Q&A with Derrick Hall

Below is my conversation in full with Arizona Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall from earlier this year, as it appeared in the spring issue of SEAT Magazine

Why sports? What is it that inspires you to dedicate your life to sports and entertainment?

I always say if you truly love what you’re doing, you will never work a day in your life. That’s how I feel in baseball, and I know others do as well. It comes from the passion we have for the sport. We all love our sport. You really have to if you’re in baseball, because we have the longest season with six weeks of spring training, 162 regular season games, and hopefully the postseason. 

You have been recognized repeatedly for instilling a positive workplace culture. Can you speak to that culture and what you are trying to build here?

I have always thought that the customer does not come first, the employee does. If the employee feels recognized, appreciated, developed, and rewarded, he or she will in turn treat the customer the way we expect them to. So employee culture is very important.

Our employees work extremely long days during a long season, and our emotions often go with how the team is performing. So for me, making it fun to come into work every day with a work-hard-play-hard approach becomes important. It’s a family feel here with no silos, a lot of interaction, and helping each other out. As a result, it has benefited our fan experience and customer treatment.

What is your approach to training and retaining talent? 

Certainly those we identify as stars, we try and keep. We continue to develop our employees, provide them with opportunities for promotion, are competitive when it comes to pay, and also let them know how unique it is here. 

Inevitably, some will move on. It’s a point of pride knowing that there are Diamondbacks everywhere in this industry. That is a compliment to us, but we also have to look in the mirror and question what we can do better in order to retain our employees and sustain the high level of production and efficiency we are at.

Aside from the passion you’ve spoken to, are there two or three other specific character traits that you identify in a Diamondback?
Creativity is very important, as well as risk-taking. We need people who are willing to be pioneers. We look for people who come up with the programs that others will copy. We encourage people to make mistakes, but learn from them, to take some chances and be unique. Those are very important elements.

What would you say is your biggest threat as an organization? 

Our organization’s biggest threat is also an asset – the quality of television production now. People used to fear that television was going to compete with attendance and that you shouldn’t televise your home games. I don’t believe that. I think TV complements what we’re doing; it’s a three-hour infomercial. 

So I don’t want to take away from our TV viewership or our ratings, but I think our biggest threat is giving our fans a reason to not go to the ballpark. 

Other executives have told me that they are not competing with the couch or trying to be better than the at-home viewing experience. The question has become: how do we make it easier, not better? Do you agree, and if so, how do you make your ballpark experience easier?

Absolutely. No one wants their experience to be a hassle. There are advantages now, especially with ballparks that are built in the center of downtown like ours is, with public transportation that will drop fans off at the entrance, a major form of ease. 

So are some of the advancements we are making with ticketing like print-at-home or digital tickets. Being able to order food from your seat with a mobile device is another form of ease. We have to continue to find different ways to entice people to go to the ballpark. And we have to always remember that fan experience starts right when the fan walks in the door.

Who are you benchmarking your experience against? Other teams in this market, in MLB, organizations outside of sports? 

We really benchmark against ourselves. Last year, ESPN rated us the #1 experience throughout baseball and #6 in all of sports. And yes that’s great, but that’s where we expect to be. 

There is so much that we have to consider, but we pick and pull from best practices from many different areas. For example, we used to wear a coat and tie every day until a woman came up to me and told me I looked ridiculous because it was 110 degrees outside and we were at a baseball game. 

It’s sort of the Southwest mentality. You go on some airlines, and people are so unhappy wearing suits, scarves, and sweaters. Then you go on a Southwest flight, they are wearing shorts, a polo shirt, and tennis shoes, and they are happy. 

What are you hearing from corporate customers these days? Are you providing the experience they need? 

Yes, I think we are. The big thing is to be flexible, especially in a market like ours. We have 70 suites, for example, and we are not a big corporate hub, so we focus more on individual nights for suites. 

For those that are suite holders, it is important to treat them like corporate partners and provide added-value. We do things like bring by the World Series trophy, so they can get a picture. Luis Gonzalez will go up to the suite to meet with them. We bring them down to batting practice. We put them first in line for autograph sessions and invite them on road trips. 

We constantly give our premium suite holders more and have the ability to make adjustments. For example, when they say they need ten additional tickets downstairs for a game next week, we need to find a way to accommodate that request. 

Why is it important that suite holders be viewed as a 365-day-a-year business partner?

Because that’s what they are. They are a business partner; we need to treat them like one. And the focus is not just on sales anymore. Service has become a big part of our game. 

Some people will tell you that suites are a dying breed. But I do not see it that way. Suites are still great for businesses, and now people are realizing they are great for a family as well. We are starting to see a trend with more people going in on a suite together just as they used to do with seats, which is a great sign. It shows that the popularity and demand for suites is on the rise. 

Where are you striving to get better on the premium levels? Where do you still see a need for improvement?

We don’t want our premium customers to feel cheated in anyway. So we have to challenge ourselves with our concessionaire to keep our prices at an affordable rate. That would probably be our most common complaint – the quality of food or what they are paying. 

We allow fans to bring in their own food and water which is pretty unique. If fans are struggling a bit financially, have dietary needs, or just flat out do not like ballpark food, then they can bring their own food. We want them to be able to do that. 

Tell me about the product mix in your ballpark.

You have to have different destinations and different price points. There was a feeling several years ago that if you ever got away from season tickets and went to more partials, then you were dead and going to lose every season ticket holder. That’s simply just not true. Our season ticket base is not going down as a result of more options. We’re actually seeing an increase if you put it all together because of all that we’re offering.

Where we’re at today is making sure we have different destinations that meet different demographics. Then within those options, fans can choose between full seasons, half seasons, 28 games, ten games, or six games, as well as having different payment plans. For example, we have a 12-month payment plan, which we have never had before. So you have to give fans options and let them know that you will work with them too. 

How are you capturing data? And more importantly, how are you analyzing it?

With the way technology is changing, we are learning a lot about our customers. For example, not only do we have Wi-Fi capabilities, but now Bluetooth technology (iBeacon). So when fans walk in the ballpark and are on Bluetooth, it just picked them up. 

Now we’ve got information on them, and we’re communicating back. We’re giving them content that they want without being intrusive. They can shut us off whenever they want. They have the ability to say yes or no. 

Technology has helped us. We can gain as much information as we need. We can view history, buying patterns, preferences, and CRM has come a long way.

Do you have a department that is dedicated to analyzing this data? 

We have four dedicated data analyzers who work with both IT and ticketing from a [business intelligence] standpoint.

A lot of MLB teams are moving to paperless tickets. Is that something the Diamondbacks are getting involved with? 

It is. This is the first year that we have digital ticketing. Maybe because I am a little old school sometimes, I was concerned that fans want to have the physical ticket. But that’s not the feedback we’re getting. We’re getting “Hey, get with the times.” Again, it goes back to convenience and ease of experience. 

Are you forcing everyone to go digital? 

No, they have the options of the physical ticket, print-at-home, or digital on their handheld. 

I predict within the next ten years, no one will be printing physical tickets. It’s going to take time. No one likes change, but we’ll get there. 

I can remember a time when I thought, “I’m not going to give someone my credit card information online.” But that’s how I do all my shopping now. It’s so easy. It’s how we bank. It’s how we shop. We do everything on [smartphones]. Why shouldn’t we be able to enter a ballpark or pay for food that way too?

What are one or two areas looking forward in this industry that I should be paying attention to? 

I think we have just touched on it. Technology is where we need to look. That is our advantage over being at home – our ability to communicate custom messages with fans based on their preferences and to utilize their data in return. That’s what you need to be watching – how we’re constantly upgrading our technological platforms in our ballparks. 

The last question I have is regarding opening up the season abroad. Why Australia?

Participation and interest levels in baseball are up in Australia. It’s a tremendous time to go there. What a chance for us to go and plant the flag. It’s a great opportunity for us to open our season [against the Los Angeles Dodgers on March 22] in Sydney and be able to expand our brand and promote Major League Baseball.

View More Photos of my trip to Arizona

Next Stop: ALSD 2014, Kansas City

Last Stop: CTIC 2014, New York City

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