NEIL Hart says he was surprised by the backlash which greeted the introduction of a membership scheme at Wanderers back in October but the club CEO feels time has shown the decision to be a correct one.

Complaints flooded in a few months into the new season when – responding to a sharp rise in misbehaviour at the University of Bolton Stadium – the club asked fans to re-register their data as part of a major update to the ticketing system.

The announcement caused a degree of consternation, not only among those who felt liberties were being impinged, but also those who struggled to access online registration or who encountered problems during an unprecedented in-season rush.

At the time, Hart took no small measure of personal criticism as the public face of the scheme but several months on the upset has subsided and he believes the club can now operate at a level it has never managed before.

Speaking to The Bolton News, he says the huge uptake from supporters gives the club scope to communicate and monitor at a 21st century standard.

“It has definitely been a success,” he said. “As I said last Autumn when we released the membership after a number of games which had been affected by disorder it was a recommendation that had come from the SAG and the police that we should be looking at data and knowing who was in the ground.

“The membership was launched and we have been running with it for about nine months now. We have 25,700 members.

“It is a free membership and takes 30-60 seconds to do.

“We have 25,000-plus sets of clean and current data, who has been in the ground, where they are sitting, where they live. All that is kept confidentially and it has been a huge success.

“It means that not only can we now communicate more to those fans – for example, if we have fantastic season ticket offers on – we can go out in a targeted way and tell people about the unbelievable opportunities to engage with Bolton Wanderers. Nobody should miss anything.”

Hart had been accused of treating supporters like ‘customers’ – something he disputes entirely – but he accepts the timing of the scheme and the volume of replies did lend itself to problems, and ones which are hopefully now behind them.

“The level of criticism did surprise me, I have to say,” he said.

“To me, it’s 2022. I went to a concert in Manchester the other day and had to join their venue database – tell them my name, postcode, date of birth – because that’s the information they needed.

“Gone are the days now where you can turn up to big sporting or entertainment events, pay at the counter, pay £25 and you are just given a ticket. Those days are gone.

“We live in a data digital world and that is all part of modernising this football club. It has definitely worked.

“At the time we felt it would be successful but we understood some supporters would have issues with it, more because it was slung upon them – we apologised at the time for that but it really was a necessity.

“This summer should be easier. When you are a member, you are a member for life. We might do a refresher now and again – annually or biannually – to update things but we’ll communicate that.

“But the main thing is that it has worked. And we expect it to grow as well.

“The membership isn’t just free but it gives you additional benefits – 10 per cent in the hotel, 10 per cent in the club shop. They are tangible.”

Wanderers will announce four of their pre-season friendly games on Monday afternoon, with “three or four” more planned for the summer after the team returns from a training camp in the Algarve.

There will be a home game on July 23 at the UniBol, where Hart hopes supporters will see improvements around the interior and exterior of the stadium.

Now 25 years old, parts of the ground have started to show signs of wear and tear. Football Ventures have had to prioritise since taking over the stadium and hotel in 2019 but are now starting to tick off items on the ‘to do’ list.

“When you look around, I have felt – and so has Sharon (Brittan), the board, Ian (Evatt), that there are places that are starting to look a bit tired and haven’t had a bit of TLC for many years, really, and it hasn’t been a priority,” he said.

“But this summer it does feel like we should get round it, and we are. The supporters will see a lick of paint on the lower areas of the stadium. We’ve had rusty doors painted different blues across the stadium – but now we have one pantone blue colour which is being rolled out across the site!

“Doors, rails, barriers are being sorted, we’re doing repair works in the concourse and more painting there too. It’s a real spruce up, externally.

“Supporters should also see improved signage on the car parks and on the turnstiles as well.

“And looking at Lostock we have been working with Ian on rejigging a few of the spaces and smartening things up so it suits how he and the players want to operate.

“Hopefully the fans will be pleased we’re trying to do things in a sensible way, within budget, and we’re trying to move things in the right direction.

“It will be a busy summer. Ian and Chris (Markham) will be focussed on the football side of things but elsewhere there is plenty going on as well.”

Wanderers intend to bring back discounted tickets for ‘Family Days’ next season and potentially introduce a third fixture before Christmas.

“We ran two family days last season, the Rotherham fixture and then the Accrington Stanley fixture on Easter Monday. I think we had just over 20,000 for the first one and 19,000 for the second, which was really good,” Hart explained.

“I think it benefitted the club hugely to attract some supporters who maybe cannot get the season ticket.

“We will definitely be keeping them in place for the forthcoming season and we’d like to extend them from two to three family days and work closely with Bolton Wanderers in the Community about staging other activities. Hopefully with the FanZone in place as well we should ensure they are special days for everyone.”

Another aspect of stadium life which has changed recently is the temporary Nightingale Court, which was opened last March in an effort to clear a backlog of local cases after the pandemic.

“The courts have moved, they have dealt with the backlog and gone off-site,” Hart confirmed. “They have been great to work with and the revenue has been really good for the football club.

“That means we can reopen our suites in the West Stand, particularly the Platinum, which is our largest premium lounge. Customers who migrated over to the Hall of Fame and Lion of Vienna can move back.

“We’ll then open up the hospitality right the way through the stadium. I feel like I have talked a lot about crossing T’s and dotting I’s but I am literally doing that today, so we aim to be in sale next week and be in contact with all our hospitality partners to give them the option of where they want to be and what they want to do.

“I think it is really important to say that we’re undertaking a light refurbishment of those spaces as well, a lick of paint, new carpets etc. That is important because some of those spaces have not really been touched for 20 years and they are starting to show some signs of wear and tear. We’re trying to get that done during the off-season and work is underway on it already.

“We just want to open those areas now and get as many people enjoying the hospitality as possible.”