The Big Ticket

Paul Nolan

Viral videos beget copycats. The explosion of “David After Dentist” a few years ago continues to inspire camcord-toting family and friends to videotape someone they know who is just out of surgery and shaking off the effects of anesthesia.

Another theme that’s wildly popular: capturing the reaction of someone opening the gift of a ticket to a big game or other sold-out event. “We’re Going to the Game, Pop!,” this genre’s equivalent of “David After Dentist,” captures Alabama football fan Don Buckhannan as he is cheered to tears upon receiving a ticket to the 2013 BCS National Championship game between his beloved Crimson Tide and Notre Dame. The video was written about in the Huffington Post and elsewhere online.

And why not? Major sporting events and other live experiences create memories that last a lifetime. Businesses have built incentive programs and client loyalty strategies around the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby and other iconic events for years. Like the events themselves, these group outings have become bigger, brasher and, candidly, more expensive to pull off.

But the higher price tag has not diminished companies’ appetites for staging these trips. In 2002, Brian Learst and Ken Kurek started QuintEvents, a corporate hospitality business, from the basement of Learst’s Atlanta home.

Some 12 years later, the company, now headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., has partnership agreements with the NFL, NBA, College Football Playoff Premium, the Kentucky Derby, Ultimate Fighting Championship and the Breeders’ Cup.

QuintEvents — and more accurately, its business customers — will bring 3,200 attendees to the 2015 Super Bowl in Arizona, most of them as part of an incentive program, corporate junket or other corporate-sponsored event. A client in the insurance industry has already booked a block of 250 seats at Churchill Downs in 2015 to bring a group from Asia to the Kentucky Derby.

Think Big

Going to a Super Bowl or a Kentucky Derby is one thing. Going with a corporate group that books through QuintEvents or a handful of other incentive providers is something altogether different. There are pregame parties and postgame parties, behind-the-scenes tours, meet-and-greets with hall-of-fame athletes and much more.

There may have been a time when it was sufficient to merely take your top performers or key clients to an iconic live event, but not anymore. The goal now, Learst and others say, is to create an experience that could never be duplicated by an individual.

“Anything is possible,” says Laura Rettinger, senior account manager for Event Solutions at BI Worldwide, a Minneapolis-based provider of group and incentive travel programs. She tells her clients they cannot think too big. “You’re talking about people who have been to Mexico, been to London, been to Hawaii…They’re looking for something they wouldn’t be able to do themselves.”

In addition to Super Bowls, NCAA Final Four tournaments, PGA golf tournaments and other usual suspects, BIW has arranged more niche outings such as a trip to the Latin Grammy Awards it put together for a group of Spanish-speaking sales associates with a major telecommunications provider.

More than a game

“For some people, it may not even be the actual event they’re interested in. They’re looking for an out-of-the-box idea,” Rettinger says. “We’ve had plenty
of people who aren’t the biggest football fans attend a Super Bowl and we’ve never had a problem making it a memorable event.”

Icon International, a specialized finance company that brokers high-end corporate barter transactions, hosts a group of 40 to 60 select clients and their guests at the Super Bowl every year with help from QuintEvents. Adria Manente, event and trade show manager at the company, says the attendee list varies from year to year, but most fit the high-level executive who may feel they’ve seen it all. But when the weekend is over — after enjoying the Playboy and Maxim Super Bowl parties earlier in the week and the unbelievable seats and an after-game experience on the field immediately following the Super Bowl trophy presentation, no one is left without a lifetime memory.

“Everything is about image,” Manente says. “Even if they’re not that excited about football, it’s a check-the-box event in somebody’s life.”

A great experience presents a problem of a different sort — how do you top it next year? At this year’s Super Bowl in New York, Manente arrived at the stadium early, camera in hand, to capture the faces of the clients as they discovered they were sitting in the fifth row. The looks on their faces, she says, were priceless. “It’s hard to gauge ROI on something like this, but it’s clearly a great program for us. [QuintEvents’] main objective is to make us look good; year after year, they don’t disappoint in any way.”