New game in Foxboro
BY RICK FOSTER/SUN CHRONICLE STAFF
FOXBORO -- Gillette Stadium has been the place to go for NFL world championship-caliber football and major league soccer since 2002.
These days it's also the place to visit for home improvement ideas, to ogle the latest recreational vehicles and fishing boats or swap NASCAR stories with race car drivers and their fans.
That's because the stadium, built primarily to showcase professional football, is also becoming a mecca for consumer and trade shows featuring everything from travel to collectibles.
Up to 10 major admission-charging shows, from an RV and Camping Show in the fall to the AAA Travel Expo in early March, now draw thousands of outdoor enthusiasts, home improvement buffs and others with special interests to the stadium on weekends when Tom Brady and the rest of the New England Patriots aren't in town.
The newest edition is the 26th annual Racearama N Trade Show which attracted flocks of auto racing fans to look over dozens of shiny race cars, speed equipment displays and exhibits by New England's premier race tracks.
Attendance at the indoor events, which tend to be scheduled during winter and early spring, ranges from 5,000 to 25,000 people per event and have proved lucrative for both exhibitors and show promoters.
The growing number of shows, coupled with private customers who book stadium facilities at least 200 times a year for stockholder meetings, motivational talks and bar mitzvahs, also squeeze additional revenue streams from a stadium that essentially was built to host football ten times a year.
`` One thing the Kraft family is very good at is integrating its businesses,'' said Patriots director of public affairs Stacey James. `` Of course, we set out first and foremost to building a state-of-the-art stadium. But from 2003 on the focus shifted gradually to how can we get the maximum utilization of what we have here.''
Deluxe clubhouse accommodations totaling more than 60,000 square feet, it was soon realized, could as well accommodate exhibit booths as season ticket holders. And the freestanding Dana Farber Field House, with another 80,000 square feet, had plenty of room for vinyl siding vendors, kitchen cabinet makers and Gutter Helmet salesmen to display their wares.
Coupled with easy access from most of southern New England via interstate highways and free parking in Gillette's otherwise empty lots, and you have the makings of a convention and trade show operator's dream.
One of the first to recognize the potential of Gillette as a trade show site were Joseph O'Neill and Bob McAlpine of North American Expositions, veteran show promoters. The partners saw potential in a planned Patriots practice facility that was about to be built to replace an inflatable `` bubble'' and went to see team officials.
`` We started talking with them in early 2003 about what a facility would need to have,'' said O'Neill.
The following February, North American staged the first home show held at the newly-christened field house with 500, ten-foot-square vendor booths.
Even before the show opened, O'Neill and McAlpine knew they had a winner.
`` We sold it out,'' said O'Neill who found a ready audience both among customer-hungry home improvement contractors and homeowners thirsty for new ideas.
O'Neill, whose company also promotes the fall recreational vehicle show at Gillette, said it's no mystery why the stadium's trade show offerings have found ready acceptance.
Unlike Boston or Providence, customers encounter few traffic hassles or long lines getting to the stadium and are able to park free of charge.
And although the Southeast Massachusetts location placed exhibitors out of range of some potential North Shore consumers, O'Neill said trade shows held at Gillette can draw from roughly the same potential audience as a show held at the Bayside Convention Center in Boston.
`` When you look at the numbers for Boston and Foxboro, the population within 50 miles is roughly the same,'' O'Neill says. `` Sure, Boston is a major city, but a lot of what's within 50 miles is the Atlantic Ocean.''
AAA Southern New England, which recently held its third annual Travel Expo in the Gillette Stadium Clubhouse, is also bullish.
`` From Boston, Providence or Warwick, you could say all roads lead to Gillette,'' said AAA's Bill Sutherland. `` It matches our market area perfectly.''
Prior to three years ago, AAA had sponsored only local travel programs at Holiday Inns, during which club travel representatives and major cruise lines and tour companies pitched their wares to crowds of 200 to 400 people a night.
The three-day Travel Expo currently attracts anywhere from 13,000 to 15,000 people.
Visitors can browse at tour operators' offerings, pick up hundreds of travel brochures or book entire vacations and travel insurance.
Together with private functions ranging from Catholic Education benefits to corporate meetings, the burgeoning list of trade shows translates into more efficient utilization of a stadium built mainly to house football games, says stadium Executive Director of Development David Pearlstein.
`` When we built a new stadium, the clubhouse was designed as the ultimate setting for game day,'' Pearlstein said. `` But we also wanted to be able to be utilize that during the 330 other days of the year when it's not being used by fans.''
During a private function, guests get the same plush accommodations offered to well-to-do football fans along with some haute cuisine twists.
`` We want it to be known that we're more than a place where you get a hot dog or hamburger,'' he said.
Because the stadium's main tenant, the Patriots, uses the Dana Farber Field House for practice and to audition free agents both during and after the season, convention and trade show business necessarily takes a back seat.
At best, Pearlstein said, there's a six to seven week `` window'' after the Super Bowl that's prime for scheduling events.
But some in the industry suggest the stadium or other property belonging to Patriots owner Bob Kraft could easily support a major, year-round convention and trade show business.
Currently, the largest potential exhibit hall on the stadium grounds is the 80,000-square-foot field house -- just a third the size of the Bayside Expo Center.
Given an adequate-size, year-round building, North American's O'Neill says he sees no reason why the site could not accommodate even some of the major shows now held in Boston.
With the exception of summer, when trade show business is slack, he says such a facility could be busy almost year-round.
The Patriots haven't made any commitment to develop a major convention or exhibition facility, James said, although he acknowledges that business is on the upswing.
`` Naturally, you never rule anything out,'' he said. `` If the business keeps getting bigger and if we thought that was the best thing for us to do, something like that could be in our future.''
Good let them rent that place out so the Patriots have another way of getting revenue and lower those ticket prices a bit!
Great move by the Krafts.
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