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One-on-One With: Preds Sr. VP, Corporate Development Chris Parker

by Staff Writer / Nashville Predators sat down with Preds Sr. VP of Corporate Development, Chris Parker, to get the latest updates on how the team’s business model is progressing and how the organization has progressed in the current economy. Parker specializes in the areas of sponsorship and premium seating for the Predators. Recently there have been several high-profile announcements from the building with regard to future events coming to the Sommet Center. How important are those events to the team’s business model?
Chris Parker: I think its critical both to the arena and to the sponsor and premium seat side of the business to have major events in the building over and above Predators hockey games. There are segments of the market that are not just focused on 40-something – depending on how long the playoff run goes – Predators home games. We have to be focused on the 365 day a year nature of our business. Suite holders don’t just lease suites for Predators games; obviously Predators are huge part of it, but there is a whole segment of our consumer base that may not be a sports fan, but is a country music fan, or rock and roll music fan or wants to bring friends and family out to the circus. So the ability of the building to stay busy and book all of these types of events, only makes those pieces of inventory more attractive over the long-haul. So clearly the success that the building is having right now in booking additional events and also going out and securing high-profile events like the CMA Awards, like the Women’s NCAA Basketball Final Four, like the Men’s SEC Basketball Tournament in 2011 … these only add credence to what we’re saying in the market which is the Predators are a huge piece of our business, but not the only piece of our business and the combined total of both pieces being successful are what’s really going to make our product offerings more valuable. Obviously the economy is a major story right now. How do you deal with that when trying to sell high-end sponsorships and premium seating?
CP: Nobody is immune to the economic climate. But I think there are a number of things we can do from the ticket side, the sponsorship side, the premium seat side – that are unique and beneficial. When times are tough, people are looking for an outlet. They are looking for someplace to go to get away from it for a period of time. Being able to watch your hometown team and be entertained for a couple of hours is a tremendous outlet. From an advertisers perspective, they should look at that and realize they still have an opportunity to be in front of a highly sought after attractive demographic for a captive period of time. So we’ve tried to have flexible and attractive price points, and we’ve tried to be unique. We are so different from what people traditionally buy. We’re not a billboard, we’re not a TV spot, we’re not a radio spot. We can actually put your product in the hands of our audience. You can actually see and experience an immediate ROI with your product; it's instant feedback. From the ticket sales side we’ve tried to be very aggressive with our programs; tried to get out to as many people as possible. Even in a down economy there are church groups, youth groups, social gatherings and boy scouts and girls scouts. They are all still functioning and they are all still looking for activities for their groups and we want to try to be a part of those opportunities. There were several upgrades made to the Sommet Center this summer and fall. What has been the early reaction to those upgrades?
CP: I think generally speaking the reception’s been extremely positive. On the Premium Seating side of things, we made a number of improvements to the Suite Level and the Suite Experience. We installed new flat panel televisions in all of the suites. We also added a new safety glass that removed some obstructions we had previously; we had a railing before that caused some viewing obstruction for people seated in the first row of the suites, so by replacing the railing with the glass, we removed the obstruction and actually made things safer as well.

We also added a recycling program throughout the building with Smurfit Stone. And we’ve added new food items to the menu for day of game, like pizza, which has become a huge hit. One of the more visible additions has been the new FS Tennessee Zone in the main concourse. How has the launch of that section been?
CP: The new owners have said all along that they were committed not only to the team but to the long-term viability of the facility; making this a great place to go to for concerts and family shows and other sporting events. We added a new sports bar concept – the FS Tennessee Zone – that opened right after Thanksgiving and has been very well received. We’ve also added segments of the Predators TV post-game shows from the FS Tennessee Zone, so fans have an opportunity to interact with the broadcasters during post-game.

On the Premium Seating side, we've added table tops to our All-Inclusive Zone, which has been hugely successful. They are best for companies that are medium to smaller sized like an accounting firm, civil engineering firm, smaller law firm; companies that aren’t in a position to fill 16 seats in a suite on regular basis, but want the upscale premium option and can fill four seats or eight seats for games. When the new owners took over last season, one of their top priorities was to try to better engage the local business community. Are you pleased with how that process is moving along?
CP: So I think that it’s been a little bit slower than some would have hoped, but we have seen some significant signs and some significant wins in terms of the way we’re approaching them. We’re trying to be more flexible. We’re trying to be easier to deal with. We’re trying to have more price points that are more attractive so we can get more people involved. And if you look at some of the people who have gotten involved this year, it’s been pretty successful. Nissan got involved and that’s a company that has never gotten involved with any team or organization since their arrival in middle-Tennessee. So that’s a huge addition; they’re here to stay having just built their brand new US Headquarters. Vanderbilt and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, the largest private employer in Nashville, got involved with us this year. The access that grants, not only to great medical care, but also to employees and their families has been hugely important. The expansion of our partnership with Bridgestone is big for us. They are a league sponsor, but they’ve kind of been using us as a beta test for things that they want to do at the league level. We’ve been very fortunate with that. And there have been a couple of other people that have come on board this year. The Wendy’s franchisees have partnered with us this year – they have 65 locations in the area which gives us a great footprint to promote our product. And their Frosty Drive For Five program has been very successful, especially among fans in-arena. And a new energy drink, Liquid Ice, which is distributed by Kimbro Water and Convenience Stores, has come on board. That’s been a big hit.

We’ve tried to come up with a number of VIP offerings that this market could buy into. This is a market that clearly believes in and supports hospitality. It’s the Music City; it’s an entertainment hub in the US, so having the opportunity to do behind the scenes tours, having the opportunity to meet players and coaches, having the opportunity to sit in seats located between the two player benches and get that once in a lifetime experience, I think has been tremendous to those who have chosen to add that to their package or purchase those on a stand-alone basis. And we only plan on doing more of that through our premium seats department. As part of the commitment to the local business community, the organization has added new events with corporate partners. How have those been received?
CP: Coming in to the year, many of the premium seat holders and corporate partners asked us for more opportunities to network; more opportunities to meet each other and talk business. So we’ve created a series of events – four to five over the course of the calendar year, not just within the hockey season – where we can get together. Most of these we’ll schedule in unique settings. We went to Arrington Vineyards which has been a great supporter of ours and has a lot of ties to hockey. We had a meeting at the Renaissance Hotel. We did a skating party at our team practice rink, Centennial Sportsplex. And we have a couple others planned for the first part of 2009. Again, just trying to further the contact that our partners have with each other – and improved access to different members of the Predators organization. Much was made in the local media this summer when the team lost some long-time sponsors. How has the team rebounded?
CP: Generally speaking, I think we’ve rebounded just fine. I think what is often lost – and having worked in other markets with other teams, I’ve seen this before – there always is a cyclical nature to sponsorship activities. A couple of the partners who had been with us for a long time, it just didn’t make sense for them anymore or we just couldn’t come to a financial arrangement that made sense for both parties. I think we parted amicably with those sponsors, there weren’t any hard feelings, and we would hope to do business potentially with them at some point down the road. But at the end of the day, the new owners have charged the organization with doing what is in the best interest of the franchise and not just with what is in the best interest of a pre-existing relationship. Several of the people who have come on board this year have replaced someone who had occupied that category previously. The new sponsors have come in with the understanding that this is a partnership and it has to be beneficial to both. It can’t be a one-side scenario – the organization as well as the sponsor have to find common ground by which they both benefit. I think thus far it’s been great. We’d always like to have more, but the sponsors in those positions right now have been fantastic. Moving forward, what are the biggest growth areas in the industry and how are the Predators positioning to take advantage?
CP: One of the things I did when I first got here was to get the staff and the organization focused on the fact that we are in the entertainment business. Hockey is a crucial component to what we do, but it’s not all of what we do from a sponsorship perspective. We handle the sales and marketing for the facility. We’re responsible for all of its promotion. We needed to leverage that. We need to talk to people about how they can gain visibility on a 365-day a year platform. Yes they would have signage for hockey, but they can also have signage for concerts like AC/DC. Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, or family shows like the circus, Harlem Globetrotters, Disney on Ice. So whatever segment of the Nashville population you are trying to attract, by getting involved with the Sommet Center and the Predators, you can achieve that. So we had to re-tool our thinking to focus on being an entertainment company that has multiple platforms. I think we’ve been successful with that and it’s helped the sales of our on-premise signage. We’ve really been able to finally leverage the capabilities of our new megatron scoreboard and all of the LED panels that go with it – demonstrate the interactive capabilities of our in-arena experience.

The next phase is going to be to educate and refine and ultimately improve people’s knowledge of Predators specific inventory like dasherboards and ice logos; they are a tool for a regional and/or national ad platform based on the television viewership, the re-broadcasts, the photos in trade publications, etc. And also demonstrating to them the tools that are available for them to monetize that.

Predators games represent fun, exciting, affordable family entertainment. Whether you are new to hockey or never been exposed to it before or a hard core fan, it represents a great outlet. Whether that’s 41 times a year, 20 times a year, two times a year, it is a product that requires trial. We’re trying to get people to come out and give hockey a try. We think the competitive nature, the exciting physical nature of the sport, that people in the middle-Tennessee area will become hooked if they experience it.

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