Pandemic Plus Side? The Evolution of Sports Marketing | Sports Destination Management

Pandemic Plus Side? The Evolution of Sports Marketing

Jun 25, 2021 | By: Ally Mills Dorrough, APR, TMP
Courtesy of Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events

The COVID-19 pandemic  has caused plenty of hard times for the sports and event industry in 2020 and 2021 from cancelations to modifications to changes that are here to stay. During a season of tumultuous transition and uncertainty for sports tourism came a wave of innovation, creativity and opportunity for sports destination marketers.

Taking Advantage of Downtime

While sporting events were few and far between during the height of the pandemic, many destinations focused on improving – or reinventing – promotional materials. From inspirational sales collateral and fresh digital content to updating visual assets, convention and visitor bureaus (CVBs) and sports commissions made the most of dry event times.

At Visit Winston Salem (North Carolina), the marketing team focused on building out 360-degree footage of some of its indoor sports facilities not being used during the height of the pandemic. In May 2021, this history-rich community opened a new indoor, multi-use sports complex, and more 360-degree footage is in the works. Footage is included in RFPs, attendance builder videos, direct e-mail blasts and social media posts.

“Ironically, maybe serendipitously, the pandemic enabled our marketing team to capture much-needed interior video, including 360-degree footage of some of our indoor sports facilities,” said Marcheta Cole Keefer, director of marketing and communications for Visit Winston Salem. “Once produced, we uploaded these videos to our site, allowing sports events organizers to preview and tour with ease.” 

Keefer says the organization also designed and built a new website that launched in July 2020, taking advantage of time with few events on the books.

“Mindful to walk in the shoes of our clients/customers, we included a ‘find my facility’ by sorting by sport,” said Keefer. “It’s a simple tool but a much-lauded one as it truly streamlines the search process. Once you find the facility, we’ve coded on the back end so users may link to the directory for additional specifications/details or a map-it function.”

Refocusing and Rebranding

“Pivot” – the most overused word of the pandemic – carries weight and relevance for destinations trying to stay afloat when travel was halted and now as travel bounces back. The key to surviving for many sports and event meccas? Refocusing marketing and advertising strategies and in some cases, rebranding.

Experience Columbia SC Sports took its marketing focuses to a tasty level, creating the Bites and Sights Passport, complete with an interchangeable logo and schedule for groups to input their own information. The goal of this ongoing project is to encourage sports and event attendees and participants to safely explore the destination. And the best part? The passport rewards those who complete a percentage of the passport at the end of their event with a prize, incentivizing sports and event travelers to live out the organization’s name.

“We were in a fairly unique situation given how early our city opened up and how soon we started hosting events again,” said Jarrett Dowling, STS, sales manager at Experience Columbia SC Sports. “When we started events back, we wanted to find a way to get the attendees and competitors out in the community to help our businesses that were deeply hurting. The concept of the ‘passport’ came alive, and we are excited to continue to use it long after the pandemic is over. It’s a great way to support our local restaurants and attractions and get our attendees out to experience the city.”

Additionally, Columbia pivoted its marketing campaign to “Real Sports, Real Soon” and then “Real Sports, Real Safe” when they began hosting events again. Going forward, the team plans to use “Real Sports, Real Columbia SC.”

In Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama, the sports commission rebranded and launched the new brand in March 2021, bringing major leisure events generating overnight stays into its fold.

“While we were limited on what events we could host for the majority of 2020, our marketing team was able focus on our rebranding that had been in the works for quite some time,” said Michelle Russ, CSEE, vice president of sales, sports and events for Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events (formerly Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission). “With the approval of our board, we are now able to assist major event planners that meet our criteria to complement our sports event framework.”

Russ says the time was ideal to get the rebrand “right” and begin seeking new business for Alabama’s coastal communities.

Helping Planners Plan Ahead

If one thing is certain for the bulk of sports destinations, it’s that sales teams help planners plan ahead, which is an advantage CVBs and sports commissions have held onto during an economically taxing time. For many destinations, this time has meant marketing teams helping sales teams refresh and rework planning resources and offerings to sell to planners when the time was (or is) right.

Visit Rogers (Arkansas) is fortunate to have retained its staff throughout the pandemic and shifted its marketing and advertising resources to local and drive markets. The team took the time to create inspirational sales collateral and freshen up its digital content to appeal to potential clients.

“Visit Rogers suffered no layoffs and kept all sales staff during the pandemic, allowing us to maintain constant communication with current and future event planners,” said Director of Marketing & Communications Kelly Parker, TMP. “Planners were assured that when they were ready, we would be here for them.”

In Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, GSOB Sports & Events pushed its sports planner marketing toolkit to help planners prepare for future sporting events with ready-to-go resources. The toolkit includes a custom digital save-the-date, custom digital banner ad package, pre-written destination content and visual assets.

Across the Gulf Coast region, Visit Panama City Beach shifted its marketing focus on current rights holders and seeking additional partners to fill need periods. 

“We didn’t participate in very many virtual or in-person conferences in 2020 and spent less on general marketing overall,” said Chris O’Brien, director of sports marketing and special events. “We did, however, shift some of these dollars to bringing in rights holders for site visits when appropriate.”

O’Brien says one integral regional effort was developing a plan for events with their local governments and health department and checking in with and assisting other communities. “We also reached out to other CVBs throughout Florida with details of the safety plans to hopefully help everyone recover faster.”

Modifying Events to Safely Promote and Host

Event modifications continue to be the norm, and many changes will be part of the industry’s fiber moving forward. While some destinations were able to host events – mainly outdoors – in the last year, others moved to virtual events.

Katherine Fox, director of marketing for the Kansas City Sports Commission, says her team helped convert the city’s annual Garmin Kansas City Marathon to a “Million Mile Challenge.” This format allowed participants to select a goal distance and log/track training and race mileage over several months.

“When we were forced to convert our locally based endurance events to ‘virtual races,’ it afforded us the opportunity to allocate a bit more of our digital marketing budget to target markets outside of Kansas City,” Fox said. “This allowed us to showcase the events to more of a national audience in the hopes that they might plan a trip to KC to participate in the future.”

In many beach destinations like Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, as well as Panama City Beach, most major venues are outdoors, which made summer 2020 youth baseball and softball tournaments and other events possible in both locations with restrictions in place. 

GSOB Sports & Events was able to produce coaches’ meetings and opening ceremony videos ahead of time to avoid large crowds for the USSSA Global Sports World Series. Additionally, the Alabama Gulf Coast hosted the SEC Women’s Soccer Tournament in a modified format and the Coastal Alabama Half Marathon & 5K with staggered starts and drive-through packet pick-up. Likewise, Visit Panama City Beach successfully hosted the only full IRONMAN (Visit PCB IRONMAN Florida) in North America for 2020.

Event conversions, like virtual races, have their place with opportunities to promote sponsors outside of the local market. Modifications, like drive-through packet-up for races and other sporting events, make the pre-event hustle more efficient – a positive outcome of the pandemic for sports destinations, event planners and participants alike. 

Wrapping It Up

Some events as we knew them may not be the same, and likewise for event marketing, but is that a bad thing? The jury is still out, but the future looks bright for the evolution of sports and event marketing. As pandemic conditions continue to improve, travel becomes more accessible and sporting events come back, destination marketers are more prepared to create, collaborate and cause positive change for the sports tourism world. SDM


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