By Emily Herr
Today, we are in a day and age (for better or worse) where we can access news and media outlets instantaneously. In many ways, venue managers have taken advantage of this by offering a wide variety of enhancements for our guests since we have access to them 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Teams and venues send emails, tweets, texts, and push notifications daily to keep our guests involved and informed. From the operational standpoint, the Buffalo Bills remind guests in the days leading up to a game of all the NFL’s best practices including ease of entry, promotions, gate entertainment elements, and the Fan Code of Conduct. We send these constant alerts to engage our fans and to set a standard for our guests before they even begin their commute to the stadium.
We focus on setting high expectations of guest services and the experiences they will have once they do arrive. In sum, we spend countless hours focusing on how to put our venue in a positive light for our guests, the NFL, and to teams/leagues around the world, not only while they are here in our venues, but every day.
But what happens when this instant access to news, media, social media, and viral videos work against you? All of the hard work you’ve put in to build a brand, tarnished by a few bad apples. What steps is your venue taking when something like this happens? Are you being proactive in addressing these issues? Are you acknowledging the issues at all? How can we do better and what are the best practices?
In a venue that had an average of over 200 ejections and more than 20 arrests per game in 2010, we have worked extremely hard to change the fan behavior and ultimately the fan experience at New Era Field. In 2011 we had the least amount of Designated Driver pledges in the NFL, but today we are proud to say we have under 50 ejections per game, we are averaging only one arrest per game, we are fighting for the third-straight Responsibility Bowl title (a TEAM Coalition initiative http://www.fansdontletfansdrivedrunk.org/nfl/responsibility-bowl-iii/), and we are sitting in the top three for most designated driver pledges in the National Football League. However, if you are someone that follows the Buffalo Bills team on Monday morning in the media, you may have no idea the changes we have made and the efforts put in by many to change these rowdy perceptions.
Some of the more notable videos this year that we have been battling include fans jumping on tables, walking, running or jumping through fire, throwing objects on the field, and binge drinking. (It’s never a good feeling as a venue manager thinking your venue could single-handedly provide enough content for Deadspin all year!) And while this may sway some people from coming to a game, or returning back to one, those of us directly involved or those of us that have season tickets know this is far from normal at New Era Field. When asked about these incidents by the media we always keep it professional and say “we are looking into it” and are “making changes to improve the fan experience,” but how many venues have the resources to actually do so? I’m happy to say I work in a venue that does!
Here is how we handle these viral videos at New Era Field:
We start with the relationships. Several years ago we started having weekly meetings with our partners from the state, county, and town including Emergency Medical Personnel, Orchard Park Police, Erie County Sheriff, Erie County Emergency Services, Buffalo Bills Security, NYS Police, Apex Security, CSC Security, NFL representatives, etc. We meet regularly with these groups to ensure that everyone is on the same page and enforcing the same fan code of conduct while still providing a high level of guest services we have preached to our fans.
We are involved in their yearly trainings. Every year these groups have stadium training. Our Vice President of Operations and Guest Experience meets with every County Sheriff that works on game days. He delivers a guest service message and explains our expectations. We also meet with all Apex and CSC security teams to ensure the same message is getting across to all of our security partners. That way if an issue does arise, everyone knows what is expected of them in handling the issue as well as what is tolerated at the stadium vs. what needs to be stopped.
We have developed a plan. A few years back we developed a multi-year plan to enhance the guest experience and remove fans acting inappropriately. First, we started inside the gates – protecting our stadium, our home. We inserted the NFL’s Fan Hotline where guests can call or text issues to an in-house number and the necessary personnel is dispatched to the location to help resolve issues in the bowl or concourses. We have ejected people who were unruly, fighting, or violating the fan code of conduct. Our security teams keep a close eye on those entering the stadium. If they appear to be intoxicated, we do not allow them access to the stadium as we know their condition will only get worse. Buffalo Bills Security has installed security cameras throughout the entire stadium and we have adopted the NFL’s Fan Code of Conduct policy that makes every guest that has been ejected, turned around at the gates, or arrested take a 4-hour online class before returning to the stadium. Our ticket office has had a big hand in helping us instill this by freezing tickets if the offender is a season ticket member.
The second phase of this plan was moving out to our parking lots. In Buffalo, we have over 12,000 parking spaces on our property and several more thousand in surrounding lots. We have placed additional security in all of our parking lots on foot, golf cart, and horse. We know many of these videos that have gained the most attention take place outside of our venue. Since placing additional armed sheriffs and Apex guards in the parking lots, our issues have decreased significantly.
The third phase is making efforts to control the surrounding private lots. We know this is where those image-damaging viral videos are taking place, because there is minimal security and no supervision of the property. While this phase is still in motion, we have started by requiring the residents with private lots to have permits for their space. The next hopeful step is for Sheriff and New York State Troopers to gain access into these lots to observe and be proactive in the lots in addressing fan behavior issues when necessary.
The Plan in action: Fortunately, we have been very successful over the past several years implementing our plan with the help and support of our security partners. One of our viral videos from last year showed a man sliding down the railing from the 300 level and in the end, falling down to the 100 level. Thankfully no one was badly injured, but due to the camera systems and our security partners we were able to find out who the individual was and we were able to take action. We revoked his tickets and banned him from our stadium. This year, one of our viral videos showed two guests throwing an object onto the field. Luckily, the two brothers couldn’t stop bragging about it and because of this, we used social media to track them down, find their website, and reach out to them directly. They too have had their season tickets revoked and are not allowed back into the stadium. Lastly, we had a viral video that involved binge drinking in one of our private parking lots. The Orchard Park Police in conjunction with the Buffalo Police, found this individual realized there was a warrant for his arrest and the necessary action was taken to ensure he will not return to our venue. In working with the law enforcement officials and media partners, we were also able to hold press conferences announcing these reactions to show how serious we are taking inappropriate fan behavior at our games. They are not true representations of our fan base and work directly against the guest experience we have worked so hard to create.
Fortunately, our efforts are not going unnoticed. We have improved our ejection/arrest numbers tremendously over the last five years, we have moved from worst in the league to top three in the NFL in designated driver pledges, and we have improved the overall experience for thousands of our guests. But most importantly, many of the returning season ticket holders have written letters, called, emailed, or thanked us in person for making these improvements. Ticket holders that said they would never bring their children or grandchildren to a Bills game, can comfortably do so again. I’m fortunate enough to work in a venue that takes these behaviors seriously and actually wants to improve our image in the media. With enough time and continued efforts, I believe we can change the mentality of ALL of our fans and end the damaging viral videos.
What actions is your venue taking to make sure your image isn’t tarnished by viral videos?
Emily Herr is coordinator of event services for the Buffalo Bills and currently serves on the IAVM Stadium Committee.