One of the most relaxing ways to spend a warm evening around here is watching an Arkansas Travelers minor league baseball game in Dickey-Stephens ballpark. The Travelers have been in Central Arkansas for a long time, since the early 1900s, making them one of the oldest minor league teams in the country. I’ve never had the opportunity to talk to a baseball team’s General Manager, and I thought it would be interesting to find out what all goes on behind the scenes during a baseball season on the marketing and management side of things. So I shot the Travs’ General Manager, Paul Allen, an email and asked if he would be willing to let me ask him a few questions at the ballpark last week. He told me to meet him at the Travs’ main office which is right inside the Mainstream Technologies Gate, and we visited in the large conference room of the ballpark offices.
Paul Allen started his career with the Arkansas Travelers back in 2005 as an intern and then left briefly in 2006 for the Birmingham Barons. He returned to the Travs in the fall of 2006 when Dickey-Stephens opened and has been here ever since. In 2008 he became Assistant General Manager and Director of Sales then took over the General Manager position on January 18, 2013.
I was surprised to read the other day that the Travs are one of the oldest minor league clubs in the country. How have the Travs been able to keep going for so long, and what makes the Little Rock area such a great place for a minor league team?
You’re right we are one of the oldest. The Travs have been around since 1901 and we have only failed to field a team 7 years during that time span. We’ve had a team each year since 1960 and that is due to a stock drive that Mr. Ray Winder and company did to in essence save the team. Mr. Winder and others went around offering stock in the team at $5 a share, and it brought the team back. This club is a for-profit business but it is ran similar to a non-profit because we do not pay dividends to shareholders so the money collected goes back into the operation of the team. It’s designed to keep baseball here in Central Arkansas forever and we can keep our prices low, which is part of the reason we are so successful because families can afford to come not just once a year but 3, 4 or 5 times a year and maybe more. Keeping prices low is a major benefit because we don’t have an owners pocket to fill at the end of the day and the revenue can go right back into new features for the ball club such as new inflatables, the new train, or the new point of sale. We are able to put back money into the fan experience.
This area of Arkansas has a strong love for family activities so the family atmosphere of our ballpark and the family atmosphere of our community really fit well together.
What are new and innovative ways that you are pursuing to try and keep making this a place that families want to spend their time? Is the strategy evolving?
Baseball is a very traditional sport and hasn’t changed very much since the 1800s, but the carnival atmosphere around the game has evolved a lot. Starting back in the 70’s when the giveaways and the promotions started, fans could come to the games and not only be entertained by baseball but by all the other stuff that the ballparks started offering. Plus the good thing about baseball is that you don’t have to be a fan to have a good time at the games, if you are into socializing or just being with family the ballpark is a perfect place for that. So for us it isn’t so much about the game, the players and coaches handle that, but it’s what is around the game and the atmosphere of the ballpark that we are concerned about. So it is the new train and the new inflatables and the new point of sale.
The point of sale is how the concession stands sell their product, it’s the register in a sense. At Winder field we had wooden cash boxes then when we moved to Dickey-Stephens we had these high tech cash registers, but only a few could take credit cards. This year we have a new point of sale system that is all tablet based and we can take credit cards everywhere which makes it a lot easier and faster. The idea is that a cash sale is the slowest transaction in retail because of making change and the possibility of mistakes. Credit cards are so much faster and our new system allows us to track exactly how much of each product we sell at each game. It has also sped up the concession lines and it helps with backhouse inventory. With cash transactions we couldn’t really tell exactly how many hotdogs or cokes were sold, we only knew how much money we brought in. With our new credit card system we can track exactly how many hotdogs we sold and it has really helped us with getting a true feel for our cost of goods and has improved our margins. The new point of sale also keeps track of a lot of valuable data now, for instance we can know that nearly 75% of the time that someone buys a hotdog they also buy a coke, so the register has pop up ads now for a large coke whenever someone buys a hotdog. We use that data for tracking people’s buying habits at the games. It’s those little prompt pieces of information that can really help with the business side of things. Every year you want to try to implement something that’s bigger and better.
What is the most effective way to market a minor league team, and what role does technology and social media play in your marketing efforts?
The main marketing effort that we make is just reminding people that we are in town. We have definitely tried to capitalize on the social media revolution that has taken place, so it is definitely a giant part of our marketing campaign. It cracks me up sometimes how social media works because we might post an awesome pic of something that we think would be very entertaining and it may get a couple likes, then post something totally different that you think people won’t be into and it will get hundreds of likes and retweets. For us, the local news is a great place because we can catch a lot of adults as they are getting ready in the morning and mentions in the news broadcasts are a great way to remind them of when the games are and like I said just reminding them that we are in town.
Would you run me through the process of proposing a new marketing idea and then implementing it?
I would say some of the best ideas are not ones that you actually plan to happen. They don’t happen in brainstorming sessions, you do get ideas that way sometimes, but mostly they come from us hanging out in the halls here and an idea will just come up in conversation and after 3 or 4 people add their input we can come away with a good vision for what we want to do. We have found that if it is fun and entertaining to our staff the odds are it will be fun and entertaining to the fans. In this industry we can be very creative and we can be off the wall. We can do something totally goofy and it’s ok. You can’t do that with many other businesses who have to be a little more serious when it comes to how they market themselves. After a season is over we always have review sessions where we go over what was good and what was bad and how we can improve.
When we did our rebrand in 2014, it was a year and a half long process of us determining what Travelers baseball is and who Travelers fans are and why are they fans, while also looking at our history. This really helped us determine the direction we wanted to go in for the future.
We wanted to rebrand because over time I felt that even though the games were great and the entertainment level for the fans was great, we had lost our identity in some way. We were using various logos and colors and nothing seemed to be a cohesive family. If you asked 5 different people on the street what our logo was you might get 5 different answers. So we wanted to unify all of our logos into the “A-Horse” that is on our home caps and make sure that our colors were coordinating well. We tried to keep the classic feel but freshen everything up.
When it comes to implementing new marketing ideas it is so crucial to have our “go-getters” in the office. When someone takes over a project, it is important that they follow it closely and guide it along to make sure it is successful. Some of our projects in the past, such as the Kid’s Club, really didn’t take off because the person in charge of it didn’t guide it along and try to go that extra mile to promote it. We’ve come to a better point where we have people who are willing to strive to make the projects that they touch the best that they can be.
Can you give me an example of an idea that you tried here that didn’t work, and the reasons for why it didn’t work?
We have had some projects that we have ceased doing, it’s not really because they failed but we just want to keep modernizing our ballpark. There was one idea that didn’t work, which was having salad options in the club level seats. We had requests for salads from some people who thought we should have a healthy option up there, but when we actually put them up there of course no one ate them. People want hot dogs, funnel cakes, and beer or coke when they come here. It’s not a place to watch your diet, it’s a place to have fun and enjoy yourself.
Do you ever travel to other ball parks to watch what other clubs are using? What is something that you picked up from somewhere else that you are implementing at Dickey-Stephens?
Sure, what’s great about the minor league baseball community is that our competitors on the field can really be a big help on the business side of things. If they are doing something in Tulsa, OK our fans don’t know about we can take that idea and use it here and it’s as if it is a brand new idea. We do a lot of idea sharing. We go to the baseball winter meetings each year where we meet with various vendors of all aspects of the baseball industry from food vendors to baseball supply vendors and we always come away with new ideas from those meetings.
We don’t get much time to travel to other ballparks, because if they’re playing we are playing. But we go to the All Star Game every year and if we get a weekend off we’ll try to scoot off to another park. Anything from on-field promotions, video boards or giveaways we’ll copy or steal their ideas and use them here if we think they will work well. This year we are doing a pre-game interview on the video board and we took that from the Frisco Roughriders. It’s something really small but it’s something our fans notice, especially the season ticket holders. There’s an on-field game we have been doing for years called the “Catch of the Day” where we launch a Nerf ball with a sling shot and a person tries to catch it with a mitt and we stole that game from the Birmingham Barons. The “Eyeball Race” this season is taken from the NWA Naturals, so a lot of our stuff is borrowed from other clubs and I know some clubs have used our ideas before too so it goes both ways.
What traditional aspects of the baseball experience do you feel are the most important for people at the ball games?
The social atmosphere and the traditional foods; peanuts, cracker jacks, and hotdogs. The family side of it is very crucial as well. This isn’t a sport where you have to watch every single play or every pitch, and families can get away from the TV and computers and come outside to experience a night out and still visit and spend time together.
What do you want this organization to accomplish within the next 5 years?
I want us to continue to develop lifelong baseball fans. For people myself and older who grew up with baseball it’s our job to make sure that these little kids turn into what we are and something as simple as “Field of Dreams”, where the kid gets to run the bases and stand by a player for the National Anthem is extremely important. Those are moments that those kids will remember even if they don’t remember those player’s names, they remember the moment. I remember the first baseball and autograph I got at a minor league game, couldn’t tell you who it was and I don’t have the baseball anymore but I will always remember that. If you can get the children out to the ballpark and make sure they have good experiences along with their family it’s a tradition that will be passed down.
I also feel a responsibility that our history is not forgotten. We have a lot of files in the museum and storage and I want to digitize all of that so the Traveler’s history is really easy to find. There are times when someone asks me something history related and I don’t know or I can’t find it and I have to go and ask someone like Rex Nelson for the answer. So I want to make the process of finding information a lot easier.
What leadership methods do you feel are needed to manage a ball club successfully?
You have to be understanding, personable and you have to be open to new ideas and change because if you aren’t adapting you will get left behind. We work a lot of hours during the summer. We might start at 8 am and go until 1 or 2 am for 5 or 6 days a week because of all of the games so you need to be tolerant to be around people in the office that long because a lot of times you are around them more than your family. Having that personality to get along with others is very important.