The value of linking corporate marketing to sports is undeniable.
“In today's market-driven economy, we are so bombarded with messages — print, TV, radio, theater, the Internet, direct mail, telemarketing — that the only one that will get your attention is one that engages the human spirit,” says Linda Higgison, president and CEO of The TCI Companies, Washington, which offers marketing and sponsorship development, meeting planning and DMC services. “Marketers align with sports to be seen in the same light as the tangible and intangible qualities that sports represents: champions, winners, commitment, perseverance, excellence, discipline, preparation and strategy.”
But while some special event professionals forecast continued growth in this segment, others point to a new streamlining in corporate hospitality events, focusing less on trappings and more on the sport itself.
Jim Oreck, manager of national accounts for Kohler Event Services, the Sheboygan, Wis.-based power supplier, says that corporate hospitality at sporting events continues to grow.
“For the tent setups, it's amazing to see what new things are coming out,” he says. “Everyone's trying to differentiate themselves a bit.” For a refined look inside their tents, clients are requesting air-conditioning units installed in the tent walls, he notes. “And some don't want to see anything at all, so we put registers in the walls. Everyone wants to be a little unique.”
Jim Legg agrees. The vice president of golf operations for Birmingham, Ala.-based The Colonnade Group, which supplies temporary structures and seating to both professional and intercollegiate sporting events, says, “In this country, the things that are done are just better and better.”
At press time, Legg's company was at work on a 50-by-100-foot double-decker tent for Federal Express hospitality events at the FedEx St. Jude Classic golf tournament in Memphis, Tenn., in June. For the Breeder's Cup horse race in Chicago four months later, Colonnade will build another double-decker tent 100 feet longer. “As long as you have free enterprise, you will have people spending money to entertain,” Legg says. “They're still taking care of their customers.”
FOCUS ON FOOD
In contrast, event producer Jodi Wolf, president of Chicago-based Paulette Wolf Events & Entertainment, sees hospitality events paring down as corporations turn their focus to the experience of the sport itself rather than the hospitality tent. Her company has handled event production and operations for events including the Super Bowl, the Olympics and the Kentucky Derby.
“Corporations used to change the decor in their tents from pre-event to the post-event party,” she says. “The tent you would walk into for the post-event party was completely different from what you saw earlier that day. Now they are spending less on decor, but more on food and beverage.”
Susan Lacz Niemann, principal with Bethesda, Md.-based caterer Ridgewell's, agrees. At press time, her firm was at work on the U.S. Open golf tournament and had just signed as caterer for the National Grand Prix of Washington D.C. this month.
“Spending a ton of money on built-in bars and tiki huts and high-tech command centers is going away,” she says. “The whole focus is on the golf or tennis, not the woodwork on the bar.”
Patricia (Pat) Ryan, president of Los Angeles-based Party Planners West, describes the current style of hospitality events as appropriate to today's business environment. Her company counts the National Football League and Major League Baseball among its clients.
“I don't see excess,” she says. “After all, do you really need a number of chandeliers hanging overhead to watch a football game?” What is important, she emphasizes, is that the venue city hosting hospitality events come through for guests. “It's very important for the local market to present its very best,” she says.
Hospitality events today mirror “the way we are conducting our lives now,” she says. “They are not over the top or lavish, but well-executed.”
Aztec Tents & Events, 310/328-5060; Jensen MotorSport, 905/987-7778; Kohler Event Services, 920/459-1634; Party Planners West, 310/305-1000; Paulette Wolf Events & Entertainment, 773/475-4300; Ridgewell's, 301/652-1515; Starwood Hotels & Resorts, 914/640-8100; The Colonnade Group, 205/320-1234; The TCI Companies, 202/457-0315
The Great Race
A great venue plus VIP access puts this corporation on the inside track
THE EVENT SUPPLIER
Of the 26 CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc.) races in the U.S., the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, held in Long Beach, Calif., “is the largest in the U.S. for hospitality,” according to Chuck Miller, president of Torrance, Calif.-based Aztec Tents & Events. The event draws roughly 225,000 attendees, and the corporate hospitality scene is so busy that guests “can party at the beach the whole time and never see a car,” he adds.
As the major event supplier, Aztec created the distinctive look of this year's event, held April 12-14. When Aztec started working with the event 16 years ago, “it was just canopies and viewing suites,” Miller says. Now, corporations pay as much as $30,000 for one of the tented suites, which have evolved into a “high-tech, more stable look,” he explains, with distinctive red and white stripes and a range of amenities. All told, Aztec provided nearly 150,000 square feet of tenting, 150,000 square feet of Astroturf and carpet, 2,000 tables, 15,000 chairs, 5,000 pieces of silverware, 4,000 plates of china, and 950 pieces of linen for this year's event.
THE CORPORATE HOST
Starwood Hotels & Resorts, the White Plains, N.Y.-based parent of the Westin, St. Regis, Sheraton and W brands, entertains key clients at the Long Beach Grand Prix, putting them up in Starwood properties and using the hotels' F&B departments to cater events at the races. “In short, we expand the traditional hotel experience to a nontraditional environment,” explains Jane Mackie, vice president of advertising and promotions for the company's North America division. “Our guests are able to experience Westin style and service on and off the track.”
Now in its third year using high-end auto racing for corporate hospitality, Starwood management believes that this level of racing combines design and function, which is akin to the experience that the hotels offer guests. “We call it ‘winning by design,’” Mackie says. “That is what auto racing is all about — form that functions, technological superiority and exciting lifestyle.” Its position in the hospitality industry means that Starwood always aims to have its events “a cut above any other event, highlighting innovative and exciting food and beverage as well as service,” Mackie says.
In a surprising spin on a marketing program for a hotelier, Starwood has started using outside venues — not only the pits at races, but also the New York Public Library and Chicago Museum of Modern Art — as venues for corporate hospitality. “We consider ourselves as lifestyle enhancers, not just a bunch of buildings,” Mackie says. “Using creative venues in which to showcase our products, services, value and flexibility makes customers think differently about Starwood and our brands.”
Starwood worked with Orlando, Fla.-based Jensen MotorSport, headed by professional race driver Eric Jensen, to help develop its VIP hospitality events during the Long Beach Grand Prix. On behalf of Starwood, Jensen raced a car emblazoned with the Westin logo.
Racing gives corporations a unique entree into the world of sports, according to Jensen. “It's hard to own a piece of the L.A. Kings or Lakers,” he notes. “But with car racing, corporations can own the property they are sponsoring.”
Thanks to his participation in a race, he has access to hard-to-get prizes such as pit passes. “What I specialize in is a real insider experience,” he says. “When a guest of mine comes to a race, he sees something special that the person in the stands never sees.
“Auto racing has become an ultra-high-end property for corporate events hosting VIPs,” Jensen says. “And it's pretty amazing what gets spent. For instance, I am setting up some events for a European technology company that is spending $20,000 per person per weekend, and is doing this in 10 countries this year. Most companies are spending $2,500 to $10,000 per person.”