It was back in 2012, as the Blue Jackets were making preparations for the ultimately postponed 2013 NHL All-Star Weekend, when the initial idea for All-Star Winter Park was born.
It was an idea that Blue Jackets VP of Marketing J.D. Kershaw wanted to explore and expand upon, but that would obviously require some outside help – but who could the Jackets and city of Columbus trust with such a project?
Todd Alles is a managing partner at Marketing Activations Group (MAG), a company right here in Columbus that specializes in brand management efforts like All-Star Winter Park. Alles said he was also interested in joining the Blue Jackets’ All-Star effort, and reached out to the Greater Columbus Sports Commission to get involved.
“I reached out to Todd and said, ‘I don’t know who should be embarrassed, me or you,’ since they were doing the work they were doing with these NHL teams and not doing it in our home city,” Kershaw said, jokingly. “I was shocked to learn that there was a group in our own backyard that had been doing activation projects with the Blackhawks and Red Wings.”
Alles and his team at MAG certainly had the right resume at the right time to get involved.
“With the Detroit Red Wings around the (2014) Winter Classic, we created the same kind of complimentary event,” said Alles. “So I reached out to the Sports Commission and said ‘I know this is coming, and we’re just coming off the heels of this Winter Classic event, so let’s talk.”
That Hockeytown Winter Festival at Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, had some of the elements that were so successful in Columbus, including an outdoor community rink. MAG has also done a variety of other fan festivals in other sports, particularly with the men’s NCAA Final Four tournament in March.
“There’s a big fan festival called Bracket Town,” Alles said. “Our footprint is 500 square feet of a convention hall space and we cover that with interactive games." Alles said that setup was quite similar to what the NHL offered to hockey fans at the Greater Columbus Convention Center with its Fan Fair.
It’s a testament to the versatility of Alles’ team and their planning that with NHL Fan Fair taking place right down the street, MAG and the Blue Jackets were able to offer fans an additional hot-spot for the fan experience that was both fun and unique.
“By no means are we trying to take away anything that the league does -- we’re trying to compliment what they’re doing,” said Alles. “The entire community isn’t going to have access to these high-profile events, but they can still come down and take part in this hockey festival that we’re all creating together.”
And the fans certainly did their part: over 10,000 people skated on the Scotts Miracle-Gro Community Rink, with all public sessions selling out within 2-5 minutes, according to Alles. Another 5,000 fans tackled a new attraction, the Snow Slide presented by Huntington. The thrill ride had never been used before, but Alles is certain it will now be a main fixture in events his company plans moving forward.
“The slide is such an iconic piece and I think we’re going to try to carry it over as much as we can. The buzz that the slide has been generating is amazing,” said Alles. “What is refreshing is that we don’t want people to have a long wait, but every single time someone gets off at the bottom, they say ‘That was well worth it!”
A native of Columbus, Alles said he wasn’t surprised at all by the massive turnouts for All-Star weekend in his home city.
“I’m from Columbus, born and raised, so I understand the passion and the genuine caring that people have for Columbus,” he said. “They want Columbus to put its best foot forward for everyone visiting from around the globe this week for the All-Star festivities.” Alles said it reminded him of the city’s efforts in hosting the Presidents Cup in the fall of 2013 at Muirfield Village.
The Blue Jackets have a new and strengthening partnership with a Columbus-based business, a company that now has their fingerprints on other areas of the Blue Jackets fan experience. MAG was involved in several aspects of the team’s NHL Draft party last summer and the Fan Fest this past September.
“I had a great comfort level with them, and in general we like to do business with local companies. That was important,” said Kershaw. “The fact is that I had a great comfort level with them, they had done all these other great events, they had a great understanding of what I was trying to accomplish, and they’re local. I didn’t go beyond that.”
For Alles and MAG, it’s a comfort level that is both a good business relationship, but also a personal connection that is important to develop with your first client in a city.
“It’s wonderful to be able to work with an organization such as the Blue Jackets. It’s such a close-knit family and a caring organization, and that’s such a rarity in professional sports,” said Alles.
“It’s rare to be able to have that family feel and that togetherness from the top down. It’s so apparent with their organization, and for them to welcome us and trust us with their brand and their strong history of working with the community, it’s been great to be able to have that partnership. Not only do we have a business relationship but we’re all friends.”
So do these friends have another fan festival in store? That remains to be seen, but certainly don’t count them out.
“I can’t speak for everybody, but I think for me, (Winter Park) was probably more successful than I thought it was going to be,” said Kershaw. “I think it opened a lot of eyes for different groups throughout the city, and I think there’s some chatter out there now that we should look at doing this every year, for some period of time. I’m sure we’ll explore it.”