Introducing Michele Kajiwara, the New ALSD Board President (Part Two)

Meet Michele Kajiwara, SVP of Premium Seating Sales and Service at STAPLES Center, who shares her non-traditional story that spans working on small budget films to running premium at one of the industry’s most iconic buildings.


This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

It’s easy to succumb to burnout in a building like yours that never sleeps, so how do you guard against that and make sure that those working for and with you do have some kind of balance?

A great question. Part of that is personality profiling like we’re doing within our team. I operate at a certain octane that’s not sustainable or even what other people would be interested in doing. Everyone has a different pace, and so it’s helpful to be conversational about thresholds.

It helps me because I don’t necessarily recognize that, yet I have to appreciate it. I might work one way where there isn’t a balance between work and life, not a lot of harmony. I give everything to everything I’m doing.

This concept of being really present is important because balance is hard. You don’t give 50% to work and 50% to life. You have to give what you think is meaningful to your work and what’s meaningful to your life. There are different buckets, things like family and fun and travel. You have to make the things that are priorities for you a priority someway, somehow. I give everything to work, but when I’m not at work, I try to give everything to those interactions and those people in those situations. It helps.

“I give everything to everything I’m doing… I give everything to work, but when I’m not at work, I try to give everything to those interactions and those people in those situations.” – Michele Kajiwara, STAPLES Center

It’s also about trying to understand how everybody works, and again, where their thresholds are. Also knowing that at STAPLES Center, we have up to 250-plus events a year, so you also acknowledge coming in that it’s not a restful job. It’s not slow-paced or moderately-paced. We work in a very fast-paced environment, but the hope is we don’t operate at a place where it’s frenzied or it’s out of control. It’s something we have to massage, and we have to get better at, be mindful of.

I can’t let you out of here without talking about the arena and suite renovation two years ago. Remind us what the renovation entailed and tell us how it’s performed and if there’s anything in the pipeline you’re able to share.

We’re coming up on being a 20-year-old building. With all our foot traffic, there’s a lot of wear and tear. The building is standing up really well to the test of time and technology. We have a lot of partners and sponsors that bring in a great influx of technology. We’re willing to try things. Some have worked, some we replace, some we innovate on even more. I think it’s always a work in progress.

The renovation was amazing. It was a lot of cosmetics. It was carpet. It was refreshing the walls. It was putting new covers on. It was getting new furniture and a different look and feel in the suite. It is a lot more contemporary, a kind of carbon-fiber look. If you go to the sports car model, which is very sleek and clean and very functional, you’ll notice that was the direction we took with the renovation, and it’s gone very well.

There were obviously some hiccups. For instance, we removed a lot of the couches, and then realized that people loved their couch. We did some workarounds, and we brought some couches back in.

We allowed for some other customizations and things to happen in the suites, and customers now are very appreciative of that. New business certainly comes in and loves the look and feel. It doesn’t feel like a 20-year-old building at all. The other thing too is it’s great to have that space that is conducive to networking and business.

At the end of the day, we want to provide something that’s exciting on the ice, court, and stage because that’s where all of the attention generally is drawn to. Certainly, if people are present in the conversations they’re having here, they’re not looking at the walls and the seats, but it’s nice to have that as a backdrop. There are so many other touchpoints and things that are happening in the suite that take away from all the focus just being on the aesthetics, but I feel like we are beyond current with the look.  

As far as future renovations, our capex every year is something that we all contribute to asking, “How do we make the building better?” There are some lounges that we’re looking at. There are more public spaces we’re looking at improving. Obviously, technology is always at the forefront of our conversations. I would say those are kind of the key things moving forward. Always a work in progress!

We’re not going to be that shiny, brand-new arena, but I think that there is still something to being the original arena in the area. That feel people get nostalgic about, “Oh I remember when we had this” and “I remember that.” Not that we have to be a relic.

No pun intended, it’s become a staple for the NBA and the NHL and any major touring act. So not a relic.

She’s held up pretty well. She’s gotten a lot of wear and tear, but we’re always looking at improving, obviously.

You don’t have to do a lot of patchwork when you do a lot of consistent maintenance on the building. We have an amazing operational team. For as much as we’re used to doing turns in the building for doubleheaders or from conversions, it is our staff that maintains impeccable cleanliness and quality of service to the building. That we haven’t completely fallen apart and that you don’t see a lot of the tread is because of the care and attention we give it.

That comes from the top. That’s what we’ve always heard from Lee [Zeidman, President of STAPLES Center]. That you have to make the investment year-to-year to keep things current. Is that fair to say?

Yes, day-to-day even. There are constantly people in the building, no shortage of workers and people that are making sure every light bulb and every seat and every cushion is being maintained. So it is an annual and day-to-day grind. They do a great job of it, and Lee certainly at the top makes sure that everybody is on-point.

I know this is essentially day one as President of the ALSD Board, but in closing I want to ask, is there anything related to your vision for the association over the next two years that you’ve been able to give some thought to? Where would you like to see us move forward?

I’m really excited for the transition, and I certainly have big shoes to fill, because this organization has grown. This conference is I think 150 people bigger than our biggest year ever. That means that we just have this much wider audience, and I think it’s really keying in on who’s attending. So much of what we do in sports is trying to understand who our buyers are. I think for us leading the association, it’s really understanding who’s attending and how we can better service their needs.

It’s also a great place for recruiting and having transparency all around. Like the salary survey that you guys just did, that’s hugely impactful. We can have visibility and transparency into how the leagues are moving. We know there are outliers, but as an industry, we have to create a level of standards. There should be some sort of floor and ceiling around what we’re doing. Certainly, making sure that the best talent lands in the right places and not being territorial with our resources, making this really a place to come and have open sharing, we collectively make our industry better.

“So much of what we do in sports is trying to understand who our buyers are. For us leading the association, it’s understanding who’s attending and how we can better service their needs.” – Michele Kajiwara, STAPLES Center

Beyond that, I think it’s really a lot of me trying to learn initially and trying to listen. Then I’ll take that and try to grow what’s already an amazing organization.

Bill’s vision for optimizing our footprint to take that to London is going to be huge. I’m really excited for that. There is certainly a lot of room for growth in that market. Not just because they can learn from us, but there’s so much that we can be and should be extrapolating from the European markets.

Finally, making sure that domestically, we stay strong and innovative, and that we’re paying attention to who’s coming and why they’re here.


Read Part One of our exclusive interview with Michele Kajiwara.