Corporate hospitality: Unforgettable experience

Sporting events are a prime opportunity for sponsors to offer hospitality. But brands can struggle to make sure their message is heard above the cheering, says David Murphy

For companies sponsoring this year's big sporting events, including Euro 2004, Wimbledon, Royal Ascot, the England Test Match cricket series and the Olympics, corporate hospitality opportunities are the icing on the cake. The sponsorship itself should act as a springboard to promote the brand to a global audience, but on top of that, there's the chance to give key customers and prospects a trip to remember.

But how successful are brands' attempts at communication at these events?

Beyond creating a nice, warm feeling about the company that invited them, can brand owners hope to send away guests with any more memorable marketing messages?

Whatever happens on the pitch during Euro 2004, there will be some serious fun and games off it in the various hospitality boxes, and bars and restaurants of Portugal. How much the guests remember of their hosts' generosity will depend not just on how much they drink, but on how targeted the hospitality was and how well the hosts conveyed their message.

Vice-president of sponsorship at MasterCard, one of eight sponsorship partners at the championships, Patrick Simeons believes the company is the biggest purchaser of corporate sponsorship for Euro 2004, and says it is a great opportunity to talk to key decision-making clients and partners.

'We won't bother our guests with specific product presentations during the event, because it would be too much of a distraction, but we will make sure our sales force has "privileged moments" with our key contacts,' says Simeons. 'We could talk to them through the traditional channels, but that is much more complex. This allows us to demonstrate that the relationship is working and to bring our customers together in an environment where they can network with us and each other.'

Simon Gillespie, marketing director of Sportsworld Group, a corporate hospitality and international travel group, which arranges tour packages for the British Olympic Association, admits the quest for brand communication is not easy. 'Sporting events do carry the risk of dominating your product,' he says. 'You can invite lots of people, but the event in itself is all-encompassing. Do you get anything more out of it as a guest, beyond hospitality?

The bigger the event, the bigger the cachet. But if you're trying to get across specific messages, I'm not sure a big sporting event is the right place.'

Realistic approach

Chas Wheeler, a consultant at The Corporate Hospitality Partnership (TCHP), says most companies engaging in corporate sponsorship at big sporting events are realistic about their objectives. 'Companies know it gives them an opportunity to get closer to key contacts and interact with them in nice surroundings,' he says. 'But it's difficult when you're sitting down over lunch at Wimbledon to push your latest product, especially if your guest has their partner with them.'

Advanced Travel Partners International's (ATPI) head of group communications, Mike Souter, is not convinced that many companies that engage in corporate hospitality have taken the time to think things through to this extent.

'A lot of companies do corporate hospitality because they think they should,' he says. 'The biggest mistake a company can make is to do it because that's what it has always done, or because a senior member of the company has an interest in the sport in question. That's a waste of time. The first questions to ask yourself are what your audience is and why you are doing this event.'

Often, says Souter, companies invite the wrong people, such as the friends and family of the chairman, or people with no interest in the event. When they decline the invitation, it is passed on to a replacement and the strategy is diluted. 'Companies must get close enough to their clients to ascertain their interests' says Souter. 'If account managers are doing their job properly, they should be able to feed this information up and let that dictate which events they are invited to.'

Event management

Ardi Kolah, a marketing and sponsorship consultant and author of 'Maximising the Value of Hospitality', a report commissioned by SportBusiness Group, explains that 'hospitality is not about having a nice day out'. 'The motivation is business, in terms of customer relationship management,' he says. 'It's about seeing the whites of your customers' eyes and having a personal experience through a shared passion for sport.'

Kolah believes sport has all the right qualities of endurance, competition, motivation and teamwork, adding that participatory team sports, such as sailing, are becoming increasingly popular, not just for entertaining guests, but for moti-vating staff.

In his report, Kolah has created a model for best practice in corporate hospitality as well as a matrix plotting the features and benefits of different sports against various CRM objectives. 'Something like a major golf tournament is not great for networking because you have to spend so much time being quiet,' he points out. 'But with horse-racing, you have a whole afternoon, with the actual races only taking up 10 or 15 minutes. That's a lot of free time to get closer to your key contacts.'

If there are limits to what you can do in marketing terms at a big sporting event, how can a company be certain of getting its message across?

'Senior management receive a lot of invites. So if you are more creative with your invitations, perhaps giving people the chance to meet one of the stars after the match, as Nationwide does with the England football team, you stand a better chance,' says Sportsworld's Gillespie.

Focusing on a single message also helps. 'Decide which one thing you want your guests to take away from the event and stick to it in as many ways as you can' says Souter. 'If you're taking guests to a big football match, with a meal before the game, put something on the table that associates your brand or the product you are trying to promote, with that event.'

Another tactic is to extend the hospitality beyond the main event. At Rockingham, the UK's only oval motor-racing track, an event called Days of Thunder runs on the first Sunday of each month from May to October.

It's an attempt to bring US Nascar-style racing to the UK. Rockingham marketing manager Mark Elwood says, that corporate clients will typically bring guests to watch the racing, put them up in a hotel on Sunday, give them a business presentation on Monday morning and then host an afternoon's driving on the track.

'Once they have their guests in the region, it makes sense to keep their attention for a couple of days so they can start to get their business messages across,' says Elwood. 'For most companies the days of spending big budgets just to have fun are disappearing. There has to be some business value in it.'

The keys to effective corporate hospitality are targeting prior to the event, subtle communication during it and follow-up after it. As TCHP's Wheeler says, far too many companies fail to follow up on the investment made in an event. 'You get companies spending thousands flying someone to a big match, putting them up in a nice hotel and wining and dining them, but they don't follow it up and a year down the line, the guest will forget who took them there.'

CASE STUDY - MASTERCARD

MasterCard's sponsorship of this year's Champions League football culminated in a corporate hospitality event on the night of the final in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, on 26 May. The company hosted a dinner for 1000 guests, drawn from its key business-to-business account customers and prospects.

MasterCard vice-president of sponsorship Patrick Simeons says: 'Tickets are limited so we allocate them in a way that will best serve the business.

Maybe there is an agreement in the pipeline, or it will help us to win an important contract.' MasterCard flew guests into Gelsenkirchen the day before the event, giving account managers the chance to hold meetings with key contacts. On the night itself, MasterCard reinforced its 'Priceless' strapline by giving attendees their own 'priceless' moments. Football stars including Jean-Marie Pfaff, Eusebio, Pele and Jurgen Klinsmann, mingled with the guests. 'People won't do business with us just because we give them the chance to meet Eusebio, but it will reinforce the relationship,' says Simeons.

After an event like this, MasterCard conducts a tracking study via a questionnaire sent to guests, asking them what they thought of the event and what sort of things they would like to do in future.

THE COST OF HOSPITALITY

Euro 2004: 12 June-4 July. £3600 per head for a five-match package.

Olympic Games: 13-29 August. Full hospitality package including flights, hotel, tickets, staffing and meals from £2775 per head for three nights.

Rugby World Cup: For Australia 2003, costs ranged from £2500 to £4000 per head. France 2007 should offer much cheaper options, including single-day packages.

Wimbledon Championships: 21 June-4 July. Full hospitality package £3025 per head.

Henley Royal Regatta: 30 June-4 July. £325-£450 per head.

Npower Test Series cricket: Lord's, 22 July-26 July. £350 per head.

Royal Ascot: 15-19 June. £310-£695 per head, including five-course lunch and complimentary bar.

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