SBJ/July 22-28, 2013/In Depth

Selling the experience

Creative approach to travel packages helps industry see an uptick in business

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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