One of the most effective ways to successfully engage your community in sports events is to have excellent relationships with your partners. That includes venue managers, park districts, tournament directors, hospitality industry, governmental bodies, media, volunteers and more. A fully engaged community increases the likelihood of a successful event.
It really does take a village to host “wow” sports events and earn repeat customers. A convention and visitors bureau cannot do it alone. We must have the full support of our partners and their complete commitment to win bids and then execute.
What’s the best way to insure these partnerships? It’s like a good marriage. Treat them like a best friend. Communicate. Be considerate. Recognize. Thank.
Successful Partnership Steps
Where I work, at the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (RACVB), frequent communications with our partners is a high priority. Whether it’s an annual meeting, quarterly reports to funders, partner roundtables, newsletters, e-blasts, weekly radio shows or daily tweets, we’re out there. We also do evaluations via SurveyMonkey and personal phone calls to see how we can improve to better serve the community.
Nobody likes surprises, so when we ask for our partners’ help, we provide plenty of lead-time. Everyone likes to be recognized, so be generous and give credit to others for their assistance. Sometimes, we even send old-fashioned, handwritten thank-you cards. These days it’s rare to receive one of those, so your thank-you cards will really stand out.
At our annual meetings, we induct key partners into our Hall of Fame. This year, we added another way to acknowledge partners. We recognize outstanding customer service throughout our visitor industry. Examples might include staff at a gift shop, a sales/event specialist at a resort, or an administrative person at an airport.
Of course, it always helps to have excellent facilities. But to have the latest, most modern sports arena with lackluster customer service will not bring you repeat business. The newest venues are very enticing to tournament organizers and players alike. But tournament directors look for exceptional customer service from hotels, restaurants and visitors bureaus when determining return visits to sports destinations. We have learned, and are pleased to share with others, the way we engage our community, work with our partners and insure outstanding experiences so that tournaments return to our area.
First Method: Advanced, Detailed Planning
The Puma Champions Cup, an annual soccer tournament, returned to our region for the tenth year in 2012. It brought over 525 teams from eight Midwestern states and two international teams from Canada and Mexico. The tournament generated an estimated $1.6 million in economic activity to the Rockford region during its two weekend event. More than 15,000 people attended the tournament, the largest soccer tournament held in our area.
To keep customers coming back (isn't that what we all want?), it is essential to provide the best customer experience. In this case, our team started working with Puma Champions Cup organizer and coach of one of the participating teams several months before the tournament was held.
Working with our organizer, we were able to help create a plan to provide everyone -- athletes and visitors -- with what we thought would be the best possible experience. The bureau worked with two radio stations that held live remotes during the tournament, a balloon artist made and gave balloon animals to kids, and the Rockford Park District provided activities for players, their siblings, and other attendees. Additionally, the bureau had an information table on site during the tournament to provide visitors with helpful tips about the area, including where to eat, shop, and play when the games were over.
In engaging the community, it's essential to remember the impact each event will have. We were able to prepare nearby residents for the additional visitor traffic. We notified restaurants in advance about the additional business they would likely receive. These restaurants in turn welcomed visitors with welcome signage on their marquees or with sidewalk welcome signs provided by the bureau. Additionally, the convention and visitors bureau posted signage at strategic points to help the tournament teams with directions.
The bureau also worked closely with the local park district on a coupon project. We contacted area restaurants and asked if they would provide a discount for their location. Many responded favorably and we created a sheet with a dozen coupons for local restaurants. These coupon sheets were provided to all players and their families during the tournament. Although coupons are a basic amenity for sports visitors, feedback shows that they are appreciated, particularly as visitors can enjoy local unique restaurants and other partners.
The bureau also worked with hotels to ensure that teams and attendees had the best, most convenient and affordable accommodations possible. We made certain that teams were grouped together in room blocks with the best room rate possible. The bureau made sure to place teams in hotels that are near the fields, as well as related sites, attractions and restaurants.
After the tournament was over, the bureau surveyed the tournament organizers, participants and attendees. The fact that you seek out their opinion is evidence of your commitment to their good experience, and will keep teams coming back.
Second Method: Extraordinary Customer Service
Engaging the community can mean engaging the community that provides service to the sports event itself. Every group should strive for a partnership that results in customer service that goes far beyond expectations. For us, an example is the collaboration between the Rockford Women’s Bowling Association and the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. The bureau worked with them and the Illinois Women’s Bowling Association to bring the state tournament back to our area this year. This year’s event brought almost 500 bowlers and fans to the region each week for ten weeks from February to April; all told, the bowlers spent about $1.5 million. The event kicked off with a statewide annual meeting one weekend and continued with nine weekends of bowling. The IWBA last came to Rockford in 2004 when they held their 75th annual state tournament. Comments made by the leadership praised the outstanding customer service.
As we had with the soccer event, we made sure there was adequate welcome signage. There were welcome buttons for all hotel and restaurant staff to wear during the tournament weekends. Additionally, staff and volunteers were stationed at the bowling centers during each tournament to provide additional information, coupons and visitors guides.
The RACVB also assisted the Rockford Women’s Bowling Association in hosting a kickoff party for all teams. The party featured door prizes and food, and created a festive atmosphere and experience. (Trivia point: Rockford is known as the home of the sock monkey, so the RACVB brought Nelson, the sock monkey, to the party, and encouraged teams to have their picture taken with him). The bowlers loved this novel touch, and the tournament’s theme was “Sock Monkey and You in 2-0-1-2.”
Partnerships aren't just for adults' sports events, either. The Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation state tournament (IKWF) brought 900 wrestlers this past March. The youngsters and their coaches, families and friends spent $350,000 and they committed to return through 2014. Our mayor was able to greet the wrestlers and their guests during opening ceremonies. Downtown merchants put out their “Welcome IKWF” signs on the sidewalks and on their marquees. That level of welcome makes a big impression, and the kids really enjoyed it.
Something that also helps get your athletes excited about your event and your area? Anything you can give away, whether it's information or gifts. We've seen that an on-site information booth, gift bags for VIP attendees and a commemorative souvenir for athletes go a long way toward creating good will. In addition, helping to sponsor and orchestrate the event's opening ceremonies, such as with a color guard and entertainment, really gets things rolling.
Third Method: Enthusiastic Volunteers
Is there a way to overstate this? We don't think so. Volunteers are an extremely important partner, and perhaps one of the most essential ingredients in engaging your community. Our area has a history of strong volunteerism and the visitor industry is a fortunate recipient of their time and talent. After receiving up to 12 hours of training, strong corps of volunteers take care of our visitor centers at the Chicago Rockford International Airport and the Clock Tower Resort & Conference Center. They also serve at welcome tables for many conferences and tournaments.
Every Friday, a group of volunteers comes to our office and fills welcome bags with brochures, coupons, maps and other helpful information for sports tournaments. Volunteers are happy to represent your area, and to contribute to its success. Simply put, they like knowing they've had a part in a great event, and that they've helped people enjoy the area where they live and work.
In conclusion, there's really no secret ingredient to engaging the community and working to become a successful destination. In survey after survey, we hear it over and over: it’s really the outstanding customer service, warm welcome and personalized attention that keep sports tournaments coming back. We're thankful this is an outgrowth of the special relationships we’ve nurtured over the years. We can count on our partners, and they can count on us.
In addition to developing and growing strong relationships with partners, here’s a basic checklist for sports event organizers.
• Welcome Signs
Whether it’s the sidewalk sandwich board, yard sign, electronic marquees or buttons to wear, be sure to invest in these. When you make your visitors feel welcome, they’ll return year after year, and you can use the signs over and over. These signs really make your visitors feel welcome.
• Discount Coupons
Your restaurants and other retail businesses will most likely participate in this, when you tell them how many visitors are expected. Offer to create a coupon sheet for participating businesses and include it in a welcome bag and your social media. Everyone loves a bargain. They never go out of style and our evaluations show that visitors like learning about our unique restaurants and attractions this way.
• Information Table
Provide both virtual and on-site information tables, with a good variety of literature that lets visitors know where to eat, shop and play, plus directions to get there. We emphasize our unique and original restaurants and sites to differentiate their experience. Get volunteers to sign up for shifts. This is a great way to offer that personal touch in an increasingly digital world. Having a real information table allows us to get a real-time sense of how things are progressing and if necessary, immediately head off a potential problem with our “eyes and ears on the ground.”
Alert your media well in advance. Visitors love to see TV cameras and photographers at their tournaments. It makes them feel important. See if a radio or TV station will do a live remote. Have information about local athletes to make it more interesting to their audience. Have the local paper delivered to your athletes’ hotel rooms.
Many families bring the young siblings of athletes. Try to have some activity for them, like face painting or a balloon artist.
• Additional Assistance
Offer other event services. Ask if they want a color guard, live music, door prizes, or a special tour of your region’s most famous attraction.