SBJ/20080623/SBJ In-Depth

Creating experiences that pay off

Corporate hospitality at sporting events started out as a way to entertain clients with a ticket and a hot dog. It has developed into an industry with sophisticated methods to determine return on investment and a focus on providing a first-class experience.

“It’s actually a robust, growing portion of the sponsorship world over the last four to five years,” said SportsMark CMO Keith Bruce, who works with clients such as Visa and Xerox. “The industry is in a pretty healthy place compared to some others.”

The exact size of the corporate sports hospitality industry is unknown, but industry executives estimate the size between $1 billion and $2 billion annually, depending on the timing of high-value, quadrennial events such as the Summer Olympics and FIFA World Cup.

During golf’s U.S. Open, Lexus rolled out a
hospitality program called Style Villa Sports
to entertain guests at the Hard Rock Hotel
in San Diego.

Brands and agency executives point to two areas that have shaped changes to corporate hospitality in recent years: more of a focus on ROI and providing high-quality, unique client experiences.

Proving ROI was a natural outgrowth from existing legal guidelines that limit what companies in various industries, banking for example, can spend on individual clients.

“Prior to developing our experiential marketing programs, it’s imperative that we have a clear understanding of legislation, legal and internal guidelines, so that once we develop those plans they are absolutely in keeping with those rules,” said Dan Fleishman, senior vice president and director of sponsorship alliances at Wachovia.

Like all banks, Wachovia tracks and limits the amount spent on clients hosted at sporting events, concerts, dinners, etc. It also assigns dollar values to spending on guests attending the PGA Tour event it title sponsors in Charlotte.

That focus on ROI has extended into other industries. Many companies now emphasize ROI by tracking which guests attended an event and whether business objectives were reached.

“It’s now about setting and meeting objectives to establish ROI,” said Octagon North America President Jeff Shifrin. “It’s no longer ‘Come to the event, have fun and maybe we’ll get the sale in a couple weeks.’”

One benefit of hospitality over other forms of marketing is the ability to directly tie new revenue to an event, as opposed to trying to associate sales with advertising impressions. “It’s so much easier to understand the ROI in hospitality than when you’re putting an ad out on TV or a billboard,” said Robert Tuchman, president of Premiere Corporate Events, formerly TSE Sports & Entertainment.

SportsMark was one of the first agencies to track hospitality ROI. The agency uses a proprietary system called Strategic Event Evaluation Platform that helps clients identify the types of guests they should invite to an event and create objectives to be measured at the conclusion of the event.

Bank of America operates a traveling hospitality
venue to leverage its sponsor relationships in
NASCAR (above) and golf.

The manner in which returns are measured also has changed. Many companies that used to be satisfied simply with anecdotal returns about client experiences are now empirically measuring attitudes toward the host and how that translates into revenue.

That means integrating more business meetings and product showcasing to make the most out of the time between companies and their clients. Business meetings are an increasingly important part of creating something larger for each client and event.

“It used to be about big shrimp,” Shifrin said. “It was about getting people tickets and then getting them back to the hospitality so they could dip the shrimp in the cocktail sauce. But everybody started realizing that a suite just wasn’t enough anymore.”

At the Super Bowl and Masters, the two most popular annual events in corporate hospitality, the ancillary activities have become an integral part of the overall experience. That means arranging for flight, airport transportation and lodging, and extends to first-class dinners, celebrity appearances and other activities to supplement the actual sporting event.

“The event is such a minimal part of the program,” Tuchman said. “It’s really about the overall experience because when you go to the Super Bowl or Daytona 500, you might be there for four or five days.”

CitiFinancial leases mobile transports that
can be wrapped in the company’s marks
and used for private hospitality.

At the U.S. Open this month, Lexus, a USGA partner, sponsored a new sports hospitality concept called Style Villa Sports, run by Miami Marketing Group and Peter Jacobsen Sports. The event brought together approximately 800 celebrities, athletes, models, sports industry executives, Lexus clients and select local residents for a one-night party at the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego.

As a whole, most buyers and sellers of hospitality say professional golf still provides one of the best opportunities for them to entertain and interact with clients.

AT&T, which sponsors the Masters and two PGA Tour events, as well as numerous other properties, sees its best ROI in golf. “Golf tracks very, very high at all levels, from (PGA Tour) tournaments to one-day tournaments and clinics,” said Lora Watts, senior vice president of global customer events for AT&T. “Golf is a high producer.”

Brands and their consultants say golf provides long periods of time to entertain clients in a high-class venue with no assigned seats. It also is one of the few sports that people watch on television and play on weekends.

Another advantage to golf is the pro-ams that allow buyers of sponsorship and hospitality to play with some of the top-ranked players in the world each week on the LPGA and PGA tours.

“It gives you a chance to get out there with your favorite player, whether it’s Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods or Trevor Immelman, and play 18 holes of golf,” said Peter Jacobsen, a longtime PGA Tour player whose agency stages events and consults brands in the golf space. “If you’re a baseball or basketball fan you can’t hit a pitch off Roger Clemens or go one-on-one with Kobe Bryant.”

NASCAR also has become popular due to its willingness to allow access to garages and pit areas, and its drivers and team owners are arguably the most accessible in sports. During this year’s Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, driver Robby Gordon hit the Jim Beam party deck shortly after his Beam-sponsored car was knocked out of the race.

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“I don’t think anyone’s ever going to touch the access that NASCAR gives,” Shifrin said. “NASCAR is about having meetings with drivers before the races and getting into the pits and seeing the cars close up. They are providing access that other people can’t get. When you’re sitting there talking to Dale Jr. a couple hours before the Daytona 500, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Similar to other sports, corporations are looking for first-class experiences in NASCAR, which has led track owners SMI and ISC to install more high-end clubs such as Octane at Phoenix International Raceway. The 100-person club mixes NASCAR races with views of the mountains and a menu of sushi and various wine labels.

SMI opened a similar club at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in the late 1980s, providing credence to the complaint that despite the growth of corporate hospitality, some sports are providing the same hospitality formula week after week, year after year. As a result, some brands are supplementing existing offerings with programs that fit their own needs.

Bank of America has operated its Hogan’s Alley traveling hospitality venue at golf tournaments for the last few years, and recently created a similar version to leverage its NASCAR relationships.

CitiFinancial, Vitaminwater and Toyota are among the many companies that have leased SkyDeck mobile transports, which are parked on the infield and feature meeting space, private bathrooms, TVs, dining areas and full bars, and offer the ability for a company to wrap the entire vehicle in its marks.

Driver Robby Gordon, far right, poses
with fans inside a party lounge set up
by sponsor Jim Beam.

The desire to create unique experiences will continue to drive the industry in the coming years, leaving some to wonder, what’s next?

“We went from serving good food, then great food and drinks in a tent, to having current and former players and celebrities in the tent making speeches,” Shifrin said. “I want to see what the next level is. Is it some sort of participation?”

Agency executives toss around ideas such as walking alongside a Kentucky Derby entrant to the starting gate or working as a ball boy or ball girl at a U.S. Open, but they admit such participation will likely never approach involvement in an actual competition.

“We haven’t had anyone ask to play Augusta with Tiger Woods,” joked Shifrin.

Most brand consultants see professional golf, and specifically the Masters, as the sport that will continue to see the most growth in hospitality. Gains are also expected in NASCAR, the men’s Final Four and college bowl games.

One trend that bears monitoring is properties like the NFL and NCAA taking more control over the hospitality inventory of their signature events. Many would like to see other leagues and governing bodies follow suit in order to curb the ubiquity of secondary ticket and travel brokers.

“I think properties would be well-served to take over a little more control of their hospitality assets so there is a more centralized process,” Bruce said. “The financial impact on the market can swing wildly based on how much control the properties have on the access.”

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