Food is trust.
A simple yet powerful concept.
A simple way to emotionally connect with fans in an effort to inspire greater short-term fulfillment and engagement.
And a simple way to engender longer-term loyalty, attendance, and revenue.
On Monday, my Business of Sports class at Washington University in St. Louis was treated to one of the more thought-provoking expert discussions we’ve hosted during my 5-year tenure at the school when we welcomed hospitality expert John Sergi to class. I say this because Sergi challenged all of us to think much more strategically and emotionally about the why of food, and how that impacts the what and how of food.
SERGI’S “HOSPITALITY DESIGN THINKING” CONCEPT FOCUSES ON STRATEGIC PLANNING AND COLLECTING INFORMATION
According to Sergi, using hospitality as strategy is the central theme behind his trademarked ‘Hospitality Design Thinking’ concept. The three core tenets of this approach being (1) Discovery, (2) Ideation, and (3) Execution.
In Sergi’s estimation among the 60 projects he’s tackled over three decades in the business, it’s common for at least 50% of his time being spent on Discovery. “Ideas don’t solve problems”, according to Sergi, “data and insights solve problems. Get to know the problem the way you’d get to know a new friend.”
These words made me think of sage advice from Mike Bernstein, Vice President of Insights and Analytics for L.A. 2028 and formerly in a similar role with Wasserman. Bernstein, a contributor to my Sports Business book published in August 2018, noted that (1) structured thinking, (2) intellectual curiosity, and (3) client focus are essential components to exude when working in consulting. Quoting Bernstein, “If you don’t take on client challenges as your own, you can’t provide the right context to the data, or sometimes even provide the rights answers at all.”
These words rang loud and clear as Sergi outlined his approach to client engagement.
Subsequently, Sergi stresses the importance of getting to know his clients’ fan demographics (to understand their tastes/preferences) as well as the client’s own goals and objectives regarding hospitality in order to make the best recommendations possible.
To this end, in one of his case examples, he revealed a Hospitality Translation matrix which linked:
- Targeted brand attributes, likely formed from a strategic brainstorming session with clients and/or focus groups.
- How the hospitality providers could translate these attributes into their own language of food/beverages.
- How to activate the program.
At Liverpool’s M&S Bank Arena (previously Echo Arena), Sergi explained, the link between brand attribute-hospitality translation-program activation went as follows:
Brand Attribute / Hospitality Translation / Program Activation
*Genuine (unpretentious) // Keep the food basic but real // Hot Dogs, Nachos
*Passion (fun-loving) // Be a bit irreverent // Scouse Dog, Fish Pie
In short, a deeper dive in trying to understand the customer at the outset will hopefully garner deeper fan engagement on the back end of the project.
MAKING IN-VENUE HOSPITALITY LESS TRANSACTIONAL, AND MORE EMOTIONAL
Furthermore, and extremely consistent with contemporary sentiments frequently discussed at recent sports business conferences on the topic of corporate partnerships, Sergi argues that the best way to interweave hospitality into the fabric of the overall venue/sporting experience should be to design a hospitality experience which resonates emotionally with fans, rather than a transactional relationship.
My friend and colleague, Ed O’Hara (Chairman at SME Branding), constantly talks about Winning the Heart of consumers in branding and advertising in order to simultaneously enhance their brand loyalty while lowering their price sensitivity…thereby boosting long-term revenues in the process.
Which takes us back to “Food is trust” and Sergi’s Discovery tenet:
- Food is unquestionably one of the most important aspects of the game-day experience which employees of the organization have significant control over. Cited in Sports Business Journal’s latest 11/18 issue, a recent Turnkey sports poll of over 2,000 sports executives cited “upscale food and beverage experience” as the most important benefit for premium seat holders (35% polled indicated such, with “comfort of premium seating area” a distant second at 19%);
- If fans trust an organization’s food and beverage quality, variety of offerings, and quality of service, then they will have a greater sense of overall trust and comfort with the organization;
- And the more trust/comfort fans have with the organization in general, the strong the fan experience, and the deeper the degree of long-term fan engagement…which means more likely to renew tickets, more likely to buy merchandise, etc…
- Therefore, it only makes sense to research and discover what the customers want. And once those tastes/preferences are identified, then discuss ideas of how to satisfy the customers’ needs.
Sergi used the New York Mets and CitiField as an example. Leading with Discovery, key questions we asked to better understand the Mets fan base. For example, how do Mets fans differ from Yankees fans?
After several brainstorming sessions, the strategic plan set forth was to tailor the overall hospitality experience to working class fans, and design the public hospitality spaces first to ensure these fans felt as though they were receiving concierge-type service. Judging from the substantially larger per caps the Mets initially experienced upon opening CitiField in 2009 in comparison to their cross-town foes who opened the new Yankee Stadium the same week, the Discover-Ideation-Execution approach paid handsome dividends.
PRICING IS BUT ONE WAY TO ENGENDER TRUST IN F&B
When I asked Sergi about Atlanta’s “Fan First” pricing model at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (heavily discounted food and beverage, a rarity across sports concessions which some teams have attempted to adopt) and the recently-announced season ticket model proposed by the San Francisco 49ers where they are including select food/beverage items as part of the season ticket price, Sergi praised both teams for having the conviction and vision to be innovative, and added, “Pricing is just one way to garner trust, but not the only way. If you give them a story above and beyond the price, people may be willing to overlook price.”
In sum, Sergi’s presentation imparted several key takeaways:
(1) Strategic thinking is critical for all aspects of a sports organization, and arguably, perhaps is most critical to employ when devising an organization’s hospitality strategy…given the prominent role food/beverage play in our overall game-day experience.
(2) Emotionally connecting with fans will engender more meaningful and deeper levels of fan engagement than anything which feels transactional. Emotionally connecting with fans builds a level of trust which can only boost a company’s long-term financial position.
(3) Consultants who truly get to know their clients and treat the clients’ issues as their own will be more effective in managing clients’ needs and procuring future consulting business.