Robert Johnson On How Pam Powers Frictionless Smart Navigation For Big Footprint Venues

May 29, 2024 by Dave Haynes

There’s been a steady stream of announcements in the past couple of years about new sports and entertainment venues going up in the US and elsewhere, and one of the notable attributes about these developments is that they are not just stadiums and arenas – they’re big commercial developments anchored by that kind of building but surrounded by retail, residential and infrastructure.

They’re sprawling, at times, and with that, not necessarily easy to navigate and use.

An Australian software company called PAM has a tag line about transforming complex spaces into loved places, and it does that mainly through what people in digital signage would call wayfinding. But there’s more going on with PAM than just maps. The company blends that base capability with a digital signage CMS, mobile, analytics, and integrations with business systems, including Ticketmaster. It also intertwines all these components so that they’re reactive, with data from one component informing another.

The company already has some big name, high profile clients and venues to reference, including SoFi Stadium in LA and the F1 circuit for Las Vegas.

Robert Johnson is VP Sales for North America for the company, and he has a deep background in both wayfinding and digital signage. He got into the sector years ago, in the early days of Four Winds Interactive, and I’ve known him for ages now. So it was great to learn about PAM, but also just great to catch up.

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Robert, great to catch up with you. I haven’t seen you in years. 

Robert Johnson: Likewise, Dave, it has been a while, and we go way back and it’s great to reconnect with you. 

I knew you from your time at Four Winds Interactive, where we were involved in a couple of pretty big deals. I was on the consulting side, and you were on the sales side when you were doing sales for that company. Could you give a background on your journey in digital signage? 

Robert Johnson: Yeah, happy to, and you nailed it right there. You and I had a really exciting, fun opportunity to work on a couple of very large enterprise projects with some big names, great folks, and great clients and yeah, you and I cut our teeth together. That’s where our relationship really spawned, but yeah, I was really fortunate, I got to start working with Four Winds Interactive when they were very quite small. I think when I started, there were somewhere between 25, and no more than 45 employees there.

Were they still in the house or had they moved out by then? 

Robert Johnson: Yeah, I was in the original mansion, the Parkside Mansion, right off of City Park in Denver, Colorado, and that was a trip. They had weddings on the weekends and we sold software during the weekdays in there until we had to break down our desks. But that was a startup life right there. 

Looking back is interesting because that was 16 years ago when I took that job with them and looking back, there’s a piece of me that says that you can make a Netflix story about the rise of the software company because the economy was crap, it was 2007-2009, and the housing market crashed. I remember my parents asking me like, how do you have a job? How was the company doing? 

What on earth is digital signage? 

Robert Johnson: Why are people spending money on digital signage? And I remember telling my parents, I was young, I was in my 20s and I was like, mom, dad, this is amazing. People are buying this left and right. It was the kind of product that if you could just demo it and talk about it, you were selling it. 

I was fortunate that I got to move up in the ranks and work on a lot of large enterprise deals, selling very complex digital signage solutions with incredible integrations to Delta Airlines and JetBlue Airlines, Toyota, Lexus, Mazda, Staples, just massive digital signage implementations and yeah, we had lots of integrators and hardware involved and it was a ride, man. It was awesome. 

So as it happens, people move on and you went to a new company but could you tell me what they were doing? 

Robert Johnson: The connection is this: In the world of digital signage, I joke and say, I sold TVs for a decade, but on the TVs, on the screens, you’re selling communications platforms, employee communications platforms, retail solutions, touchscreens, and wayfinding.

Wayfinding has been a part of my life for a long time. We sold many wayfinding solutions, helping guests navigate stores, retail, malls, airports, and other places. I then moved to a company called Concept3D, which when I started, only had one product: a mapping product, but no signage, and for me, that was a breath of fresh air.

I was able to eliminate all the hardware complexities because hardware fails, PCs and displays fail, turn on, turn off, and get vandalized, and for me, this was amazing. I could sell wayfinding without having to implement any hardware, and they have a phenomenal platform, but then their main focus was or is higher education and I was brought on to try to sell into enterprise solutions, and we had a few good deals in there, but then COVID hit and we launched another product for virtual tours and we did a bunch of other things in there. So they actually have five products now, all heavily focused on higher education, but the wayfinding piece always stuck around.

We sold maps to anybody who wanted to visualize their space and anybody who wanted to enhance their space. If you’re on a college campus and campuses are huge, they’re square miles large, and so you need to navigate those environments. 

Easy to get lost in them. 

Robert Johnson: It’s easy to get lost, and a lot of faculty, students, guests, and parents are frustrated trying to make that experience better, and so that was the plug. 

So you were with that company and then I think you went on a hiatus or something, and now you’re with a company called PAM.

Robert Johnson: PAM, yeah, and this is not the cooking spray company. It’s not spam. It’s not Pam. Funny enough, and this is like an accident, but PAM is actually the word, map, spelled backwards. 

Oh, okay. I was trying to figure out what an acronym was.

Robert Johnson: Yeah, but that was not intentional. We actually had a customer bring it to our attention. Did you know that PAM is MAP backward? Anyway, it’s Project Asset Management. That’s actually what it stands for. 

But PAM is really unique because it combines the last 16 years of my life into this amazing software platform that has been in development for the last seven years, and so we’re still in the ramp-up phase, the startup phase. We’re not quite a startup. We’re in a kind of launch phase right now in terms of our trajectory with adding clients and growth, but they do a couple of things. We have a digital signage component where we power hundreds and hundreds of screens for large entertainment districts, sporting facilities, stadiums, and arenas and we specialize in interactive wayfinding. 

We don’t go to market as really either one of those. We go to market as a smart navigation platform helping cities, visitors, bureaus, and entertainment districts have a more frictionless, guest experience, and as in your world, Dave, the frictionless experience can be anything from how do you get parking? How do you find something? How do you get information on screens or your mobile device? We touch a lot of different communication mediums. It’s a perfect fit for me. I’ve been there for two months now, and it’s just been super exciting. 

Were you looking around, or did they come to you? 

Robert Johnson: A little bit of both out there when you’ve been in the space for a while, as we chatted before, you get approached by people, and certain things become a fit and, every day on my, on LinkedIn and stuff, I’d probably get hit up by a recruiter every day for something, or you get someone reaching out to you.

So yeah, this just came across my plate. We chatted and chatted for a while. It wasn’t one of those light switch things where you just turn on and jump ship. When you’re our age, my age, your age, everything’s pretty calculated at that point. 

We’re not our age. ’cause I’m way older than you. 

Robert Johnson: Yeah, you’re older than me. 

I could be your father. 

Robert Johnson: Fair enough. 

I could even be your grandfather. 

Robert Johnson: Yeah, wife, kids, all that stuff, and play, and I’m never just like making a brash decision to just jump because the technology is cool but yeah, it was a calculated decision, but once I got to dig into the software and see what these guys are about. Hindsight’s 2020 and I’m just super, super glad I made the change. 

This is an Australian company? 

Robert Johnson: They are headquartered in Sydney but have an office in LA. Right now, I’m heading up the North American sales efforts, and they are very, very, hyper-focused on sports and entertainment districts. So yeah, we are taking a smart city, smart district approach. 

It doesn’t really happen as much in Canada because it’s much, much smaller, but from what I can tell, any new sports venue that goes up is not just an arena, it’s a district with residential, retail, dining, hotels, the whole nine yards.

Robert Johnson: Yeah, you nailed it. Like I joke and tell teens, yeah, you might be on a football team or a baseball or basketball or hockey team, that’s fine. But you’re actually in the business of pro entertainment. You just happen to have a hockey team associated with you or a basketball team associated with you and if you’re football, you only have 8-10 home games a year. If you’re basketball, you’ve got 40 and hockey 40, but there’s another 200 to 300 days a year that you need to be putting on events. 

So if you Google, there are 200 stadiums currently being built, planned to be built, and contracted to be built in the next 24 to 36 months and if you just follow a few of the blogs online every week, every month, there’s a new stadium that’s being announced or a new district that’s being announced to be built, and all of these are now very integrated in the city. They’re very much funded by voters and the city council and the visitors bureaus. It’s a fully integrated approach these days. 

I would imagine they pretty much have to say this is a commercial property development, and not just a stadium for that very reason, with the exception, maybe, Texas, where there are high school football stadiums that will see 20,000. 

Most cities don’t want to spend 200 million or whatever the number is on something that’s only going to get a handful of days of use. they really need to justify that. This is going to create a whole bunch of other jobs. 

Robert Johnson: Yeah. Nowadays, when a stadium is being built, they look at the entire infrastructure. Do we need to bring internet lines? Where’s transit? Where’s the parking? Where’s the bus situation? If that stuff isn’t considered, then the project just won’t happen. It’s a fully integrated approach, and there are Oakview Group, Legends, and Populous, and there are these massive architects and developers out there who are building these for them, they’re managing these event centers and stadiums for the teams and the cities, and it’s a huge business. 

That’s actually the way that PAM approaches the market. We go one to one and we sell our software and platform to the teams and the arenas. But we also are working the angle very heavily with the architects, and so we’re talking to these projects right when they’re breaking ground years ahead of time. 

Yeah, I assume that what’s important to them is that they may understand they’re going to have digital signage, directories, and some degree of wayfinding, but they don’t want a gallery of different technology providers to do it for them. They would likely greatly prefer that there’s one service provider that can do the screens but can also do the wayfinding, the phone app for navigation, and everything else, right? 

Robert Johnson: Yeah, a hundred percent. We work with Gable and we work with Daktronics. We work with ABI SPL, the tech providers so that when ABI SPL is recommending a solution, that way they have one wayfinding provider that’s for mobile, that’s for web, that’s for the digital signage, and when they would need to make an update and communicate… I use this example on some of my calls, I don’t know if a year or two ago, Dave, you were up in this area, the Buffalo Bills at the end of one of the games had a massive brawl and there was a fight, and that’s like an incident, right? So immediately safety, security, and people like that are trying to get involved, and if you need to communicate to 50,000 people leaving the event that there was an incident taking place, you don’t want to update your text message provider, your mobile provider, your web provider, or get on the phone with your web management team security.

You want to be able to go into one place and update. All your digital signage, all your communications, your mobile, everything with a click of a button, and that’s the kind of stuff that we have the capability of doing. Just as an example, there are so many other things. Another cool thing that our software does when you think about planning and working with these different technology solutions is we have this really amazing data analytics platform where if there’s an event happening on a Saturday, we can then show you this heat map that actually shows you all the dead zones. So if there’s a dead zone on the South side of the entry and there’s no internet right there, we’ll actually be able to show you on the heat map that shows, as somebody was walking, there’s a dead zone here and you may want to actually put additional, WiFi connections or routers or enhance the call-up Verizon or AT&T, your provider because there’s a dead zone right there. So, our platform has the ability to do all these different things, which makes it really unique, and again, one of the reasons I’m grateful to be here. 

Does the fact that you’re working with stuff that’s going to be on mobile phones as well, give you some sense of analytics as well, in terms of how people move around those kinds of spaces?

Robert Johnson: Yeah, that’s one of our value propositions, which is the ability to provide data crowd management so that you can make a better decision. So think about this: I live in Golden, and I’m actually going to do one of the playoff games on Monday with my wife. We’re going to go to the Denver Nuggets game. If I open up the Denver Nuggets app and I get a no before you go message, and it’s, hey Robert, you have prepaid parking at this lot over here, and I pull up my app and I use the PMA app to get there.

The PAM app will then show that Robert Johnson because I’m logged into the, I got my profile set up with the Nuggets. It’ll say that, Robert left his house in Golden via car, or Robert got on the train, went to Union Station, and got there. The team can then take that information back and say, look, you had 18,000 people at a sold-out game, and 4,000 of them took transit, they took a train to the game. You can take that back to your sponsors and your advertisers and Lexus and Toyota and those guys and say, look, you need to be advertising between the hours of five and six o’clock to all the people coming to the game and letting them know about the merchandise, food, beverage, coupons, parking, all of these things.

So yeah, our platform can give that data to the team so they can make literal, actual business decisions that drive revenue and sponsorship revenue and value to their sponsors. It’s really cool. I have been in the wayfinding space for 16 years, and none of the companies I’ve seen have the ability to do that.

Yeah, I’ve always liked wayfinding, but the challenge I’ve always had with the stuff that you find on touch displays in shopping malls and so on is that you look up what you want, and it’ll show you how to get there, but then you walk 10 paces and you can’t remember where to turn or anything else. The next step is to put it on a phone, which gives you a little bit more, but it still seems a little disjointed from the rest of what goes on in a big space. 

Robert Johnson: You’ll like this, Dave, and I think you can probably validate it, as we’re the only mapping platform that integrates with Ticketmaster and Ticketmaster Ignite.

So again, using that mobile example, if I’m leaving the Nuggets game and I just had an amazing time and there’s another game because there will be another playoff game. If I’m like, honey, let’s do it, let’s buy the tickets for Wednesday night’s game. Right there. I can do that transaction, and if it starts on the map and I say, yeah, I want to buy tickets right here and get my parking, we can follow that journey, go back to the Nuggets at the end of the game, and say, look, you had 4,000 people buy tickets, and their journey started on the map. 

There goes 600 bucks. 

Robert Johnson: Exactly, there goes 600 bucks.

But, like that’s the thing that I, as a sales guy and sales professional, have always wanted to go back to my clients with and say, look, the map is generating revenue. We can see that people scan these hotdog coupons. We can see where people came from. You can go back to your sponsors.

All of this and more, Dave, just makes PAM; it’s the belief inside me that knows that PAM is going somewhere pretty spectacular in this space. 

Yeah, I’m sure that, some of the entertainment districts and so on that look at this, and say, the experiential side is very nice that this helps people get around, but if you can take another couple of hops and say, and it’ll generate incremental revenue for you or boost the average attendee profile in terms of what they buy and so on, then that gets them a lot more interested.

Robert Johnson: It goes from a map turning into a really nice thing to have to, hey, this is something we really need and it provides value and impact. 

So you mentioned that the company is ramping up, but I’m looking at the website and I don’t want to rattle off names in case they’re not accurate, but you’re deployed in some fairly significant familiar areas, right?

Robert Johnson: Yeah, I’d say the company has really been fortunate in the last 24 months. The Australian Open was massive. It covers a huge ground in Melbourne, where the city is almost shut down for that event. Hundreds of thousands of people come in. We’ve been contracted with SoFi Stadium since the stadium’s inception and went live.

That’s the big one in LA for people who might not know that. 

Robert Johnson: Yeah, they’ve got the Rams and the Chargers playing out of that stadium. Plus, it’s a venue that hosts FIFA and the Super Bowl. I didn’t realize this until a couple of months ago. The Super Bowl was just there, and the Super Bowl was the highest revenue-generating Super Bowl in the history of the Super Bowls because of the capacity and the venue drove so much revenue; the Super Bowl is going to be back there, not this season, but the following season.

It is not normal to have back-to-back Super Bowls within two or three years of one another at the same facility. And yeah, we’re powering the navigation experience for that as well. Our relationship with Formula One is super strong. We just knocked it out of the park with Las Vegas, and yeah, before this call this morning, I just had a call across the world with another Formula One venue because of our relationship with Vegas. So yeah, it’s been a gift. I appreciate that you kept on giving. 

Yeah. Let’s talk about Vegas because that’s an interesting one in that it’s a facility that’s built for three to four days as opposed to a fixed venue that, if you like, you might go repeatedly. If you’re a season ticket holder, you know your way around. But with this, everything was somewhat temporary, with the exception of the PADEX. How did it manifest itself?

What would be the PAM experience if I went to that I wouldn’t because I just wouldn’t want to deal with all the crowds, 

Robert Johnson: Yeah, you nailed it. There are a couple of them out there. Miami is similar to Vegas because it’s a semi-temporary structure.

There are now some permanent structures at both venues, but there are a few of them out there, in the world, but yeah, Vegas, in particular, was really unique, and they had a lot of challenges that they were very proactive in trying to solve this. You had to walk through Caesars Palace. You had to walk through the Bellagio. You had to walk through some of these hotels to navigate to your seat, to your area, maybe the party, or the venue that you needed to get to. 

I didn’t have the ability to attend the event, but I know, for example, the Formula One Las Vegas hat sold out. It’s an interesting fact that they didn’t make enough. They didn’t realize that, but that was the one piece of apparel that everybody wanted to buy. 

Probably because it was the one thing they could afford. 

Robert Johnson: It’s the one thing that they could afford, but everyone wanted to walk away and wear their Formula One hat, and as a takeaway for the event, they’re like, okay, we need to put more hats around, we need to allow people to buy this apparel easier, we need to help people get to those locations easier. 

I think you’ll find this interesting too, Dave. I talked a little bit about the data, the heat maps, and the journey maps that we provided a second ago. That was a huge win for Formula One and the casinos. We were able to go back and show them. I’m going to make the numbers up because I don’t have them in front of me, but let’s say throughout the weekend, 50,000 people needed to navigate through the Bellagio or the Caesars Hotel to get from point A to point B, and we showed it, we could visually show them people were going and why they were going there and what the places they searched for. But because it was the race’s first time, we didn’t do any interiors for the Bellagio or Caesars. We just had the exterior of the building. 

So now we’ve contracted with those properties to do the interiors so people can more easily navigate those facilities and get to where they need to go because they were like, we spent way too long trying to get through this hotel. We didn’t know how to get through. 

Yeah, and Las Vegas is a textbook example of where navigation is incredibly valuable. I’ve been to Las Vegas 40+ times, and if I go into something like Caesars, I’m going to get lost. There are no straight lines. 

Robert Johnson: Yeah, there’s no straight lines at all.

Our integration with Ticketmaster also played big into that one as well, again, if you’re Dave and you bought a pass for you’re going to be sitting at Turn 12, you’re going to have parking around Turn 12. Your entrance is only going to be at Turn 12, and so when you want to scan your QR code or you want to get directions, our integration is going to say, we know Dave, bought parking here. We know he’s staying at this hotel. We’re going to get him to his property. Again, that integration with Ticketmaster was a really big value-added feature for the curated content experience. 

So, how does the digital signage component work? Typically with a wayfinding application. It’s a file that’s going to sit in a digital signage schedule and that’s how the two kind of sync up with each other. but I’m thinking it’s probably a little different here. 

Robert Johnson: Yeah, it is a little bit different. As you would expect, we have a content management system that allows us to manage the content on the map and the digital signage as well and so if you have a non-interactive sign, we can control the content on there. We can control the content if you have an LED parking sign. But there’s a connection between the two, an integration between the two, where if parking lot G gets filled up, we can say it’s full, and we’re going to go ahead and let the digital sign or the LED board say it’s full.

We’re also going to provide that update on the map as well or the interactive kiosk so that all of that content is married up into one kind of seamless user interface. 

So it’s all integrated as opposed to, I’m going to do something with the mobile app and the wayfinding component of this, then I’m going to back right out of that and then launch the digital signage piece and do other things.

Robert Johnson: Yeah, exactly. The name of that platform with the digital signage is called 360 Live. That’s what we call it. It’s like a full 360 experience, but that’s the idea. You don’t have to go into two or three different systems. We don’t have multiple content management systems. We’ve got one that has its parking application. We’ve got one that just handles navigation. We’ve got one that handles the digital signage, but when you make an update on one, it updates across all of them.

You mentioned Daktronics and Gable. I’m assuming you guys avoid the hardware side of it.

Robert Johnson: Yes, thank goodness. We do. I would have nightmares if I had to get back into the hardware game. So yeah, we work with those guys to partner with them on the hardware piece. 

So is it something that you license via SaaS, or is it an on-prem thing? 

Robert Johnson: Yeah, it is SaaS. We’re a software as a service company.

We have managed services as well, but yeah, like a lot of companies nowadays, we have an ongoing recurring annual software fee that includes software support, maintenance updates, all the features we roll out. We’ve got initial set up fees for us to build out the beautiful artwork set things up and get it integrated. but once it’s up and running, our clients can manage it on their own. 

Formula One’s done a great job of that. SoFi has done a great job of that. But a lot of these teams have really small marketing teams, and they rely pretty heavily on their vendors and so we do a lot of hands-on management of their applications for them. 

We’ve known each other for a long time. One thing that I’ve noticed on LinkedIn in the last, I don’t know, two or three years is a lot of posts by you about something called the Robert Johnson project, and it seems like you’ve been on something of a personal journey and the undertone of, it seems to be that you realized I was working my ass off and maybe not paying enough attention to my family. 

Robert Johnson: You nailed it, Dave. You really did, and that probably just comes from years of experience that you have ahead of me. I’ve always been big in professional development and training and things like that and I started working very closely with a coach and coach, Townsend Wardlaw. I don’t, Townsend Wardlaw. A good friend of mine, who I have known for 20 years, came back into my life, and yeah, I spent a lot of time working with him, I used to think that the number one thing in my life was work and success and money and getting up the food chain and I did a lot of that and I, and there was a kind of a cost to it, and the cost was a lot of travel. What you and I did together on occasion, a lot of it was late nights and dinners and president’s club and all that stuff was awesome. 

I had two kids while I did all that, and man, it’s tough because without having done all that, I wouldn’t be the person I am, and I wouldn’t have a lot of the success maybe that I’ve had, but I pumped the brakes as I got close to 40. I joke, Dave, and I say I could write a book called 38-39-40, and when I was about 38, this all kind of came to a head, and I realized, the number one thing in my life is my kids, my wife, then sales and me. If I can work on all those things and put my family ahead of everything else, everything else will follow, and I’ll still be able to have a really successful life. Yeah, I posted a lot about that on LinkedIn, and I still do occasionally because it’s a big part of what I’m doing.

Now when I think about LinkedIn, I’ve got three kinds of things or passions, and one is my life. One is sales. I love posting about just sales, and then one is PAM and those are like the three buckets of things I enjoy talking about and posting about, and I don’t have to try to do it. It just comes out naturally.

So a lot of people have that journey and realize, you know what, I need to pay more attention to my family and not be so obsessed with work, but they don’t call it a project, and they don’t put it up on LinkedIn. That’s not a criticism in any way. I’m just saying I’m curious why you did that. 

Robert Johnson: Wow. Why did I do it? Everyone’s different, but for me, when you say something, you hear it, and you put it out there, it just becomes real. It becomes really tangible and real, and it becomes something that you live by, you wake up, and you know it is there, and you can come back to it every time something bad happens, you have a bad day, or if something didn’t go the way you wanted it to.

When you go back to what your purpose is… I have a purpose and my purpose, it goes, actually goes in this order. I misstated earlier, but it’s my wife, it’s my kids, it’s me and it’s sales. Those four things are my purpose on LinkedIn. I’ve got another mission statement, and it’s to connect with, motivate, and inspire as many people as possible. I come back to those things. If anybody asks, what are you doing on LinkedIn? And I said, look, I just. I just want to connect with people. Why do you want to connect with people? I want to see, if maybe I can motivate somebody. Maybe I can help somebody. Maybe I can inspire somebody.

It hasn’t been quite two years, Dave. I started my journey. It was like September, almost 18 months ago, and man, I helped a friend. I said, now she’s a friend, a woman at the time who really wanted to get into Formula One, and I made a couple of introductions, and literally about four months after I made some introductions to her, she was on a plane to the UK and gave a live in-person talk about UX and UI design to Silverstone. And that’s inspirational and motivational to me and it all started with a connection, and LinkedIn serves a lot of purposes. That stuff just makes it exciting and fun, and I’m going to keep doing it as long as it’s still exciting and fun. 

As you know, running a podcast and stuff can sometimes feel like work, and when it becomes work, and it becomes really hard, and it’s not fun anymore, I’m sure that you would probably just turn it off and walk away if it became really painful and crappy. 

All right, Robert. You talked about connecting, and it was great reconnecting with you. We need to stay in touch more.

Robert Johnson: Yeah, Dave, really appreciate the reconnect here. This has been great, man. I’m just so happy for you with your business and everything you got going on and, yeah, thanks again for having me on. 

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