American Express has been partnering with the USTA-owned US Open tennis tournament for a quarter of a century. And yet somehow, year after year, the brand continues to produce activations that delight—and comfortably cool off—consumers throughout the event’s two-week run. Its secret? Creating a program with a sound, strategic foundation informed by the latest trends in technology, social and consumer insights. EM was on the ground at the tourney this year to visit Amex’s 20,000-square-foot footprint, highlighted by the American Express Super Rally augmented-reality tennis experience hosted by Venus Williams. We caught up with Lindsay Ulrey, director-global experiential marketing and partnerships at American Express, to discuss the brand’s strategic focus for this year’s activation and how the brand manages to keep it consistently fresh and exciting.
Event Marketer: What are some of the new experiences Amex launched this year?
Lindsay Ulrey: One of the things we were super excited to launch this year is Super Rally, which is an augmented reality tennis game where you’re simultaneously playing tennis in the digital and physical worlds. You have a 3D-printed racket in your hand and you’re rallying digital tennis balls against these physical targets that are in the center of our space.
The other thing I would call out that was new this year was the Amex band. This was something for cardmembers only. At an event like this where you’re purchasing merch and concessions, you’re always taking out a credit card or cash. How can we come in and make that experience a lot more seamless for cardmembers? Not only does linking your card to this band allow you to seamlessly pay at any of the point-of-sale destinations around the grounds, but it’s also taking a page out of our festival strategy. It’s a more seamless, fully packaged way to enjoy your suite of benefits.
EM: How do you keep your activation fresh every year?
LU: First and foremost, we are maniacally focused on customer insights. So, the fact that we know people are here seven hours a day, the fact that we know people want to play the game of tennis not just watch the game of tennis. Every year, we’re working with the USTA and our partners to identity and uncover new insights about what the fan needs, what the fan wants, and territories that haven’t really been entered into before at the US Open.
Secondarily, it’s about staying at the forefront of cutting edge technology and what customers are really getting excited about. Obviously, augmented reality is huge right now. We’ve done things in AR at Coachella and we did it with a Justin Timberlake AR experience this year. It’s a place we leaned into this year that we know consumers are responding well to.
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And lastly, just living and breathing tennis and customer experience throughout the year. You may not think that something at Coachella would be relevant at the US Open, but there are so many similarities between these large-scale consumer events across sports and entertainment. Inspiration could really be anywhere, even in your Instagram feed. We don’t think of this as a once a year event. We’re constantly being inspired by things 365 days a year that we could bring in to the space and the experience.
EM: Are there other examples of crossover between your suite of events?
LU: We’ve seen a lot of success in linking payments and benefits together through a wearable. That’s something that was extremely successful at Coachella and at Austin City Limits that we thought was cool to pilot here since this is very much like a festival environment. It’s not all about the tennis. People come here for a variety of reasons. Some are hardcore tennis fans, some are here for the Honeydews and lobster rolls. We want to make sure we have something for everybody.
EM: How do you keep up with technological innovations in the event space?
LU: One of the huge wins has been having a digital products team that sits right alongside us in the office. Not only are they up to speed on things outside of Amex in terms of cutting edge technology—specifically in regards to payment and the future of payments—but they also have a direct sight line into proprietary Amex technology that we can bring to our events to enhance the experience. The Amex wearable was something that we came up with in partnership with that team. For any of our activations, we have the right people at the table from the beginning of the strategy development to make sure that if there are relevant technologies that they’re there from the beginning. There’s been a division for digital products at Amex for over five years, but only recently have they been rolled into the experiential division.
EM: Do you have an influencer strategy across all of your events?
LU: Yes. We’ve actually secured a core squad of influencers across all of our events this year. Previously, we had been doing one-off groups of influencers for all of the events. The problem is that you lose some of the continuity of the story. So, this year we have secured a squad of 8-10 influencers that we’ve worked with across events. They’ve come to Coachella, US Open Golf, Panorama and now they’re here at US Open tennis. Their followers start to get more of a sense of what the American Express brand is doing across all these sports and entertainment entities.
EM: What is the criteria for choosing influencers that work across all five events?
LU: For us, it’s more about someone who’s representative of a lifestyle brand through and through. For golf or tennis, we will supplement those people who are really core and endemic to those sports. But we’re finding more and more that these events aren’t just for the hardcore tennis fans or hardcore golf fans. We have influencers that can represent people who just like going to events, living active lifestyles and living their life forward. It’s been more important to us than people who are more specific to one sport or one interest.
EM: And your hashtag #AmexLife could work for any event.
LU: Yes. Similar to how our influencers aren’t so specific, we’ve taken a step back. AmexLife is our hashtag as a company across everything we do. It’s about how we can level-up the story in social to be more about the brand in totality, how American Express is all about living your life forward and having these great experiences.
EM: How do you keep the experience unique within the US Open itself?
LU: There are so many partners here. It’s really hard to find something that other people aren’t doing. We walk around and think, we almost did that! It’s almost as if people are in this shell, thinking that these are the things that people need at tennis. It’s tough with so many partners to continue reinventing. We work hard with the USTA to make sure that what we’re doing no one else is doing. For us, it’s all about associating Amex with the best possible customer service. It’s about coming in and mitigating fan pain points. Making the day for our cardmembers is what we’re all about.