Making the Return to Sports the Best Experience Ever

In this ALSD Member Highlight, meet Jody Henton, Suite Services Manager for the Indianapolis Colts.

Jody Henton, the Indianapolis Colts’ Suite Services Manager and a 2021 ALSD NFL League Day Moderator, appreciates that everybody wants to come back out to events. More importantly, what has his attention is providing clients the best experience ever upon their return. 

One thing COVID taught the industry is that clients are more closely scrutinizing budgets. Thus, Henton and his team are looking more closely at how to add value to the Colts premium investment and experience. It takes creativity and flexibility, and a personalized approach to every client. 

Henton, who ALSD caught up with at the 2021 Conference, asserts that customers will want to spend because they realize that you've put a ton of thought into your approach. That effort and a revitalized tiered approach to customer benefits are positioning the Indianapolis Colts as leaders in the hospitality space. 

What were the top takeaways from League Day, the common conversation topics that you found among your peers?

First and foremost, how’s everybody doing post-Covid? What's the sales process like? Is everybody seeing that people want to come out and get back to events? I think across the board and league, we are seeing that, especially with the NFL. That’s a huge takeaway that seems to be trending across the league: everybody’s seeing an uptick. 

This factors into premium sales, and especially the suites. Suites are more of a private space, so people are more inclined to say, ‘Okay, maybe this is something I didn't give thought to before, but the last year and a half has given me a different perspective on how we want entertain, whether it's employees, clients, a mixture of both, or family.’ Suites can provide that, so there’s more of a comfort level there. So, in my personal experience with League Day, that was overwhelmingly common across the league.

But then, another thing mentioned quite often was the idea of diversity of products. That can include small suites, loge boxes, big suites, club seats, whatever that may be in that premium space. The more that we can continue to innovate, upgrade, keep providing different options and benefits, and really create that value, the better.

This is because nowadays when you go to a game, you're not just watching the field. You start thinking about everything else. What's my full experience like from when I leave my house to when I leave that game and I get home? So, we've got to make sure that we understand that, listen to those folks what they really want - and it's different for everybody. But the more that we can understand that process, the better that we can service them, sell them, find the right products, find the right people, and get those people in the building. 

Is there a way to quantify or think about what is the right mix for your building?

That's something that we're looking at now. It was a pre-Covid conversation. In 2019, our leadership and ownership started those conversations, saying, ‘Okay, now that we’ve been in Lucas Oil Stadium for going on 13-14 years, what is next?’

What do we need to change? What do we need to update? What fixtures? Whether it's paint on the walls, whether it's technology (which we absolutely do need to keep up with), what do people really want in our spaces?

That conversation kicked off, COVID happened, and the talks were shelved for a little while. But now I think that over the next one to three years we’ll start talking about, ‘How can we make this happen?’

Because there are renovations happening within our market, we want to keep up with that and to make sure people are still coming to Colts games. We want to make sure that’s what they want to do with their money and budgets. If COVID taught folks anything, it was to really look at their budget. 

Some of them are dialing it all the way back down and saying, ‘This is the one product we want to go for.’ We want to be that product, so how do we make that happen? 

And so I would say that in the next one to three years we’ll be figuring out our spend, and I think that starts in the suites and clubs area, because that's where you're going to make your money. Then from there, your stadium continues to improve overall. 

What stood out to you as good ideas regarding sales that you’ll be taking home from League Day? 

For us, it's understanding your market and your people. We at League Day had Lance Tyson Group come in and spend an hour talking about really listening, understanding, and getting to know the individual that you're trying to reach out to. That's going to be different based on the type of product that you're looking to sell, whether it's a season ticket, or it's somebody going from a club seat to an all-inclusive club, to a suite. 

You really need to understand and listen. If you don't take the time to do that and you just try and say, ‘Hey, this is what we've got. This is the cost. You want it or you don’t,’ without really understanding, is that going to benefit them? What do they want out of it? Why would they spend that money? 

Asking some of those questions ahead of time is important before you just put everything in their lap. If you do that, the process will be smoother, and hopefully easier to get over the finish line. 

Is there a tip or a best practice or something you're doing back home you're particularly proud? 

I have to give credit to our Director of Suite Sales and Service, Justin Gentile. He came on board a couple years ago with our small team of about four. He, myself, and a couple of our sales folks on the suite side have really honed in on the value-add.

We’re focused on not making things a generic experience that ‘just comes with the suite.’ It's really about making sure that what we're doing makes sense for the client, and we've started to tailor our benefits programs to each individual suite holder as opposed to just throwing out everything that everybody gets and seeing whether or not they can use it, enjoy it, get ROI out of it, etc. 

So Justin has brought in a lot of good ideas. Even going back to earlier, I mentioned diversifying our products, our suites, really finding out in our suite levels where we can stress that a little bit. What can we do there? Can we be flexible with pricing? With terms? Can we get flexible with benefits? There’s additional value-add there and we've seen that across our renewal efforts. We had a good off-season and sold out earlier than any of us ever expected to, and so that gave us a larger runway to really think through that plan. Justin put together an awesome plan and got leadership’s approval on it, and that buy-in is integral to us being able to help retain all of those clients.

We’ve done a renewal trip, some price flexibility with terms, price freezes that have gone over really well, catering credits. We’ve combined a lot of that depending on when you want to renew or what the conversation's like, and that has really worked out well in our favor. 

You mentioned a renewal trip.  What did that look like?

As far as renewal trips, we can't take the team plane (league-wide that’s is NFL protocol), so we've worked with a local company to provide a white-glove experience that includes a plane flight down. We’ve booked a certain number of seats on a on a plane, and they meet us at the airport. There’s private transportation to a hotel. We get there early so people can have the day down at the beach because we're going to Miami, and then we also booked a suite. These people are used to being in suites with us, so we wanted to provide that for them. So we furnish an experience in a new stadium in a private suite atmosphere versus just buying tickets that they could go out and buy on their own. There’s also a nice dinner together so they can network with some of the other suite holders and our staff. 

It’s a quick trip, but something that we haven't necessarily done our renewal period before, and we've seen multiple companies taking advantage of it so far as we get into the thick of our renewal campaign. 

You just described this great menu of benefits, but you also mentioned that it’s customizable. How do you discern who gets what benefits? 

We decided to look internally at all the assets that we have in this organization. Both game day, and non-game day, access that we have to our football side. Our GM Chris Ballard and Head Coach Frank Reich have been really involved and said, ’If we can help you with something on the business side, let us know. It may not always work time-wise, but we want to help there. This is a whole organization, let’s work together in this.’ That buy-in has really given us access that we haven't had in the past. 

Along with that, there are VIP events, some new stuff game ideas like field visits, cheerleader visits, Super Bowl trophies. Being able to hold our full-field flag - that’s a huge thing that we do for Colts games. We do a whole full-field flag, it’s one of the largest in the league. People are able to go down and be a part of that experience. 

We took all of that stuff and talked about it yesterday in League Day. It came up quite a bit that people can't buy this stuff. These are things that are integral to our organization, and you have to be this client in order to be able to get it. You can't just go out and buy it on the internet.

We put options together in different categories. There are three for the Colts: a top tier, a middle tier, and a low tier, and then you're able to select a number of different items within those tiers based on the size of your suite - we broke it down. The best, fair way to do it for us was based on size. 

We have a mini-suite (our smallest set), but they still spend a good investment. We still care about them and want them to be happy, they just get a smaller package. And then our standard-sized suites get a larger package, and then our super suites that are largest in our stadium get the full benefits and some stuff that you can't get in the standard or mini tiers. 

That also provides us with the opportunity to show some of those smaller suites or even our standard suites an incentive to go super. We can say ‘Hey, if you did have interest in this, here's what more you can get.’

We found that that works really well to break it up that way while still providing value at all levels. 

Was there anything that stood out to you about the League Day discussions?

Something that I think we're all considering now, even other leagues as well, is staffing. Making sure we get enough people to adequately staff a full game - and that's from parking lots, to gates, to scanners, to concession lines, to suite-level attendance, to security, to elevator attendants, and so on. When we had our preseason game, we were a little less staffed because there was a larger event going on at the Brickyard at the same time. That put a strain on some of the staffing. And in many markets, that’s a point of consideration as we go into the season.

I wouldn’t say there’s an exact solution yet. We’re all trying to figure it out and I think it's going to be a game-by-game process, but we've really got to hone in on how we can make sure people want to come and work. And beyond that, not only say that they're going to work, but really show up on game day and be there for us, so that the experience isn't ever hindered for our guests. 

Is there anything else you wanted to add?

This is all new for all of us. I think we've all taken a different perspective on the last year and a half, but you can think about it in a positive way. We can admit that this isn't good, and everybody has their own situations, personal and professional. But if you can find ways to cultivate positivity and how to turn something that isn't so good into a positive, you will be the people that come out on top, whose customers want to spend because they realize that you've put a ton of thought into your approach. That includes safety and well-being as well as technology. Maybe budgets maybe were cut, but last year really gave us time to take a step back and look at everything we were doing. 

A lot of teams and leagues were able to do that and come out with new and innovative methods. Whether it's this year or in two years, they can say, ‘This is what we're doing because we took the time last year (even though it was a down year). We didn't have fans. We wanted to make sure when we do bring that back, then it's going to be better than ever.’ Those teams and leagues that do that, they're going be on top at the end of the day.