Panel moderator Tony Knopp from Spotlight Ticket Management poses with AT&T Global Events' Steall Park and AEG Europe's Steve Brice.

REPORTING FROM MINNEAPOLIS — Those on both sides of a luxury suite sale and ALSD Chairman Bill Dorsey agree: personalization and helping a client with their ROI is key to keeping an audience. The 22nd Association of Luxury Suite Directors Conference brought sellers face to face with corporate clients for the unique “What Your Customers Want and Demand in the 21st Century Venue: Big Buyers Meet the Big Seller” panel at the Hilton Minneapolis, June 30-July 3. The panel was part of 2012’s Executive Retreat Program, which is Dorsey’s own way of responding to the 21st century venue client.

“Those of us on the venue side have to do less talking and more listening,” said Dave St. Peter, president of Major League Baseball’s Minnesota Twins, who play at Target Field in Minneapolis.

St. Peter’s position summarized the panel's message: now more than ever before, the client dictates the way a business is run.

“You need to have the conversation that makes you my business partner,” said Ray Bednar from Hyperion Marketing, a Mark Rockefeller Company, who formerly served as VP of Global Sponsorship for Bank of America, emphasizing how important it is for a club to maintain contact with their client throughout the season.

The buyers all agreed that it wasn’t so much the specific event or venue that sold the deal. Instead, it’s about how using a suite will make them more money. “The venue’s job is to help the buyer reach a new demographic and increase their bottom line. It’s not about great seats, it’s about generating revenue,” added Bednar.

“The event is important,” noted Stella Park, lead financial analyst at AT&T Global Events, “but hosting our customer is more important.” Currently, the company has an 85 percent utilization rate.

The experience in the suite itself becomes more important when the team isn’t having a great season.

St. Peter recalled the Twins’ 2011 season. “When you lose 99 games, it’s not the time to cut budget; it would even be the time to raise budgets to ensure the client experience.”

Chris Wright, president of the National Basketball Association’s Minnesota Timberwolves, said he understood selling suites when a team isn’t on a winning streak, noting that the Timberwolves hadn’t been a very competitive team or made the NBA playoffs since 2004.

“Even when your team is losing, you have to focus on and delegate assets to client relationships,” Wright said. Through a phased pricing system in which prices were reduced around 40 percent, “we were able to hold on to our customer base and create a home court advantage in very difficult times.”

Venues don’t have to discount their product in order to keep their corporate clients.

Wright said that consumers are interested in “behind-the-veil” experiences that a normal fan wouldn’t see, and suggested a focus on education.

Steve Brice, VP of premium seating for AEG Europe, said that being flexible with scheduling comes into play. “In Berlin we traditionally would have told suite holders they had to buy the whole run of events, but now they can cherry-pick events to purchase.”

It may be counterintuitive, but big companies aren’t the only ones that can bring big business to a venue.

“There’s still a role for the smaller business,” noted Peter Martin, VP of Marketing and Sales for Cambria, which has a 100-percent utilization of tickets.

Wright agreed, adding that the Timberwolves never go after a prospective client until spending weeks doing research. “A $100,000-deal is as important as that $2 million-deal,” he said.

And what do clients want these days, anyway?

“Bankers care about money,” said Bednar, who added that often for a bank to sponsor a team, venue, or purchase a suite, there has to be a legal and contractual obligation to use that particular banking business.

Martin said that it’s not so much about business with the venue as it is about visibility.

“We want product in that facility. We want branding, and would desire some sort of broadcast element,” such as commercial or radio spots during games, added Martin.

Access to data is also important, since it allows suite holders to gather information on potential clients.

“AEG chose to utilize our own ticketing platform, axs, in part to be able to use the data,” said Senior VP of AEG Mark Faber. “Since it’s ours, we can help manage that guest experience even better than relying on a third party.”

Electronic ticket options and an emphasis on providing access to new technology also are important to clients.

In his own effort to listen to what the customer wants, ALSD’s Bill Dorsey initiated the Executive Retreat program in 2011.

“We’ve had some criticism over the years about not having enough senior level executives” at ALSD, said Dorsey, who handpicks about 100 such executives to invite to the special program. ALSD had around 850 total attendees this year.

To pick the group, Dorsey looks at the topics that will be addressed, and tries to match them with the right speakers, then decides who would most benefit from the information.

Content for the Executive Retreat differs from that of the regular ALSD panels in that it’s less sales-centric. “We focus on more major issues and it doesn’t have to completely focus around premium seating, it can be more general topics,” said Dorsey, who scheduled high tech and design panels for 2012. “ I look at the trends and try to inform the executives of what the trends are going to be.”

Interviewed for this story: Raymond Bednar, (212) 649-1682; Steve Brice, +44 (0) 20 8463 2300; Bill Dorsey, (513) 674-0555 x102; Mark Faber, (213) 763-7700; Peter Martin, (952) 944-1676; Stella Park, (210) 821-4105; David St. Peter, (612) 659-3400; Chris Wright, (612) 673-1600