Jamie Obletz’s move to Delaware North Cos. five years ago was a homecoming for the Buffalo area native. (Courtesy Delaware North Cos.)

‘Things are headed in the right direction in a big way,’ concessionaire’s new president says

Delaware North recently named Jamie Obletz as president of Sportservice, the company’s sports food and retail provider. Obletz, a Buffalo area native, has been with Delaware North Cos. for five years, most recently serving as president of the travel division. He started with the company as its senior vice president of corporate development. Obletz spoke with VenuesNow Senior Editor Don Muret about his focus coming out of the pandemic, figuring out the most effective technologies to improve the fan experience and resolving the labor shortage across the sports landscape.

What is your background? 
I spent the early part of my career on the finance side, working at commercial and investment banks with a stop in business school in between. I started my career at M&T Bank, a regional bank, ended up at Columbia Business School and then JP Morgan, which is pretty much as far away from the food and beverage and retail concessions industry as you can get. My path led me to Delaware North. I got a call from (Chief Financial Officer Chris Feeney,) and having grown up in the Buffalo area, I was familiar with the company. I was living in New York at the time, and they were looking for somebody with an investment banking background to help further its growth strategy around mergers and acquisitions. I spent the first three years with that focus in mind and helped us grow. We purchased three casinos, a few hotels, and a number of things with our European and Australian business.

I got to the end of 2019 and the direction was, “You have to get operational experience to round out your knowledge of the company and your skills.” In January 2020 — 18 months ago but which feels like 18 years ago —  I stepped in on the airport side (in charge of) food, drink and retail at 25 U.S. airports. Things were great pre-COVID with double digit growth rates … and the wind at your back. The debates we were having internally in January 2020 were what color should the ribbon be for the ribbon cutting for a new store. It was great the first 60 days and March 13 comes around and the world ends. Air traffic drops 95 to 98 percent. We went through a year-and-a-half-long (downward spiral) and mothballed 90 percent of our locations. Subsequently, we had to reopen them one by one over the course of the next year and restructure contracts and financial obligations to our airport partners, and redo brand agreements.

Flash forward to today, this role became available. It was a no-brainer in terms of my level of interest. (Sportservice) is the marquee biz line. This is the legacy, where it began. It’s an awesome opportunity to dive in headfirst and learn and see and help lead this great business to the next level.

Given all that’s gone on over the past year due to the pandemic and the shutdown of sports and entertainment venues, where do you start as the industry reopens?
Things are headed in the right direction in a big way. We’re in 11 MLB parks and by (mid-June) the capacity restrictions will be lifted at most of them. Operationally, it’s important to us, but also symbolically important in terms of an indication of the reopening of everything. The NFL will follow suit at 100 percent capacity come fall. It all paints a very good backdrop to helping to further the resumption of the business. The beauty of coming in at this stage is (the shutdown) has given everybody an opportunity to take a step back and better understand the business and how we can do things better, faster, cheaper, quicker, more efficiently and elevate the overall experience for the guests.

This is all about taking a company that’s been doing this for over 100 years and taking it to the next level. We’re going to focus on improving the fan experience in terms of product offering, speed of service, from parking spot to seat, how do we cater to that fan in a better way. We had the benefit of a year off and our front line (employees) are anxious to put into practice all the things that they’ve been dreaming up for the past year and make it come to fruition. The pandemic has forced us all to rethink our technology footprint. Everything is going cashless, touchless, mobile, grab. We’ve seen more of this over the past year than in the previous 10 years. COVID has only accelerated that and elevated expectations from the guests.

I saw this unfold in the travel division before our eyes. Thankfully, we kept up and reacted appropriately. At Sportservice, we’ve taken most of our baseball accounts cashless already this year and expect all of them to be cashless in the near future. At TD Garden, our petri dish where we test different technologies on the culinary side, we worked out a partnership with Amazon for walk-out technology at two stores. For the first time, you can go into a marketplace setting, scan your card, grab what you want and walk out.

How has Amazon Go been doing? What are the trends? Is there a higher spend as a result of the convenience factor? 
It hasn’t been tested a whole lot because it wasn’t until one or two playoff games (remaining) that we had 100 percent capacity at TD Garden to really get some (data points). Early indications suggest a higher spend per transaction and higher speed of service. Our staff on the ground there timed it, and the fastest entry to grab your product and walk out was eight to nine seconds. The one thing we underestimated is the adoption period. What I personally witnessed was a lot of people walking by the store without a clear understanding of what it’s all about. It’s going to take a while for customer behaviors and expectations and understanding what this is to catch up. Is it a secure area? Am I allowed to go in there? Is it a VIP area? It can put people off a little bit when you first see it. We’ve tried to have the right signs and put people out front to direct fans into the store.

There’s going to be a (learning curve) that we didn’t fully anticipate. Those issues aside, it’s pretty much the coolest thing you can imagine. You want to get two cold beers and a bag of chips as quickly as possible and get back to your seat. There is no better way to do that, and that’s what we’ve seen over the first few months.

There’s a greater emphasis on mobile ordering of concessions in baseball coming out of the pandemic, but there is still low adoption of about 5% of total transactions, say concessionaires. Where is it headed?
You’re going to have this collision of old school and new school, and it’s going to play itself out whether we like it or not. We need to be in position to accommodate both aspects and figure out where the overlap lies. Vending in the seats is coming back into our parks over the course of the summer. The challenge there is how do you do that operationally in a cashless environment. This is an institutional practice that for 100 years relied on cash and now you have hawkers trying to deliver the product with a (mobile device). We’ve got to position ourselves to be able to collide those two delivery methods and still offer something for everyone.

You’ll see us test this a lot of different ways until we figure out what makes the most sense, such as the integration of mobile and hawking where you order on a device and the vendor is directed to you with no handling of cash. Or, point at QR codes (tied) to your seat number (and a runner) delivers that item to you We’ve accelerated five years of change into one year. We’ve got to figure out what’s best for the fan.

What are you doing to help grow retail in-venue and what are the trends these days?
Over the first two months of baseball season, retail continues to perform exceptionally well. Per caps are up in some venues almost twice as much over 2019. That’s a function of a lot of things, but principally, it’s pent-up demand in our retail channels. People are yearning for that shopping experience when they’re back at the ballparks and be able to buy merchandise they haven’t been able to purchase in (almost) two years.

That will inevitably subside a little bit as we go further into the season. So far, the retail side of the business has well exceeded expectations and we hope that trend continues. The innovation part probably isn’t as high as the food and culinary side, but we’re still trying to be as creative as possible in our team stores, making sure we have the right product with the right design, the right skews, the right service offering.

Labor remains a struggle for concessionaires. What’s the answer beyond paying higher wages, which does not appear to be working well across many industries?
There are some positions that no matter what wage you pay, you’re going to struggle to fill — it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of the economic impact. There’s no magic bullet; we are experiencing this across all parts of our business. It requires us to be a little more agile, more scrappy and disciplined and more creative. We’re doing everything: bonuses, pay raises, career fairs, all the traditional stuff you can think of. We’re busing people from certain venues to other venues to get them there for game day. We’ll go to all lengths to make sure we get the right coverage here.

This is temporary, though. Equilibrium in the labor market will find its place, and hopefully by the fall, we’ll be in better position for supply and demand. We’ve got the vaccine, there will be resumption of school (in person), which will alleviate the childcare concerns, along with expiration of unemployment bonus amounts. There’s a lot of things that would say we’re going to find that balance and that’s my hope.

Sports betting is spreading across sports venues, and it’s a natural for Delaware North considering its casino business. Where do you see that piece of business headed in terms of brick and mortar destinations?
The path that sports betting is going on is accelerating by the day. There’s a brick-and-mortar component to it but also, more importantly, a digital and mobile component. Where we can play a role is we have in-house expertise on both channels. What we try to do is connect the dots for our clients, venues and partners and help educate and work through every opportunity they have. It runs the gamut from in-venue sportsbook to the digital approach or to just better understand the fan engagement piece. It’s all about how to marry our casino and digital gaming thought leaders and put that together with our concessions experts for our clients. We’ve done that on a handful of occasions and need to do more of it as sports betting becomes more prevalent.