keeping attendees from gathering in slow queues or touching surfaces.  Hogs for the Cause is an example of an event that plans to leverage the RFID system it had already adopted to provide a seamless experience and prevent disease transmission.

The New Orleans fundraising concert and barbecue event, being held on June 4 and 5, will open at a limited capacity this year, using RFID-enabled wristbands to make the experience safer. The technology is provided by local event technology company  Wrstbnd (pronounced "wristband"). The system consists of Wrstbnd's Passport cloud-based software platform, along with passive 13.56 MHz HF RFID readers and bracelets. The solution enables access control, as well as cashless payments at multiple food and drink vendors.

The annual music and food festival raises money for pediatric brain cancer care.

Hogs for the Cause is an annual music and food festival that raises money for pediatric brain cancer care. Each spring, approximately 80 teams compete to be crowned the Louisiana pork champion. The teams, typically composed of groups of local friends, create their own booths and cook meat with their own barbeque sauce, ranging from chicken to ribs. They then sell their food to ticket holders, and the money is donated to the cause. Some friendly competition is built into the event. When individuals buy a ticket, they report which team they are supporting, and those scores are tracked.

The amount of barbecued product each team sells is the second part of this competition. One feature that RFID enables is a digital scoreboard that tracks how much money is raised by each team. Since the festival launched, the event has seen a 10 to 20 percent annual growth, with 20,000 to 30,000 attendees typically watching bands on two stages, enjoying food and beverages, and raising millions of dollars each year. This year, the program will be significantly smaller, with only 5,000 tickets allowed per day, and thus considerably below the 50 percent capacity restriction.

This is the third year in which the company has used RFID for access control and payments, and the first in which it has employed the Wrstbnd solution, says Rene Louapre, Hogs for the Cause's COO. RFID already provided some benefits, he notes, as access was faster for attendees with bracelets rather than with paper tickets, and different ticket types were enabled in the wristband to allow individuals into authorized areas. During previous years, attendees could buy tickets online, present proof of payment to swap for wristbands onsite, and then tap the bracelets to gain show access and purchase food and drinks.

Rene Louapre

That process, however, was not ideal during the pandemic, Louapre says. With the swapping process, crowds could gather before anyone entered the venue. "Everyone shows up in waves. You start getting lines, and that's not the best way to start," he states. "We don't want the first experience, when people come to our event, to be standing in line, shoulder to shoulder, to get a wristband. It was super-important for us to make that entrance as seamless as possible." Therefore, everyone who enters this year's event will come with a bracelet already sent in the mail.

Each attendee who has purchased a ticket will receive a wristband about two weeks before the program, according to Conway Solomon, Wrstbnd's CEO. They can then follow instructions to activate the bracelet by entering their information, including their e-mail address and some demographics details, and link that data to the unique ID number encoded on the wristband. This data input is a separate transaction from the ticket-purchasing process, to ensure that ticket holders each have their own unique identity. Users can arrive onsite wearing the wristband and tap it at the entrance, or at specific restricted areas if they have VIP status.

Teams create their own booths and cook meat with their own barbeque sauce, ranging from chicken to ribs.

At each vendor site—three main bars will sell drinks ranging from beer and soda to wine and spirits, while several specifically branded bars will also sell drinks—users can tap their wristband on a point-of-sale (POS) device. Additionally, the 78 barbeque teams selling food are leveraging the technology. The system identifies and accesses the account number of each individual, and attendees then receive an e-mail message on their phone listing the details of the transaction and inviting them to tip their vendors.

"For COVID, nobody is going to be tapping any screens," Solomon says. "They can just hover the wristband over the reader, and the rest is accomplished on the phone." To enable this function, each POS location is equipped with an HF RFID reader compliant with the ISO 15693 standard. The reader is also provided by Wrstbnd.

With the RFID system in place, the event will now be able to provide pandemic-era safety features. For instance, the solution enables event managers to ask attendees health-screening questions on their devices as they enter. If a positive COVID-19 case is reported after the event, the technology could be used for contact tracing. The RFID system provides both real-time and historical data that can be used to improve event management, Louapre says. On an historic level, the solution displays detailed data about which beverages are sold most often, when this occurs, when most people arrive onsite and which vendors they frequent.

The collected data helps managers plan future events, Louapre says. For instance, management could poll a three-hour period, such as the span of time in which the Sun goes down, and examine wine sales during that time period. "From an operational perspective," he states, "they can be ready next time for the switch from beer to wine. It helps us make sense out of the chaos." The system can determine, for example, that on a given Saturday, 75 percent of attendees showed up between 12:30 and 2:30. "Those types of big-picture details really help us."

Conway Solomon

In addition, the technology enables event managers to view how many people are onsite in real time, based on when they tap to enter and leave the site, as well as their purchasing activities on the premises. The company could then offer promotions to lure people to different parts of the field or vendors, based on activity trends. "If we saw a big use at one vendor," Louapre explains, "we could send a text to everyone on the field, encouraging them to go to another location."

The technology company was launched approximately two years ago as a spinoff from  Solomon Group, an events-production firm. Since then, Wrstbnd has provided RFID technology, as well as some barcode-based solutions, including access-control, ticketing and credentials systems, and it can provide hardware, software and installation. Solomon says his company also offers cashless RFID payments and experiential solutions, such as photo booths.

In addition, Wrstbnd has provided RFID systems for other events that have adjusted to the pandemic era. Last Christmas, for instance, the company provided a UHF RFID system for a driving tour at Celebration in the Oaks, located in  City Park New Orleans. For social-distancing purposes, the event was designed to be car-based rather than the more traditional walking tour. The event sold out in 12 days before it was over, and Wrstbnd provided the RFID solution to manage 45,000 vehicles.

The solution consisted of passive UHF tickets attached to each car. Everyone who bought a ticket was asked to list the names of their vehicle's occupants, specific to adults and children. RFID readers were deployed throughout the park to capture tag ID numbers as the cars then moved through the route. As the reader captured tag IDs linked to guests' names and ages, large screens displayed "Nice" and "Naughty" lists. Adult names were all listed under the "Naughty" category, while children were deemed "Nice."

The data enabled the parks to track traffic movement. In total, the event displayed 175,000 names on the two lists. The system's software included algorithms to screen out obscenities, so if anyone tried to input curse words as part of their names, they would be identified and eliminated before they could be displayed on the big screen.

In June of this year, Hogs for the Cause intends to employ the RFID system to enable an event that is both safe and comfortable for its limited number of attendees. "Music festivals are always pretty chaotic," Louapre states, "but our goal, as one of the first ones out of the gate, [is that] people feel safe and secure, and that they come out and have a good time."