SBJ/February 11 - 17, 2002/Opinion

NASCAR's a winner off the track, too

What if you had Sunday badges for the Masters and couldn't find a client or a customer to entertain at Augusta National? What if you purchased Super Bowl tickets and your best business prospect declined your invitation?

Unlikely to happen, you say. After all, the Masters tournament and the Super Bowl are oftentimes considered "once-in-a-lifetime" experiences.

But what if you invested in hospitality at the Daytona 500, and none of your corporate partners or company employees were able to travel to the race?

That may be a more realistic concern. Top corporate decision-makers aren't always eager or able recipients when presented with the opportunity to attend a NASCAR event because it occurs during the weekend, cutting into scarce personal time. Additionally, C-level executives — CEO, CFO, CMO and the like — may not understand or relate to NASCAR to the extent that they understand and relate to golf, football, baseball or basketball.

NASCAR's scheduling can pose a problem for its sponsors. The Winston Cup season lasts 36 weeks — plus the weeks immediately prior to and following the race season — in which official Series-hosted activities are conducted. Compared to the NFL's 16-game regular season or the 17-day Olympic Games, NASCAR Winston Cup sponsorship involvement can require a significant investment of personal time, which more than ever is at a premium, for effective activation.

Add in the hassles of race-day traffic and parking congestion that plague most NASCAR events and attracting C-level executives to hospitality functions at the racetrack can prove difficult at best.

Given these obstacles, the question is almost inevitable: Does NASCAR have a role in sponsorship marketing? If business-to-business elements, compliance and performance incentives and corporate hospitality are driving a company's sports sponsorship investment decisions, does NASCAR make sense? The answer remains, more often than not, yes.

The key is to ensure that the sponsorship investment succeeds in achieving the company's specific goals. The strategy remains to creatively leverage the relationship to entertain key customers and clients. Then the challenge becomes doing so without asking those clients to invest a significant amount of personal time — such as a full day or a weekend at the track.

Instead, picture this as an alternative: Key customers are invited to attend a breakfast meeting on a weekday, at an in-town facility. Could be a hotel, a convention center, or even corporate headquarters. These customers are selected and invited by the marketer and paired up with the sales staff or corporate executives.

The meeting agenda includes interactive contests with numerous chances to win racing merchandise and prizes — activities designed to foster teamwork between the sponsor and his/her corporate clients or prospective customers.

The agenda then moves on to an appearance by the sponsor's race team driver, who speaks and receives questions from the audience. The driver's comments weave in the sponsor's key messages and possibly a soft sell of the sponsor's products and services.

Finally, each of the invited guests is given an opportunity to meet and interact with the driver. Photographs are taken, autographs are personalized, and gift bags are distributed.

Dozens or maybe hundreds of customers have just participated in a two- to three-hour, high-energy, intimate, racing hospitality event, and they're back in their offices before lunch.

United Parcel Service, supplementing its many other local, regional and national activities in support of its sponsorship of Dale Jarrett and Robert Yates Racing, has done exactly that — with overwhelmingly positive results.

With six weeks of planning, UPS hosted its customers and prospects at an event on its corporate campus during the week leading up to the fall Winston Cup race in Atlanta. Invitations included an incentive to attend — the chance to participate in contests to win NASCAR-related merchandise as well as the opportunity to meet and interact with Robert Yates during Friday's qualifying session of the NASCAR Winston Cup race that weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The meeting room was filled to capacity, as more than 125 corporate decision-makers attended a breakfast, met Jarrett, saw the No. 88 show car, played racing trivia games, received gift bags, and interacted with UPS staffers.

Supplementing this activity, four days later, UPS hosted a traditional hospitality event at Atlanta Motor Speedway during the race, which nearly 30 additional clients attended.

UPS maximized its B2B activation by connecting its sales force with existing customers and prospects in a setting most conducive to building relationships and converting sales. The company reaped intangible benefits that will no doubt enhance the sales force's efforts.

As this event demonstrated, NASCAR hospitality still works very well, and C-level executives do love racing. They just might not all want to love it on Sunday.

Philip Leopold is managing director of Strategic Sports Group, a sports marketing agency with offices in New York and Atlanta. Strategic Sports Group conceptualized, negotiated and managed the execution of this initiative for UPS.

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Motorsports, NASCAR, Opinion

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