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SBJ/July 21 - 27, 2003/Special Report
Seat size may grow, but revenue still rules
Published July 21, 2003
This display at the recent Association of Luxury Suite Directors conference in Boston shows wide, padded seats that feature computer screens for ordering concessions.
"No question, things are more comfortable and we are also extolling the virtues of larger seats to keep pace with the ever-growing girth of the America population. Both are real trends," said Bruce Cohen, managing director of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Irwin Seating.
"Comfortability is the by-product of the fact that folks are sitting in more ergonomically designed task chairs in their work environment, with better body support. That transition has been made with people's higher expectations in the sports and leisure industry."
Tim Hussey, president and CEO of Hussey Seating in North Berwick, Maine, agreed. "There is definitely a trend to larger sizes with focus on more ergonomics and stability," he said. "For example, our latest chair offers increased lumbar support with more shape and curve to the seatback."
Hussey's "base chair" is widening its seat to 20-21 inches, where it used to be 18-19, he added. "There are occasional requests for 23- to 24-inch chairs."
Granted, seat width isn't expanding at a rapid rate. Arenas and stadiums and their respective franchises still want to make money. Larger seats among the general population mean fewer seats overall in the building, equaling fewer patrons and fewer dollars, said Chuck Bailey, regional sales manager of American Seating in Grand Rapids.
"General seating is more padded but it's not getting any larger simply because of the economics involved and the cost of construction," Bailey said. "Revenue is still the name of the game."
Premium areas, luxury suites and club seats are where seating is experiencing growth in physical scope and increased revenue. Bailey said that University of Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles opted two years ago to install 14,000 club seats rather than put in an additional 40,000 bleacher seats to compete in overall capacity with Southeastern Conference rival Tennessee. "Frank told me he could make more money by making them all club and suite seats," Bailey said.
On the technological side, the advent of so-called "smart seats," while operating in a handful of sports venues, hasn't quite taken hold, because of the significant investment and lack of return, industry officials said. "That technology hasn't seemed to have gone anywhere," Hussey said.
He didn't say specifically what the costs were involved with smart-seat technology.
"There have been a number of experiments and attempts with varying degrees of success. There's a reluctance because of the initial investment and the technology curve. It goes so fast that you can quickly find yourself with an obsolete system. We're dabbling in it, but there is no best solution at this point."
In the late 1990s, ChoiceSeat attempted to equip seats with computer monitors that would allow fans to view replays and statistics, access video feeds and observe various camera angles. But ChoiceSeat went out of business due to a failed business model, said Rich Krezwick, president and CEO of the FleetCenter in Boston.
"We were a ChoiceSeat beta site where they used us to test the equipment," Krezwick said. "Upon their bankruptcy, we were able to secure much of their hardware and are now doing it in-house [with wall-mounted units in the 104 suites] to produce a similar 'show.'
"The software was very good. We do have an additional 100 screens throughout the building in a kiosk presentation. Between periods, it's a fun tool to pass the time. But I haven't seen [the sale of] novelties or food work in wired or handheld systems."
During the recent Association of Luxury Suite Directors conference in Boston, Krezwick saw firsthand one of the latest in-seat devices showcased as part of the Ellerbe Becket-designed "Suite 20/20."
The structure included a touch-screen display for concession ordering mounted beside the suite chair, developed by FanUnlimited of Dallas. Mark Panko, a former NBA Mavericks marketing official, is among the principal owners of FanUnlimited. The company has an alliance with American Seating.
"We're focused on bringing to market a more efficient and expedient point-of-sales system for venues," Panko said. "Smart-seat technology is all based on the business model. It wasn't prudent for teams to use ChoiceSeat because there was no revenue piece tied to the team. It was just replays and stats."
FanUnlimited's system has the "means to drive per caps and provide incremental income opportunities through the system's sponsorable [in-seat] components," he added.
Mobile Stream of Richardson, Texas, is another new firm promoting in-seat technology with pocket PC or high-end PDA units that can be used not only for ordering food and merchandise, but to receive scanner signals and in-car camera signals during auto racing events.
CEO Bob Gessel, formerly with Ericsson wireless telecommunications, said he is still negotiating revenue-sharing possibilities between Mobile Stream, the tech distributors, venues and the networks involved in the Indy Racing League and NASCAR. Mobile Stream showcased its product for potential investors and partners during live events in March and June at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.
FanUnlimited, working with food service provider Levy Restaurants at the same race track, is targeting NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Silverado 350 on Oct. 11 and the IRL's Chevy 500 Oct. 12.