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Sports tour operators: Checking off your bucket list

By Dan Dickson

By Dan Dry, courtesy Churchill Downs

Many sports fans drool at the mere thought of attending an event like the World Series, the NCAA men’s Final Four or the Kentucky Derby. In a country of more than 300 million people, only a tiny fraction of us ever get to attend in person.

PrimeSport, a travel company based in Los Angeles, operates on the premise that it can get you tickets to the most popular, hard-to-get, sold-out sports events.

“If it’s the Super Bowl or Final Four that we have a partnership with, it includes tickets, preferred hotels, hospitality and game-day transfers,” said Sharyn Outtrim, vice president of special events for PrimeSport. “Those four components are the most sought-after elements of an event.”

Officially, PrimeSport ranks its top five best-selling sports events over the past decade as the Super Bowl, the World Cup final, the opening ceremonies of the summer Olympic Games, the final round of the Masters and the men’s Final Four. The next five aren’t too shabby, either. They are the BCS football championship game, the Kentucky Derby, the major league baseball All-Star Game, the World Series and the National Basketball Association All-Star Game.

“Our mission is to partner with the rights holders of events, because we know the secondary ticket market is a multibillion-dollar worldwide market that’s thriving,” said Outtrim. PrimeSport partners with the Tournament of Roses, the NCAA and individual conferences for college basketball and football.

For the Super Bowl, PrimeSport chartered five airplanes, had eight hotels and saw more than a thousand customers attend.

“We partnered with the Colts and Saints. Looking at what we did in 2007, package to package, fans got much more value this year, a lot more bang for their buck. That’s because of the economy,” said Outtrim. “The average package in 2010 cost $1,500 less than it did in 2007.”

As for trends among traveling fans, Outtrim noted how much smarter they are. The Internet educates them to be savvy consumers and to observe “buyer-beware” advice. “They’re also purchasing through safer channels. They make sure what they buy is what they get,”     she said.

Not a gray-hair tour
The Super Bowl, the Final Four and the Derby are also among the top choices for customers of Sports Travel and Tours out of Hatfield, Mass., but the company’s race fans also help boost attendance at the Daytona 500. The national tour operator specializes in group and independent travel to sports events all over the country.

“We’re extremely flexible, because people want what they want,” said Teresa Weybrew, director of sales. “We change itineraries and/or customize them. An example is the Kentucky Derby. Some want to come early or stay later to see horse farms; or they do the Kentucky Derby Festival the week before the race. They want to make it their own and not buy stock off the shelf.”

The company’s customer breakdown, according to Weybrew, includes both men and women ages 35 to 60 who come from a broad background reflecting the wide variety of sports they enjoy.

“People sometimes ask, ‘Is this a gray-hair tour?’ and it definitely isn’t,” she said. “We have our share of seniors who love sports events, but we also have many fans who receive travel gifts.”
Weybrew advises travel planners that no matter which top 10 game or sports event they crave, “put down a deposit as soon as you know it’s something you want to do.”

Big games abroad
Although top sporting events thrill millions of American fans, one Canadian tour operator has a different take on what his sports-loving customers want to experience. “Our biggest events this year were the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the World Cup in South Africa, by far,” said Jeff Wills, vice president of marketing for Roadtrips, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “They’re not even close to any domestic event.”

Major international sports events are where Roadtrips sees its growth in business. “This is a banner year for us,” said Wills, who added that it’s difficult to handle major international sports packages alone. “You need partners. Downtown hotel space in Vancouver was hard to find. Four- and five-star hotels are impossible to find in South Africa. But that’s the clientele we cater to.”

Down in the United States, Roadtrips finds that the Super Bowl is “still the biggest domestic event, no doubt about that,” said Wills. “It takes on a life of its own. It’s the premier event in the U.S., and nothing else quite comes close.”

Aside from the Super Bowl, Wills gives his take on other crown jewel sports events. “In no particular order, I’d say the Masters, because even the casual golf fan wants to see the best players at Augusta. It’s much more popular than the PGA or U.S. Open Championships.

“The Daytona 500 has definitely got the Americana thing going. It’s NASCAR’s pinnacle event. The Kentucky Derby has become even bigger. The event has pageantry, and many celebrities are going to it.”

Derby deals
Another tour operator caters to individual sports enthusiasts, who have to arrange their own transportation to these mega sports events. Her clients fly into the event city from all over the country.

“I do individual travel to high-end, sold-out sports events like the Super Bowl or the Kentucky Derby or the Final Four and every big NASCAR race,” said Suzanne Slavitter, vice president and co-owner of Sports Empire in Los Angeles.

Slavitter’s company bucks the trend somewhat. She says a big sports event traditionally held on the first Saturday in May, not the Super Bowl, is No. 1 with her customers. “There’s no question that the leader is the Derby,” she said.

The Super Bowl, she believes, is starting to price itself out of certain markets, meaning the cost-to-enjoyment ratio is high.

Sports Empire touts itself as “the oldest sports tour operator in the U.S., going back to 1986.” It markets sports packages exclusively through carefully selected travel professionals worldwide and doesn’t market directly to the public. Why is the Derby so popular? “We have reasonable packages starting at $1,295 per person for two nights,” Slavitter said.

Slavitter believes that some sports travelers are watching their budgets a little more than in the past but that they still yearn to see the big games and sports spectacles. Many are staying stateside and don’t want to spend the money to go to Europe, but would love to see the Derby, the Indianapolis 500, the Pro Bowl, the Masters, the U.S. Open or the Daytona 500.

Those events are “all on their bucket lists,” she said. “They are water-cooler conversation, trips of a lifetime. It is something they want to do before they finish their time with us on earth.”

For the sports traveler, attending the biggest games and sports events is a little bit of heaven.

Super game, super interest
Ask Carey Dean, president of Esoteric Sports, a sports travel company in Suwanee, Ga., what the next gotta-have-it ticket will be, and he’ll answer firmly and quickly. “I think the Dallas Super Bowl will be the biggest in years.”

Esoteric Sports, a pioneer in the sports travel business, specializes in complete travel programs to all the classic sports events such as the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the World Series and the Kentucky Derby. “What you’re going to see in 2011 is that our business and activity for the Super Bowl was up tenfold over the last two years,” predicted Dean.

Dean says Texas is a huge football state. Dallas has wealth, oil money and multinational companies. There’s proximity to Mexico, and people there who are wealthy. But perhaps the greatest factor is the new Cowboys Stadium.

“It has been marketed and is a star in its own right. Many people want to see it. They want to say, ‘I was at Cowboys Stadium for the Super Bowl.’”

Prices for the game and everything surrounding it — tickets, hotels, restaurants, hospitality, souvenirs and transportation — are rising dramatically, but Dean has spotted another basic shift in the last two years.

“In the go-go years of the early 2000s, the makeup of the people at the Super Bowl was 70 percent corporate and 30 percent fans. But in the last two years, I believe it has been 20 percent corporate and 80 percent fans,” said Dean, who thinks there’s never a shortage of demand for big sports events. “I believe this will be the biggest Super Bowl in maybe 10 to 15 years.”    

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