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Volume 20 No. 45
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Running with the Devils

Inside the first day of one club’s sprint to the season after NHL labor deal

The sign on the conference room wall in the offices at the Prudential Center reads, “Sell Like A Devil.” It’s a fitting theme for a meeting of New Jersey Devils ticket sales executives on the Monday morning after the NHL lockout has ended.

They had met dozens of times during the lockout, in anticipation of a season they never knew for sure would happen. But labor peace for the league and the NHL Players’ Association came at 5 a.m. the day before, leading to this happy but manic Monday. (It also might explain the executives’ drinks, which included Mountain Dew, Pepsi and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee). Beginning at 10:30 a.m. on this Monday, Jan. 7, and for the next two hours, Devils Arena Entertainment President Rich Krezwick and eight staffers responsible for season tickets, group sales, ticket operations and database marketing attempted to hit the ground running.

“Have the phones been busy?” Krezwick asked no one in particular. “Compared to, say, Christmas week?”

The cover of the Devils’ “re-entry guide”
“Night and day,” said Allen Ratz, the team’s manager of ticket operations. “Out-going calls and in-coming.”

It was clear, being embedded with the Devils and with unlimited access in their offices on that day-after Monday, that there was much to do. It also was clear that much had already been done. Devils employees had spent their time during the lockout preparing for what they hoped would be a mad dash to the start of the season. The preparation paid off when an early-morning deal between the NHL and NHLPA was reached on Jan. 6. Only formal ratification of the deal by the league and union stood in the way of the NHL releasing a new 48-game regular-season schedule.

As the meeting of ticket sales executives took place, Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek walked the halls of the executive offices, wishing employees “Happy New Year” and urging them to “get excited” for the start of the season. Although Vanderbeek gives autonomy on hockey operations decisions to general manager Lou Lamoriello, the architect of three Stanley Cup teams in New Jersey, including last year’s Cup finalist, he is a hands-on owner. On this day, he will meet individually with all department heads, asking where they need support and offering his assistance. Later in the day, Vanderbeek called sponsors — simply touching base, as he had throughout the lockout. He also read more than 100 emails sent to him by fans over the previous 24 hours.

“I try to talk with fans all the time,” Vanderbeek said. “I give out my email address. It’s important to communicate with anyone who supports your team.”

Vanderbeek is enjoying a happy 2013 so far. On Jan. 3, he refinanced the club’s debt and became the Devils’ sole owner by buying out his three partners. The new collective-bargaining agreement, with an eventual 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue after transition payments, will benefit Vanderbeek and all team owners. (Because the deal, on this particular day, had yet to be ratified, he politely declined when asked how the details of the new agreement would enhance the Devils’ ability to make more money).

Back at the ticket sales meeting, Krezwick moves through agenda items at a quick pace. NHL clubs are accustomed to having regular-season schedules by the middle of July, giving staffers three months before their home openers to devise plans, market and sell. On this Monday, the Devils’ anticipated opener is about two weeks away. So the Devils’ sales staff does what it can. There is a debate over offering partial plans of 10 games and 13 games. With a projected condensed schedule of 24 home games and 24 away, a 13-game plan would be a sort of half-season plan with a baker’s dozen twist.

“No one is going to get what they paid for; they’re going to get more,” Krezwick tells his staff. “The fans are getting a completely new schedule on short notice. The games will be crammed. We know they’ll miss a game because of work or a wedding or something else. I want to give them a free game.”

The rest of the crew supports the plan.

While the 13-game plan will be pitched to prospective customers, it is decided that the team will hold off on the 10-game plan. After much debate, the consensus is that it will be more effective to wait until the schedule is released and make the first game of the plan approximately two weeks after the home opener. This way, the fans have more time to ponder buying the package, and the team has more time to sell it.

There is some early good news. Michael Strickland, the Devils’ database marketing and analysis manager, has his laptop on the conference room table. Strickland updates the staff on the effectiveness of a campaign the Devils ran on the team’s website and social media pages moments after NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA head Don Fehr announced the labor agreement in principle. Devils fans were asked to submit their contact information in order to be among the first to receive the new game schedule and enter a lottery. One fan would win a pair of season tickets.

At 11:10 a.m., Strickland reported that 1,777 fans had entered the contest. At his cubicle four hours later, he informed colleagues that the total was up to 3,427.

“The best part,” Strickland said, “is that over three-quarters of them don’t have any ticket plans with us.”

As the keeper of the Devils’ client and prospect database, Strickland’s role is essential in the post-lockout crunch time. The team has 10,000 season-ticket holders, meaning there are more than 7,000 seats to fill for each game at the 17,625-seat Prudential Center. Using Microsoft’s customer relationship management system, Strickland is able to identify and disseminate sales leads to the team’s season-ticket sales staff.

“It’s how we grow prospects into customers,” Strickland said. “Whenever the season started, we were going to be prepared.”

Strickland’s charts tell him which fans expressed interest in a full-season or partial plan when the lockout ended, which ones have ever signed up for promotions and sales information, and who has purchased tickets for an event at the team’s arena. One long list on his desktop is headed “Lockout-Pending Phase” for the prospects most likely to consider purchasing tickets when a labor deal was done.

Down the hall, the phone rings in the office of Neil Desormeaux, the Devils’ senior director of group sales. As a team employee since 1990, Desormeaux’s clients have in many cases become friends. He was in his driveway in Tuxedo, N.Y., early Sunday morning when a police officer from Farnwood, N.J., called him on his cellphone to say he wanted to book groups for two games once the schedule was announced. This time, the call is from Howard Lippoff, who has ordered group tickets for classes from Fort Lee (N.J.) High School for more than 10 years.

“My mood is a lot better than it was before the lockout ended,” Lippoff told Desormeaux. The two laugh and proceed to do business for a game in March, schedule pending, before saying goodbye.

“Some fans are feeling jilted because of the long break,” Desormeaux said after the call. “My staff’s perspective is that it’s all about customer service. Let’s make it as easy and enjoyable as possible for these group leaders so they want to keep coming back to our games.”

Consistent messaging is crucial to the organization. During the lockout — one in which no Devils employees received pay cuts or furloughs, unlike league office employees and some with other clubs — the Devils created an internal document called “Back to Hockey 10 Day Plan” to be ready during the expected 10 days between the end of the labor stalemate and the start of the season. The document, conceived by Vanderbeek, was written by Krezwick and his staff starting on Sept. 18 and then revised every day over the next four months. While staff had been studying this playbook throughout its revisions, the finished product was distributed to all department heads the morning Bettman and Fehr announced the agreement in principle.

The plan is intended to serve as a textbook for the organization at this point, with subjects labeled “Communications Objectives” and “Season Ticketholder Action Steps,” among many others. There is a page for each day counting down from “10 Days to Hockey” to “Game Day,” with that last page also carrying in its header the words “Let’s Play Hockey.”
“We had been planning for this day for a long time,” Vanderbeek said. “Quite frankly, we didn’t want it to be a day that would be frenetic.”

Rich Krezwick (at head of table) runs the Devils’ first post-lockout ticket sales meeting.
A key component of the plan is the section on positioning: “At some point, a new CBA will be agreed to and we will need to be prepared to engage our fans, sponsors and partners with a clear and concise message that focuses on the game of hockey. We will need to shift attention away from the negotiations that took place, to the positive stance that hockey is back and that the league, teams, and players are committed to the game and most importantly to the fans.”

Putting the focus back on the ice, the Devils created a theme to be used in advertising and all marketing initiatives at the start of the abbreviated season: Drop the Puck.

“The last time games were played, our team reached the Stanley Cup Final,” Krezwick said. “Our history includes three Stanley Cups. Hockey, winning and fans enjoying themselves is where all the attention should be.”

Over at the office of Dana Weinbach, vice president of corporate partnerships for Devils Arena Entertainment, it’s not just about messaging, but about massaging relationships. Because of the lockout, sponsors lost the opportunity to make impressions on the fans for 17 of the originally scheduled 41 home games. During Christmas week, Weinbach and her staff of three went through the roster of sponsors and tried to project what each of them would want as make-goods.

“It runs the gamut,” said Weinbach, adding that she didn’t expect requests for financial refunds. “Bonusing can be anything from extending deals to tickets to just about anything. We’re telling all of them, ‘Let us not just make you whole; let’s make you better than whole.’ We don’t see any negatives. Because so many of our Devils partners also have deals on the arena side — like digital screens on the concourse — we’re constantly in touch with them even when there isn’t hockey.”

Having the Rolling Stones play two of their three U.S. concerts in 2012 at the Prudential Center in December was a timely boon.

“Just a month ago, we were able to make our top partners very happy with tickets to the Stones and access to the crowds those events brought,” Weinbach said. “That was big.”

But at the end of the day, the Devils are a hockey franchise. So at AmeriHealth Pavilion, the team’s practice facility adjacent to the arena, Devils operations vice president Troy Flynn had the ice surface in midseason form in anticipation of the first official practice of the season. “The sheet is ready, the glass is buffed, the locker rooms are prepped,” Flynn said with the smile of a youngster on the last day of school.

Flynn received three phone calls in the immediate aftermath of the labor resolution. One was from Lamoriello, another from Krezwick. “Just making sure I was ready to go,” he said.

But the first call came from Nick Kryshak, the team’s assistant ice technician and Zamboni driver at the arena and the practice facility, reporting that the lockout was over.

“It felt good to get that call from Nick,” Flynn said. “It meant we were back to doing what we love.”