The Big Time

Few sporting events combine the exhilaration of the game with exclusivity and camaraderie—where the motivation to get there matches the thrill of arrival. Welcome to the Super Bowl.

When it comes to special events, not much is bigger, tougher to score a great ticket to, and affords more bragging rights than a trip to the Super Bowl. The word "motivating" doesn't quite cut it -- this is an event for the history books and, for a few lucky Verizon employees, the scrapbooks.

Martina Nessen, manager, training and development, national business sales support for Verizon, knew that she wanted to offer the Super Bowl as an incentive to her group.

Nessen's team did extensive surveying of their employees to determine what types of incentives would be most motivational. "We asked, 'What would motivate you?' with no limit. They specifically wrote, 'Can we go to the Super Bowl?' not thinking in a million years we could make that happen," says Nessen.They could and did. A trip to Super Bowl XLII in Phoenix in 2008, to see the New York Giants face off against the New England Patriots, was awarded to those who successfully met goals during a three-month spurt.

Make It Happen

Nessen enlisted Ety Rybak, chief operating officer of New York City-based Inside Sports & Entertainment Group, to help pull everything together."

At first, we were expecting about 10 [winners], but it worked so well that we ended up with more than expected. I called Ety and said, 'I want to get more people to go, and I need to know Monday; can you do that?' He got everything locked down over the weekend and we announced it on Monday," says Nessen. Her group ended up sending one set of attendees with a guest and another set without a guest, in order to get as many employees there as possible. All told, about 50 people attended the game and related events in the days leading up to the Super Bowl.

Working with Rybak was "like going to McDonald's: Do you want fries with that? Everything I came up with he added extras on to. He added the NFL Experience -- I wouldn't have even known about that," Nessen says.

Nessen admits that had she planned the event alone, her less comprehensive knowledge of the football world would have made for a different trip. "The hotel [Rybak] had us in was the place to be. Everyone who was anyone in football was there," says Nessen of the group's experience at the Arizona Biltmore.

The choice of location went over well with guests. "What stood out the most was the opportunity to meet the athletes in the hotel. The whole Dallas Cowboys team was there and my husband got to meet and talk with [Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones. Joe Montana apparently was there. We sat out back with Neil O'Donnell [who played in Super Bowl XXX] and his family for awhile," says Rachel Graff, Verizon field sales manager for Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois, who is based outside Indianapolis. "There were so many different people that I didn't expect to see. You see them on television, but it's just so different to see them as real people, out with their families."

Rybak's expertise with the sports market proved helpful in other ways as well. He coordinated a dinner for the group the Friday before the Super Bowl and brought in Sean Landeta, a punter who won two Super Bowl rings with the New York Giants, to sign autographs and chat with attendees. Golfer John Daly also joined the attendees at dinner, who Graff describes as "hilarious."

Rybak notes that it can be helpful to work with a company that knows the personalities of various athletes and can help select not just a big name, but someone who will mingle, pose for photographs, and not make a fool of himself by, say, ordering a Coors Light at a Budweiser event or coming to your event as his third one of the evening, having had one too many cocktails.

"Talk to someone who knows this industry," advises Rybak. "We can tell you, 'This guy's great at speaking, but not at mingling,' or 'This person gets a big fee to come, then doesn't want to talk to anyone.'"

Staying Power

Rybak says that events like the Super Bowl have prestige because the level of attendance will never go down. "The average price points will go up and down with the economy, but the best of the best will always be there," he says. Iconic events remain iconic events.He adds that a benefit for organizations booking big-ticket events like the Super Bowl is that event organizers continue to try to outdo themselves, incorporating tremendous talent for halftime shows, for example. This takes a bit of the onus off of planners, who are handed a complete entertainment package on one ticket.

Nessen says she would "absolutely" consider doing the Super Bowl again, but will likely wait a couple of years so it remains a particularly special event.Following the success of the Super Bowl event, Nessen enlisted Inside Sports to coordinate an incentive trip to the 2008 NCAA Final Four, which was also a big hit with employees. Roughly 30 attendees traveled to San Antonio for the basketball games as well as dinners, receptions, and events on the River Walk.

Inside Sports specializes in the Super Bowl, the Masters, the NCAA Final Four, the Kentucky Derby, and U.S. Open Tennis, but is also coordinating events for the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, as well as non-sports events such as the Sundance Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, Emmys, Grammys, and even American Idol."

Know Your Audience

Sports works for us," says Nessen. "I think the key is that you need to know your audience. Everyone is motivated by something different, so understand what drives them and what motivates them."

"The opportunity to go to the Super Bowl was a motivator, but it was even more motivating that I got to bring a guest," notes Graff. Not only because it's more enjoyable to travel with a guest, but because her husband is also a huge football fan."

Sometimes you're lucky enough that a [winner] is a fan of a particular team or sees something amazing and that will stay with him forever. And you see people come in on Thursday; they know each other a little but they're pretty formal, and by the time we see them off to the airport they're great friends," says Rybak.

But even for those with a passing interest in sports, or for fans whose teams aren't playing that day, like Graff, these trips can be tremendous motivational tools. "We aren't Patriots or Giants fans by any stretch of the imagination, but you get caught up in the excitement of it all -- you can't help it," she says. Graff, a hard-core Indianapolis Colts fan, and her husband rooted for the Giants (sports rationale: first, they dislike New England because the Patriots are a Colts rival and second, since they couldn't root for Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, they could at least root for his brother, Giants quarterback Eli).

Graff says the trip was a "whirlwind," but that organizers did a good job dividing personal time and time with the group. She should know -- in her 13 years with the company, she has been on 19 incentive trips. "This was a good one," she says.

She adds, "Those big one-hit-wonder trips that only happen once in a blue moon, like the Super Bowl and the Grammys, those are great. Even if you don't like that particular trip -- just the opportunity to say, 'Oh yeah, I've been there,' makes it worthwhile."

Although trips like these are certainly expensive, attendees and organizers alike say they are valuable. In the face of the recession, Nessen says, "We have cut back a little bit, but it's still a healthy budget. Corporate-wide, incentives are understood to be important."For more ideas, tips, and tools for better meetings and events.

Originally published Oct. 1, 2009