Ohio Stadium, and its 102,780 seats, has stood out as one of college football’s venue patriarchs for nearly a century. To help ensure its legacy continues, the home of The Ohio State University Buckeye football team recently underwent a $42 million renovation, focused largely on premium seating. The project called for 16 new luxury suites, taking the stadium’s inventory to 97 to go along with 2,500 club seats. Forty-four new loge boxes – an unprecedented product at Ohio State – were also created and sold out as swiftly as they were built.
While interest for suites has plateaued throughout the sports and entertainment venue marketplace, an appetite keeps growing for the premium category, but for more palatable products, price points, ticket counts, lease terms, and F&B options. In Columbus, Ohio State first considered adding more suites. But after evaluating successful industry examples, such as Baylor’s 79 loge boxes and Oklahoma’s 66 loges boxes, OSU determined it was best to opt for one level of suites and one level of loge boxes.
“We were sold out of suites, so demand was there,” says Justin Doyle, Senior Director of Ticket Sales and Premium Seating at Ohio State. “We worked hand-in-hand with our athletic development department to create a premium option for clients looking for an exclusive, albeit different, experience.”
A Frictionless Experience
Because Ohio State’s venues did not previously include loge products, Doyle and his team leaned heavily on E15, Levy’s analytics and strategy platform. Molly Kurth, Vice President of NCAA Operations for Levy, served as another vital driver in determining the optimal quantity and price point for the new mid-tier product. After careful examination, in another first for Ohio State, Kurth and team decided to program the loges with all-inclusive food and non-alcoholic beverages.
Kurth has worked in F&B at Ohio State for the better part of a decade and now oversees Levy’s portfolio of 15 college venues across the US. In this experience, she’s learned loge products succeed because of their simple, frictionless nature.
“A guest doesn’t want to have 17 touchpoints in their experience,” Kurth points out.
As observed across the industry, simplicity yielded similar results in Columbus, where the sales team sold out the turnkey loge boxes, keyed by their all-inclusive elements and other amenities including charging ports, tablets, and upgraded televisions.
Service Distinguishes Loyalty
In Kurth’s view, premium experience differentiation is a two-prong approach. While culinary is key, service with intentional thoughtfulness is crucial.
For example, Levy serves beautiful fall salads in November, realizing clients eat heavy Thanksgiving spreads outside of Ohio Stadium. Moreover, interactive F&B experiences are on-trend, so chefs visit with clients at mini-action stations like a taco cart.
“We worked hand-in-hand with our athletic development department to create a premium option for clients looking for an exclusive, albeit different, experience.”
– Justin Doyle, Ohio State Athletics
Consistency amongst the suite attendants also factors into the foodservice experience. It makes a significant impact when staff knows the clients well enough to pass a note of condolence after a family member’s passing or to throw a mini-baby shower complete with OSU onesies for an expecting one.
“At the end of the day, great food is just a point of entry,” says Kurth. “It’s how you create distinctions that sets service apart.”
OSU also creates loyalty by staffing many of the gameday suites with students. Donors and alumni clients feel a sense of pride and ownership in their investment when paying it forward.
The student staff program succeeds at Ohio State by educating and engaging students early, first making them aware jobs in sports hospitality exist. Students initially learn the back-of-house operations, serving as runners and pantry coordinators before being promoted to suite attendants. Hiring these students as freshmen and sophomores helps create long-term success and consistency once they move to the front of the house.
Kurth works closely with the hospitality programs at several schools and also sits on a hospitality management advisory board, cultivating relationships with the programs and their students. At Ohio State, she arranges a tour of the back-of-house facilities for students once a semester. Also at Ohio State, Levy’s Director of Premium Sunny Day is also keen on education, having instituted a four-department shadow program for interested students.
Be There and Care
Luxury is often a function of service, not price. Lauren Windle, Director of Premium Seating, and Zach Heilman, Assistant Director of Premium Seating, are well-acquainted with this notion.
The creation of 16 new suites at Ohio Stadium came with an unintended consequence. The existing ones now appear outdated. To thwart concerns, the team turns to service. Heilman, who spent five years on OSU’s sales team, understands clients can spend discretionary income in many places in Columbus. Pressure becomes a service privilege when it comes to exceeding expectations of clients who invest in the Buckeye brand.
Windle attends all games, acting as a consistent point of contact for clients. Her team surveys clients regularly and communicates operational matters to the appropriate departments. It’s little more than staying close to the customer, with an understanding that the little things matter most, even when client complaints and requests are out of her control, including one client who recently grumbled about game start times.
“I can’t do anything about [the start time],” Windle laughs. “But I can listen.”
“We have monthly or quarterly touch bases with Levy to discuss outstanding items,” adds Doyle.
At the end of the season, suite holders are thanked with a tray of buckeyes and card signed by the premium team. When OSU wins the conference, the hats that the players receive are the treat of choice.
“[Suite holders] feel like they are part of the program,” says Doyle.
High-End Experiences at Fair Value
Levy was involved in the Ohio Stadium renovation plans early on and helped explain specifically what it would take to deliver an all-inclusive experience to hundreds of loge clients. In lieu of an entirely new kitchen, the plans upgraded an existing kitchen and turned storage space into a cold kitchen. Levy considers this experience a pilot to evaluate future loge and other all-inclusive products in other facilities at OSU.
Levy’s experience in college and major league markets also helped determine the loge box price point. Ohio State considered it essential to deliver a high-end experience with a harmonious price point.
“We can have all the strategies and goals we want,” says Kurth. “But if the fan perception isn’t aligning with our vision, we’ve missed the mark.”
The climate-controlled loge club features self-service chef tables behind the boxes, featuring options like brunch, fan favorites, and seasonal fare, with desserts in the second half. The club is staffed with the same bartenders who remember drink orders to build rapport with clients and deliver a high-end experience. Premium staff at each game notes real-time feedback. Notable client suggestions have included a desire for coffee and specialty items like buckeye candies for each game.
The Next Schott
Just a mile from The Shoe, the Schottenstein Center shined up its own $31.5 million renovation. Colin Thompson, Associate Athletic Director, General Manager of the Schottenstein Center, and a nearly 20-year veteran in facilities, played a pivotal role in the construction upgrades. He pointed out elements such as narrow concourses and dated interiors to demonstrate the venue needed a facelift to ready it for its next staff and next 20 years.
“It’s a university building,” Thompson says. “It’s not going to follow the model of knocking it down and rebuilding every 25 years.”
“It’s a university building. It’s not going to follow the model of knocking it down and rebuilding every 25 years.”
– Colin Thompson, Ohio State Athletics
Without a true entertainment district around the arena footprint, the renovation aimed to create neighborhoods inside the venue, “unpacking the building” to start, then reorienting the ticket office closer to parking, building a team store with exterior entry, relocating and upgrading men’s and women’s basketball offices, creating a large north rotunda, shaping an overlook on the Huntington Club, and updating LED lighting and other FF&E. Improved circulation created what Thompson refers to as “pressure relief points”. And a lengthened arrival sequence became possible with the changes, which is important considering an egress of 30,000 students takes places during the ingress of 15,000 arena patrons on many event nights.
Two large video boards meet guests in the rotunda and feature upcoming events, entry messages, and even live looks at tipoffs or faceoffs. The initial rotunda plan assessed sightlines into the arena bowl, but because of a concern over capacity loss, cameras were instead installed in each of the four event floor corners, creating a virtual view displayed on the boards. The popularity of the video boards as a photo op adds more interactive digital opportunities with Brutus and players, growing the queues of excited guests here and in other branded destinations like the new Script-O wall.
Refreshing Suite Concepts
The 52 suites in the Schottenstein Center were refreshed while remaining structurally intact. As contemporary clients tend to gather versus lounge, designers incorporated communal interiors with higher furniture and open concepts. While not sacrificing fresh and modern aesthetics, FF&E was also selected with functionality and durability in mind.
As occupancy rates in suites fluctuate from event to event, Doyle and team are strategizing other innovative ways to deploy under-utilized spaces. One idea is an all-inclusive, double-suite-turned-club concept being piloted to determine if more suite inventory should be repurposed as clubs or loges.
Experiential Communal Spaces
The Block O Lounge, a new OSU-themed sports bar in the Schottenstein Center on the Huntington Club Level, can tuck away foodservice and close it off completely with the pull a drape, or activate just its bar, depending on the event and patronage. The food space can also be repurposed for live entertainment. Fan-facing features in the lounge include TVs, private seating booths, a scoreboard, Buckeye memorabilia, a full-size bar, and views of Lane Avenue and Ohio Stadium. The space is available to rent on non-gamedays.
Mixed seating, including long communal tables, bar tops, and picnic tables, peppers the Schottenstein Center concourses along with unique concepts like a whiskey bar with barrel tables. The varietal seating and experiences appeal to several demographics, which is essential in a venue like the Schottenstein Center which houses multiple sports tenants, diverse concerts, and family events.
These communal spaces and digital upgrades do come with unintended threats. They can cannibalize the in-bowl experience and appearance. It’s a catch-22, making the venue experience so good it keeps patrons engaged outside their seats. But at the Schottenstein Center, if patrons are on the concourse, it’s because they want to be, not because they are standing in lines, as the design teams worked closely on throughput and experiential concourse elements.
What I Want, When I Want It
Grab-and-go F&B outlets, a relatively new phenomenon in sports venues, enhance the frictionless experience at the Schottenstein Center, where fans can pick what they want, when they want it. Especially in existing venues, grab-and-go additions can improve speed of service with minimal infrastructure investment. Variety is another feature with more coolers allowing a more diverse product mix.
“I can put up a bank of eight coolers,” says Kurth. “Whereas in a concession stand only, I have room for two.”
“At the end of the day, great food is just a point of entry. It’s how you create distinctions that sets service apart.”
– Molly Kurth, Levy
In addition to grab-and-go food, all non-alcoholic beverages are self-serve. Fans pay for a cup one time and can refill it as many times as they’d like.
Venues are also studying fast-evolving market trends like hard seltzers. Levy’s E15 looks at on-premise sales from restaurants and bars, as well as packaged grocery and convenience consumption to understand what will sell best at sports venues in markets like Columbus, which may be vastly different than what is selling in College Station, Texas or Corvallis, Oregon. Moreover, consumption patterns of sports-goers and patrons of other local events also drive menus.
Alcohol service in campus venues has been another evolution. In 2009, none of Levy’s college clients sold alcohol. Today, nine of 15 do, as fans now expect to enjoy alcohol beverages at sports and entertainment events. Correspondingly, the increased alcohol service at college venues has actually helped reduce the number of alcohol-related incidents, as fans no longer feel the need to binge before entering the venue.
Craft cocktails continue to grow in popularity at the arena and stadium. Columbus-area Watershed Kitchen & Bar recently created large-batch specialty cocktails for concerts, such as P!NK and Garth Brooks, allowing guests to enjoy a beautiful cocktail, even in general concessions, without having to wait ten minutes for it to be hand-crafted. Ohio Stadium also hosted Buckeye Country Superfest, which featured George Strait and his tequila served in a signature cocktail.
Similarly, Schottenstein Center suites offer guests the opportunity craft their own cocktail experience. Carefully curated cocktail trays with ingredients, tools, and recipes for favorites like the Moscow Mule, Old Fashioned, and Bloody Mary can be ordered for suites to serve approximately ten to 20 guests. Orders are accompanied with virtual training by a master mixologist.
Bringing the Outside In
In Columbus, there is a robust dining and food truck scene, and several local favorites are making their way into OSU’s venues. Levy initially provides mobiles carts to the vendors, with a few successful brands occupying permanent outlets inside the stadium. Keeping tabs on health concerns, Ohio State has partnered with Columbus-area Bake Me Happy on gluten-free concepts, also sold from mobile experience units. Even the extensive tailgating scene incorporates local favorites like the Donato’s pizza trailer and Roosters wing delivery.
At the Schottenstein Center, FryWays, a local loaded fries concept, made its way into the building as a fast fan favorite.
“We have this platform for local businesses to tell their stories in a unique environment,” says Kurth. “For them to say they serve at Ohio State helps their businesses.”
Colleges throughout Levy’s portfolio are evaluating how to best utilize their premium spaces on gamedays and non-gamedays. Across Levy’s brands, E15’s tools and KPI evaluations help price spaces, assess what events are worth pursuing for each school’s most prized donors, alumni, and fans, as well as help determine details for renovation.
In Columbus, The Ohio State University dotted the “i” in “renovation” twice. With new loge products at Ohio Stadium and a variety of experiential upgrades at the Schottenstein Center, with upgraded food and beverage offerings throughout both venues, Buckeye fans have much to feast on these days.