Jim Renne, Sports Principal at ROSSETTI, reveals his firm's observations on fan behavior trends and other design inspirations for the $100 million renovation of Ford Field.
Late in 2017, the ALSD visited the home of the Detroit Lions to explore the $100 million renovation of Ford Field that was completed prior to this NFL season.
Taking cues from changing demographics and the industrial field of the city, ROSSETTI delivered new social destinations and experiences immersed in the materials, textures, and artwork of Detroit.
Please enjoy below the edited transcript of our interview with Jim Renne, Sports Principal at ROSSETTI, where he discusses the origins of the project and the reasons behind the choices made for this Detroit-centric and Lions-centric project.
Jared: I thought the appropriate place to start would be with some context. Could you lay the groundwork for what the pre-existing conditions were here at the facility prior to the renovation? And begin to get into the philosophical part of why you did what you did?
Jim: Sure. Allow me to make three points. When this facility was designed, almost 15 years ago, or at least 13 years ago when it opened up, there was a huge unique characteristic that was created here, and that was engaging and integrating a stadium with the city.
Existing buildings were in fact made part of the facility. Back then, it was a novel thing. It hadn't been done to the authenticity that was achieved here. That being a big move, it meant that the characteristic and the feel of the stadium also were to have that sense of connection with Detroit. So that was achieved by incorporating buildings that were already here.
Now fast-forward over time, we have four major league teams in this market. And over time, you have a huge inventory of suites. Ford Field and the Lions had to continue to make sure they could be competitive and sell and market.
“Time goes on. Things don't work. You have some unsold inventory ... so we needed to start to work together with Ford Field and the Lions to understand what it was that really made sense for this market that they needed to compete.”
– Jim Renne, ROSSETTI
Where we started off, if you think about the four major league teams in the market, then you start thinking about the Millennial generation, and I use that term a little bit loosely, but as you know, that generation has had a huge move to downtown Detroit.
Also reflected in that are smaller corporations that have more Millennial-minded employees. They have certain preferences. And with that in mind, we started to think about how do you capture those people in a building that, by and large, hasn't changed a ton in terms of its premium offerings or experiences?
And then third is to think a little bit about the new Little Caesars Arena coming into town. Now you have Little Caesars coming to town, Detroit coming into town, the Pistons that is, with a brand-new facility. How does Ford Field and the Lions compete for those people in this market with a new facility in town? The Lions had enough foresight to realize all that, and think about how and what they needed to accomplish that.
Now I hope I'm accurate, but I think Detroit is the 12th largest market in the NFL, and one of their objectives was to make sure [Ford Field] reflected that in its revenues. So again, keeping up both in the local market, but also relative to the larger league itself, wanting to make that kind of commitment to be at least 12th, if not better in terms of the league.
What we also then realized was there's a lot of things that weren't working here at Ford Field. Time goes on. Things don't work. You have some unsold inventory. The competition, as I mentioned, was pretty stiff and was going to get stiffer, so we needed to start to work together with Ford Field and the Lions to understand what it was that really made sense for this market that they needed to compete in, and ultimately create something that actually felt, I think you heard it earlier with Jared, felt Lions-centric and Detroit-centric.
We understand what that means. It's not just about creating something that looked like Detroit or looked like the Lions, but there's some authenticity in the environment that you want your fans to experience.
We developed a strategy with [the Lions] that was all about how do you then address the new fans, and how do you address new companies coming into the market, and create then the distinction from the other teams and what they're doing.
Even with the brand new arena, we had an opportunity to create a distinction, and that was all going to be leveraged by not only the Lions brand, but also by the Detroit brand that we had started 13, 14 years ago by coming downtown in the first place.
Jared: With those changing demographics that you mentioned, I'm sure you observed some changing behavior trends that probably governed how you thought about laying out the space. What specifically were those behavioral trends that you were observing? And how did they translate to the final design?
Jim: Sure. Well it's no secret everybody is starting to finally understand that generationally, the Millennial-minded are much more social. Traditional suites, while they always have a place, they don't quite address the preferences that the younger generations and smaller companies are looking for.
“Traditional suites ... don't quite address the preferences that the younger generations and smaller companies are looking for. So we wanted to start to look at minimizing anything that was a traditional suite, take that inventory, reduce that inventory, and increase the inventory of more social experiences.”
– Jim Renne, ROSSETTI
So we wanted to start to look at minimizing anything that was a traditional suite, take that inventory, reduce that inventory, and increase the inventory of more social experiences. Later on, you'll start to see what some of those places are that we created. It was really directly to address that.
So number one, there's create social space, either in a suite-like environment, a premium club-like environment, or even just frankly a bar destination environment. And then, the other was to start to look at addressing, as an extension of what you're asking, I might call it a failure of interest in the north side of the stadium.
I point out the north side. There's a distinction. The south side is where the existing buildings are. There's some natural characteristics and character you're able to leverage, and by and large, that was a place where a lot of people just really wanted to be. And most of the suite inventory is on the south side.
The north side just didn't have the appeal, the attention, so a lot of the inventory that was failing was on the north side. So we had an opportunity to reimagine what the north side would be, an opportunity to be distinct from the south side, create a different and new destination that was diverse in its characteristics.
Between a club, a branded bar destination, social suites, and a little bit of a take off the more traditional suite model that's been developed in the south side, all that diversity, in addition to the social spaces and engagement opportunities that are there, was a way of addressing the question.
Jared: What do you mean specifically by social suite? Can you illustrate that for us?
Jim: A traditional suite has served its purpose for a long time, and many fans who have certain demographics still prefer that. It allows a company to be able to mix and keep their customers within a certain contained area.
“Watching a game these days is much more about moving around in reality. We're all seeing that in the industry. So provide an opportunity to move around to engage with others.”
– Jim Renne, ROSSETTI
But the reality is that if you start to think about what the fans, even your customers being invited, prefer, it's an experience where they can talk with other people in that area, so not just their own suite mates, but others that may be in that area.
So what that really means is opening that up to being able to meet people in social areas connected to a suite experience. We even looked at, working with the Lions, maybe the suite isn't really that large. Maybe it's more a place where you can go. You have a space that's allocated for your use, but really, all the excitement is getting up again.
Watching a game these days is much more about moving around in reality. We're all seeing that in the industry. So provide an opportunity to move around to engage with others. And obviously, food and beverage is one of those key things that allows you to do that. So you go in the common area where you can eat and get your food and drink, and then you bump into other people, and do your networking out there. That's one example of what I mean by social space related to a premium experience.
Jared: How did you have to think about kitchen and pantry space with the re-imagination of the food part of this?
Jim: The key is being able to provide the right service to those premium spaces where customers are trying to deliver a high level of quality of food experience. So we had to address the kitchens, in fact creating a new kitchen in some cases, augmenting others, and adding additional secondary pantries, and so on, which were part of the strategy.
It's an investment in infrastructure, so there's a cost that goes with that. But the Lions were completely dedicated to delivering a first-class experience.
Then you had some other kinds of unique things. Our design team, along with the Lions, developed ideas for a pizza oven that's out in the open and looks pretty cool. It's much more active, and so the kitchen part and the cooking part then became more exhibition-style in some places than you find in the traditional club setting.
For more design best practices, join the ALSD at our 5th Annual Sports Venue Design & Build Forum, June 25-26, 2018.