The pandemic wasn’t a time to pause. Like many organizations in sports and entertainment, the Atlanta Braves have used the past 18 months to play offense, continuing to invest in new technologies, capital improvements in premium areas, and connections with partners and prospects.
BJ Mitchell, the Braves’ Director of Premium Partnerships and a new ALSD Board of Advisors member, certainly hasn’t been resting on his laurels. His premium team has used a combination of new improvements with the time-tested art of relationship building to earn the organization’s best year for premium sales since moving into Truist Park in 2017.
The past two years have been a time to reflect but also remain active. Our buildings may have been shut down, but our businesses were not. It’s been a challenging road and one that leads to Las Vegas for the 31st Annual Conference and Tradeshow.
“This is the year to attend above all others,” says Mitchell. “So much has changed since our last ALSD Conference in Chicago in the summer of 2019. New people, new business practices, new safety protocols – so many things in our day-to-day business have changed that we need to reset how we prospect, renew, and sell new business. It will be fascinating to see how other teams and leagues have adapted.”
The ALSD recently caught up with BJ Mitchell to learn more about what’s changed and what hasn’t changed at Truist Park and look ahead to ALSD 2021.
What is something new that the Braves have implemented this year at Truist Park that has had positive early returns? And why did your organization implement it?
Like many teams, the Braves moved towards a cashless and mobile ordering environment. Where I believe we set ourselves apart is the focus on service in the premium club spaces. We were not blind to the relationships that had been developed by our gameday staff and F&B partner.
The Braves kept the restaurant-style server order taking, delivery, and interactions with our 4-top tables, delivering on what we believe is one of the best experiences at Truist Park, despite not being the “best seating location”. The improved technology has allowed for faster service and delivery of orders to keep those coveted per cap numbers moving up.
We also kept the same in-seat service for the all-inclusive spaces. The Braves have many of the same servers for those sections as well, developing relationships with our partners and their best clients to deliver the same outstanding service they have come to expect. It was a little of those new improvements – technology, cashless environment, speed of service, mobile ordering etc. – and a lot of the same personalized interactions from previous seasons that our clients desire to provide the best possible service. The marriage of how things were done pre-pandemic to improved protocols post-pandemic is a factor that will continue to drive our success.
How has the Braves organization changed or improved in the past year and a half throughout the pandemic and now into the end of it?
We looked at continual improvements around the ballpark, specifically in the premium club spaces at Truist Park. Due to the success of sales and renewals the past two-three seasons, our spaces were getting a little outdated and constricted based on capacity. With a focus on health and safety protocols, along with expanding the footprint and evolving the F&B experience in our clubs, we put a priority on capital improvement budgets towards enhancing the premium experience.
Understanding that budgets were tight or even being cut, we had to focus on specific feedback from members on where we could improve the clubs and drive renewals/new business. Prior to the 2020 season, we completely overhauled and enhanced one club space to help drive our highest sales numbers in advance of the 2021 season, and we are going through the same exercise for another club space in advance of the 2022 season.
Where we could have looked at budgets based on the pandemic and eliminated capital improvements (completely cutting the budget), we instead focused on the essential revenue needs of our business by investing in our most important clients to improve their experience and drive a higher ROI with longer contract extensions.
How are the specific best practices you can point to as reasons for your current success with premium partnerships?
Staying connected with our current partners and staying active in the marketplace. During the pandemic, we were regularly having conversations with our prospects and clients, along with setting fair policies, refunding, if necessary, based on specific business or individual needs, but also setting aggressive incentives to stay with us and keep payments/credits on file.
Staying active with prospects also paid huge dividends. As soon as the Atlanta market began to reopen, we hit the ground running selling new premium business and had our best year of premium sales since moving to SunTrust/Truist Park in the 2017 season.
What are the biggest changes in premium seating that you’ve observed in the past year and a half? How has your department had to adapt?
Our partners are as focused as ever on ROI. With budgets being closely monitored and many businesses cutting their entertainment funds, we have been required to show the value in utilizing the Braves as a business tool more than ever.
A renewed focus on relationships to understand what each client needs has helped us be creative. For example, one benefit has been selling more suites since clients want their own private space now, more than ever, to host clients, friends, family, prospects, etc.
While the majority of small- to medium-sized businesses may not be able to utilize a season suite for 81 games, we have found solutions in partial-season suite lease plans to provide the best of all worlds – a private space (with health and safety protocols) to entertain guests, a manageable prorated number of games to host, along with aggressive pricing to move up the ladder from single-game suite rentals.
And what is your forecast for premium seating the rest of this year and into 2022?
The pandemic has opened a lot of conversations with prospects and current clients on suite leases. I expect we will have more and more partners ask for their own private space where they control the (number of) guests, food and beverage consumption, and can observe/implement their own health and safety protocols.
Having those conversations with clients and prospects can move the conversation from ‘we are not comfortable hosting clients at the ballpark just yet’ to ‘I had not considered having my own space where I can control many of those variables.’ The Braves have found success in selling season suite leases by reintroducing them as part of the sales process and being creative on partial lease options.
What are you most looking forward to doing at the ALSD Conference in Las Vegas in August?
Connecting with my colleagues around MLB and really all leagues. We have seen very few people in-person the past 14-18 months, so the opportunity to reconnect and engage in existing and new relationships will be refreshing.
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