After finding out that we’d been contracted by University of Colorado to design and develop a new TNEW platform for CU Presents there was a buzz around the After Digital office. A buzz, which personally, became even greater after I was assigned to the project. It’s a major perk of the job, getting to work with fascinating organisations all over the world. So, seven months on to the day, with a new website live and kicking, here’s my diary of my time in Boulder (with both professional and personal highlights included) and everything we've achieved together since.
Working as an integration partner with Tessitura for almost 10 years, this opportunity was set to be After Digital’s second major US project in the arts and theatre sector - following the launch of Experience Arts Salt Lake branding and sites in late 2015, and adding to a complement of other US projects such as Stoneridge EZ-ELD and Scottoiler.
A Project Spanning an Ocean
CU Presents promotes and sells tickets for performing arts events on the University of Colorado Boulder campus. The organisation itself is the umbrella entity for four main series - Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Artist Series, CU Performing Arts and Takacs Quartet.
Across all series and sub-series the organisation presents more than 100 ticketed events every year, as well as numerous educational, outreach and free-to-attend events.
Currently selling over 70,000 tickets a year, CU Presents partnered with After Digital to expertly review, re-design and evolve their current offering to:
- Develop a responsive site that engaged with various user types - event attendees, donors, the campus community, parents of students and the Media
- House all series and subseries content and events under the CU Presents brand
- Improve purchase path journeys and increase number of sales year on year
- Enhance the the user journey for finding information and purchasing Season Tickets
- Optimise user generated content to promote the activities and events on campus.
A few short weeks after being awarded the contract myself and Stephen (our Head of Creative) packed up and jetted out to Boulder, Colorado for what was set to be an intense week of discovery sessions, workshops, meetings and a trip up the mountains (well, when in Colorado).
Day 1 - exploring Colorado
Thanks to jetlag and a late arrival the night before, we woke bright and early ready to explore before our first day in sessions.
Following an authentic treat of waffles, pancakes, bacon, bagels and cream cheese for breakfast (we were hungry) we met the wonderful Laima at front-desk to set out on our adventure up the mountains.
Laima, the Marketing and PR Director for CU Presents, heads up the project client side, and having been with the University for over 19 years was happy to meet with us a day ahead of the sessions to give us the low-down on the project, the organisation and even the upcoming election, all whilst giving us a local’s tour of the area.
Driving through the most breathtaking canyons, creeks and up forest lined roads we arrived at ‘The Chapel on the Rock’ (Saint Catherine of Siena Chapel). The beautiful building, which had withstood a monumental fire at the St Marlo Center in 2011 and a flood in 2013, stood high on its rock with the sun beating down, welcoming us to come inside.
We spent some time touring the chapel before getting back in the car and heading to the lake where we wandered around the trails (cameras in tow) and even spotted beavers paddling in the water.
On the way back down to Boulder city we stopped off at a few towns and villages, including the ‘ghost town’ of Ward - which looked like the set from a zombie movie, and Nederland - made famous for its ‘Frozen Dead Guy Festival’ which spans a few days each March. The festival revolves around the story of Norwegian immigrant Trygve Bauge practicing cryonics on Bredo Morstoel, his deceased grandfather (legend has it that his body is still frozen in one of the barns).To end our day of exploring we popped into a traditional (straight out of a movie) biker bar and did what any unassuming biker would do - ordered a piece of pie and tater tots!
After thanking Laima we spent the rest of the day exploring town - soaking in the atmosphere and culture of the city. We wandered around Pearl Street visiting the outstanding, art deco styled Boulder Theatre, we sampled local beers (there are over 300 Craft breweries in Colorado - it’s known as the State of Craft Beer) and enjoyed venturing into some bookshops and vintage fashion shops.
One thing was clear from our afternoon in town and that was just how big a part the University contributes to the local area. From the CU (Colorado University) Buffalo’s monument, stylised bunting and flags promoting the next ‘big’ American football game, and the signage for shows and productions due to open at the campus, the town was buzzing with energy focused around the organisation we would work with the next day.
Day 2 - exploring the business
Monday began with a tour around campus - the enormity of the grounds became clear as we wandered around the many featured venues, departments and food halls (which included a Subway, Starbucks, Jamba Juice Smoothie bar and Papa Johns - to name but a few). Sitting at just over 600 acres we barely got around half of the campus, but with beautifully pruned grounds, Tuscan styled buildings and a plethora of mountainous views it was an absolute pleasure to behold.
As we met with the team assigned to work on the project there was a clear buzz around the imminent election. So, we kicked off our first session with some Scottish treats, turning discussion quickly to more ‘important’ things like shortbread, Irn Bru and world famous Haggis, before getting stuck into the discovery process.
We use these discovery sessions to get under the service of the client and answer questions not detailed within any brief. We explore organisational objectives, dependencies, limitations, deadlines and dates, personnel, culture and decision making processes. We also begin to expose user personas and map out user journeys, allowing us to then discuss brand application, information architecture and begin low-fi wireframing.
Due to the size of the project, the complexity of its journeys and its third-party integrations the discovery for CU Presents was critical to successful delivery. The workshops and meetings proved highly insightful and motivating - it was clear that the CU Presents team had done a lot of preparation and were clear on what their objectives were for the new site.
Following several hours of chats and interesting exploration, laughs around accents and language blimps, we concluded the first day of sessions and were directed to The Hill for food.
The Hill appeared to be the go-to area for students - most of the fraternity and sorority housing were there, the number of hipster coffee shops could barely be counted on two hands, avocado filled menus were plentiful and the local nightclub was promoting its next big student night.
After grabbing some pizza we decided to ditch student life and head back to Pearl Street to explore some vintage books and clothes stores and even paid a visit to the Walnut Brewery.
Built in a historic brick warehouse and covered in US sports merchandise we opted to try a six-beer taster flight and banana bread craft beer - both receiving the authentic brewery experience everyone had raved about. This was obviously up there with one of the more arduous tasks on our trip.
Tuesday morning was dedicated to ticketing, so we spent some time with their hugely knowledgeable box office management team and staff. Understanding their pain points and requirements was vital in ensuring the site would integrate well with TNEW and After Digital’s T-Bridge solution.
In addition to box office staff, we spent some time with other key stakeholders of the site, including the Department Chair of the theatre and dance department Bud Coleman. Requirements from the Series Leads included:
- Not losing sight of their Series under the umbrella of the CU Presents brand
- To ensure donations were still highlighted as a CTA
- Allow students to find events quickly and easily
- Ensure events were shareable them with family and friends
We were welcomed into the theatre and dance department and shown around the studios and theatre hall where both teaching and event attendance regularly take place.
Finding the right technology for the job was key. With several systems already in place, the team had preconceptions on what the right CMS was, but our mantra is always to work back from the requirements to identify the best tool. Over lunch with the CU Presents tech team we discussed the CMS platform options for the new site with the two main contenders coming out as WordPress and Drupal. Both open source solutions, with clear advantages and disadvantages.
This was our opportunity to understand the technical architecture of the current site (and other dependent systems) and the needs/requirements that the new site would need to satisfy.
Using this information, coupled with the requirements set at the discovery sessions, we were able to strategically select a CMS platform best suited to achieve these, but also to allow scope for development of a platform that would scale and flex to the client’s future needs.
Following our conversations with Series Leads, Laima told us it was time to view a hidden gem, buried deep within the depths of the campus - what was inside... we had no idea!? Well, dear readers, I can inform you that inside we were met with an incredible LEGO model of the University of Colorado campus!! From the tiny little theatre with actors on stage, to the football pitch with mountain backdrop, the model was an exact replica of the key buildings, venues and attractions at the University - a clear indication of their love for this organisation and its many achievements.
Walking around campus that day was an ‘experience’. The election was due to take place that evening and the students and faculty were out in force guiding individuals to the nearest voting point, slapping stickers on t-shirts and whirring around the paths on buggies with loudspeakers reminding people to use their vote.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t vote, but with Colorado being a vastly Democratic leaning state it was visible that most people on campus were hoping for a win from Hillary.
Although the evening did not fare well for Hillz there is no denying Stephen or I will ever forget the atmosphere and general friendliness and togetherness of the crowds that evening in town. We watched the election from a bar in town which had live footage, vote announcements and stats - the crowd went wild every time a state was won by Hillary, however, (as we all know) that slowly transitioned to a win for Trump.
Wednesday began like the others - sunny, fresh and with the smell of bacon and pancakes luring us to the breakfast bar!
Whilst at breakfast the TV’s in the room had different stations recapping the results of the evening before. Laima came to pick us up after breakfast with some sweet treats to kick-start the day.
When we got to the University everyone was chatting about the events of the night before whilst students held a rally over the election outcome. It was fascinating to hear everyone’s take on the election and many likened it to ‘Brexit’ for our appreciation.
The session for the day focused on user journeys and information architecture and the beginning of our wireframing workshop. As the team were highly committed to the project and vested in his success it quickly drew their minds away from political events as we delved deep into the psyche of each persona we’d discussed in the days prior. We worked to understand each user's objectives and journeys through the CU Present’s website architecture.
That afternoon we visited the Recreational centre on campus - it was amazing! State of the art fitness centre with high-spec gym, swimming pool, basketball courts, indoor running tracks… the list was endless and the facilities plentiful. The Rec centre seemed to be the hub for all athletes at the University including the many students participating in various clubs.
Mon’ the CU Buffs!
Wednesday evening saw us venture to the iconic Macky Auditorium to take in the sounds of the Symphonic Band. The 70-piece band made up of students and faculty played flawlessly and both Stephen and I watched in wonder and awe in the beautiful building which surrounded us. Watching the concert we both got a feel for one of the many types of events we’d be working with the CU Presents team to promote. We sat observing the audience at the interlude and were able to start picking out individuals in the crowd to test our user personas against.
On our way back to the hotel we stopped off at the institution that is the Dark Horse Bar and Grill. Inside we were taken by surprise - what looked like a biker bar from the outside turned out to be a quirky fun-house full of memorabilia, with wagons strung from the roof, decorated with illustrative artworks and filled with students and sport enthusiasts.
We spent a good half hour wandering around the booths and hallways - all the time wondering if we’d fallen down some Alice inspired rabbit hole on the way back to our hotel, before sitting down to a well-earned beer and burger (there’s a bit of a theme here I realise).
Our final day with the team had arrived!
Friday morning we set off to meet with one of the CU Present’s Series - Colorado Shakespeare Festival (CSF). Beginning the workshops, we delved into the CSF’s unique requirements for the new site whilst Stephen and I summarised the activities undertaken with the CU Presents team over the previous four days.
With the Festival due to begin in June for its 60th Anniversary the team at CSF were keen to have the initial phase of the CU Presents site launched in May 2017, in time for peak ticket sales to take place. Once back in Glasgow, this allowed us to construct a timeline to achieve the launch of phase one in early May 2017, with key areas for this prioritised and balanced according to other organisational needs.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival is an iconic pearl of the Boulder community with patrons returning year on year with new generations to keep the legacy going. With a beautiful outdoor theatre (The Mary Rippon Theatre) built at the centre of the University campus the team work annually to prepare and perform the works of Shakespeare welcoming over 25,000 attendees.
The reminder of our final morning of the team was spent reviewing the previous workshops, summarising conclusions and agreeing the next steps for the project. This enabled us to update our project plan and create clear, agreed milestones.
Having worked so closely with the team, lunching with them and spending our evenings with them at shows the final afternoon was slightly bittersweet - I think we’d all have loved to have continued working through the project together in close proximity.
The CU Presents team very kindly invited Stephen and I out for lunch that afternoon to celebrate the relationship, busy week and exciting project ahead. We headed by bus back into town and found ourselves at one of their favourite Friday haunts - Rio Mexican. We were treated to authentic and delicious Mexican cuisine and enjoyed a few frozen margaritas, whilst discussing the upcoming holidays, family trips, Glaswegian life and simply enjoying the last few hours in each others company.
Our last evening in Boulder was spent at another show - this time presented by the Artist Series at CU Presents. We were back at the Macky but this time we weren’t attending a Band performance - this time round we were here to see the sold out highly anticipated Manhattan Transfer and Take 6.
The show and atmosphere were electric and Stephen and I left with yet another great night and memory to take home, as well as an insight into yet another experience on offer from CU Presents.
“We chose After Digital to redesign the CU Presents website after a very competitive bid process. They immediately stood out for their rich understanding of how best to approach digital communications, especially within the performing arts industry.
Our teams may be located across an ocean, but it feels like we have a true partner working right alongside us.”
- Laima, Marketing and PR Director, CU Presents
Seven months on, an ocean apart, a lasting relationship
It’s now been seven months since our amazing trip to meet and work with the team at CU Presents in Boulder, Colorado and a lot has been achieved.
- We’ve launched an awesome new ticketing site for University of Colorado’s CU Presents - launched ahead of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s 60th Anniversary kick-off
- We’ve established a wonderful extension to our team across the pond
- We’ve earned a better understanding and first-hand experience working with US students, patrons and higher education organisations
- We’ve created memories to last a lifetime!