Unified Vision

Last week at the National Association of Sports Commissions Annual Symposium, we were asked to facilitate session on “Optimizing Your Sports Tourism Destination.”  Along with our friend and partner, Jason Clement from Sports Facilities Management, we presented our keys for success in maximizing your community impact in the sports and events space.  While we touched upon various best practices for success, our entire presentation had one major theme that separates the great sports destinations from the not so good – Human capital.

The way we recruit talent (for our staffs, our boards, and our volunteer leadership), how we engage elected officials, the methods we use in onboarding new people, ensuring cultural fit, employing consistency of messaging and communication.  Yes, we offered up some tactical examples that the audience could take home and implement, but in the end no matter what matrix you use to measure success, it all comes down to people – Human capital.

While you can have the right people on the team and even have them all in the right seats on the bus (thank you Jim Collins), everyone needs to know what success looks like.  Sure, you can set room night goals, economic impact benchmarks, and event standards.  However, to garner full support towards those goals, you need the right people AND the right vision.  A unified vision that can easily be communicated to all your raving fans, so they too can effectively participate in the journey. 
One the way home to Arizona, I remembered just such an example of this unified vision.  Below is a story we penned in 2015, titled “Pop the Cork”…..
In 2002 we launched the Metro Denver Sports Commission.  As a new sports commission, starting from scratch, we spent quite a bit of time building bridges with community leaders to garner support for our cause.  When I arrived in Denver much of the groundwork had been laid.  We had the support of the tourism industry, economic development entities, elected officials, and many corporate leaders.  We also had the support of all of the area’s universities and the professional sports franchises – except one.  The Colorado Rockies were the one team that we had not yet approached for support.
At that time, former NFL player Keli McGregor had just taken on the role of team President for the Rockies.  Keli was very well respected in the community and proved over time to be a great leader of the franchise.  He was a collaborative person who did the right things for the right reasons.  He would be a great ally for the sports commission.
Our goal was to have all of the key players in Denver support the efforts of the sports commission.  That meant we had to convince Keli to jump on board.  We were able to secure a meeting with Keli – a meeting his assistant said could last no longer than 30-minutes.  When I arrived at the Rockies offices for the meeting, I saw a purple bottle on the receptionist’s desk.  When Keli’s assistant came to escort me to his office, we passed through cubicles, desk areas, and meeting rooms.  Each one had a similar purple bottle.  The in-house mailman passed us in the hallway, his mail cart had another purple bottle.  I wasn’t sure what the presence of these bottles was, but I was soon to find out.
Upon meeting Keli, I knew we were in good hands.  He was prepared, knew what the meeting was about, and what we were going to ask of him.  He was energetic and enthusiastic, and took the meeting by the horns from the start.  Keli also made one thing perfectly clear – the Rockies would participate, but not because all of the other teams were on board.  They would participate because it was the right thing to do for the community, and if the Rockies somehow benefited down the road, then so be it.  He was doing it for the right reasons, not for some ulterior motive or business purpose.
As the meeting progressed, we finally got to the issue of the purple bottles.  When Keli took over at team President, he realized there was no unifying goal or vision for the organization.  On day one of his tenure, he called all the employees into a meeting room, over 200 people in all.  He talked about his vision for success both on and off the field, with the end goal of getting to a World Series (something the young franchise had never done).  He gave each staff member a bottle of Champagne in the Rockies’ color – Purple.  Keli then explained to the staff that the goal was to look at that bottle every day, and with every decision they made, to take action that will get the cork out of the purple bottle.  The goal suddenly became something tangible, with small steps (daily) to get the bigger prize (a World Series and an open Champagne bottle).
When I left the Rockies’ offices nearly two HOURS later (I mentioned above the meeting was to be limited to only 30 minutes), I couldn’t help but think about Keli’s strategy.  He unified hundreds of his most important people, his staff.  They understood the team’s goal, and had a visual daily reminder about how they were to help the organization reach their end game.  The purple bottle.  It was brilliant, and proved successful over time.
Over the years, Keli led the Rockies to great prominence in the community and also in the sports events industry.  Along with Arizona Diamondbacks President Derick Hall, Keli championed the first ever stadium funded entirely by an Indian Tribe (Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Arizona where the Rockies and Diamondbacks train each spring).  Keli’s vision landed the Rockies in their first and only World Series against the Boston Red Sox in 2007, to this day one of the bright spots in Denver sports history.  While the Rockies came up short against the Sox, they won the National League and made the World Series…..and popped the corks out of the purple bottles.
Keli passed away suddenly in 2010.  His loss is still felt today.  In looking back at the way Keli led with his vision of the purple Champagne bottle, we should think – as leaders, how can we unify our organizations?  How can we create a common vision, team unity, and drive others to row the boat in one direction?  What is our purple Champagne bottle?

Sticky Sports Tourism

“Those who say, ‘That’s the way we have always done it’ can be the most dangerous people in any company.”

-- Kevin Plank, Founder, Under Armour

Sports tourism professionals often times battle for “credit.”  Convention bureaus, sports commissions, and other DMOs often fight each other to validate their work and to scrap for limited community resources.  Room night goals, economic impact projections, ROI.  Everything that can be measured is often used to validate an organization publicly. 

Community leaders often stand in our offices asking for quantifying tangible results of our work.  Our elected officials and (yes) our bosses, don't want to hear “room nights are often hard to track” or “the event owners didn't deliver.”  It's on us to make our work understandable for them, and to translate our results into their language.

The biggest issue is that often times our community leaders have a hard time “touching” the economic impact that results from hosting events.  To garner the support we need to further our missions, stakeholders need to not only understand the positive occurrences around our events, but to then FUND future efforts to attract more events that positively impact our markets.

There is a great book by the Heath Brothers called “Made to Stick” that can help us in this area to make that connection.  The Heath Brothers are a couple of Stanford-Duke-Harvard professors that have studied human behavior and how to communicate to specific audiences in a meaningful way.  The main premise in “Made to Stick” is to deliver a message to your target audience that is VISUAL in a language (or picture) they can understand. 

Two examples of how the concept of “sticky” messaging has helped me are below.....

In the early years of my career in sports tourism, Tulsa was trying to build a new arena, which required a new tax to be passed by the voters.  We failed on two occasions, but once I was gone the BOK Center sprouted out of the ground (but I digress).....When hosting town hall meetings around Tulsa about the initial project, it was apparent to me that in 1999 there was a significant group of anti-tax citizens that wouldn't support our efforts.  The community didn't have the stomach to pay for a new development and entertainment district downtown.  It was my impression that they were only against our project because they couldn’t understand nor “touch” the economic impact it would bring over time.  Years later, I understood that our shortfall was in making the message “sticky.”  The Heath Brothers' book had not been published back then, but we tried anyway.

At that time in Oklahoma, the whole state had a serious road construction problem.  Specifically, pot holes.  There came a time in Tulsa that the city couldn’t repair the pot holes fast enough, and instead would put small orange construction cones IN the potholes rather than fix them.  You could play human Frogger and avoid driving your car into the holes, but the holes couldn't get filled.  You'd think it would be more efficient to just fix the pot holes, but it wasn’t, so orange cones it was.  While Frogger is a really fun video game, doing it with your car was less than enjoyable for most Tulsans.

As we continually hit the wall with citizens and elected officials about the arena project and the economic impact that would be generated by hosting events in the new downtown, I realized we had to make it tangible to our audience (aka - “sticky”).  I called the city manager in charge of the pot hole issue and asked him what it cost to fix a single pot hole.  He said all-in, about $60.  From there forward I used the $60 number to talk about how each event we were going after would result in X number of fixed pot holes (Y million dollars of direct visitor spending from an event divided by $60 = X potholes fixed via the event). 

In testing this message with a local Rotary Club it resonated IMMEDIATELY.  The orange cones they understood, the sales tax revenue from hosting an NCAA championship, they couldn't comprehend.  Pot holes was their language, so we had to translate our message into their vernacular. 

While we didn’t win the vote on the project, we made significant headway, and I learned the lesson of “sticky” messaging.  This lesson helps me today in delivering the right information to the influencers around me in a meaningful way.

Another example of this tactic was when we revamped the Phoenix Sports Commission in 2008.  We realized early on that the organization needed a major facelift in the community.  Leaders in Arizona didn't know what our organization was about and what our value proposition was.  They did however understand ROI and how an investment in sports tourism could be measured in economic impact.  In early 2009 we launched a campaign called the “$100,000,000 Mission.”  The object of the 24-month project was to land grass roots sporting events that would generate a NEW $100 million in direct visitor spending.  The mission only included events that if the Sports Commission wasn't involved would have never come to the greater Phoenix area.  So our value proposition was defined, it was transparent, and community leaders could understand the target.  It was “sticky” to them. 

As the mission moved along, we updated the community early and often.  As we landed each event, we didn't just issue a press release, we issued a messaging statement that talked about where we stood (our running total) on the “Mission.”  We held ourselves accountable to the community, and as we moved the ball down the field on the project, people got on board.  Influential people.  People with resources and connections.  People who could take the Sports Commission to the next level.

Over time, the organization got noticed and became an asset to the Phoenix community.  And when we crossed the finish line on the “Mission” we thanked the community for the investment that had been made for the organization to get there.  We also began messaging the financial return of the “Mission” project.  Community leaders understand ROI.

Had we not employed a “sticky” concept, I'm not sure we would have achieved what we did.  The NASC named the Phoenix Regional Sports Commission the Large Market Sports Commission of the Year in 2012, just four years after our reorganization.  The board of the Sports Commission changed dramatically.  It became bigger, stronger, and more influential.  Through their support, our events had more muscle and the organization more stature in the community.  It all started with one transparent and tangible goal that people could understand and get their arms around, and the organization evolved from there.

What are your community leaders saying to you?  What don't they understand about your efforts in the sports tourism and events space?  What is keeping them from supporting you publicly and privately?  Do they understand your value proposition?  How can you change the dialog into their language to make your message stick? 

Find your orange cones and message them early and often.

© Huddle Up Group, 2018