Nationals exec reminds attendees to sell the experience

Valerie CamilloValerie CamilloWASHINGTON — Furniture stores aren’t the only ones feeling the heat from online competitors.

For professional baseball teams, such at the Washington Nationals here, “ticket sales is everything,” Valerie Camillo, the Nationals’ chief revenue and marketing officer, told NEXT attendees at the Norfolk Southern Club inside Nationals Park.

Not only are they a direct revenue driver, but they lead to so much more of the revenue that a team counts on, from food and beverage concessions to apparel sales to corporate sponsorships (the latter drawn by the crowds of big league teams).

The Washington Nationals are one of baseball’s Top 10 teams for ticket sales, Camillo said, but it hasn’t reached that position without its share of challenges. For starters, the team has been in town only since 2005, so those in the Washington area with the disposable income to buy tickets didn’t grow up rooting for the home team.

Also, Washington is transient, so a lot of the fans here may be rooting for the visitor, a challenge to booking those lucrative season ticket sales packages. And Washington is filled with other options for the consumer’s entertainment dollars, including concerts and fine dining — not so for all other major baseball markets.

But perhaps the biggest challenge, or at least “a major market disruptor,” comes from online, just as it does for the furniture industry. The advent of secondary ticket markets — eBay’s Stub-Hub, for instance — has created a lot of pressure, Camillo said. It has taken away the organization’s control over ticket access and the best seats in the park.

“We use to be able to say: ‘You want to sit between the bases? You’ve got to be a season planholder,’” Camillo said. Selling season plans is the ultimate goal, a way to cement “our biggest and strongest customer relationships,” she said.

But now those season plan-holders can buy season tickets from the Nationals, pick the game or games they want to attend, and offer up the rest on StubHub. The StubHub customers, meanwhile, get the seats they want at a price that might actually be lower than average depending on demand. And they can do it all last minute.

In 2015, the Nationals began developing strategies to address all of these challenges. It began shifting its marketing message to emphasize the experience of coming to a game, instead of simply hyping the game and its star players. It began expanding the product to attract new fans and more sponsor dollars. And it looked for new ways to create differentiation for its best customers — those season ticketholders — to help protect that important base.

On the marketing front, its messages became much more diverse and complex, she said, some featuring families and faces that best represented its fans. One early ad tipped a hat to the “Priceless” Visa commercials of years past, with the narrator listing the purchases a family made in the ballpark up to the final two scoops of ice cream in the bottom of the ninth to earn the new title: “Most Valuable Parents.”

Research shows baseball is a very intergenerational game, so the Nationals “pulled on those heartstrings of nostalgia as well,” with clever moves, such as the introduction of cotton candy and popcorn concessions near the main entrance so it’s the first things fans smell.

“Baseball is great, but baseball wrapped in a bow is even better,” Camillo said, referring to the moves the team made to expand the product. It began hosting theme days at the park, such as Star Wars Day, where everything is wrapped around the theme, including the concessions, which may take on temporary new names, and the giveaway at the gate (in this case, an R2D2 can cooler).

On-field entertainment included a dance troupe dressed as Star Wars characters, and in the commercials promoting the theme day, the players’ bats turn into lightsabers.

Star Wars Day has become the Nationals top-selling promotion day, Camillo said, noting that many kids come to the park dressed in full costume.

For the postseason (the Nationals clinched a playoff spot early), the team took its marketing stunts to a new levels, introducing a sponsored, Halloween-themed Haunted Pep Rally. The organization teased the event with a brief paranormal-like video featuring a scary zombie limping across the field. On the day of the event, ticket holders needed to navigate a maze filled with creepy figures on the concourse in order to rescue National players in time for the postseason.

When they come out of the maze, Camillo said, they can unlock an augmented reality experience that includes a message from Nationals Manager Dusty Baker thanking them for the rescue.

The teaser video received more than 60,000 views, and tickets for the event sold out in about 20 minutes, Camillo said.

To create differentiation for season planholder base, the Nationals launched a NATS Plus loyalty program, that gives them all the things StubHub cannot — such as a year-round program of events both in the park and elsewhere, player autographs, opportunities to take batting practice on the field, a field day for families.

They also receive discounted pricing (bigger discount for members buying the biggest plans) and other special services that take away the pain points in the park — dedicated entrances to the park and concessions, for instance, so they don’t have to wait in long lines.

Since introducing the membership program, Camillo said the Nationals has seen a “massive uptick” in customers moving into the plans that give them access to all the special benefits.

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