July 13

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Lessons from Leaders – Nick Sautner

Katie Rudy

July 13, 2021

customer experience, Eden Park, employee experience, fan engagement, fan experience, innovation, leadership, sports business, Staydium Glamping

Our guest this week was Nick Sautner, CEO of Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand.  A worldwide leader in sports and entertainment, Eden Park was the first venue to host a sporting event at full capacity and a concert since the pandemic.  More than 46,000 fans packed the stands for the All Blacks rugby match 6 days after lockdown ended in October of 2020.  Eden Park also hosted its first concert on April 24, drawing 50K+ for New Zealand native Six60.

Initially, we reached out to Nick for more insights on the award-winning fan experiences at Eden Park, but we walked away from the conversation inspired by this mindset: 

“People describe stadiums as cathedrals of the 21st century, but I think of them more like town halls.  They should be somewhere that local residents can use and engage with all year round, not huge spaces that are locked down after a match day.”

Here are three key takeaways to transforming your culture and operation to monetize your venue.

Make Your Next Door Neighbors Your Biggest Supporters

Converting the stadium into a “town hall” started with walking out the stadium gates and appealing to its neighbors.

One asset of Eden Park is its location within a residential neighborhood.  There are plenty of arguments against this being an ideal setup – noise and light ordinances and challenging traffic patterns.  However, the leadership at Eden Park saw it as an opportunity to foster relationships with those that would advocate for Eden Park.  They formed a support group of neighbors called “The Hood.”  Just as passionate as a soccer supporter group, 1,400 locals signed up within a 24-hour period.  

“It demonstrated that people living in the community directly around the stadium were actually advocates of the park. They wanted to engage. They wanted their children to experience the park.  Their kids ride their bikes on weekends in the car park. They learn how to do various life-changing moments in our state. So ‘The Hood’ was central to that strategy.”

Providing The Hood a platform to share how they wanted to use the park resulted in food truck nights, dog-walking groups, a garden run by refugees that provides produce for local businesses and cafes and the kitchen space for “The Cookie Project” to operate.  

Taking those partnerships a step further: Could those same food trucks be incorporated to your pregame tailgate / street festival on game days?  Is there a group rate you could offer the dog-walking groups or those tending the garden to attend a game together?  Would community groups like “The Cookie Project” volunteer to staff concession stands on game day? 

The benefits of The Hood are two-fold: 

  1. Rather than marketing and sales teams sitting in a room and guessing what events would appeal to the community, The Hood gave them the framework for new events that Eden Park could build upon.
  2. Hosting new events like concerts, which are financial drivers, require consent from the local community.  Eden Park received a 97% consent from the local neighborhoods, schools and businesses for its concert application in January.

Bringing a $2 Billion Blank Canvas to Life

Moving from an event operations mindset to business operations mindset challenged the Eden Park staff to re-evaluate their stadium as a blank canvas – a $2 billion blank canvas that was drastically under-utilized. They set out to fill it with experiences that were “instagram” worthy.  

Guests can spend the night in Staydium Glamping domes or see the sights of Auckland from the Sky Sport Roof Top Tours and Ziplining.  

Creating that entrepreneurial spirit in the organization resonates from the “Idea Factory,” an area of the stadium carved out for bringing all key stakeholders together to discuss concept, design, execution and partnership involvement.  As a result, you get events like the G9 9-hole golf experience.  

When was the last time you created an “instagrammable” experience for your staff?  What skill sets and background could your team bring to new events in your venue?  We’ve seen several venues partner with TopGolf for hitting experiences, but does your turf team have anyone with a background in golf course design that would be excited about creating sand pits and bunker holes?  

Often the challenge with adding new events is an increased workload on staff that already puts in a lot of hours.  However, if they are invested in the event, your staff might embrace it.

“It’s pretty much between 5 and 10 days of 12-hour days and I’ve never had a staff member complain working at G9 because it’s just such a unique event.”

Treat Customer Service Training Like a Coaching Game Plan

To bring the full event experience together, customer service has always been at the forefront.  Nick became CEO four years ago and within his first 100 days, the organization established a new mission, vision and game plan for Eden Park.  The game plan included seven values and behaviors that all full-time and part-time staff deliver to their customers and fans, from customer service, attention to detail, commercialization through innovation and surprise and delight.  

“As someone who played professional football in Australia, I equate it to the example of players running out on the field.  A coach isn’t going to give 15 or 50 messages.  They give a limited number of messages for a player to absorb and then implement the game.”

The seven-value game plan is a consistent part of the communication internally at Eden Park – relayed to all staff every pre-event meeting, posted in two languages throughout staff corridors and reinforced through Leader Walks that all senior leaders, including Nick, take on event days.  

How are you approaching your return to events training with staff?  Do you have concise safety and service standards that you want every staff member to know and execute?  Can someone working one game deliver the customer service you envision for your fans?  

For our full conversation with Nick Sautner, click here.

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