Ep. 13: Improving The Stadium Concession Experience with Chris Bigelow
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Chris Bigelow, Founder at The Bigelow Companies, joins Rob Cressy to talk about what can be done to improve the stadium concessions experience. Does fan friendly pricing make sense for teams? Why is all inclusive pricing a potentially good option? What can be done to improve the concession ordering experience and why is Wifi connectivity such a big deal? Why do some stadiums have good condiments tables and others don’t?
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Rob Cressy: (00:04)
Welcome to the Gameday Playbook presented by FanFood, a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate game day more efficiently. I'm your host Rob Cressy and joining me today is Chris Bigelow, founder of the Bigelow Companies. Chris, super excited to have you on the show.
Chris Bigelow: (00:29)
Thank you. Glad to be here.
Rob Cressy: (00:32)
Can you give a quick overview on who you are and what you do?
Chris Bigelow: (00:35)
Sure. I'm, as you said, founder and president of the Bigelow Companies. We provide food and beverage consulting to sports and entertainment venues, primarily in North America. But we've done work across the globe and we've been doing it for about 40 years now in one form or another.
Rob Cressy: (00:57)
What do you see right now as the big challenges in concessions?
Chris Bigelow: (01:05)
Certainly what everybody talks about and everybody sees in the news and all that is this fan-friendly pricing. We're seeing a lot of clients that are looking at concessions as maybe, unlike the old days where it was strictly a revenue producer, to say maybe we can leverage the food and beverage experience and make less money but enhance the event. And hopefully at the end that means more people are going to buy tickets to the event.
Rob Cressy: (01:40)
So that seems like the no brainer of the century doesn't it? Because so often it is the brands who don't invest in the longterm relationship that say, listen, I just want to get your money. You can come here and if you ever come back again, whatever. But really it's the way that marketing has evolved because everything has become commoditized. Because right now sporting events aren't just fighting for our attention with other sports. There's a million other things that people are doing from video games to eating out to entertainment. And for me, the way that I see the industry comes down to attention: are you going to deliver a product that is good enough for me to go there? So if you can give me some fan-friendly pricing and on top of that, there's also a game that I would enjoy seeing. Now we've got a successful formula.
Chris Bigelow: (02:30)
I can't say I agree with you 100%. I mean it's, it's an interesting concept and so far people have been very happy with it, but there's not a lot of data showing that it really moves the needle as far as selling tickets. The one thing, and that's of course what everybody says, well we can't control that. But the play on the field is certainly a bigger determinator whether people going to come to an event or not. And you can have the nicest facilities and cheapest food and friendly help and all that. But unfortunately, if it's a team that nobody wants to see, they're not knocking down the doors to get in there. So you still have that little item hanging out there.
Rob Cressy: (03:17)
Right. And I think with something like this, you can't look at just, is this selling more tickets because it goes into an overall experience. And I think a great example of this is on the podcast we had Jesse Cole, the owner of the Savannah Bananas, a minor league baseball team in Savannah, Georgia. And they are all about the entertainment and fan side of things where the game itself is secondary because you can't control the success of the team. It's going to come and go and obviously we would love to see winners and as a sports fan myself, of course I know when my teams are good, I'm more interested and when my teams aren't, they aren't. But there is something to it. Here's a great example. I live in Chicago and Wrigley Field's right up the street for me for so long. People don't even care about the Cubs games before they won the World Series because Wrigley was an experience. So if you can say, let's use the fan-friendly pricing as an element to the experience. Then you look at the marketing department and they say, man, we've seen an uptick in social engagement because more people are having fun at the games and really using it as a way to build the brand and be less reliant on this is just going to sell more tickets. Even though I do know at the end of the day people and brands are looking to make more money.
Chris Bigelow: (04:36)
Well, but to be the devil's advocate, they did that at Wrigley and you're absolutely right. No one was going there for the baseball and I don't think anybody was going there for the facility either. I was pretty marginal at best, but it was an event and everybody went there and it was not a cheap priced ticket either or concession. So to me that helps kind of say there are times when there are events or circumstances that the concessions aren't really the driving force one way or the other. Again, I understand it and I understand why people want to do it. I certainly understand if you're in the NFL, like Atlanta and you're making whatever they make 26 million from network television, that the revenue they're making inside that stadium is pretty minuscule. But most NFL teams still want that revenue inside the stadium.
Rob Cressy: (05:34)
All right, so let's pull a different lever then. So instead of it being fan-friendly pricing, we're going to say, you know what, we're going to make the experience of concessions good. And one of the levers that you can pull for that is what is the opportunity of what I get to buy? Is it just going to be hotdogs and nachos and soft pretzels or are we to do something and bring in local food vendors? So now when you come to the stadium, even though you're going to be paying regular pricing, now we're going to give you a premium experience with the food that you can purchase.
Chris Bigelow: (06:07)
Definitely, definitely. Well there I think we agree. So, you know, the trend and the interest now is to have local vendors, whether it's subcontractors or in some cases people think they're local vendors, but it's just something other than a hotdog — although hotdogs still sell more than anything else. And a good hotdog, especially, you know, this from Chicago, a good hotdog is tough to beat. But yeah, the variety. The other thing too is just points of sale. Again, college, it's really tough. You got a football stadium that may hold a hundred thousand people, but it's only used six times a year. So to make the economic investment to say I need so many points of sale so the lines aren't long and all that. Yes, it helps customer service. But a lot of schools wrestle with where I should be spending my money. So, I mean there's a lot of things that go into it, but I think you're seeing across the board the use of food trucks or portable carts, you know, local restaurants. I think everybody is in agreement that that makes a lot of sense and the fans do appreciate it.
Rob Cressy: (07:28)
All right, so then let's keep this thing going and talk about the ordering process, whether from a concession stand or from a vendor and what can be improved for that experience and certainly with FanFood presenting this podcast, they're tackling mobile food ordering within stadiums and it's something that any fan who's gotten up, you have to say like you go to an NFL game, are you willing to leave your seats five minutes early before halftime because you know, am I going to be able to make it to the bathroom and grab a beer and a hotdog before the line is an hour long? That's sort of an inevitability with the experience that we've always had as sports fans. But then you look at the way that regular life has evolved when we've got Doordash and Grubhub and Uber and Lyft where we can have anything on demand whenever we want. Yet somehow the stadiums haven't evolved as quickly with that. So what are your thoughts on what can be done to improve this experience?
Chris Bigelow: (08:32)
That's probably the biggest challenge that all concessionaires are looking at is, you know, in the term everybody wants frictionless that the customer where they order it on their phone or they have self-serve kiosks in the concourse. The interesting thing is most of the experiments add another problem with stadiums, that's wifi connectivity is pretty bad and a lot of them. And therefore people, even when the systems there, they'll say, well, I could never place my order because I couldn't cut that. So all those things have to go together that team owners, and particularly again, I think in the universities where the kids that are at those games obviously do everything on their phone. So they're used to it, but either it's because the app couldn't connect or we found a lot of people want to get up out of their seats and go order.
Chris Bigelow: (09:37)
So we're still looking for that magic pill of the, not only the app that works, which there's several of 'em out there, but also getting the customer to use it. And that's been a big challenge in a lot of operations. I mean the 49ers were the first ones to have the whole stadium have the ability to order on your phone. And I don't know any recent numbers, but I know the first few years there were only getting about 5% or 6% people actually using that. So then you gotta say, okay, what's going on here? Part of it is I don't think anybody wants to eat in their seat, I mean, it's not a comfortable place to sit to begin with, let alone eat food.
Rob Cressy: (10:23)
So I would do that. The answer to this on my end would just go to the adoption curve of anything. So San Francisco can say we're completely wifi enabled. You can order anywhere. The problem is when you traditionally go to stadium that is not part of your regular everyday life. And I can even think about the relationship that I had versus my wife had with starting to use Uber. So Uber, I'm a very trusting person. I was like, Oh, this makes my life better. Boom, I signed up immediately. But for her, she's like, I don't know who these people are. I don't trust this. And even though I'd used it for months and months and months, she wasn't in the flow of it. So if I think about the sports fan experience, if my entire life I've gone to an arena and at no point am I ever ordered mobily, just the simple adoption curve is going to say there'll be the innovators and the early adopters and then everyone. And this is something that I think really you nailed it is going to come down to wifi in general because if we're going to be on our phones more in currently we have a hard time connecting to social media or anything on the phone, the little light bulb isn't going to go, Oh by the way, do you know that you can order concessions from here?
Rob Cressy: (11:42)
So it's a very like the point of sale thing that you said we need to have the awareness of if we have better wifi connectivity, that's going to allow us to market our ability to do mobile food ordering to people. And then naturally you're just going to start seeing more and more people because then the person next to you orders on their phone and it gets delivered to them, or they just go and pick it up in their back and you're going to go, wait a second, how did that guy get his food in a minute when it took me 30 minutes? And I believe that sort of how the adoption curve will happen.
Chris Bigelow: (12:12)
I think you're absolutely right. Absolutely right. I mean, if we all know it's coming, but we've been saying that for a long time, but, but certainly as it gets better, as service gets better, I think you will see, see more and more of it.
Rob Cressy: (12:29)
So I want to bring up a unique sort of a micro moment of concession. So I was talking to a friend of mine who recently with his son, traveled to every single MLB stadium this summer. They did a road trip across America going to every single stadium. And like you said, he loves hot dogs just like we do. So naturally what ended up happening was he started to rate the, I guess what I'll call it, the side table or the accoutrements of every single stadium because of easy, if he's eating a hot dog at 30 different MLB stadiums, that's going to be part of his experience. And he ended up talking to me, I'm saying he went to Toronto and it was like a freaking salad buffet. And then he went to Oakland and they barely had ketchup. So I'm curious for you, knowing that this is such a small attention to detail thing, and we'll be talking about fan friendly pricing and what does it do to move the needle? Or really, I'll move this even one degree next of, well, how much does having a good sides table with relish and pickles and stuff add to the bottom line. But I'm curious from your side of things where this becomes top of mind or why it isn't, because it seems like such a simple thing to say, well, we know of someone who has already ordered a hot dog. They're gonna want napkins, ketchup insides. Why would we not just put the smallest amount of effort to at least make this a positive brand experience?
Chris Bigelow: (14:05)
I'm not sure I can answer why, but, but you're right. I mean, the condiment industry, it's a huge thing. You know, there can be, in some cases, there can be health department issues that limit what you can do, but then you go to portion control packs and that type of thing. You're right, it's attention to detail and it's something that if the fan complains to the team, the team then talks to the concessionaire and says, okay, what do we need to do to make this better? Because it definitely, I agree, it adds to the enjoyment of the meal, what they have there. So I can't tell you. Interestingly, and you know, in some cases people will tell me, I went to this stadium and they had the greatest whatever, and I went to this thing, it was terrible and it turns out it was the exact same. You know, sometimes it's not the company, it's just the on-site management team that's not paying attention and trying to do the best they can.
Rob Cressy: (15:11)
Which you would hope that when we're dealing with professional sports at the highest level, with such a high volume of things that you may want to have these things buttoned up given the number of touch points. I mean, for me, the way that I've built my brand, I like to think everything that I do as an opportunity to create a positive brand interaction. And it comes back to branding, marketing, attention to detail and when little things start not being done. So not having the napkins or not having a different types of condiments, well that all of a sudden keeps moving up the food chain all of a sudden to our wifi doesn't work and then this doesn't work in. And I see it almost as a core value or culture thing of the entire organization.
Chris Bigelow: (16:01)
I can't argue with that. And again, you get into some, you know, just as far as behind the scenes of what can happen is you get into contractual issues where the team may not control the stadium. So that may be part of the problem that it's got to go through three levels of supervision before anything gets done. I make it can be a lot of thing or it can just be bad management.
Rob Cressy: (16:27)
So I mean there's no real reason here. It'd be the last thing then, and let's talk about the feedback loop or lack thereof.
Chris Bigelow: (16:34)
I want to ask what is favorite ballpark was?
Rob Cressy: (16:39)
So it was an interesting question because that was the most natural thing you're like, if someone just did all of them, he mentioned that he went to Cleveland and his son got one of those absurd hot dogs and it was like a hot dog with macaroni and cheese, Krispy Kreme donut on it. He said that San Francisco, even though he's from the Bay area, was one of the best. He said that in general, Petco and San Diego was also one of the best and I've actually experienced both of those places. And for me, Petco is one of my favorite stadiums that I've been to and that's actually a great example of a team that is traditionally not good in what they've done to improve the fan experience.
Rob Cressy: (17:23)
Where I think when we were there was there like less than a month ago, we bought a general admission type ticket and they've got this lawn in the back and the stadiums in the front of it and you can see the stadium if you want, or they've got this sort of big screen there which can host bands and there's a lawn and you can bring your dog. And they had good concessionaires. I got this, maybe it was Roy's barbecue or something like that. I really enjoyed the experience and you know what, I probably watched less than one inning of Padres baseball, but I had a great time. I didn't miss anything, so I guess that would be a good example of the group of us. I think we had 10 ended up going to a Padres game. It was 20 bucks a ticket. It was a fun experience.
Chris Bigelow: (18:08)
Right, right. Okay.
Rob Cressy: (18:11)
So lastly would be the feedback loop. What can we as do we as consumers do to help improve this process? So I wish it was as easy as, Hey, you need to have more ketchup or relish or something and someone's going to listen. Cause you even mentioned the number, it could be a management company or the number of different touchpoints there, but what can be improved in this feedback loop? Because I know certainly on the social media side, fans have an opportunity to at least voice their opinion, but what can be done to try and help add change? Because at the end of the day, the team should want to know this.
Chris Bigelow: (18:48)
Yeah, no question about it. On social media, most of the teams, most of the concessionaires are monitoring that. So if there is a problem, they can get to the source and find out what happened. Because you know, if you're feeding 40,000 people, there's going to be some issues. And you know, the other thing too, in the concession, most of the people working at those concessions stands, that's a part-time job and usually a second job. So again, there's gonna be some things that come up. The feedback is important. I mean, if it's critical, get hold of an usher at the stadium right away and say, Hey, you know, somebody spilled something and somebody's going to trip or fall or whatever, but certainly go on the team's website and put in those comments. The one thing they're going to look at, if a lot of people are commenting about the exact same thing and obviously it's important if they know the concessionaire. Some concessionaires have comment cards that they have at the concession stands. Tell us how we're doing. You know, definitely. A lot of times you get a free Coke or something out of it. Definitely fill that out. But, but the feedback is important and there's no question about it.
Rob Cressy: (20:03)
Is there anything that I didn't ask you that you think would be beneficial to the audience around anything we talked about with concessions and fan engagement?
Chris Bigelow: (20:15)
I guess it goes back to a fan-friendly pricing as why are prices so high? I mean the nature of the business is the concessionaire pays a large percentage back to the team or the university or whoever it is for the rights to operate. And so that's the single biggest cost and that's really affected the pricing. So when you get into this fan-friendly pricing, everybody's taking a smaller piece of the pie. The other thing too is inclusive price. We're seeing more and more of those. People love that. I want to pay 35 bucks or 50 bucks, whatever it is to get into the game, see the game and eat all day long and I don't have to reach in my pocket for money. I mean the interesting thing is I was just at a stadium this weekend at one of the busiest clubs, doesn't even have a view of the game and it was packed out. It was hot outside. So people wanted to be inside in air conditioning. There was a bar and a buffet and everything else. But it definitely, people are not sitting in their seats anymore watching the game. So I think everybody is aware that the whole experience has to be around how to keep people entertained other than the game itself.
Rob Cressy: (21:36)
And I think you touched on a very unique thing with the all inclusive pricing because as you said, if there's a bunch of vendors whose job is to make money while their prices aren't going to go down, but all inclusive pricing by definition, that is fan friendly because you get to choose your experience, obviously assuming everything that has delivered to you is of quality and matches that. And to me that sounds like such a better idea because it's like choosing your own adventure. So instead of being like, man, I'm paying $12 for nachos, you're like, Oh, I'll try some of this, try some of this. You're more likely to tell someone about it because you don't see as often.
Chris Bigelow: (22:16)
The first one that I ever saw that really did it well, the St Louis Cardinals used to have sections out in the outfield and they do picnics and that type of thing. You mentioned minor league baseball early on, I mean they are the kings of promotions and everything else because you say their business is definitely entertainment and it isn't baseball. They've tried it, but now you're seeing the predators and in Nashville have two or three different price ranges. So if you want all inclusive experience at this price or that price, some include alcohol, some don't. I mean, it's something we're seeing more and more.
Rob Cressy: (23:00)
Chris, I really enjoyed this conversation and all the insight that you dropped. Where can people connect with you in the Bigelow companies?
Chris Bigelow: (23:07)
Well, I mean, as you know, website probably is the easiest, just www. bigelowcompanies.com.
Rob Cressy: (23:19)
And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. Which stadium has the best food that you've ever had or do you have some ideas for improvement that you would like to see out of concessions? You can hit up FanFood on Twitter at @fanfoodondemand, on Instagram @fanfoodapp or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms at Rob Cressy.