SBJ/July 22-28, 2013/In Depth

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  • Selling the experience

    Corporate clients and sports fans want exclusive, memorable travel and hospitality experiences, and agencies are responding.

    Imagine going onto the field after the final whistle blows at the Super Bowl, meeting hoops stars at the Final Four, trying on a World Series ring, or seeing up close the prized thoroughbred horses that will run in the Kentucky Derby.

    Fans enter the NFL On Location hospitality area
    at Super Bowl XLVI.
    Photo by: QuintEvents
    Such innovative experiences are helping to drive a strong sports travel and hospitality business. The industry also is benefiting from reduced scrutiny over corporate spending and a push by teams, leagues and events to build revenue and have more control over the fan experience.

    People and companies patronize agencies such as QuintEvents, SportsMark, PrimeSport and Jet Set Sports to secure an experience that includes a great seat, private hospitality areas, hotel room, ground transportation, private entrance into the host venue, player meet-and-greets, and admittance to related activities.

    Sometimes, clients want something really special.

    “People have asked if they could propose marriage in the Paddock Club at the Kentucky Derby,” said Brian Learst, CEO of QuintEvents. “We’ve been able to accommodate that.

    “We’ve had people who have requested to do laps around a track in a high-performance car, and we’ve been able to make that happen.”

    Whether it’s individuals seeking to fulfill the dream of attending a certain event, or companies wanting to entertain
    and reward clients or employees, travel and hospitality companies are reporting an uptick in business.

    Prices vary widely for sports packages, as demonstrated by some of the offerings from QuintEvents. The company charged between $2,700 and $10,000 per person for packages to the 2013 Super Bowl in New Orleans.

    Its top deal for the Kentucky Derby is the Millionaires Row package, $9,599 per person, and includes tickets for both the Kentucky Oaks and the Derby, a three-night hotel stay, hospitality, ground transportation, and fast access to the racetrack.

    Derby fans who bought a previous Quint-Events trip to Churchill Downs were given a tour of the backstretch area, and met famed jockeys Steve Cauthen and Pat Day in the hospitality area.

    A package for the 2014 NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans includes the game, Slam Dunk contest, three-point shooting contest, rookie challenge game and access to a hospitality center. Packages range from $1,799 to about $8,000 per person. At previous NBA All-Star games, the company has introduced patrons to basketball greats George Gervin, Chris Mullin, Robert Horry and Darryl Dawkins.

    Red Sox Destinations hosts Sox fans either at home games at Fenway Park or on the road.
    Photo by: Red Sox Destinations
    Adria Manente, event and trade show manager for Icon International, a specialty finance company in Stamford, Conn., has purchased at least 30 Super Bowl packages annually for several years from Quint-Events.

    Manente said the packages curry favor with her clients. “You get to know the client on a personal basis, outside of the office. It’s always been for the better.”

    On the college front, two competitors just joined forces, with PrimeSport purchasing Premiere Global Sports in mid-June.

    Premiere specializes in travel packages for college sports — it has relationships with 40 colleges — and NASCAR events. PrimeSport focuses on the BCS championship game, National Finals Rodeo, NCAA Final Four (men’s and women’s), College World Series and Frozen Four.

    “They’re strong in the college travel market and in other areas that are very symbiotic to what we do,” said Greg Nortman, chief operating officer of PrimeSport. “They will give us exposure and greater [participation] among our partners and programs through their college partners and distribution networks.”

    The acquisition increased PrimeSport’s staff from 40 to 100 employees.

    PrimeSport also is the official ticket exchange platform for the Rose Bowl and produces the hospitality village
    John Salley meets with fans at the 2013 Final Four as part of a package sold by PrimeSport.
    Photo by: PrimeSport
    there. For the third year, it’s the official ticket exchange for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, and provides related travel packages.

    Its Final Four work began in 2006 with the men’s event, and PrimeSport has enabled fans to meet basketball stars such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Elgin Baylor.

    “These events and experiences are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” Nortman said. “They want to build in the extras: the hospitality, a place they can sit with friends and other alumni. They also like the ease and convenience of it.”

    The travel and hospitality business is strong on the global stage as well.

    SportsMark has worked the last 12 Olympics and eight FIFA World Cup tournaments, and sells tickets and hospitality packages to individuals and companies.

    The company is gearing up for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Individuals can buy a package that includes parking, a hotel room, ground transportation, a ticket, access to hospitality space outside the stadium, private entry into the stadium and a gift bag. The cost is $1,700 or $2,500. The cost for a private suite begins at $100,000 but can top $2 million to secure a unit for every match in the tournament.

    SportsMark also has worked with the Super Bowl, the Masters, NCAA Final Four, Ryder Cup, NASCAR and more.
    “We’re seeing a resurgence in the market for two reasons,” said Keith Bruce, president of SportsMark. “It gives you access to C-level executives so they can learn more about your company.”

    And secondly, he said, the industry has adjusted to criticism of what some call excessive spending on these packages.

    “From a sponsor viewpoint, the use of tickets and hospitality has been important,” Bruce said. “It came under scrutiny when the economy tanked, being seen as a bit lavish and trying to influence decision-makers through the use of tickets and hospitality packages. … We put a lot of vigor into how sponsors can see this as a responsible investment. … It’s definitely become a more sophisticated industry.”

    Bruce is pushing clients to take a more dispassionate look at what they want to buy.

    “Use more good, solid business analytics — not emotion — to make your decision,” he said. “Don’t use the fact that the CEO loves the sport, therefore we should buy it. Which events will attract the kind of customers that you want to attract?”

    The growth of sports travel and hospitality has encouraged leagues and teams to take a more active role in the business, both to develop new revenue streams and to have more control over the client experience.

    For example, NFL On Location, the NFL’s official source for event experiences and hospitality, puts packages together for agencies to sell. With the exclusive access the NFL can deliver, the league can be choosy in who it allows to sell the packages.

    “There’s always a service level we want these companies to live up to,” said Dave Wintergrass, senior director of events for NFL On Location. “We try to pick the best of the best to work with us.”

    NFL On Location offers ticket packages and event experiences for the Super Bowl, Pro Bowl, NFL games in London, and the draft.

    The Boston Red Sox stepped into the travel business as well. The team not only created the Red Sox Destinations program in 2006, which hosts Red Sox fans on trips to Fenway Park or to watch the team on the road, but now performs the same service for the Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers, Washington Nationals and Cleveland Indians.
    Combined, those teams are offering 23 trips this season, and have run a total of 167 trips, serving 17,000 fans, since 2006.

    “Teams view it as a great marketing tool,” said Tim Zue, vice president of business development for the Red Sox. “Fans are having great experiences and meeting other fans.

    “I think baseball lends itself so well to road trips. Many fans’ bucket lists include wanting to see certain baseball stadiums.”

    Bruce Goldberg writes for the Denver Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

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  • Growth of youth sports ignites a niche in the travel business

    The youth sports travel industry is worth an estimated $7 billion and is growing by 3 to 5 percent annually, according to the National Association of Sports Commissions, with parents investing thousands of dollars each year for their children to participate in travel teams.

    The growth of the youth sports industry has spawned a niche market for travel agencies looking to cater to the teams and families traveling to distant tournaments.

    A youngster tosses a bat into a bonfire at the Slumpbuster tournament during a ceremony aimed to help batters get out of their hitting slumps.
    Photo by: Triple Crown Sports
    Those agencies deal with the challenges faced by tournament directors and team managers who are tasked with coordinating travel arrangements for every player and his or her family.

    For some of those agencies, the executives behind them were inspired to offer their speciality services based on personal experiences.

    Jane Lawrence used to set up the travel arrangements for her daughter’s volleyball team. She recalled having to use outdated photos of hotels from the chamber of commerce. “It would’ve been nice to have a company like ours,” said Lawrence, who co-founded Partners in Team Travel, based in Raleigh, N.C., in 2005.

    Dave King and his wife, Annette, were avid softball players. After playing in a string of poorly organized tournaments, they voiced their opinion to the tournament director, who responded with, “If you think you can do better, why don’t you do it yourself?”

    And they did, starting Triple Crown Sports in 1982 out of Fort Collins, Colo.

    Partners in Team Travel and PYB Sports, headquartered in Galloway, Ohio, are two agencies whose sole focus is on organizing hotel blocks for youth sports travel. They take control of the hotel arrangements and coordinate reservations with each family.

    “We service the hotels, the tournament, and the teams,” said Lawrence, chief sales and marketing officer at Partners
    Guests explore a festival organized by Triple Crown Sports as part of the agency’s tournament in Omaha.
    Photo by: Triple Crown Sports
    in Team Travel. “It’s mostly for the tournament directors and organizers so they aren’t getting calls about hotels.
    They aren’t in the hotel business. So now if they get calls or emails they can just immediately forward them to us.”

    Once hired by a tournament or club, a representative from the agencies will visit the tournament city to inspect the hotel options, looking at the rates, quality of rooms, location and amenities. This can take place anywhere from four months to a year in advance, guaranteeing the hotels a large block of business that they can plan the rest of their yearly sales around. That’s a key factor in allowing the agencies to receive more competitive rates than the families could receive if they booked on their own.

    The agencies then create a website for the families to visit so that they have all the hotel information in one central location, allowing them to explore the options and decide what type of room they want with the rates available. The agencies coordinate with the hotel for each family’s reservation up until the time of the tournament, handling any questions or problems that may arise.

    PYB Sports and Partners in Team Travel provide their services free of charge to the clubs and tournaments, earning their revenue from rebates and/or commissions given by the hotels. The agencies’ main clients are club soccer and girls fast-pitch softball.

    Triple Crown Sports focuses on more than providing a hotel service for tournaments and teams. They use the destination tournament locations to turn the event into what seems more like a vacation. For example, they may work with Major League Baseball to incorporate spring training components, or include tickets to the Indianapolis 500.

    “We really like to partner with those events where the team is coming for other things besides just our tournament; that’s really an important aspect of what we do,” said Keri King, event coordinator at Triple Crown.

    Triple Crown Sports is widely known for its SlumpBuster and Omaha NIT tournament, which the agency owns and stages every year in Omaha in conjunction with the College World Series. The 15-day youth baseball tournament incorporates a festival night with things like a skills competition, a live televised all-star game, and a variety of vendors and games. King said the tournament accounts for about 23,000 room nights in Omaha, topped only by the College World Series.

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  • West Virginia adjusts to $2M spike in travel costs

    West Virginia University’s travel costs shot up $2 million in 2012-13, the Mountaineers’ first season of competition in the Big 12, school officials said.

    When West Virginia left the Big East for the Big 12, the school understood that it would need to make significant adjustments to its travel schedule. While the Mountaineers flew to many of their games in the Big East, they could take a bus to Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Georgetown, which helped to save costs.

    The move to the Big 12 made for long-distance destinations such as Lawrence, Kan.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    There are no bus trips in the Big 12, where WVU’s nearest rival is Iowa State — 870 miles away.

    “We certainly knew going into the Big 12 that we would face some longer trips,” said Mike Parsons, WVU’s deputy athletic director. “We’re working with the conference on some ideas that will help scheduling, possibly do two games in one trip.”

    The $2 million increase in travel costs was the result of longer flights and more of them, Parsons said.

    West Virginia, which uses an in-house travel coordinator who is an athletic department employee, travels by charter flights for its football and men’s and women’s basketball games. The Olympic sports fly commercial.

    Without an airport with a long-enough runway in Morgantown to support larger jets, the charter flights originate out
    of Clarksburg, about 30 minutes away. WVU takes commercial flights out of Pittsburgh, about 80 miles away. Both require the additional expense of busing to the airport.

    The move to the Big 12 also has led some of the Mountaineers’ squads to broaden their recruiting territories. West Virginia increased its recruiting budget last year by $700,000 — on top of the $2 million increase in team travel — to account for longer travel on recruiting trips.

    Some sports, like men’s basketball, already were recruiting on a national basis, but some of the other Olympic
    sports have begun to recruit new territories, Parsons said.

    Adjusting to additional travel costs and new scheduling is part of the conference realignment game. West Virginia isn’t the only school going through it.

    Colorado, for example, was new to the Pac-12 last season and had to make adjustments of its own as it sought efficiencies for life on the road. However, in the school’s first season in the Pac-12, the Buffaloes found travel costs to be flat in 2012-13 compared to the Big 12 the year prior.

    Colorado largely chartered flights for its team travel in the Big 12. That was mostly out of necessity because so many of the schools in Colorado’s former league are in rural settings.

    “We’re doing a lot more commercial flying now in the Pac-12 because we’re flying into larger cities,” said Cory Hilliard, Colorado’s associate AD for business operations.

    The ability to fly commercial has presented Colorado with some savings that it didn’t anticipate. On the flip side, the Buffaloes are spending more on hotel rooms, which tend to cost more in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles than they do in Manhattan, Kan., Ames, Iowa, and Stillwater, Okla.

    Colorado travels farther now that it’s in the Pac-12, but going to major markets such as Los Angeles allows for the use of more affordable commercial flights.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    “It’s been relatively balanced, ironically,” Hilliard said. “We tried to forecast it as much as we could, but things leveled out for the most part.”

    Like West Virginia, Colorado hoped that scheduling arrangements could lead to some cost savings. Each Pac-12 school has a travel partner to make each trip more efficient. For example, when a Colorado team travels to Los Angeles, it often plays Southern California and UCLA on the same visit within a day or two.

    That makes sense, but the evolution of the Pac-12 Networks and the need for live programming across all sports has created some conflicts. If television needs a game on a Wednesday instead of a Thursday, that could change travel plans.

    “The TV schedule has increased the gaps between games and made us re-evaluate the travel schedule,” said Hilliard, whose school has a contract with Christopherson Business Travel to handle flights, hotels and buses.

    The Buffs still charter quite a bit for football, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball, typically on 30-passenger planes for basketball and volleyball, and larger jets for football.

    The distance to other Pac-12 schools also has eliminated any possibility of busing to a game, something Colorado did on occasion to Nebraska or Kansas, especially for the Olympic sports.

    “All in all, I’d say our student athletes are spending a little less time on the road,” Hilliard said. “It’s worked out pretty well.”

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