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Winning Sports Incentives

Over the past few years, sports-related incentive programmes to major events such as the Super Bowl, The Masters or the Indianapolis 500 have evolved from being rare and adventurous to mainstream and increasingly common. And that’s because if they’re done right, they deliver unique and readily demonstrable bottom-line business benefits.

Insurance and financial services companies are among the most enthusiastic and successful participants in major events at California’s fabled Pebble Beach Resort, says Tim Ryan, vice president of sales and global business development. Pebble Beach hosts the PGA’s annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am Tournament and has also hosted the U.S. Open Golf Championship four times and will host it again next year.

“For both the AT&T and U.S. Open tournaments, about 30 percent of the companies that use hospitality programs at the event are insurance and financial services companies,” says Ryan, who also currently serves as chairman, corporate sales, for the U.S. Open. “And for financial services companies, the programs are often used for their customers, such as wealth management clients or brokerage customers. And the goal is to get the company’s best customers face-to-face with their salespeople in a hospitality environment where the relationships can be furthered.”

Patrick Glass, president of Knoxville, Tennessee-based GEM Hospitality, which is now celebrating its 10th anniversary as a top facilitator of incentive programs to major sporting events such as The Masters, the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby, agrees with Ryan that insurance and financial services companies are among the top practitioners of high-end sports incentive programs. “And that has become even more true over the last two or three years,” he says.

Because of the allure of iconic sporting events, the sports incentive business has matured over the last five years into a respected enterprise, says Robert Tuchman, an industry veteran who recently sold his former company GoVIVA!, to global entertainment and event giant Creative Artists Agency (CAA). It has now been integrated into CAA’s New York-based Entertainment Benefits Group (EBG).

“When I first started in the business in the 1990s, it was kind of like the Wild West,” says Tuchman, who is EBG’s vice president of business development, premium experiences. “And companies were just happy to get tickets to the event and find hotel rooms. Now it’s a very professional and sophisticated business that is growing every year. Now sports incentives are widely recognized as a legitimate business tool that is used to enhance corporate results.”

Corporate clients are also now much more well-versed in asking for better tickets and accommodations, as well as ancillary activities that add to the excitement of the sports event, he says. “Clients are just much more educated now and much more aware of the kinds of things they can do at these sports events.”

The Business Goal as No. 1 Consideration

When it comes to sports incentive programmes, none is more prestigious, or more in demand, than the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Corporate participation typically includes a private chalet along the course for entertaining and networking. “And with that, you get a great view of the course and also a great view of the Pacific Ocean,” Ryan says.

But, he adds, the experience is typically about much more than the golf. Because the experience is so exclusive and so extraordinary — especially for participants who truly revere the game of golf — such high-end programmes, Ryan says, are usually limited to a company’s most important salespeople, customers or prospects. In effect, if done properly, the experience provides a unique and powerful networking opportunity. “What the companies are really trying to do is build relationships with, or enhance existing relationships, with their most important salespeople or customers,” Ryan says. “And in fully taking advantage of the opportunity, the companies provide their people with the chance to actually walk the course and see the golf close-up.”

The companies that get the most from the experience, in terms of business results, are those that use it to get their top customers face-to-face with their best prospects, he says. “That’s because what they really want is for their existing customers to sell their prospects on doing business with the company. And a top sports incentive is a great way to accomplish that.”

That level of sophistication in planning the program now holds true for a majority of companies that come to Pebble Beach each year, he says. It’s also true to those that go to the U.S. Open.

Keys to Success

In a slightly broader sense, Ryan says, the companies that get the most out of doing a major sports incentive are “the ones that have a really good handle on where the people they are inviting to the event are in the pipeline of buying something from them or having bought something from them. In other words, it’s about bottom-line business goals and actual results. I had one corporate client express it to me very well. He said, ‘I can tell you at any point in time where every one of my guests is in terms of buying from me or having bought from me. So when I have to go back and justify this expense to my bosses, I just push a button and print out where we are business-wise with the people I brought to the event and explain exactly how the event paid off for the company.”

Like Ryan and Glass, Tuchman stresses that virtually all successful and enduring sports incentive programs are now very closely linked to clearly defined business goals and not just a luxurious, memorable experience. “That has been the biggest change in the business over the last 10 years,” he says. “So there is now much more accountability, when it comes to demonstrable business results, than there ever was before.”

A key to success for the AT&T or U.S. Open tournament is how effectively the company incorporates attendees into the entire event, meaning the days preceding the actual tournament, so that it becomes an enduring and multifaceted experience and not just attendance at a golf tournament. For example, some companies host dinners or other events on the days preceding the tournament and bring in golfers or other celebrities as speakers or as hosts for a recreational round of golf. “But there are also typically business-related sessions involved, too,” Tuchman adds.

For companies newly considering an inaugural sports incentive programme, Ryan, Glass and Tuchman all stress that sufficient advance planning is critical, simply because demand for premium tickets to major events typically outweighs availability.

The key conflict, in terms of being able to participate in a major PGA golf event such as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am or U.S. Open, Ryan says, is between the event’s selling cycle and the participating company’s budget cycle. For example, the PGA began selling access to next year’s U.S. Open in Pebble Beach in 2016. That means that such events require attention to the need for planning well in advance of the event. “Otherwise, by the time they can fund it, it’s too late,” Ryan says. As a general guideline, planners should plan to finalize participation at least a year in advance, he notes. However, many companies commit two or three years in advance.

By far, the No. 1 factor in pursuing a particular opportunity, such as The Masters or the Super Bowl, is committing to participation far enough in advance, Glass agrees. The ability to acquire tickets and hotel rooms requires at least one year of advance notice of serious intent to go. “And depending on the demand for the event, you’re better off getting involved two or three years in advance,” he says.

To further complicate matters, Glass says, companies that have traditionally gone to the Super Bowl or The Masters or the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four every year are now starting to rotate events each year, so that means even more volatility in the availability of a limited number of tickets for each event. “So committing to an event far enough advance is critical,” he says.

Going Above and Beyond

Yet another trend that Glass and Tuchman agree has evolved over the last couple of years is the notion of expanding the overall experience beyond just the sporting event itself.

“What I have noticed is that in doing sports incentive programmes, companies are increasingly focused on doing something beyond just coming to the event,” Glass says. “They’re looking for ways to make it an even more incredible experience that is customised for their people. For example, at The Masters, on the night before the tournament, they might host a private dinner with a golfer to give them a more up-close-and-personal sense of the event. Or at the Super Bowl, they’ll bring in a current or former NFL coach to talk about teambuilding and how to prepare for the big game, or a Hall of Fame player to talk about a winning attitude. And the reason they do those kinds of things is to go a step further in motivating their best salespeople or customers to be even more loyal to and excited about their relationships with the company.”

A VIP trip to the Super Bowl is undeniably a phenomenal experience, Glass says. “But it’s made even better if you can add personal touches to the experience that are unique to your people. So companies now realise they need to put in the extra effort to integrate other elements into the program that motivate their people even further than just having a ticket to the game.”

Companies now have the budgets to go the extra mile to make the experience truly spectacular, Glass says. “And that’s what they’re doing.”

Tuchman agrees that most companies now want to tie in other activities that are not directly related to the sports event in order to expand and diversify the experience. “For example, if the sports event is in New York,” he says, “we often now tie in a culinary event, like a dinner with a celebrity chef, that takes advantage of the destination. Or we’ll take the group to a Broadway show. Adding dimensions like that makes the overall experience more appealing, especially for people that are not really enthusiasts for the sport at the event, or spouses.”

Glass often counsels clients to consider what he calls “value added” experiences that can be incorporated into a programme based on the time of year and the destination. For example, for one of its corporate clients who attended this year’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis, Glass suggested a snowmobile excursion in the beautiful, snow-covered suburbs on a day leading up to the game. “That turned out to be a phenomenal experience that had to do with the location and time of year, but nothing to do with football,” he says. “We try to always include some kind of a unique local option like that in order to add to the experience of the sports event, but do something completely different. For example, if the Super Bowl is in Miami, we’ll recommend an afternoon of deep-sea fishing. That just adds another dimension to the overall experience.”

Advice for First-time Practitioners

For companies that are now considering their initial sports incentive programme, no other single consideration is as important as a clear business goal, Glass says.

“When I sit down to talk to a new client, the first thing I want to know is what their business goal is, what they want to accomplish,” he says. “And once I know that, then we will present two or three options that we believe will help them accomplish that goal. Then the client and I make the decision together on what we think will work best — and why. But the important thing is to have a clear goal and a clear way of measuring success. The companies that meet those two requirements are the ones who do it most successfully and keep doing it year after year.”

Another important challenge, Tuchman says, “is to really know your audience, what they really like and what they don’t like; what they truly value and what they really don’t care so much about. You have to do everything possible to personalize the experience, but for a group and not a single individual. And that requires a lot of knowledge and a lot of thought. It comes down to knowing exactly what gets your group excited and what they expect from the experience.”

The second most important thing, he says, is to then “look at the overall experience the sports event offers, and then customize it in every way you can to maximize the motivation of your group. And that also requires a lot of thought. It involves a lot more than just going to the sports event. The way to think about it is to think in terms of creating an overall experience that your people could never possibly arrange on their own.”

Finally, Ryan says another critically important piece of advice is to rely on sports incentive experts to help plan the program. These opportunities carry unique risks and require precise, insightful execution based on specific expertise and access to resources.

Glass adds that careful consideration of every potential eventuality is another key to success. “I always worry about the things I can’t control, like the weather,” he says. “So depending on the event you’re going to, it’s very important to consider every possibility and to have a backup plan and then a backup plan for your backup plan. You have to be prepared for anything and everything that could possibly happen. And everything people are going to do from the time they get there until the time they leave has to be double- and triple-checked. You can’t leave anything to chance.”