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Audience members line up out side the The Benedum Center; part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust recently installed new weapons detection technology which has trimmed wait times and congestion around venue entrances.

The Benedum Center is part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. (Photo by J. Merritt, Getty)

Bringing Back the Arts Without the Friction

In an average year, the three professional sports teams for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—the Penguins, Pirates, and Steelers—collectively attract roughly 3 million fans. But hockey, baseball, and football are not the only major draws in the western Pennsylvanian city.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust features performing and visual arts venues of various sizes across a 14-block portion of the downtown area, and it draws in more than 2 million visitors and patrons annually. Founded in 1984, the district’s nine theaters, numerous visual arts galleries, and several festivals helped shift what used to be a red-light district into a modern hub for legitimate businesses, according to Kevin Wilkes, chief security officer for the trust.

“It really has helped transform downtown Pittsburgh in so many different ways,” Wilkes says. Along with pushing out “seedier” businesses, he adds that the art venues “created such an economic engine in the downtown area” that it attracted new businesses—including restaurants and small boutiques.

With arts patrons also dining, drinking, and shopping before and after the more than 2,000 shows, exhibits, and programs every year, the district has become a “city within a city,” Wilkes says. “That makes its own unique challenges, not to mention some of the challenges that are associated with revitalizing a downtown community,” he adds.

One of those challenges is reattracting visitors to the district after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered venues and businesses. Event attendance across the district in late June 2022 was at about 80 to 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to Wilkes.

That was a big help that created a lot of open spaces and increased area for people to feel more comfortable in terms of coming in.

As more businesses and galleries reopened and performers returned to treading the boards, Wilkes and other members of the trust knew they wanted guests to feel secure while attending shows—both in terms of health and general safety.

“If there was anything at all that came from the pandemic…it really forced us to re-examine a look at our guest screening,” Wilkes says. “We knew that we were going to have to win the hearts and minds back of our guests in terms of making them feel comfortable inside the enclosed space for a period of time.”

Some of the venues began using magnetometers from CEIA in 2017 to screen guests. In fact, selecting a screening solution for guests of the district’s large-capacity venues was one of Wilkes’s first tasks for the trust.

While these scanners were very dependable for weapons detection, site staffers still had to conduct physical bag checks—which dragged out wait times and created congestion.

“We knew that we had to find a health and safety solution that was touchless, that was also reliable, and really conducive to the overall guest experience,” Wilkes says. “…Once the pandemic occurred, guests were not going to be comfortable standing side-by-side in lines very closely together in our screening areas.”

When Wilkes began searching for a touchless solution that would offer visitors a sense of reliability and safety, he came back to a familiar name: Evolv.

Wilkes previously considered Evolv when he searched for a weapons detection solution in 2016. While he was impressed with its level of customer service, at the time he found that Evolv’s products posed challenges that were not present in CEIA’s solutions.

The next time he looked at Evolv’s products, with the impacts of the pandemic firmly in mind, Wilkes says all his concerns had been addressed and resolved, leading him to select the newer generations of Evolv’s Express. In the second quarter of 2021, the trust installed them in three district venues, including at one backstage entrance.

“The thing that really amazed me was just how much of our screening area shrank with the new technology,” Wilkes says. Replacing larger, bulkier detectors—which Wilkes likens to battle tanks—the Express’s slimmer profile provided more space for patrons within the venues. With the district’s buildings designed and constructed prior to considerations for metal detectors or social distancing, allowing patrons to spread out more and avoid congestion is likely to lure visitors back to these venues.

“We regained about 50 to 60 percent of real estate in our screening areas,” Wilkes adds. “So that was a big help that created a lot of open spaces and increased area for people to feel more comfortable in terms of coming in.”

On top of the additional space provided by the physical footprint of the new weapons detectors, the solution also addressed other sources of congestion.

Prior to installing the Express units, another cause of potential friction on the overall guest experience was the need to check “each guest’s briefcase, backpack, or purse,” Wilkes recalls. With the Express solution, the trust’s security team no longer needs to provide additional staff and tables for bag checks. Instead, guests “can just very easily come in—a from the street to the seat experience,” Wilkes says.

As visitors walk into the venue, the detection system uses artificial intelligence to scan patrons for weapons. Although Pennsylvania allows for someone 21 years or older to apply for a license to carry a firearm, the trust prohibits patrons and guests from entering its facilities with any firearms. Guns carried by on-duty law enforcement officers are the only exception.

Sometimes a guest “may forget that they have their weapon on them and come into the building,” Wilkes says. In those instances, the Express system—which includes a tablet for security staff to monitor information from the detectors—immediately pinpoints the location of the weapon and alerts the venue’s flow control officer and threat resolution officer, who are stationed near the detectors.

“The tablet is in front of them, so it shows an image of that person as they cross the threshold of the machine,” Wilkes says. On the tablet’s screen, a box outlines directly over any areas where Express detects potential weapons: on the visitor’s ankle, hip, or hanging from a shoulder holster, or in a briefcase, purse, or backpack. In instances where the Express detects multiple weapons on the same person, multiple boxes alert security staff to the various areas.

“At that time, that person is redirected for a specific search of that area, and then we try to resolve that specific threat that the machine detected,” Wilkes says. So, even when part of the screening process encounters a blockage, security can focus its efforts on targeted areas instead of having to use more time and attention on harmless pocket or bag searches.

As Wilkes considers how to continue improving security throughout the district, he sees an alignment between his hopes for the future and the potential solutions with these detectors.

“One of the additional reasons why I decided to partner with Evolv the second time around is because they are always forward-thinking,” he says.

In his discussions with Evolv, Wilkes has learned that the company is working to “own the digital doorway”—meaning a solution that would both search for weapons and threats while also decreasing friction for the visitor by using additional features, such as simultaneously scanning tickets.

“They’re thinking about these comprehensive solutions that, to me, seem to make this an ideal partnership to grow and move forward with,” Wilkes says. 

For more information about Evolv, contact David Gutshall [email protected].