On Location Experiences: Taking over the Super Bowl
When the venture-capital-funded Super Bowl hospitality company On Location Experiences set out to extend its hold on the goings-on around the NFL’s supersized event four years ago, its first acquisition, not surprisingly, was the nation’s largest packager of sports-related trips.
John Anthony founded Anthony Travel with two employees in a Dallas office in 1989. It booked and managed travel for 75 major college athletic programs. Along with moving a vast array of teams hither and yon, it built packages for alumni and fans, taking as many as 10,000 on one memorable excursion to Dublin for a 2012 Notre Dame-Navy football game.
For On Location, the attraction was obvious. Spun off from a department within the league office and funded as a joint venture between NFL owners and three venture capital firms — RedBird Capital Partners, Bruin Sports Capital and Carlyle Group — OLE would need to lean heavily on traditional travel agency services to build hotel and hospitality packages around the Super Bowl. It made no sense to build what it could buy.
“One thing I really appreciate about the private equity piece of this — as opposed to my 25 years at leagues — you can move pretty quickly,” said On Location CEO John Collins, who took the helm in December 2015 after accomplished stints as COO of the NHL, CEO of the Cleveland Browns and head of marketing and sales at the NFL. “You can deploy capital in strategic ways to make acqui-hires, where you need a capability and buy a company, as opposed to you do a search and hire one person, see if that person works out, have that person hire one or two people, and maybe in six months to a year you have a department to activate.
“You go out strategically and go get what you need.”
The acquisition of Anthony Travel was the first in a spate for OLE that were driven initially by the quest to unify the concentric circles of the Super Bowl. Collins soon realized, however, that the same premise that drove OLE’s creation could apply to other major sporting events, and even beyond sports.
The end of 2016 brought the purchase of Kreate Inc. and Nomadic Entertainment, two event production companies known for pop-up concerts and other big events orbiting the Super Bowl, including the massive party DirecTV sponsors each year.
Then, at the end of 2017, OLE added its chief competitor, PrimeSport, which was born as a ticket brokerage around the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and grew into a travel and hospitality provider with relationships with 25 NFL clubs, including 36 of the previous 44 Super Bowl entrants. That acquisition also took OLE deeper into the music business, thanks to Prime’s earlier acquisition of CID Entertainment, which builds high-end VIP packages for fans. OLE made another music acquisition in December with Future Beat, a VIP experience provider that works directly with artists.
Along with expertise, OLE has acquired a breadth that reaches well beyond its NFL roots, the sort of extension that it believes will allow it to grow existing business with the Final Four, the Grand Slam tennis tournaments, the Ryder Cup and the Rose Bowl, as well as to chase upcoming events such as the Olympics, the World Cup and the F1 circuit.
OLE now employs about 500 people in eight U.S. offices, with revenue that last year exceeded $600 million, a breathtaking leap from the $23 million its predecessor logged in 2014, when the NFL ran it internally.
Three years after generating $43 million from about 4,700 packages that included 800 hotel rooms at Super Bowl 50, OLE grew revenue to $175 million this year in Atlanta, an increase of about 20 percent over last year, driven largely by the three new concerts. It sold more than 13,000 ticket packages; managed more than 4,500 rooms; hosted more than 15,000 guests at five pregame parties and 7,000 guests at other parties; managed Super Bowl Live and Super Bowl Experience areas that attracted about 500,000 visitors; and delivered 68 live music performances while operating a three-night Bud Light music festival that brought a combined crowd of about 41,000 to State Farm Arena.
“When NFL On Location was an in-house company, it was really two or three people internally filling that need for the higher-end hospitality experience and putting things together,” said Peter O’Reilly, senior vice president of events and club business for the NFL. “What On Location has become in the last few years has gone to such a different place.”
Wrapping up breakfast with Anthony at the Ritz-Carlton a few days before the Super Bowl, Collins flashed back to the case study that provided OLE’s foundation, and its quest to corral the Super Bowl.
At Super Bowl 50, held near San Francisco, On Location studied the experience of those in attendance, considering not only those traditionally serviced by the league but the many who bought tickets and packages through other channels.
“The NFL had the big hospitality tent where they took care of their 10,000 most important people,” Collins said. “If you were in that tent, you had the greatest experience of your life. So the NFL could feel proud about that. What we focused on is: What is the beginning of the game-day experience for the 50,000 other fans who are coming in to the game?”
For those fans, Collins said, game day opened with a hodgepodge of tailgate parties, often thrown together by ticket brokers, held under tents in hotel parking lots. “And when someone doesn’t have the best experience,” O’Reilly said, “it reflects back to the NFL.”
OLE also reviewed how guests spent the days leading up to the game.
“On Saturday night, there’s 15 different events that are kind of unaffiliated, pop-up entities that are basically riding the back of the NFL to come in and create hospitality around the Super Bowl,” Collins said. “People may want to go, but it happens totally outside the NFL, and that can lead to frustration for the clubs and their best customers.”
Having done time as president of the Browns from 2004-06, Collins remembered the frustration that many teams found at the Super Bowl. So he surveyed the clubs about their experience.
He divides his findings into two camps, split about evenly. Some said that they had long ago stopped bringing guests, because their best customers would be disappointed by the lack of access they’d find after being on the field, in the locker room and in the owners’ suite for the team’s home games.
The other half reported the same frustration, but still brought 50 to 100 of their best sponsors and suite holders because of the magnitude of the Super Bowl. On Saturday and Sunday, they’d hold events at their hotel ballroom, because they couldn’t land enough space at a restaurant or secure enough tickets to parties.
“So here you have the 32 NFL clubs who in theory own the Super Bowl,” Collins said. “And they can’t leverage the Super Bowl for their own business needs the way some of these third parties were leveraging the Super Bowl. Our perspective was: Here are all the things that are happening at the event that you don’t control. That was the $350 million hospitality opportunity, of which we would say the NFL was capturing less than half. We thought there had to be a better way to do it.”
OLE’s approach in Atlanta was emblematic of that new approach, bringing more pregame hospitality into the NFL fold, where teams could easily access it. The concert series created with Bud Light gave teams an obvious place to turn for entertainment for three nights.
“Having more things be part of the NFL ecosystem via On Location allows them more opportunities for their guests they are hosting to have access to high-end, authentic, NFL Super Bowl experiences that in the past were more on the periphery,” O’Reilly said. “So you hear from the clubs that it widens the aperture that they look at the Super Bowl with. Because Super Bowl is important even to the clubs that are not in the game.”
Held across three nights at State Farm Arena and headlined by Ludacris, then Aerosmith and Post Malone, and then Bruno Mars and Cardi B, the concerts gave teams and sponsors a place to turn for entertainment, delivered within a state-of-the-art NBA arena.
“If you weren’t doing your own event or had people who wanted to do something else, you used to have to beg to get into DirecTV or hope you can get in to Maxim, and you never knew if it was the same NFL caliber,” said Nick Kelly, head of U.S. sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch InBev. “One year Maxim could be Snoop Dog and Kid Rock and maybe not the right talent for your clientele. At least when you’re working with the NFL and On Location, you’re not worried about bringing anybody, because it’ll still be first class. They’ve got their name on it like we’ve got our name on it.”
This latest Super Bowl marked the first time that OLE came to a major event with all of its companies integrated, the first, best test for whether something cobbled together so quickly could work efficiently. It was the OLE of old marrying its focus on high-end NFL sponsors and guests with Prime’s business, which came together around fans of the two teams and others who decided to dig deep for the game.
“Before [the acquisition], On Location would sell their corporate package and be done with the market by November or December,” said Sam Soni, founder of PrimeSport. “PrimeSport would get into the market from December on. Now it’s all together and it’s one fluid strategy endorsed by the league.
“The thesis of putting these two businesses together for a full year for the Super Bowl has definitely been proven out and will continue to be proven out. And not only for the Super Bowl.”
OLE already has seen the benefit of its connection to both Super Bowls and Final Fours, particularly with Minneapolis hosting each event in consecutive years. Anthony pointed to one bucket lister who last year bought 50-yard-line packages to the Super Bowl in Minneapolis for himself and five friends, then bit again when OLE offered him a similar package for this year’s Final Four.
OLE has a database of about 4 million customers in North America who have traveled for one of its premium experiences.
“All the different buckets of customer types you have are very important,” said Jessica Gelman, CEO of Kraft Analytics Group, which has done data work for OLE. “That’s how you create an ongoing relationship. That’s one of the unique elements that On Location has. With many of these big events, you would think they might be one-off events for customers. But they’re not necessarily. There is a lot of interesting overlap between the different events that they are interested in.
“Sometimes, all you need to do is go back to them with the right opportunity.”