Although not as well-known as the classic incentive trip to Mexico or Hawaii, programs built around a major sporting event such as The Super Bowl, the Masters golf tournament, the U.S. Open golf tournament or the NCAA Final Four basketball games have a powerful appeal and generate exceptional results for the companies that do them.
And no matter the sports event, there is a common denominator in terms of its motivational appeal, says Robert Tuchman, president of New York-based Goviva!, one of the specialized companies that helps planners deliver phenomenal sports-related experiences.
“The main thing sports incentives do is play on people’s passions,” says Tuchman, who has been thrilling planners and their attendees since 1996. “There’s nothing bigger than sports and how people follow their teams. Sports is the biggest hobby most people have. So that means they work very well as incentives, because incentive programs have to promise something your target audience really wants. And major sports events are also unique enough that for most people they represent a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Goviva! creates programs for both internal and external employees, as well as vendors and customers. “But most of the time, these programs are for independent contractors and customers,” Tuchman says. The reason? “The performance and loyalty of those kinds of people goes directly to a company’s bottom line.”
Although Tuchman and his major competitors have all done sports incentive programs for large groups, he says the optimal group size is 20–40 participants. “That’s because it’s going to be a more intimate experience, and with a group that size, there are just more things you can do as part of the overall experience before, during and after the sports event.”
The competitive cost of a sports program versus a luxury program to an A-list destination such as Mexico or Hawaii often surprises planners, says Patrick Glass, president of Knoxville, Tennessee-based Glass Entertainment Management, another leading provider of sports event planning services.
In terms of cost, the Super Bowl and the Masters are the top-of-the-line events, with the former typically costing about $5,300 per person and the latter costing about $3,900–4,500 person for the weekend tournament round. A practice round at the Masters costs about $1,800–2,200 per person, Glass says. Planners on smaller budgets can take a group to a NASCAR event in Las Vegas for as little as $300–600 per person, he says. Those prices include hotel rooms, food, entertainment and event tickets. They do not include airfare.
Although there is an almost endless list of sports events in the U.S. and around the world that can serve as the basis for a major incentive program, the Super Bowl has always been and will always be the gold standard.
“The Super Bowl is the most watched sporting event in the world,” says Adria Manente, event and trade show manager at Stamford, Connecticut-based Icon International Inc., a major corporate barter company that has been taking groups of 35–40 C-suite level customer executives to the big game since 2006. “And the experience of going to the Super Bowl is just not accessible to the average person,” she says.
Late last year, she notes, media reports exposed the fact that a shockingly tiny percentage of tickets is available to the general public, with virtually all of them controlled by the NFL, teams and corporate sponsors.
Icon International uses the Super Bowl experience as a way of saying “thank you” to its best clients, Manente says. Qualification is based on the volume of business done with the company during the incentive program.
Israel Pagan Jr., a business consultant and independent meeting and event planner based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, has worked with Goviva! for years to use sports incentives on behalf of his technology clients, including Citrix Systems, Star Computer Group and Riverbed.
He agrees with Manente that the Super Bowl and more intimate but equally prestigious events such as the Masters have a unique appeal. “It’s a matter of the energy at events like the Super Bowl and Masters,” Pagan says. “No matter what you do for a typical incentive program to a place like Mexico, you’re just not going to get that kind of energy. It’s unique to events like the Super Bowl.”
In the software industry, where most of Pagan’s clients have been, at senior levels — whether that means an internal employee or an external vendor such as an IT reseller — “people are pretty wealthy,” he says. “And if it’s just a matter of a nice trip to Mexico or Hawaii, that’s something they can easily buy on their own and do alone. So they’re not going to be very excited about that. So it’s not much of an incentive. But giving them a unique experience like going to the Super Bowl or the Masters is something they dream about — and that they can’t do on their own, no matter how much money they have. They don’t have the contacts and connections to pull off something like that. And that means they know going to a major sporting event will give them something they can’t get on their own. And that’s a powerful motivator.”
The most important thing to keep in mind, Pagan says, is that the ticket to the game is not the prize. “To do this well, you don’t say to people, ‘You’re going to win a ticket to the Super Bowl,’ ” he says. “You have to create an all-inclusive package, a totally immersive experience. For example, I’ve done private dinner events the night before the game with members of the NFL Hall of Fame. That’s something people will remember forever.”
For another Super Bowl, Pagan’s attendees were the only outside group that had access to a huge private party hosted by Maxim magazine. “We literally walked the red carpet at the event and actually made it into the magazine as VIP attendees,” he says. “And for all of that, we were elbow-to-elbow with a whole bunch of famous actors, actresses and sports stars. It was one of the most fabulous VIP experiences I’ve ever had in my life. People were still talking about it several years later.”
Precisely because a trip to the Super Bowl, the Masters or the U.S. Open is indeed a unique experience very few people — or meeting planners — could arrange on their own, it’s vitally important to work with an expert vendor with the connections to pull it off.
Says Pagan, “Bob Tuchman and his team make me look like a rock star. They do whatever it takes to make your event special and successful. They always go above and beyond the call of duty.”
Manente has a long-standing relationship with Charlotte, North Carolina-based QuintEvents.
“We work with Quint to make the experience as good as it can possibly be,” Manente says. “For example, they always get us the best seats. When we were at the last (Super Bowl) held in the Super Dome in New Orleans, we were five rows up from the sidelines. So our clients always feel like they are getting real VIP treatment, and they have a great time.”
The overall experience created by QuintEvents includes hospitality activities hosted before the game and an on-field experience after the game for the awarding of the trophies.
“So it really is a chance of a lifetime experience, even for C-suite executives,” Manente says. “I love doing it just because I love to watch their faces as they have the experience. They’re just blown away. I’ve had CEOs tell me, ‘I never ever thought I’d be on the field after a Super Bowl.’ ”
QuintEvents secures “On Field Experience” badges for all Icon International attendees, who are given access to a special section of the field after the game along with other VIP attendees.
Before the game, QuintEvents hosts a special event for its group of corporate clients at the game. It includes an open bar and food that is usually local specialties such as gumbo and jambalaya in New Orleans. Former NFL stars join the group for the pre-game festivities, sign autographs and pose for photographs. “It’s just a really nice event that builds excitement for the game,” Manente says.
And because attendees from various corporate groups all mingle together, it makes the experience even more special because it is shared with others, she says.
Even though the Super Bowl and super-exclusive events such as the Masters are the big names among sports incentive practitioners, there is a vast list of options, including the Wimbledon tennis tournament in England, the Australian Open golf and tennis tournaments, the French Open tennis tournament and a host of lesser known events.
And in the U.S., depending on the core demographics of a group, the Indianapolis 500 or NASCAR events have huge appeal. The NCAA college men’s basketball Final Four is one of the most coveted tickets in all of sports.
Aside from the Super Bowl, Pagan is particularly fond of the Masters. Like the Super Bowl, he says, its appeal is the chance-of-a-lifetime experience and the ticket an ordinary person could almost never get. Masters tickets are allocated by a lottery system each year, and demand exponentially outweighs supply.
“At the Masters, you feel like you are a private invited guest of the PGA, which in a way you are,” Pagan says. “It’s that exclusive. You literally feel like a celebrity.”
Highlights of the Masters excursions Pagan has planned with Goviva! have featured exclusive dinners and private parties that included famous professional golfers.
Although not appealing to everyone, NASCAR events are also powerful motivators, Pagan says. “They’re not for everybody. But if you have an audience that NASCAR appeals to, they’ll sell whatever they have to sell, do whatever they have to do, to get to an event like that and have a VIP experience.”
Just like any other meeting or incentive program, sports incentive programs have their own unique rules and practical considerations.
“The first issue is time frame,” Tuchman says. “When a company says, ‘We want to do an incentive program, and we have to do it within this particular time frame,’ I always tell them that the payout, the reward, should come within a month or two of the end of the program.” That means that for a Super Bowl program, the competition should end by December or early January. For a U.S. Open golf trip, the contest has to conclude in late March or early April.
The other big rule is to know your audience, Tuchman says. “Are they primarily male? Female? Younger? Older? Those are the demographic considerations that go into making a good choice. And is the program going to allow qualifiers to bring their spouse? Or is the group going to be all men?”
For example, almost by definition, a Super Bowl program is for alpha males, with few if any spouses in attendance.
The final essential consideration is budget and whether the company is willing to spend what is required to create a multifaceted experience that is immersive. “I tell prospective clients, ‘If you don’t have the budget to do an event right, don’t do it. Unless you do it right, it’s not going to get you much in terms of really making people feel special.’ So I always say make sure you choose an event that will allow you to do it right. And it’s also better to do one big event rather than two events where you have limited budgets. Take all of that money and spend it on one big event.”
For Manente, the most important rule is to find a partner like QuintEvents and build a relationship over time. “QuintEvents is very consistent in the things they do for us,” Manente says. “So in dealing with them, I know exactly what I’m going to get. And I also have the kind of relationship with them where if I say, ‘Well, I was thinking about this…’ but they don’t think my group would like that, they’ll say, ‘We’re not sure that’s the best way to go. Why don’t you try this instead?’ ”
A fully collaborative process is critical to success, Manente says. And that includes being prepared for anything that might happen, Glass says. For example, at this year’s Masters, the Monday morning practice round was rained out. “So I had attendees who had tickets and were leaving the next day,” he says. He had a backup plan for at least giving his group a private tour of fabled Augusta National Golf Course, even if it was raining. So even though their experience was diminished, it was not a disaster. “You always need a plan A, plan B and plan C,” Glass says. “Because anything is possible.”
And a question that is not always asked, but is vitally important, Glass says, is “What do you want to gain from doing this? What is your goal?”
Answers range from generating sales and enhancing morale to rewarding key people and generating bottom-line profits. And each of those objectives requires nuanced planning of the experience, he says.
But no matter the goal, Tuchman says, planners and companies that want to extract the maximum benefit from a sports incentive program must think big. “That’s because in today’s world, literally anything is possible,” he says. “You just have to be creative enough to want to do it.”C&IT