Looking for an incentive travel option that will provide attendees an experience they simply can’t get on their own? Sports incentive travel programs, as we continue to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, can again be an option. These programs are highly motivating, and involve memorable experiences that can last a lifetime.
For Cindy Y. Lo, CEO at RED VELVET, planning sports-based incentives has proven to be one of the most popular event styles for attendees, planners and venues alike. The RED VELVET team has orchestrated F1 Racing incentive events for various brands as part of the F1 Racing Weekend. “They typically have to qualify to be invited to this weekend set of events. If they qualify, we fly them into Austin, Texas, arrange for their hotel and have a fun packed, three-day weekend, including a local Austin tour,” Lo says. “There is definitely lots of local eating and, of course, watching the F1 races themselves. Depending on the client’s budget, we’ll add on extra amenities that are tied to the racing theme. Some of these add-ons may include custom sunglass shopping, gifting of noise-cancellation headphones, a meet-and-greet with the race car drivers, etc. These are usually once-in-a-lifetime events. Since they are priced so high, not everyone has the financial ability to attend them regularly,” Lo says. “Other sporting events we have done incentives around include the Super Bowl. People are so excited to attend these once-in-a-lifetime events.”
Alisa Walsh, CITP, CIS, CEO of Haute, a creative agency headquartered in Austin, Texas, agrees. Before leading Haute, Walsh was CEO at EventWorks in Los Angeles. According to Walsh, sports incentives are such a great option because it is a unique experience, and that’s what people are looking for. “Sports, in general, are about engagement and that emotional connection. Nostalgia is a great motivator and fundamental to delivering such an experience. Whether your clients root for the winner or the underdog, there is elevated emotion, and it can be pretty powerful,” Walsh says. “This is precisely what we aim to create — powerful and memorable experiences. There is nothing better than putting all of these elements together during a sporting event.”
Sports incentives offer an opportunity to really give someone an exceptional experience in many different ways. As Walsh further explains, you can have a behind-the-scenes VIP tour of the arena or a meet-and-greet with athletes. You have to look for ways to give your customers access to something they might never be able to experience as a typical spectator. “The goal is to provide a real ‘above-and-beyond’ experience for incentive trips, from start to finish,” Walsh says. “You have to make sure the sport itself is of interest to your entire audience. There are levels of interest in different sports. The theater set by enthusiastic crowds, tailgaters, cheerleaders or contests held during breaks — with the sights, smells and energy in a sports arena, is an experience in itself for many.”
A sports incentive can be built into the destination event to highlight a local experience with careful consideration. Obviously, the draw can be a big-name event. “Still, an itinerary that includes outings to surrounding attractions, like a distillery or local places of interest, offers excursions for a host of tastes and preferences,” Walsh says. “A trip to [the PGA Tour’s] Masters Tournament isn’t something that everyone would be typically able to attend. The opportunity alone can be a big draw and a serious motivator to incentivize the sales team to exceed their goals. It’s the chance to have an experience, considered thrilling by many, that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to see.”
Walsh and her team once created a custom polo match held at a mansion in Santa Barbara, California. Top players and their horses were flown in from Argentina and attendees were treated to a private event to learn about polo’s deep and rich history, meet with the players, and be up close to the action during the exhibition. “It was a huge draw,” Walsh says. “Sports and incentives are something we are actively looking to expand with some of our partner companies. We’ve had the opportunity to host some of our clients at pit row during a big NASCAR race, and give them a behind-the-scenes tour and a meeting with the drivers. For a specialized experience, this may be among the coolest.”
Sports incentive programs can be in the form of being a spectator at such prestigious events as the NFL’s Super Bowl or golf’s Ryder Cup, or as a participant in a sporting challenge, such as racing events. Of course both types of sports incentive programs come with their own set of challenges — from transportation issues to orchestrating team activities, to offering participant-versus-spectator options. “One issue that we usually face that people are surprised by is that, once you arrive at the race track, it’s very hard for us to maneuver our buses/shuttles, so really we have to transport everyone at the same time,” Lo says. “It’s not as easy having an extra vehicle on standby to make one-off drives. So, really we have to plan in advance of what their day is going to be like at the race track all day. This isn’t always true of all race tracks, but it is true of the Austin one, and until we have mass transit out to the track, you are essentially ‘stuck’ there until the transportation is scheduled to leave.”
In the middle of the pandemic, sports incentives were a bit more challenging because there were so many sports opportunities being held without fans. But Walsh is optimistic they’ll return. “Sports incentives will be at the forefront as we advance, without a doubt. Golf tournaments or the Super Bowl will be happening, and those are always popular,” Walsh says.
Martin Valenti, vice president of accounts at Arthur Elliott, which is the agency representing NAPA Auto Parts, spoke about the locally owned NAPA Arizona stores in Chandler, Arizona and their corporate group sport incentive experiences at Radford Racing School. Valenti says the biggest draw to sports incentive programs is that most attendees have the opportunity to participate in something they’ve never thought about doing before, or would not normally have the opportunity to do. “Skill level doesn’t matter at these events. Everyone can come and have a wonderful time and enjoy the adrenaline that comes from high-performance driving. In addition to this, they also learn valuable skills that can help them in their everyday driving.
NAPA has hosted large events and small intimate events at Radford Racing School. Founded in 1968, the Radford Racing School is the only purpose-built driver-training facility for performance enthusiasts and the largest driver-training center of its kind in the world. It is also the Official High Performance Driving School of Dodge//SRT. The school maintains more than 80 race-prepared vehicles, sedans, SUVs and open-wheel Formula One cars. The school is also launching new programs for groups, just in time for the anticipated rebound of Arizona tourism and group travel. The programs were designed to accommodate small get-togethers and large gatherings, from groups in the 100s in its event center to 1,000s in its outside venues, for sales incentive trips, team building, shows, exhibits and live performance events.
“No matter what type of event, or if there are 200 people or five people, the school is able to accommodate and make sure that each and every attendee gets to experience the thrill of driving high-performance vehicles like they’ve never done before,” Valenti says. “The Radford Racing School does an excellent job at making everyone feel special and comfortable, no matter what their skill level is and regardless of whether or not they’ve ever experienced any seat time on a race track. The school’s ability to customize group and corporate events to meet the needs of the individual group is second to none.”
All of the events orchestrated by NAPA at Radford Racing School included multiple opportunities to drive, however, in most instances, the attendees’ favorite portion of the event was the hot laps provided by the professional instructors. “Many of the attendees were hesitant at first, but left enjoying their time and wanting to come back to experience more,” Valenti says. “Events at Radford Racing School will stand out in the minds of attendees no matter what type of work they do. Get together with the school to put together a plan that will accommodate you and your corporate group.”
Radford Racing School has several decades of experience with group programs. They can guide any planner through the options carefully, breaking down details, cost, the timeline, etc., and scale them up or down based on your group size. “I usually just bring the large details to guys at the school, and they create something totally customizable and attractive for the group,” Valenti says.
Planning and executing sports incentives requires due diligence on the part of meeting planners. It also requires a key understanding of the sporting event itself, the timing of the event and organizing other activities that may keep attendees engaged throughout the sporting competition. “I don’t usually recommend making it a part of a conference, but you can encourage people to stay on or arrive early to attend separately. These events are so large and require a lot more energy that you really don’t want to have it take place before your meeting,” Lo says. “I think it’s great to stay past a conference if this happens to fall the weekend right after.”
So do planners need to look at hosting a sports incentive event at “big name” venues, or can they be smaller in focus as well? For Walsh, if the incentive is the sports event itself, it needs a big-name arena like the AT&T Stadium for a Dallas Cowboys home game. “I think it does require a marquee event,” Walsh says. “We can look at smaller sporting events as part of a larger incentive package, but it might not be the entire draw for the program. So if you were going to Europe for a soccer match, there are many ways to flesh out the experience and make it unforgettable.”
And planners agree that sports incentives can work for just about anybody. Walsh says that some would say the male demographic might be more inclined and excited, but if a meeting planner does it right, it can be great for any audience. To ensure success, Walsh says planners really need to determine what the marquee name is from a sports perspective if that’s the target you’re going for. Also, determine what that is and begin teasing the details to build excitement early on, so people are really focused. It’s a must to create very intentional buzz surrounding the incentive, so, from the start, every touchpoint, from the time of announcement through the winners’ experience, is felt. “You want to make sure the emotional connection to the event will motivate them to meet the objectives or sales goals. It’s part of the job to ensure the team or individuals are fired up to win,” Walsh says.
And as with planning any incentive event, planners have to make sure it’s a holistic experience from start to finish, from the big prize at the end to how the planner rolls out the plan. “Build the buzz, get the winners excited and ready. Logistics have to be perfectly planned and executed,” Walsh says. “To me, this is the essential piece: to have every detail perfectly planned, so if they are not particularly interested in the sport itself, they have an exceptional experience.” Also determine if all of the components for an incredible event are locked down. Is there a meet-and-greet, or a private suite with catered food and drink? Make sure the experience wows the attendees — it will make all the difference toward getting them excited.
Valenti thinks the future looks bright for experiential sports incentives. “When you can bring people with different backgrounds together and have them experience something together that is active and unique from other experiences, the results of team building are really incredible,” Valenti says. “ It breaks down the walls within the teams. Ultimately, it builds relationships out of shared experiences that would never have been experienced together. I have yet to find a program that can do all of those things effectively, while still having that much fun.”
And as Walsh points out, we are headed toward a more “experience” economy in general, and it will only increase as we go forward. “People are excited to touch and feel, to be back where the action is in a safe environment,” Walsh says. “Once we have the confidence that, for the sake of public safety, the timing is right, the sports incentive trend will grow ever stronger.” C&IT