In this ALSD Member Highlight, meet Tom Dunn, Senior Manager, Premium Sales & Service for the Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
It’s the pillars he stands on that help him provide not only an exemplary experience for his clients in Vancouver, but also allows him to understand and break down the barriers to entry.
The volume over yield strategy the Whitecaps have initiated is leading to more fans exposed to more soccer. In the end, it’s fostering a loyal community of soccer seekers, who Tom Dunn is more than happy to roll out the ball and more for.
The ALSD caught up with this Australian with the brilliant accent to learn more about his strategy, his stewardship, and his leadership.
Explain your background and how you define hospitality and a premium experience.
I wanted to be a doctor when I left school. I didn't have the brains for it, so I wanted to be a nurse, but I didn't have the stomach for it. But the common thing was that I wanted to serve, so I found myself in hospitality. That took me from Australia to the UK, to the very northern parts of Aberdeen where I ran clubs and night clubs and interacted with a lot of people through hospitality.
It's talking to people. They asked the right questions, they asked tough questions, and I met enough people through hospitality and I found myself in sales. It was selling nationally in advertising.
Before I knew it, I met the right woman and she said, “Tom we’re moving into Canada.” I said, “Yes, dear.” It brought us out here.
I had the advertising background, the hospitality background. I'd gone back to school and done project management. I had all these things together and I saw a job for the Vancouver Whitecaps. It was in premium sales and hospitality. With my background in advertising, that ability to ask the right questions and tough questions, and the desire to serve, this brought that all together for me.
I'm lucky. My wife is a nurse, and she sees people at their worst, whereas we have the luxury to see people at their best, and it's with that opportunity that hospitality for me is serving people at their best, so we can be our best.
The reason why I'm in hospitality, the reason why I love what I do is that I get to do meaningful work with people who are coming to form a community. Working from the bar, to the pub, to then working with great businesses while bringing them to entertainment venues, for me that's just a lot of fun.
What have the Whitecaps implemented that have showed positive returns?
In working for the Whitecaps, I joined an institution which could really be a community pillar. I think that's what the pub was for me, that's what hospitality was; it was people that came to form community and celebrate. We have the opportunity as a sports organization – whether you're at a collegiate, professional, a semi-pro level, whether it's from the softball diamond to the AFL parks back home – we have the opportunity to really be a community pillar.
There can be leaders in youth health and fitness. There can be leaders in philanthropic endeavors. There can be leaders in business and networking. And what the pandemic has done is it's really taken away all that busy stuff of actually putting on events. It’s speaking to clients daily. It's speaking to members frequently. We also got to focus more on philanthropy and community building.
Our team has identified core pillars, core values. One is community building. We're community builders internally and externally. That includes your staffing to start with. You make sure they feel welcome. It means if a charity's reaching out for assistance, you ask, “Where can we help? How can we help?”
We're adaptive, that’s the second core pillar. We're accountable to each other and to ourselves and we lead from any seat, which I think is a Simon Sinek saying. It's a Sinek-ism. He says, “Leadership is a choice, not a rank”. So, what we're working on right now coming out of that pandemic is really doubling down on that focus. What makes us a successful organization? Why are we doing what we're doing? And then let's redefine how we're doing it.
To be granular and specific, we're focusing on ‘What worked traditionally and what isn't going to work anymore? What worked for us during a pandemic?’ Now up here in Canada we saw half capacity crowds. We saw no crowds. We only just started to see return to full capacity crowds. We didn't see a strong return of corporate, corporate fans were a bit slower to come out.
So where were our fans coming from? They were smaller groups. They were private groups. So, we actually used one of those values. We were adaptive.
So brilliant, we understand what price point are clients willing to come in as a premium client? What size groups are they on average? Let's collect that data. What are they spending their money on? Where are they parking? Are they taking public transport? We collected all of that.
So, as we move into what is our MLS off-season into what will be 2022, let's focus on what we need to adapt to. We're redefining what worked in 2019 and 2018 and 2017. That might not work anymore. That's not how people are buying. That's not how people are looking for our product or engaging with us anymore.
They're looking for a more flexible product. They're looking at a low entry point, lower barriers to entry, less hoops to jump through. And that in a nutshell is a very small part of a very big project for what is a very small premium team. It's the exciting stuff.
You’ve also mentioned in previous conversations “volume over yield”. Tell me about that.
I might be coming from a naive optimist sort of position. We're in a building that is unique to us. I think we're one of four MLS teams now that don’t have a purpose-built soccer stadium. So, we have a lot of suites to fit in a non-traditional soccer setting.
We go back to those two core values of ours. One was “adaptive” and one was “community building”. We're a soccer team in a hockey town. We're a soccer team in a hockey country. We're in a building that isn't purpose-built. We've got plenty of suites to fill, but we have a passionate fan base. So how do we bring more people in more often to experience what football/soccer is like in Canada? And how do we bring in those new buyers that are maybe soccer-forward or fan-forward rather than corporate-forward?
I know up here especially you go to a hockey game, it's suits and ties. You come to a Whitecaps match or a soccer match, and it's people in flip flops and jean shorts. People who are running multi-million-dollar companies. She's not bringing out her executive board. She's bringing out her kids.
So, for us volume over yield means lowering the barrier of entry. Being adaptive to what we're seeing in the market. We're seeing smaller groups looking for those private experiences. Maybe they pay a little bit more than a seat in the bowl, but they're looking to experience the product.
Hey, it's cheaper than movies. It's cheaper than a night out at a restaurant. And it's exposing more people to that to the game. It's a conversation we're having right now.
We ask, “Do I want five suites paying top dollar? Would I take fifteen, at a lower barrier to entry?” And for us it's 52 compared to the 25.
Volume over yield also means controlling that narrative. So that's the secondary runoff. When it comes to soccer in Canada, no one goes until you come to a match and you see 52 suite lights on and full club sections, 25,000 people in the stadium all cheering like it's the first time they’ve been out of their house in two years. For some it actually was. We’re seeing that. We're seeing that idea of controlling the narrative, “Brilliant, you can't get a suite at a soccer match anymore, there are passionate football fans in those suites.”
We start using words. Another thing I learned from hospitality, they're not “clients”, they're not “potential buyers”, they're fans, members, and guests. So how do we get more passionate guests in the building that become fans, that become members? If we go for that volume over yield there have been more people in more often.
What does a pathway to leadership look like to you?
I was once told that I was in a rush, by a manager. I was told, “You're in a rush to get somewhere. You're in a rush to get into a leadership position without building that foundation.” And I think a lot of millennials (and I am probably an older millennial) are in that mindset, thinking, “I need to be C by the time I'm 30. And to be a Vice President by the time I'm 35.” We set these targets without really considering the foundations we need to build as a leader of an organization, as a leader of people, as a leader on the sports field.
I know a lot of us who work in this industry have strong sports backgrounds because we loved playing, we loved leading teams, we love pulling our friends together for that big night out.
A path to leadership for me did look like “What's next? Got a promotion. It's on paper. Brilliant. What's next?” That path to leadership for me now, and what I'm trying to teach – again back to that that core value of lead from any seat – is that leadership is a choice not a rank. That pathway to me kind of looks like, “Okay how do I work on myself? How do I build my own skill sets? Where am I lacking if I’m being honest with myself? I don't know a whole lot about how to do this. Maybe I could be better at this part of the job or this part of my own coaching.”
I'm excited when I start to see people I've coached or managed or worked with start using those same things. Employing leadership is a choice not a rank. So again Simon Sinek - I've completely stolen it from him. If he ever listens to this I'd love to meet him, he’s brilliant. But that that path of leadership is that I'm not in a rush. I don't need the title to be a leader, especially within sports, especially within the organizations that are flat like ours.
I've worked for organizations where you couldn't get to certain floors because you didn't have the right key card or the right title. I'm lucky enough that I work for an organization where I can knock on the CRO's door or drop the CEO a note. And I can take care of my fellow employees and fellow staff. I can have the opportunity to go and educate myself. I can learn from some of the best in the industry. And, I’ll plug the ALSD here, there are very few industries that have free, or at least paid-for, availability to have the width and breadth of the entire industry at your fingertips. I can give Amanda a call and say, “Hey I'm looking to speak to someone at the Chicago Cubs” and boom, “I love what you're doing. Can you tell me more about that?”
The path to leadership summed up is I'm in no rush. Leadership's a choice not a rank. Work on the foundation and the house will build itself.
How are buyers and buying habits changing now?
I worked in advertising for several years in in Australia and the UK and it's always been that really great marketing campaigns lead to inquiry. And even up to 10 years ago it was always about pushing online. People are doing their own research; all we're looking to do is be one of those top three choices. When people are looking for a new car, brilliant, what are the top three cars they think of? And that's the focus of advertising campaigns that we work around.
For the sports industry what we've traditionally said is, “Brilliant, let’s sell full season suites. Let's sell full season memberships on 5-10 years. Bring people in. Lock them in. Move to the next one. Cold call. Bring new people in. Let's sell them the experience. Sell them the experience.”
Buying is probably the most important part of what you just said, rather than selling cycles. Buying cycles is what new reps are focusing on and what we're focusing right now.
By the time someone contacts us they probably know more than a new rep. They've done their research. They've asked their friends. They've looked for referrals. It's our responsibility to close, but as sellers and as representatives of football clubs or soccer clubs or hockey clubs or wherever you work, buying cycles now mean getting out early, being as active in your communities as possible, building communities around your sports teams, and engaging with local communities.
So, when they're looking for those activities and they're looking for that sense of community, you're one of the top three things they think about. Not a hike in the mountains, not restaurants, not the movies, it's, “Hey, let's go to the gym watch the guys play, let's get down to the college and watch that that game on Saturday.” It's really easy to say, but it's being as active as possible, it's really focusing on that community building, and that’s easier said than done.
What we're working on and what we need to focus on as sellers is brand. What does our tech stack look like? Because that's where people are going. People’s buying habits and their research has changed. What do our assets look like? Do we have creative content that's inspiring people to actually make that inquiry or come towards us or want to be part of our community? Are we being active in not only just in Boards of Trade or Chambers of Commerce or local associations, but are we are we being active with philanthropic endeavors? Are we doing the right things that we have the luxury to do, that are also going to bring people towards our community that we can then engage with and talk about memberships with? These sort of things.
And the last thing I'll say (again, short story long) is that for us it's all about flexibility. We've adapted and that volume over yield piece for us has also begged, “Are we offering multi-match instead? Do we move away from a full season model?” Yes, we're going to have those buyers, but how are we bringing in first time buyers and making them three-time buyers and five-time buyers and ten-time buyers? And how are we grabbing those referrals from those people as well? So, focusing on where they are, what they're doing, your tech stack, and then once they're in providing those service-excellence moments, those extraordinary moments we've spoken about. I think that's the easiest part of selling right now, focusing on how you can find extraordinary moments for those people that are already a part of your community and sending them out to bring more people into the community to join, to rally around whatever team you're representing.