SBJ/March 13 - 19, 2006/SBJ In Depth

Road trip! Fans look for unique experiences

After a brief slump, the sports fan travel industry is experiencing a surge as everyone from CEOs to Average Joes once again look for the ultimate fan experience that hundreds of travel companies are eager to provide.

Steelers fans soak up the atmosphere and some
drinks as part of a travel package to the Super Bowl
arranged by PrimeSport International.
Industry leaders have aggressively targeted a larger fan base by offering travel packages of all economic sizes to more events, ranging from the Super Bowl to small, regional golf tournaments.

“The idea is to provide an experience for any type of sports fan,” said Kel Kelly, spokesperson for Los Angeles-based PrimeSport International. “For a while travel in general was down. But now, sports fans once again want that unique experience.”

Two out of every five adults attended an organized sports event while traveling in the last five years, according to a study by the Travel Industry of America. For travel companies, that equates to more than 75 million potential customers.

The major events, such as the Super Bowl, Final Four and World Series, are still the bread and butter for most of these firms. Where the industry has seen the most change with these events is in corporate interest.

“Whether it’s to reward employees or to schmooze with potential clients, we’re getting more and more calls from corporations,” Kelly said.

Corporate packages usually include the best seats available for events, transportation, a couple of nights in a hotel suite, hospitality parties, on-site assistants ready to address the client’s needs, and even access to other local events or hot spots. At the Super Bowl, for example, some corporate travel packages included VIP access to the Maxim and Playboy parties.

Professional and collegiate teams are now working with travel firms to provide packages for sponsors, boosters and higher-end fans. The Minnesota Wild, for instance, offers a couple of trips a year for away games that can range in price from $500 to $2,000 a person.

“It gives the fans a unique opportunity to see the team in a new environment,” said Bill Robertson, vice president of communications for the Wild. “And the team gets to show its appreciation.”

Premiere Sports Travel grosses more on its
NASCAR packages than any other sport.
Universities are also using travel packages to thank contributors and select fans. At UCLA, officials are planning a trip for next season’s football game at Notre Dame, the team’s first visit there in more than 40 years. Tickets will cost about $200 a person, and the entire package will range from $870 to $1,200 a person.

“But we’ve set up parameters as far as who could access these packages,” said Marc Dellins, the school’s sports information director. “You can’t be just Joe Fan to qualify. You need to be a donator or someone who has traveled with the team in the past.”

While a lot of the focus is on targeting higher-end clients, travel companies still provide packages specifically designed for average fans who simply want to follow their favorite team or witness what could be a once-in-a-lifetime event. That’s especially the case in NASCAR.

“NASCAR is huge,” said Matt Wagner, a sales representative for Cary, N.C.-based Premiere Sports Travel. “For us, it grosses more than any other sport and there’s a possibility that in a few years it could gross more than all the major leagues combined.”

Premiere packages for this year’s Daytona 500 ranged from $400 to $3,000 a person and could include flight, room and tickets, as well as inside access at the event, such as garage and pit areas.

“NASCAR has allowed intimate access to its fans at these races, and that’s why they’re so popular,” said Justin Macy, president of Dodge City, Kan.-based RaceAway Hospitality Inc. “These packages put you right in the middle of everything.”

And more event planners are catching on, providing intimate experiences that fans couldn’t get any other way. At PrimeSport, one of the most popular packages is a trip to Canton, Ohio, for the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony weekend. The experience, priced at $900 to $1,400 a person, includes the ceremony, parties, parades and discussions with celebrity athletes.

“There are more events available, and the event planners are allowing more access,” Kelly said. “That gives us the opportunity to provide a number of unique experiences for clients. That’s why business is good.”

Jim Martyka is a writer in Los Angeles.

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