Lessons Learned at ALSD 2018

In conjunction with MacKenzie Corp., this year’s post-conference survey results reveal some of the nuggets learned at ALSD 2018. Many of the excerpts in the recap below incorporate your words, taken from the survey notes.


Don't miss our November 16th Early Bird Registration Deadline for the 2019 ALSD Conference and Tradeshow in Chicago.

With 1,400 attendees and 47 hours of sessions, presentations, and networking, the 28th Annual ALSD Conference and Tradeshow this past June in Atlanta was the association’s largest ever. And yes, as we are known to do, 550 gallons of adult beverages were consumed. But more importantly, the educational lessons learned by our attendees were worth more than their weight in liquid gold. Enjoy a few of the golden nuggets below, as informed by our post-conference survey.

Culture Differentiates

Culture is a key differentiator in the sports workplace, creating a human-centered experience for employees as much as for guests. Long hours away from friends and family on nights, weekends, and holidays impact productivity and can lead to a poor work-life balance. However, with leaders who empower employees and soften work protocols of the past, sports personnel can embrace the grind.

It starts at the top. Leadership is not about being proficient at what you do, but how you manage. Leading a team or department requires understanding what is important to your staff and aligning team values accordingly. For instance, if creating a family atmosphere matters, let staff members bring their kids to work. It’s a ballpark after all. Kids love it, and teams create loyal fans in the process. If working less events alleviates burnout, instill trust to rotate games without decreasing client service.

Empowerment leads to trust, which leads to loyalty, and loyal employees take care of their customers. Recognize staff – hourly or salary – who go above and beyond. Small tokens of appreciation go a long way. Celebrate employees’ birthdays on the big boards. Clients love it, why wouldn’t staff?

Culture is a connector. Venue and F&B teams have to speak the same language. A disconnect leads to failure. Create a consistent dialog, create rewards systems, use apps and games, and hire the right trainer to deliver one consistent effective motto. Don’t forget to listen to feedback and remove performance barriers. Surveys aren’t just for clients.


Create the Wow

Clients desire convenience, like close parking and ease of navigation to seats and suites. They want an exclusive experience with amenities and F&B they can’t get elsewhere. Delivery isn’t hard, but it takes creativity and effective touch points.

In terms of gifts, most premium clients have the means to buy what they want when they want it. Offer items they can’t get elsewhere and consider letting them pick the gift. A catalog is overwhelming, but a gifting suite or a digital shopping bag is a nice alternative. Novelty and limited-number-available items create the wow too. Be mindful of personalization. Some clients re-gift or don’t want your logo or their logo on items. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Some clients want experiences versus gifts. Consider reallocating gifting dollars. Think suite holder trip on the team plane. Or save your gifting budget altogether. Think locker room or artist dressing room tours on dark days. Or put the dollars towards a client’s charity of choice, creating goodwill for your brand and theirs. Mix it up with a pregame dining experience, supper club style, like they do it in Europe. Or offer clients behind-the-scene spaces for corporate meetings.

Remember that clients notice little things. Light-up ice cubes, mugs made out of baseballs bats, logoed cookies, and craft cocktail carts show clients you care. Plus, these options can’t hurt per caps.

We learned that suite tastings may not be necessary. Understand that while discontinuing the suite tasting was suggested more than once, individual teams have to evaluate whether their clients need it or not. One size does not fit all.

Get your clients excited on the way in. First impressions last. Remember the welcome at The Battery Atlanta and SunTrust Park? Cheerleaders, team leaders, and cocktails upon arrival. More than one of you did as evidenced in our survey, one commenting, “I didn't even feel that well received at my college graduation!”

That Strong and Smart Foundation

It’s a simple thing, developing relationships. But simple doesn’t always mean easy. Let’s start with some stats. Eighty-two-percent of sales are impacted by body language. By 2020, 85% of purchases will be done without human interaction. Research innovative marketing opportunities, understand how to create engaging visuals, learn how to analyze data, and look at ALSD exhibitors with tools to help you. It takes roughly eight touch points to have a genuine impact on a prospect. Sometimes getting to “no” more quickly is just as good as getting to “yes”. Move on to those prospects interested in your courting.

Enough stats? Let’s move on to what clients actually want you to talk about.

Your prospects want you to have a high business acumen. Many C-Level clients speak finance, not marketing. Clients decide to make major investments depending on how their businesses are performing. Your best prospects are companies with the highest margins.

Moreover, C-Level clients care about their companies’ values and their companies’ interests, not yours. If you tend to talk about entertainment in your meetings, stop. They talk earnings, balance sheets, margins. Win before you begin by reading annual reports, press releases, and marketing reports. Understand the new tax law implications and help clients understand they may be losing on one end but gaining on another. Track clients’ financial reports, take an online finance course, look at companies’ business goals, and understand their budgets.

Most company budgets include marketing, sometimes making up 10%, but entertainment and tickets may make up only 1% of that. A major expenditure has to be a sure thing, as risk-taking is uncommon for many clients, especially when it comes to buying suite and sponsorship assets. Embrace the marketing and finance guy at every company.

The Buyer Has the Power

Newsflash: The buyer has the power. Subscription models are becoming a bigger part of venues’ marketing plans. Subscriptions offer frictionless experiences, open spaces, and social experiences. Teams and F&B providers must adapt. Allocating staff to sell more on the subscription side is a start. Margins are greater than on leased options, as you are selling piecemeal, de-bundled elements.

Subscriptions lead to diversification – and growth – of a fan base, as venues will offer unique experiences to unique buyer segments who might not have purchased a long-term, standard option before.

Memberships, especially in college venues, are also gaining popularity. And many times, the access may not even be tied to a seat location. The donor model lends itself differently to benefits and ticket allocation.

Rentals on the Rise

As buyer habits change, some want suites now and then versus long-term. We believe the long-term lease model is far from extinct (especially on the local level), but rentals are on the rise. How can you adjust?

For beginners, adjust the name. Instead of “rentals”, these may resonate better as “hospitality suites” or “event suites”. By using the term “hospitality” in the name, the objective and expectation is set.

Next, you may need to adjust the makeup of your premium staff. The United Center is a leader in rentals and put together an Arena Sales Team, focused on selling rentals for single events. Create a team from scratch or by reallocation. While rental efforts add to overall workload (filling suites every night), the number or prospects – company, group, or individual – grows exponentially. Most small businesses can justify at least one night in a suite. And there are events like birthdays, bachelor/bachelorette parties, or company anniversaries ripe for a suite night that can create a special, exclusive experience.

Priced properly, your rental business will do well. Plus, the margins are larger on rentals than leases (priced higher per event breakdown), and often, more F&B is ordered for special occasions or by one-time users looking to blow it out.

Furthermore, including F&B in the rentals is an obvious turnkey solution. But what may not be so obvious is that if your rental reps can get paid on the overall sale (including the F&B cost), they’re typically motivated to sell more.

Further, though not to be presented first, it’s good to develop a highly-inclusive package, in case a client wants to go big with a one-time rental. To that end, study what offerings exist, like field passes, specialty F&B, mascot or alumni visits, or gifts. Look into your venue’s added-value repertoire and put together your most comprehensive package… just in case.

Next, consider using a suite rental as a perk for season ticket renewals. Include a suite night as added-value and decide if you can comp it or charge for it in the overall package. Either way, the season ticket client gets to experience a suite, which is organic marketing for your premium products. It also helps fill empty suites, and often leads to more F&B ordered.

Finally, make sure you include plenty of parking for rental suites. The most sought-after amenity is even more important to a rental client who may not often navigate your venue.

Socialize or Privatize

Popularity for social spaces is increasing, as attention spans are decreasing. The event is the backdrop for many guests these days, especially for Millennials. Moreover, sitting in a predefined seat location is unnecessary for many. Fans want flexibility, and they may not even care to have a view of the game.

This might mean you have to look structurally at your building. Do you only offer suites, loges, and clubs? Then you need to go back to the drawing board. Evaluating budgets is step one, but also assess your evolving demographic base.

The entertainment district lends itself well to those guests looking for options too. Fans consume so much more than the game. Districts are especially significant for long-term or season ticket clients, because they can experience something new at each event. Laid out properly, with options in entertainment, F&B, and retail, you satisfy – and even grow – a diverse fan base. The Battery Atlanta has an entire event calendar programmed for games, concerts, Coca-Cola Roxy events, restaurant specials, and retail. Entertainment districts have the ability to bring out more fans, more often.

Finally, adaptive and flexible spaces lead to the longevity of a sports venue. The industry is witnessing the shrinking shelf life of sports venues. But is it really sustainable to knock it down and start over so often? As an industry, we have to create future-flexible venues to buck the trend.

Go Digital or Go Home

One of the hottest topics at the conference and in recent member questions is mobile ticketing. Questions still swirl about hard/PDF tickets, percentages using mobile, ticket transfers, clients without mobile, commemorative keepsakes, and overall challenges. One major pain point for some national clients managing a great number of tickets is privacy and compliance. Transfer of data – especially to a third party – is often prohibited.

While mobile is how we rate, evaluate, consume, and analyze an experience, your market and demographics will dictate if and how you will go completely digital. We are still in the discovery phase, but one thing is for certain. Education is key. Typically, once a new technology is learned – even if first met with trepidation – it’s a positive and efficient change. Consider offering tutorials, or better yet incentivize clients to go mobile with renewal credits or discounts.

Your clientele can afford the country club and four-star restaurant. They have the disposable income, but they evaluate closely how to spend it. Stadiums better step up their F&B games.

Starting with the experience, teams and F&B partners have to make ordering and delivery seamless. Do you have in-suite kiosks? Is a suite attendant actually attending to the client? Do you allow multiple forms and structures of payment? Do you roll the tip into the bill, or at least educate the client on whether or not they should tip at all? Where are your menus published, and can your clients find them easily? The process should be turnkey.

To improve queue speed and efficiency, Mercedes-Benz Stadium taught us to include more POS systems on campus, make the buttons bigger, and sell only the soda cup from the concession stand, giving way to self-service on the concourses. Fans fill at their leisure, and surely, they love the free refills.

A topic hot at the conference was beverage pre-orders, in premium areas especially. Whether at intermissions or halftimes, patrons are waiting in long lines for drinks. Consider putting in place a process for pre-orders or craft cocktails on tap. It’s a net win for experience and revenues.

Next is the F&B itself. Are you differentiating from the concession fare one level down? Are you investing in partnerships with local F&B outlets, and allowing your chefs the freedom to create diverse, healthy, and upscale items? And are you pairing appropriately (beer with brats, something sparkling with seafood)?

Aim for shock and awe. At the conference, we witnessed Delaware North smoking beef short ribs and Maine lobster on the field at SunTrust Park. Clients love novelty, but you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Look at your tried-and-true experiences and tweak them. Dessert carts have stood the test of time, so why not try a craft cocktail cart next season? And remember presentation is everything. Some teams even own their own ice-sculpting machines. Think your clients love seeing their name in lights? Wait until they see it in ice.

Don't miss our November 16th Early Bird Registration Deadline for the 2019 ALSD Conference and Tradeshow in Chicago.