NASCAR is by far the country’s biggest spectator sport, with crowds of 100,000 and more attending single events
With two of the biggest events in international sports being held this year—the FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver—travel agents are working overtime to snare tickets and accommodations for their sports-crazed clients. U.S. visitors make up the number-one market for both these events, outside of the host countries themselves, and agents are dealing with the challenges of sold-out room blocks, complicated schedules and the bureaucracy of purchasing event tickets through the host organizations and the operators they’ve appointed.
For some agents, however, this is nothing new. Sports travel is their specialty and they’ve learned the ins and outs of finding the best available seats, most convenient accommodations and the best flights to some far-flung destinations. While the World Cup and the Olympics happen only every four years, these agents keep themselves busy with a host of major annual sporting events such as the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, Indy 500 and so on, as well as ongoing team sports packages covering the major sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL) and college sports.
Visitors to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby have the options of value-based packages, all the way up to seats in “Millionaire’s Row”
The important thing for agents to remember about sports travel is that it’s a year-round profit center. “For us, it starts with college football bowl season in January,” says Andre Gower, Virtuoso specialist at North Carolina-based Premiere Sports Travel. (In fact, Gower was onsite in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl Parade and game when we spoke.) “Then you have the Pro Bowl, Super Bowl and head right into the NASCAR season in February with the Daytona 500 and Las Vegas 400.”
Those two NASCAR events are Premiere’s biggest package accounts after college and pro football, with groups of 1,500 to 2,000 attending each. NASCAR, with 36 separate events throughout the year attracting more than 100,000 people each, is the nation’s number-one spectator sport by far and Gower estimates that 75 to 80 percent of those who buy travel packages for NASCAR do it through Premiere.
On it goes throughout the year, with the NCAA’s March Madness, the Masters, Triple Crown horse racing, Major League Baseball, the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, U.S. Open Golf and then back into the NFL and college football seasons (not to mention the NBA and NHL). Premiere Sports Travel has pre-set packages for all these events on its website, but Gower emphasizes that agents can customize any of these to fit the special needs of their clients, from value-based to high-end luxury.
Alumni and fans from all over the country cheer their team at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium
Take the Masters, for example. “We have a number of products to fit different clients, with three different hotel packages, including The Partridge Inn in Augusta for high-end clients,” he says.
“But we also offer private-home packages, where your clients can enjoy full kitchens or stocked bars in homes that can accommodate groups from two to eight people. We can even provide chefs for these clients.”
The Kentucky Derby is another of Premiere’s most-requested events during the year. Not only is horse racing’s biggest championship a draw for clients and groups, but Gower admits “it’s the most fun for us to work, too.” In addition to accommodations at a choice of three hotels in Louisville—including the Galt House, the Derby hotel—the tour operator can offer such extras as horse farm and distillery tours, “Dawn at the Downs” pre-race workout sessions and seating options at Churchill Downs “from grandstand to Millionaire’s Row.”
On average, Premiere books about 700 people to the Masters and 750 to the Kentucky Derby each year.
Also targeting high-end clients and groups is New York-based Inside Sports & Entertainment Group, which, according to senior vice president Matt Haines, describes its primary client base as “wealthy individuals, incentive groups and groups from Fortune 500 companies. I would say about 50 percent of our business is group travel.” Haines adds that he expects to see the sports-travel business grow, and is working more and more with agents to create custom packages for their luxury clients. “One of our wealthy clients attended seven events in one weekend all planned by us, and traveled in helicopter, private jet and limo from one to the other,” Haines recalls.
For Gower and Premiere Travel, building relationships with travel agents is critical—as is creating a solid commission structure. For fees paid on a client’s credit card, the agent receives a 7 percent commission; if paid on an agent or agency check, the commission is 10 percent. And if the agent is a member of the Virtuoso network, that commission goes up to 11 percent—and, Gower points out, Virtuoso agents tend to book the more upscale packages.
Gower advises travel agents looking to expand into sports travel to do some basic research. “Read up on major events, attend them if possible. It’s important to familiarize yourself with who goes to them,” he says. One of the advantages of building a sports travel business is that it is somewhat more recession-proof than other niches. “Fans are fans,” Gower says. “While there may have been a downswing in 2009, as a whole sports travel remains strong. Of course, hotel rates have dropped, so revenue may be down but the margins are the same.”
Teresa Weybrew, director of sales at Sports Travel and Tours, based in Hatfield, MA, adds, “Although the economy has definitely impacted the travel world, our niche and loyal customers have continued to follow their teams and events. We have found that a great program is key, but outstanding, friendly and reliable customer service is why our return rates maintain at a minimum of 40 percent year after year in an industry that averages only around 10 percent. In 2009 our return rate of traveler was close to 70 percent.” Approximately 50 percent of the company’s business is group-related travel while the other half is customized travel for individuals for all sports.
In addition to all sporting events, Sports Travel and Tours is the official travel company for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and the International Tennis Hall of Fame, to name a few. “We have a unique place in the sports travel market with regard to Halls of Fame throughout North America,” says Weybrew. “Two of our most successful programs are Baseball and Football Hall of Fame Induction Weekends. As an added incentive, if a fan’s goal in life is visiting every Major League ballpark and they visit them with us, they will be inducted into STAT’s Stadium Hall of Fame. They can sign up with us and experience this once-in-a-lifetime achievement of baseball’s best players—induction into the Stadium Hall of Fame. We invite travelers to Cooperstown over Induction Weekend for their own induction, acknowledging their accomplishment into the Stadium Hall of Fame.”
Weybrew fondly recalls the Millennium Tour, in which nine diehard baseball fans traveled to all 30 ballparks in 32 days. They traveled on 13 flights, six trains and covered approximately 6,000 miles. “It will go down in company history as the most memorable and most exciting trip ever done,” she says.
College football is another sport that invites dedicated—some might say fanatical—behavior. Morris E. Capouya, vice president of Total Sports Travel, says his Alabama-based company “grew out of the need for local Auburn and Alabama fans to travel to bowl games.” Football, Capouya says, is the company’s main sell with the BCS Championship, Sugar Bowl and SEC Championship topping the list of gridiron events travelers flock to see. Of course, college basketball has its devotees, too, and Capouya says that “the most extravagant and exclusive trip we have managed was for a Kentucky group of 250 people to fly from Lexington to Maui non-stop alongside the team and coaches on board a 767 to attend the Maui Invitational for six days and five nights.”
Sometimes the tour operator’s passion for a team or sport spills over into the business. In 1991, Michael Martocci met Barry Liben, president of Tzell Travel Group. The two both shared a passion for the New York Giants. That year, the Giants went to the Super Bowl. The two decided to go to the Super Bowl together and came up with the idea of taking a few fans with them.
They wound up taking 500 people, and Professional Sports Tours was born.
Now, the division staffs six people. Its top-selling sports events to date are the 2007 Giants Super Bowl, all Giants playoff trips, the Yankees World Series and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four.
Like most sports travel businesses, group travel makes up the bulk of the profits. In fact, Professional Sports Tours does about 60-percent group travel, ranging from corporate executives to hardcore fans.
“There is no doubt that the economy somewhat affects our business,” Martocci, now president of the company, told us. “However, we have learned that the sports fan saves most of his or her entertainment dollars to follow a team in good times or in bad. I feel the fan uses sports as an outlet to forget about the bad times.”
Premiere’s Gower notes there are a lot of elements to combine in booking sports packages, and most agents don’t have the connections or buying power to make things happen. “We’re talking about event tickets, transportation, hotel blocks, airfare…there’s a lot to juggle,” he says. “We let agents and agencies know that there’s somebody there, and basically provide a turnkey solution for them and their clients. Over the years, we’ve built relationships with suppliers at these events and have access that many agents don’t.”
“Sports travel is a vacation and memory wrapped in one,” says Inside Sports’ Haines. “If you can send someone to Miami this February to see their team play in the Super Bowl and enjoy the celebrities, parties and weather, that is an experience they will never forget—and they will be a client for life.”
The International Scene
Agents with luxury clients who want to attend posh international sporting events in the UK and throughout Europe may find the services of Simon Maxwell quite useful. The CEO of Harrison Maxwell, a travel company located in Newmarket, just north of London, provides bespoke sports tours, mainly for North American clients (98 percent to be exact; 30 percent Canadian, the rest from the U.S.).
While stateside, football, baseball and basketball get the lion’s share of the attention, in Europe, soccer, tennis, golf and cricket are king. And, just like a normal vacation, many clients want a tailored experience. “They want custom-made sports travel,” says Maxwell, who started his company in 2003 aimed at high-end travel, but has now looked at more budget-conscious travel in light of current financial times.
Serving the Agent
Unlike the majority of travel agents, Maxwell doesn’t work directly with his own clients in regard to sports travel; instead, North American travel agents task him with putting together tours for their clients.
In addition to game tickets, soccer fans visiting the UK can get stadium tours
Maxwell says that the one event that is tough to build around is Wimbledon (tough, massively expensive ticket, he says), but “any sporting event in Europe that the clients have an interest in, we can build and mold an itinerary around,” he says. “All fully tailor-made with the client’s dates and budget and preferences outside the event taken into account. I believe that those traveling up to 8,000 miles would wish to see more than just a soccer match or a Grand Prix; they wish to see more of the culture of the country that they are visiting.”
Maxwell likes to meet clients or groups personally. “Once they have had a chance to check-in and freshen up, I will take them around the block or into the center of London for a drink and answer questions and concerns they may have,” he says, referring to tipping, how to use the tube (Underground), restaurants and pubs to avoid or visit.
Premiership soccer is huge in the UK. In London, it gets no bigger than Arsenal v. Chelsea. Maxwell can arrange private tours of the stadiums on one day, before guests settle down to watch the match. “This is quite a unique sporting experience and one that would have bragging rights back in the U.S.,” he says. Note: Soccer season runs from the end of August through the beginning of May and matches are generally on Saturdays.
Maxwell’s also steady in the pocket. “Two Canadian families on my Monaco Grand Prix itinerary were concerned about taking their rental car into Monaco,” he says. “One call to me and I arranged, at 48-hour notice, a private transfer from their hotel to the event by Mercedes Viano with driver.”
The big event headed to London in 2012 is the Olympics. “It’s all taking shape,” Maxwell says.
“Come 2011, we’ll have a better idea of selling tickets. Any event a client wants, I’d get tickets and incorporate a tour. I’m hoping it will be a popular reason for traveling here.” No doubt. A travel agent in Los Angeles already has contacted Maxwell. “I’ve already booked hotel space for a client, two years out.”