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Volume 21 No. 34
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Plugged In: Mike Gomes, Mercedes-Benz Stadium

In his role as senior vice president of fan experience at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Mike Gomes touches virtually every aspect of development at the $1.5 billion facility. Gomes spent 21 years at Disney Corp. before taking his first job in sports three years ago with AMB Sports & Entertainment Group, parent company of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United. At Disney, he rose through the ranks to become a vice president tied to business strategy and new guest experiences at the company’s theme parks worldwide.

We’ve made a lot of improvements after the first [several] events … and to let fans know where things are, such as the baby changing tables.

How he got hired in Atlanta: A recruiter reached out. [Falcons owner] Arthur Blank had said, “If we’re going to do something different and not just repeat what’s been done in sports, we need to hire somebody from a place like Disney.” If you type in vice president and experience and Disney on LinkedIn, my name came up. I wasn’t looking to leave Orlando and Disney, but when I saw the first designs of the stadium, it looked like it was a spaceship that landed from outer space. It’s an NFL franchise and I’m a big sports fan … and there was something cool about being part of starting [MLS expansion team] Atlanta United. I thought, what the heck, let’s give it a shot.

On the Disney model and its influence on sponsorships at Mercedes-Benz Stadium: When a sponsor pays [Disney] a fee, it gives Disney the right to design in cooperation with the brand. [In sports], what I see at most stadiums is lazy activation. I find it to be both interfering and distracting to the fan experience and not adding to it. Our sponsors sat through a multiple-hour presentation that we put together with an experiential design guide. It’s not a style guide like “Here’s the Falcons’ brand and here’s how you can use it.” This was more, “You are now fitting into a stadium where you need to understand what’s around you with food and beverage … and the challenge that your activation needs to be on par with everything else the stadium is aspiring to be.” Give our sponsors credit. They took it as an opportunity to activate in unique ways.

Tweaking the soda dispensers in Coke’s hometown: We had some missed opportunities. There are more than 50 self-serve soda locations over the three concourses, and one of the early trends we heard from fans is they wish we would offer a noncarbonated beverage for $2. [Starting last week] we’re adding [Minute Maid] lemonade and removing one of the Coke Zero Sugar or Diet Coke heads at each location. Adding lemonade also adds water as an option, which fans asked about, too. When we did our original studies, the core four were Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite and Coke Zero, and based on volume of consumption, that’s still the case. Could we have made that decision [for offering noncarbonated drinks] before we opened? Sure, but we were ready to react and adapt. That’s one example of how we’ve done that.

On adjusting stadium gates for smoother entry: Our research shows that seven to 10 minutes is the threshold for people to get in the building before it becomes a negative experience. We started asking questions about how we could get everybody in the building in five minutes or less, and hired [Integrated Insight], led by a woman [Joni Newkirk] who used to work at Disney. They re-engineered our entries in terms of the number of magnetometers and bag-check stations and where to position staff to optimize the process. At the design level, we’ve tried to put that rigor upfront to make sure we get fans into the building quickly and safely.

                                                                                                                            — Don Muret