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Take Everyone Out to the Ballgame

By Selena Fragassi


Nationals Park wasted no time in hosting a lavish event right after it opened in 2008. The stadium, normally home to the Washington Nationals Major League Baseball team, welcomed former Pope Benedict XVI for a well-publicized Papal Mass just two weeks later.

“It was an auspicious beginning and an extraordinary event to host when we were so new,” says Catherine Silver, vice president of ballpark enterprises and guest experiences who now estimates the ballpark hosts around 600 events per year. “We literally had 40,000 people take communion at the concession stands, which was pretty amazing.”

It was a similar experience at the University of Utah Football Stadium when it was home to the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.  “Hosting the ceremonies actually allowed us to expand and offer our current reception areas,” says Melissa Van Hien, client services manager, who notes that many private functions today still like to play off the Olympic theme. “It gave us the opportunity to start investing in more events with the funding to build [spaces] and bring in necessary equipment.”

Today that means filling up the stadium with large groups for prominent public events like U2’s 360 Tour or welcoming smaller corporate holiday parties in a variety of private skyboxes. In these and many more examples, what planners have come to realize is that arenas are in fact winsome places to host events of all sizes thanks to a variety of spaces, special services and oh yeah, stadium seating.

Welcoming Visiting Teams

“We always like to say to the planner, ‘Take a look at [the park] like a blank canvas, and we’ll make it work,” says Ann Elder, director of PNC Park Events, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Of course the grass and the seats are fixed but just about everything else can be re-orchestrated she says, pointing to the example of a recent triple Bar Mitzvah that she counts as one of the most unique uses of the stadium. “We had field presentations and fireworks. There was a private concert with a national act, and we redesigned the entire club level and hallways leading to that area with the theme of the event.”

Here too corporate events have their choice, such as a game day gathering in one of two spaces that hold 10 to 2,000 people; after, groups can disperse into skyboxes or rows of seats to become spectators. Or there’s the option for a non-game day events where you can rent anything “from a small private room to the whole ballpark,” she says. “One client had a special anniversary celebration that utilized the whole venue from scavenger hunts to carnival games on the field and even a band performing on top of the dugout.” Elder says PNC Park can go formal too with several galas under their belts, including tents in center field with plated dinners.

There’s good reason to consider hosting an event at a stadium, says Chase Leonard, business development manager of FedExField in Landover, Maryland.

“Feeling connected to so many historic moments and figures is a rare opportunity, and one that can have a special effect on guests,” he says. “Just like on game days, it’s the kind of environment that has the ability to inspire and motivate attendees.”

At this stadium, home to the Washington Redskins football franchise, the smallest venue is the Owner’s Club West Box (for 60 seated, 175 standing) while mid-tier spaces include the Bud Light Pavilion and Hall of Fame Plaza (each allowing 300-plus seated, 3,000 standing) or the full stadium, which can accommodate 85,000.

“We book events with clientele spanning the automotive, construction, hospitality, technology, wealth management and music industries, among others,” says Leonard, noting the Adams Burch Tradeshow and the Lexus Ride and Drive have both optioned multi-day events over the years. There’s also a large Diwali Mela Hindu festival that draws thousands each fall as well as the regular family party and wedding to round out the park’s diverse portfolio. “We can literally bring any event to fruition,” Leonard says.

Weddings are a popular choice for the University of Utah Football Stadium as well. The marketing and licensing department offers the Ultimate Utah Wedding giveaway every year providing a free-of-charge ceremony and reception to a random fan.

“It’s a place that brides and grooms don’t normally have access to, which makes their day even more unique and special,” says Van Hien. Plus, she adds there’s the other ways the 45,000-capacity venue looks completely different from a sporting arena. “We have two large reception rooms that accommodate 350 people at table rounds; each has floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the Salt Lake Valley and mountains, so it’s really very elegant.”

A Different Vantage Point

It probably comes as another shock when planners see how the floor of the Tsongas Center in Lowell, Massachusetts can transform before their very eyes. Normally the home of the UMass Lowell hockey team, there’s no one who will be skating on thin ice at group functions here. “We have a floor we can easily put down over the ice and then even assemble a stage and chairs over it,” affirms David Aiello, assistant general manger and director of marketing. And the best part? “We only need really two days notice” to fit someone in, he says, which has happened before with assemblies that needed an indoor spot last-minute due to inclement weather.

The facility itself can host 6,500 people in the stadium seats while smaller groups are welcome to a number of suites and/or the Talent Club or Pavilion areas, which function as both restaurant and bar areas with space for 120-200 people. Another unique feature for this ice rink is the extra area out back, called “the backyard,” that Aiello says is often used for block parties or even weddings.

Nationals Park is another that prides itself on getting creative with its indoor/outdoor capabilities, including a dedicated conference center and other concourse and on-field excursions for 40 to 40,000 guests. “We host a massive sales meeting for 2,000 people every year; the employees sit in the stadium’s seats and the company uses our video board to broadcast their presentation. After, they break out into groups and use every space in the building,” says Silver, adding, “It’s the company’s highest-attended meeting because it is such an unusual place to go off-site.” During the meeting, the team’s promotional pack will throw T-shirts into the crowd and send out the mascot to make it feel like an actual game. “People love the mascot,” she laughs. “You wouldn’t believe how many pictures get taken with him.”

The Souvenirs

Guests also love their favorite players, which is an added perk you can find at FedExField. “We can coordinate alumni and/or cheerleader appearances, autographed items by high-profile players, exclusive backstage tours and souvenir gift bags,” says Leonard. “We do our best to help planners leave a great impression on their guests.”

At Nationals Park, baseball great Frank Howard has often come to events to sign autographs, just one of the alumni available. “We do have some players that live locally and we have been able to acquire them for paid appearances at events,” says Silver. “It’s rare but there are also times that the team is in town and has a day off, and we can pursue this opportunity with planners.”

If attendees want to actually feel like a player, they can do so with added programs at PNC Park. “We offer team activities like group softball or baseball games or batting practice,” says Elder. There’s also the capability for ballpark tours for a behind-the-scenes look at the press box, clubhouse and dugouts.

Vendors and Extra Services

Not everything models the ballpark though—take the food. After all, not every function is suitable for hot dogs and popcorn. No problem, says Silver. “We work with Levy Restaurants who has a separate catering arm for non-game day events. For example, we just held a government event with five-star gourmet dining. Levy is able to meet with planners and design custom menus. They can even bring in a sommelier if you want one!”

PNC Park also works exclusively with the Levy Restaurant Group as well as Aramark. “They put together a different menu than what is used at the games so you can have anything from plated meals to hors d'oeuvres and food stations,” says Elder.

Another service that may not be expected at a major stadium is high-tech A/V. “Most of our larger spaces have been redesigned with in-house screen projectors, ceiling projectors, drop-down screens, podiums and microphones already installed,” says Elder. “If a client needs something in addition to that—for example, if they need multiple wireless microphones or headsets—we will work through a vendor to gather that equipment.”

At FedExField, Leonard mentions 30’ x 100’ high-def LED video boards that can be customized with welcome messages and company logos; additional monitors can be branded throughout the stadium, too. “We also recently installed 8,000 NRG solar panels which power the stadium on non-game days,” he says, which help enhance the experiences and allows the park to remain sustainable.

An in-house A/V manager comes with rentals at Tsongas Center and there are onsite crews to handle staging, rigging, sound and lights. Another benefit, says Aiello, is that “we do all the marketing, booking and promoting in-house as well as ticket sales.”

The Change Ups

So, with all the advantages, you might wonder, what are some of the challenges of booking a meeting or event at a stadium. Scheduling is one. While venues like the Tsongas Center can book weeks out or the University of Utah Football Stadium that plans six months ahead, others need more flexibility.

“Our schedule doesn’t come out until the end of September or October, and we can’t guarantee any dates until that schedule is released for obvious reasons,” says Elder of PNC Park’s process for non-game day functions. “But once we do know the blackout dates, we can plan up to a week before the event.”

It’s a similar waiting game at Nationals Park. “During game season, we are typically available two full weeks a month during our two home stands, and then from November until March, the park is wide open,” says Silver. “But once we get the schedule, I will say it fills up very quickly. We work with a lot of planners who know us and our capabilities and they are waiting for us to basically get back to them.”

The other dilemma can sometimes be the weather. Since many of the arenas and stadiums are sans domes, inclement conditions have to always be part of the thought process.

“You have to have a contingency plan,” says Elder. “We’re working with a client right now who is looking to do a dinner on the warmup track in September, and her plan is within three days out—if the weather looks like it’s not going to agree with us—then we need to make a decision to tent the field and have that pricing and everything ready to go.” Other options might include moving the event to the concourse or other covered area in a last-minute situation. “It’s really a case-by-case situation.”

Van Hien works another way at the University of Utah Football Stadium. “Backup dates!” Although her biggest nightmare in recent memory had less to do with weather than with a banged-up rock star. “When we had the U2 tour a couple of years ago, it was scheduled to open at our venue, but when Bono was rehearsing, he broke his back right as we were in the process of setting up the stage,” she recalls. “The band had to postpone the tour, and we had to take the whole setup down and then find another date where we could do it all over again. We were able to tag on to the end of the tour to make it up,” she adds, pausing slightly. “But sometimes that’s just the name of the game.”

Get Connected

(301) 276.6711

Nationals Park
(202) 640.7368

PNC Park
(412) 325.4746

Tsongas Center
(978) 934.6657

University of Utah Football Stadium
(801) 587.2980