SBJ/October 20 - 26, 2003/Special Report

The team’s away, but the stadium’s still open for business

Turner Field in Atlanta can turn its 755 Club into a formal dining room for special events.

Non-event catering at arenas and stadiums has developed into an important part of business for concessionaires as they seek creative ways to improve the bottom line and work with sports tenants to take full advantage of the new generation of multipurpose facilities.

New and renovated buildings in the pro ranks have the ability to play host to a variety of special events thanks to architectural designs focusing on premium dining clubs with conference and meeting rooms. With the teams' blessing, the playing field itself is a sales commodity for dinners and receptions.

Aramark recently completed a fiscal year in which it garnered between $12 million and $15 million in non-event revenue from its sports facility accounts, said Bob Adolfson, vice president of national sales in Seattle. Aramark shares in those profits with teams through their existing contract terms.

"The average revenue for our clients is in the $1 million-a-year range, but some do significantly more. Camden Yards in Baltimore and Turner Field in Atlanta are pushing $2 million per year," Adolfson said. "Baseball arguably lends itself to non-event catering better than other sports because there are more intimate spaces and the field view is better than football."

Concessionaires also have the advantage of leveraging the value of the home franchise and the warm and fuzzy "Field of Dreams" aspect to their prospective patrons. "There's something romantic about being in a sports facility to begin with," Adolfson said. "When there is no one playing, you have the place to yourself. Where we can, we try and capture the team component of an event."

At Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, pharmaceutical firm Pfizer had 100 of its top sales people take batting practice. Their headshots and sales stats were shown on the scoreboard/video screen. Minute Maid Park in Houston, another Aramark account, was the location for a local hospital's annual fund-raiser, a dinner for 2,000 people in center field that included former President George Bush and his wife, Barbara. Terraplas protected the Astros' playing surface.

Ballparks such as Oriole Park at Camden Yards often play host to special events.
Aramark is so aggressively pursuing non-event dates that it has formed a joint venture with Activities Inc. of Newport Beach, Calif. The concessionaire partnered with the all-inclusive meeting planner to develop and package more bookings at Aramark-serviced venues. The two companies set up offices in Los Angeles, Denver, Seattle and the Baltimore-Washington area.

"We're able to develop what is a huge opportunity for high school and college reunions," said Aramark senior vice president Michael Thompson. "Activities Inc. produces the event, provides the transportation and coordinates the entertainment if need be. They are a one-stop shop."

Said Adolfson, "The idea is to get out into the regional areas we work in to make it easier for marketing and social planners to book events in our client facilities. The customer is represented by Activities Inc. and will meet with Aramark. It's a real easy transaction with a single point of contact. Everybody gets to know Aramark and the team and understands the facility real well."

The hospitality industry is starting to realize what sports venues have to offer, Adolfson said. "Sports facilities have been non-traditional sites for meeting planners. They are generally not as aware as they should be as to what we have to offer. There is a tendency for them to think that when baseball is over, we shrink-wrap the place and they can't get in or that it's too expensive to book. Through this partnership, we're getting the word out that it's easy and cost effective."

Adolfson said Aramark tries to position its food and beverage services to be competitively priced when compared to hotel chains.

Aramark's marketing efforts include inviting suite holders and corporate sponsors to "open houses" with food and drink to give prospective customers a taste of the non-event atmosphere. A function at Camden Yards drew 5,000 to 8,000, said Adolfson, the result of a collaboration between Aramark, the Baltimore Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Sportservice, Levy Restaurants, Boston Concessions and Centerplate are others actively seeking non-event business. At Miller Park in Milwaukee, Sportservice keeps busy with its .300 Club function room areas. The Brewers and their food service provider book an average of 150 non-event days annually, with a large concentration slated during the winter holiday season, said Tom Olson, Sportservice on-site general manager.

"From Thanksgiving up until Christmas, we're booked solid, doing four to five per day," Olson said. Non-event revenues can amount to as much as $750,000 a year for Sportservice at Miller Park, he said. "It's nice to have a building with different areas that you can generate cash flow in the off-season. Sometimes it's hit and miss, but overall there's a lot of action to be had both during the season and off-season."

For the second consecutive year, charitable organization Star of Hope booked Miller Park for a Green Bay Packers game to be aired on the giant video board. Last year, 1,400 Packers fans bought tickets for the event featuring a tailgate-style buffet meal. They watch the game from fixed seating.

Sportservice plans to push non-game-day functions internationally when refurbished Wembley Stadium opens in London in late 2005 or early 2006, said John Fernbach, group president of contract services for Delaware North Cos.

"The whole business plan is to augment event days, because only 26 of 365 days will be used for English football and rugby," Fernbach said. "But we can take that venue with its two clubs, one with room for 1,250 and a larger one for 1,650, and turn them into spectacular settings for conferences and other intimate gatherings."

Centerplate senior vice president Doug Drewes said it is difficult for him to quantify non-event business, but said, "There is a much higher focus on that segment now, especially if you're not able to maintain profit margins. To offset the shrinking bottom line, you have to grow the top line. The proliferation of new buildings and nice club areas has us and our clients looking for ways to do that. The newer facilities are approaching it like any convention center does with catering. It's just good business; you get more revenue in the building."

Dan Smith, another Centerplate vice president based in New York/New Jersey, said Yankee Stadium is among the list of older facilities aiming to join its more modern counterparts with non-event business. "We've had several corporate picnics on the field," he said. "The problem is that because the ballpark was built in 1923, we don't have large, expansive space. We have to sell nostalgia — and it sells well."

Andy Lansing, recently promoted to chief executive officer of Levy Restaurants, said the special event side of concessions has always been a priority at Levy. "We're not a Johnny-come-lately. Growing up as a restaurateur, event sales were a major part of our business, maximizing space to attract private groups served by professional sales managers," he said.

"Stadiums and arenas are no different. With a limited number of games, you have this spectacular space, so what better way to use it than for non-event dates. You can't beat the setting. It's a natural. We've done tons of weddings and bar mitzvahs at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. If you have a child involved in sports, there is no cooler place to be."

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