During a recent trip to California, I had the pleasure to meet Chris Quinn, Director of Sales at Santa Anita Park, and took a tour of their spectacular facility. I have to admit I did have a goal or maybe a wish that Zenyatta would be waiting in a stall to greet me, but unfortunately I was already aware she’s currently frolicking in Kentucky.
A few things about Chris quickly became apparent during our walk besides his wealth of sport knowledge, and I knew he had to be the first interview of my Sports Industry Insider Series. Chris is quick to say hi and greet every staff member that came across our path by first name. Really, he did! These are traits I’m sure we all wish we saw more often.
KRISTEN SONSMA: Have you always been a horse racing fan? The question I guess I’m asking is, how did you break into this sport industry?
CHRIS QUINN: I always wanted to be involved in sports. As a kid, I read the sports section religiously and was intrigued about the transactions sections. I even made my parents get the USA Today for the pie graphs.
I was not athletic enough to play sports professionally so I concentrated on getting in on the business side of things. I worked for Leigh Steinberg (@steinbergsports) and Jeff Moorad as a runner in high school and college. I think they only hired me because my mom was Peter Ueberroth’s assistant and in the same building as Steinberg & Moorad. It was a pretty humbling experience but pretty cool too, getting to be in the same office and interact with some of the best and most well known athletes in the world. At the time, Cameron Crowe was following Leigh around, scouting what was soon to be Jerry McGuire. I also helped out Roy Englebrecht and his Ballroom Boxing events, from selling tickets to sponsorships to game day operations. This type of work gave me a great foundation and helped me develop my people and sales skills.
After college I went to work as a account executive at what was then known as the Mercedes-Benz Cup (now called the Farmers Classic, a men’s professional tennis tournament held on the UCLA campus). I sold full, partial and group packages. We had no computers, no CRM systems. It was all paper and pen and call sheets. The great learning experience about this job was the one week crash course in phone sales we got from Charlie Chislaghi (president of Sports Sales Consulting) on phone scripts. Charlie’s teachings are some that I still use today and catch myself when I say some things on the phone I am not supposed to.
Now to horseracing. Horseracing is a very incestuous sport, but I knew no one in racing and I literally answered a blind ad in the LA Times, looking for a Director of Business Development at a major sports facility. Well that sporting facility turned out to be Hollywood Park (@hollyparkracing). I went through the interview process and was hired to lead their Group Sales department. In 2002, my first year, we introduced dynamic pricing. Hollywood Park is open during the Triple Crown Run (Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes) as well as Mother’s and Father’s Day. I wondered why we charged the same on a Thursday afternoon as we did on racing’s biggest day? It was a great time and when Churchill Downs sold the facility, I went over to Santa Anita Park and have been here since 2006.
KRISTEN SONSMA: As the current Director of Sales with Santa Anita Park, what does a typical day looking like for Chris Quinn during horse racing season?
CHRIS QUINN: I tell people that our work week is technically Wednesday through Sunday, because those are the days that we run. But the rest of the world works on Mondays and Tuesdays, so for about 130 days of the year, it’s a seven days a week job. It’s a lot of fun because we are really making things happen. Traditionally Santa Anita opens December 26 and runs through late April and then opens again late September through early November.
Santa Anita has over 20 group areas. Each morning I will go to each of these areas and speak to the staff to ensure we are all on the same page and give them a little more information about the group leader, what type of group it is and what to expect. Our gates open about 11am and the first race is between 12:30 and 1pm. We have additional staff come in and I brief them on the day or week. Then, I go and greet each group (on average 15 per day) to make sure they are receiving the attention they deserve. Once the gates open I have meetings with other departments to discuss the upcoming weeks. Like any sales department we touch many other departments and need to get them timely information about promotions we have, or signage requests.
KRISTEN SONSMA: Some might not know the history of Santa Anita Park and some of its famous moments. Can you share a little bit of background to this facility?
CHRIS QUINN: Santa Anita first opened in 1934 and people say there are three types of old. Good Old, Bad Old and Great Old and Santa Anita falls under the Great Old. Like Los Angeles institutions Dodger Stadium, The Beverly Hills Hotel, Musso & Frank’s – it takes you back to a time when celebrities dined and the racetrack was the only place that you could wager.
Santa Anita has seen some of the greatest horses in our history, hosted the 1984 equestrian events for the LA Olympics, been the host for the Breeders Cup (@breederscup) five times and been the backdrop for many movies and commercials, most recently Seabiscuit and an HBO show called Luck which is due to air in January 2012 starring Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte and written by David Milch.
I’ve been to a lot of cool sporting events, Gibson’s home run, Lakers comeback vs. Portland, but watching Zenyatta beat the boys in the 2009 Breeders Cup Classic at Santa Anita was the greatest sporting event I have ever been to and I was working. Santa Anita Park has seen a lot of great races and crowds but she has not been that loud in a long time. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ud_XPH6Eix4
During our walk around the park, Chris was nice enough to introduce me to California trainer, Bob Baffert, a Three-Time Kentucky Derby Winner. We met a bunch of the staff, some training jockeys, and of course a few beautiful horses.
KRISTEN SONSMA: Chris, how does having these resources on site help you and your staff with large clientele looking to do an event at Santa Anita Park?
CHRIS QUINN: Horseracing is a large family and horsemen lend a hand when asked to help. Let’s face it, when you walk into a 320-acre facility like Santa Anita it can be pretty intimating. So we try and educate our clientele and provide them access to things that others cannot. Like going into the paddock and meeting the jockeys before the race. Taking a group photo in the Winner’s Circle, watching our track announcer call a race live (a lot harder than one seems) and meeting the trainers. They are all great with these fans and know that they are our lifeblood. We assign a ‘handicapper’ with some of these groups to educate on what is happening on the track.
KRISTEN SONSMA: Born and raised in LA, this was embarrassingly my first trip to Santa Anita Park and absolutely astounded by the amazing grounds and breathtaking views. Do you hear this often from patrons?
CHRIS QUINN: We hear it all the time and those Mondays and Tuesdays are a great time for me to prospect and invite people to come to Santa Anita and see the facility first hand. The San Gabriel Mountains in the background and different areas of the track is a step back in time. People always say “I never knew.” And they are right. Los Angeles has a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar and it’s not that they are saying that we are going to pass on Santa Anita this time. They just don’t know and it is our responsibility to let them know that we are here and have been since 1934 – that every 30 minutes we offer 2 minutes of excitement that is perfect for all type. Some teams cannot say that, now can they?
KRISTEN SONSMA: The Food Truck craze has hit California by storm. How have you been able to tap into this phenomenon and tie it back to your fan experience? Has it been a large turnout?
CHRIS QUINN: You are right about the Food Trucks out here. We have hosted two Food Truck Festivals, and I have been amazed at the turn out for these trucks. I have been to some of these trucks and they were always in a parking lot.
So as I was waiting in line for my Grilled Cheese Sandwich from the @grlldcheesetruk I thought that Santa Anita is the perfect setting for a large scale festival. They use non-traditional media to get the word out as far as their specific locations and during the course of these days we have live racing, family friendly activities for the kids like pony rides, face painters and then we will have bands and some gastropubs for the adults. We had over 20k people for the first two and believe that these trucks have found a home at Santa Anita.
KRISTEN SONSMA: Your target audience of attendees is actually quite broad ranging from families, horse racing fans, to top Hollywood executives. What are a few reasons a group would want to or should do an event at your location?
CHRIS QUINN: Santa Anita is perfect for all types. Even when I go to a basketball game or baseball game, I like to walk around and get up. At a basketball or baseball game I am in section 211 row 4 seat 19. At Santa Anita I am encouraged to get up, make a bet and for client entertainment, there is a built in conversation piece in “Who do you like?” You are right we have hosted wrap parties for TV shows to Fortune 500 companies to birthdays where the track bugler will serenade the birthday girl or boy! From barbequing in the infield to dressing to the nines Santa Anita offers it all.
Chris Quinn (@Chris_J_Quinn) and I (@KristenSonsma) actually first met on Twitter sharing a few best practices. After walking around the facility, I’ve noticed a few signs encouraging fans to follow @SantaAnitaPark on Twitter and Facebook.
KRISTEN SONSMA: How does your organization view social media?
CHRIS QUINN: We take social media as an area of growth for us and a way to communicate with a group that we haven’t communicated with before. Some people enjoy reading the paper, some people like email and others like to get their information instantly. We post race results on Twitter and Facebook. and conduct interviews after a race via a flipcam and put them on our YouTube Channel. We’ve been the leader in our sport in finding new ways to reach out and our constantly learning what others are doing. I am interested in what Sacramento Kings are doing with @klout as far as ranking their fans.
KRISTEN SONSMA: And to continue that conversation, how has your department specifically embraced and utilized social media to engage your fan base to drive attendance?
CHRIS QUINN: We sell tickets via this method. We tweet about an upcoming promotion we have, link the landing page to purchase tickets. We have asked some of our sponsors and friends to do an email blast or post it on Facebook or Twitter and enter a specific discount code associated with each sponsor or friend and we can now track where the lead came from. From a tracking standpoint it’s been awesome to see where these sales are coming from.
KRISTEN SONSMA: As we are always looking to give back to those just starting out their sports career and looking to achieve your level of success, are there any last pieces of advice you can share?
CHRIS QUINN: Couple of things. Always continue to learn. Go to seminars, re-read books, study your craft and reach out to people within your industry. Some of these avenues of communication have made it so much easier to do so, so take advantage of it.
Lastly if you are thinking of getting into sports entertainment do not expect it to be a 9am-5pm job and if you do? Get out. That is what is great; you work in an environment that people pay to go to.
KRISTEN SONSMA: What is the best way for others to get in touch with you who are looking to chat a bit further?
Thanks Chris for your time and I hope his insight can be found valuable by many others! Any additional questions for Chris please feel free to include them in the comments below.