I have the opportunity to participate in about 15-20 conferences a year, in addition to hosting my own annual event. It’s pretty hard to get one hundred people to an event. It’s even harder to get 100 quality attendees in your target audience group to come and stay a day or two. But to get one thousand people in your target audience to do that year in and year out is a pretty unbelievable feat.
Christine Stoffel, founder of Sports Entertainment Alliance with Technology (SEAT), has found a way to attract C-level executives from the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLS and Major League Baseball to attend and fully participate in her annual conferences. Below she shares how she’s built a conference that attracts this kind of loyal following from a who’s who list of global sports executives, and lessons you can put to use to do the same in your industry. (This transcript has been edited for publication. To hear audio of the full interview, click on the audio player at the end of this article.)
* * * * *
Small Business Trends: Can you tell us a little bit about your personal background?
Christine Stoffel: I’ve been in technology for about 28 years. About nine years ago, I decided to make a change and went into sports entertainment. Prior to that, I was vice president and CIO for two professional sports teams, the Arizona Coyotes as well as the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Major League Baseball team.
Small Business Trends: Can you tell us about SEAT?
Christine Stoffel: SEAT started very simply. When I was with the Arizona Coyotes about nine years ago, I was new into sports, so I simply started reaching out to some of my peers, some of the vice presidents, directors and CIOs of sport teams, and just started talking with them and asking a bunch of questions. Things like, how many staff members report to them, what kind of technologies are they exploring? Just all kinds of questions, and I started to build a spreadsheet of what was going on in the industry.
Then they would reach back to me and say. ‘Hey, if you’re gathering information, can you share that with me?’ So I started sharing. Eventually, over a course of a couple of months, I’d get on the phone with some of these individuals and talk, collaborate a bit more and then eventually invited them to come to Scottsdale, Arizona, and join me in kind of a roundtable.
So I put together a day and a half of sessions and leveraged some of my partners at the Coyotes from a technology perspective, Microsoft and Dell and some others, and we put on a very intimate discussion-oriented event. It was my first time, so to be really honest, I didn’t know what I was doing. I just wanted to talk with my peers. I had 23 teams come to Arizona and join me in a collaborative roundtable discussion about the issues. Fast forward eight years later when we just had our 8th Annual Team Conference and Event in Miami, Florida. We had almost 1,000 individuals join us from all over the world.
Small Business Trends: Vendors would love to get in front of a group like this, but you make sure SEAT is not going to expose them to folks who are not adding to the group collective. How important was it for you to do that, to put that in place, even if it costs signing up some really lucrative sponsorship opportunities?
Christine Stoffel: One of the policies we stay absolutely true to is no vendor or sponsors can ever be up on stage by themselves. We stay true to the idea that this is a peer-driven event. If there’s a case study presentation a sponsor wants to make that’s fine, but they must have a customer, a sports representative, an entertainment venue or a college representative up on stage with them and to a co-present. And the way I get this across to vendors and potential sponsors is, if they’re selling to their peers, they’re talking to their peers, it’s going to help generate business for the sponsor in a roundabout way. Because peers sharing success stories is what drives business and it works.
You can only attend SEAT as a sponsor because that demonstrates your diligence in adding value to the industry and adding value to the event itself; you’re going to come as a subject matter expert. Again, one of the other policies that we have that we stay absolutely true to is, when a sponsor is on a panel session or during a co-presentation with a team, there can be no selling. It is not a selling point.
There are potential sponsors and vendors that do not agree with it. They want to be up on stage by themselves, and that’s okay. There are lots of conferences for them, but SEAT just is not done that way.
Small Business Trends: Anytime you can get 1,000 people to anything, I think that’s great. But you didn’t just get 1,000 stragglers. You got executives from NBA teams, NFL teams, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer. You had the Premier League guys coming over from Real Madrid. How were you able to get that level of people to attend this event not just once, but over and over again?
Christine Stoffel: SEAT is a relationship event. This is a peer-driven event. These are friends sharing amongst friends in the worldwide industry of sports entertainment. So when I’m building the steering committee, I’m reaching out to my peers in the industry and saying, ‘Hey, would you like to be on the CRM steering committee, the CIO steering committee? You’re going to help build the agenda.’ And it’s those individuals, the CIOs, CMOs, COOs, CRM and digital marketing leaders of the industry that want to be on the steering committees. They want to put together agendas/topics that are important to them and their peers.
What I found is sports execs from all over the world are willing to share their case studies and success stories they’ve developed with their technology partners. And that’s what SEAT has become; intimate discussions with peers and friends across the industry.
Small Business Trends: You’ll have about 1,000 people at the conference again in 2015. Amazingly, you’re setting up individual conversation times with each of them before the conference. Why? And how does that impact the relationship you have with them?
Christine Stoffel: This is something that’s true to my heart about building those intimate relationships with peers across the industry; setting up 30/45 minutes, or sometimes an hour call with every single person that’s on my steering committee, as well as anyone registered to attend SEAT, and anyone that’s expressed interest in attending SEAT and has attended in the past. I’m asking them for 30 minutes, just getting to know them even better than I know them before.
If I haven’t known them yet, I ask a myriad of questions to get to know them because this truly is going to be the foundation for creating our agenda at SEAT. If they have a specific challenge and I know there’s a peer of theirs in the industry that’s been there and can maybe provide some valuable conversations for them, I’ll suggest that and will connect the two.
I’m helping them build relationships with their peers before they even get to SEAT, because that’s what SEAT’s about.
Small Business Trends: Where could people learn more about what you do at SEAT?
Christine Stoffel: They can go to SeatConsortium.com. We’ve a lot of information out there.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.