There was a time not so long ago when hospitality experiences were nothing to write home about. The setup, usually part of a sports sponsorship, generally included a few beers and bites under a sad white tent, and when the game ended, so did the brand engagement. Flash forward to 2017, and the landscape is drastically different. Brands today are producing memorable, once-in-a-lifetime hospitality experiences in an effort to educate attendees on their products and personality, drive long-term loyalty, close business deals and above all, strengthen relationships with key clientele. The stakes are higher, the assets are greater and the competition is fierce. Welcome to hospitality in the FOMO era.
MAKING THE MOST OF ASSETS
More than ever, brands are leveraging what they’ve already got to enhance their hospitality experiences. It’s an opportunity to make the most of their assets and stretch those budget dollars just a bit farther. Under Armour, for example, has begun to take advantage of its relationship with top athletes, like heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua. In April, the brand hosted top European clients in London at the Anthony Joshua Championship Fight at Wembley Stadium—an event that drew the biggest boxing audience the UK had seen in almost 80 years, and an experience the clients won’t soon forget.
“More and more we’re utilizing the really unique things about our brand to draw in our business partners and clients,” says Kelley Walton, senior director-global events and athlete tours at Under Armour. “Any brand can plan an amazing weekend at a top resort for their top clients, but only Under Armour can offer our business partners and clients the chance to meet Stephan Curry and sit courtside at his event… So, I think we’re really trying to leverage those assets that we have even more than in the past to create these experiences that money can’t buy for our clients.”
The same goes for Grant Thornton, an accounting firm that serves as the official accounting services provider for the Tony Awards. Although it had strictly relied on sports sponsorship-based hospitality experiences in the past, the brand recognized a gap in entertainment-based hospitality events and in the past two years has leveraged its relationship with the esteemed awards program to offer clients an exclusive Tonys experience.
For this year’s Tony Awards, Grant Thornton invited a top client and his wife to participate in its VIP experience as a couple, which included a two-night stay at the Plaza Hotel, a salon and shopping experience at Bergdorf Goodman, a pre-cocktail reception and an official red carpet photo op at the awards show. The experience also included entry to the official Tonys after party gala and a takeaway photo of the couple’s red carpet moment, which the brand mailed home.
“I think the different properties within the [hospitality] category are approaching things differently,” says Carol Tarver, director-sports marketing at Grant Thornton. “They’re trying to enhance their assets. It’s not just a basketball game—it’s a family thing, it’s the circus, it’s a concert… Just the sheer volume of facilities that are expanding their rental suites—maybe there’s a message there that companies are not necessarily signing up for five-year leases of the suite. They’re doing things to make their assets more appealing to the marketplace, and at the same time, a lot of them are hedging their bets trying to see if they can broaden the base of who they’re trying to market [to].”
Giving attendees the opportunity to learn about the brand, its personality and the products or services it offers is also a key component of hospitality experiences for many companies. Like TE Connectivity, a technology company that designs and manufactures connectivity and sensor products, which takes advantage of its partnership with the Andretti Formula E Team to offer clients a rare look behind the scenes of the auto racing space. Andretti’s Formula E vehicle is equipped with more than 100 TE products, making race days the perfect setting for the brand’s education-based hospitality experiences.
For a b-to-b company like TE, connecting with partners and clients is paramount to the business, so the brand activates hospitality experiences for groups of 50 at every single race. Clients arrive on a Friday afternoon to go under the hood of the Andretti vehicle during an hour-long tech tour in the paddock with TE Connectivity’s resident engineer (a role given to a new employee every six months to keep things fresh). Following the tour, attendees dine with Andretti engineers and drivers, who answer questions in an intimate environment. On Saturday, attendees head to the racetrack where a speaker discusses a topic related to that particular audience. Then it’s time for networking, and of course, to view the race.
“It has that combination of edu-tainment, as opposed to just coming to and watching the race,” says Jared Melzer, director-global partnerships at TE Connectivity. “We always say we want our customers to leave [the experience] smarter, more inspired and better connected to TE. That’s really the essence of how we create this program.”
For Under Armour, hospitality experiences offer the brand a chance to educate key clients and customers on its character and culture. That opportunity arrives each year during the brand’s sponsorship of the Preakness Stakes, an event that takes place in Under Armour’s hometown of Baltimore.
“We love to expose our partners and our clients to all the energy that takes place in Baltimore around Preakness,” says Walton. “We host them for a full weekend of activities including a Preakness Eve Party and then front row seats at our Chalet for the actual Preakness Stakes—all day racing, the opportunity to bet and really everything that happens at the Preakness. While they’re here for the weekend, we offer them the opportunity to explore our unique neighborhoods and the culture and I think it really brings together our business and community partners and showcases the best of Under Armour and Baltimore.”
Of course, like any aspect of the live event space, hospitality comes with its challenges, especially when it comes to designing one-of-a-kind experiences. In an industry where top clients have seen, heard and done just about everything, brands aiming to differentiate themselves by producing remarkable experiences are often fighting an uphill battle.
To distinguish itself, Citi relies on its close ties to the entertainment industry to produce unparalleled experiences for its cardmembers. Case in point: During Grammy Week in Los Angeles, the brand launched a new live music platform, Citi Sound Vault, which featured exclusive meet and greets, backstage tours and the opportunity to see some of the world’s biggest artists, like Metallica and Sting, in intimate venues.
“The biggest challenge is finding ways to differentiate our brand in the intensely competitive environment in which we play,” says Jennifer Breithaupt, global consumer cmo at Citi. “Luckily this competitive environment drives us to push boundaries and consistently come up with new and unique offerings.”
It’s a similar scenario for Grant Thornton, who despite close relationships with properties like the Tony Awards and PGA Championship, sometimes struggles with delivering what attendees expect—the unexpected.
“I’m in the professional services category, and nine out of 10 of my targets have been to many, many, many hospitality experiences,” says Tarver. “So, the challenge for us is not only to get the right person in my seat, but to create an experience that they haven’t already had a thousand times… It’s about creating unique experiences that money can’t buy and that [clients] want to come to.”
Challenges aside, the perks of producing unique hospitality experiences are vast. According to TE Connectivity, 100 percent of sales leaders reported a better relationship with their customers or distributors following a recent Andretti racing event, while 87 percent of surveyed customers reported a more favorable opinion of the brand.
And for Citi, giving cardmembers unprecedented access to some of the year’s biggest shows, including Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Guns N’ Roses and The Chainsmokers, in exchange for brand fidelity is priceless.
“These experiences allow us to differentiate our brand by delivering emotionally impactful experiences for our cardmembers, and drive long-term brand loyalty by deepening and extending relationships with consumers across the globe,” says Breithaupt.
And that’s what this biz is all about.