I've always found racing a crazy experience to see in person. I grew up selling ice cream to fans and pit crews at the Laguna Seca Raceway in Central California. And I'm hear to tell you, that just as interesting as watching these machines fly around a turn at a few hundred miles an hour, are the fans. And when you think of die-hard fans... you gotta put the racing community at the top of the list.
There numbers are no joke. They come out in droves. Like 100,000 per race drove.
So... I thought it would be fun to sit down with some of folks that are making those events and experiences happen. Because when you're dealing with that kind of volume and still concentrating on customer service, we can all learn a little somethin'.
Photo Cred: Charlotte Motor Speedway
LET'S SET THE SCENE
If you're going to talk racing, there's not a better place to do it in than the Carolina's. And if your going to talk event and venue operations in that sport, there's not a better person than the Manager of Event Operations at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, than Garrett Carter.
Basically the shit is huge. And it's a big job to keep running.
Garrett has over 20 years of experience in venue operations. So he may know a thing or two.
You ready to do this Garrett?
Born ready, brother.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Montgomery Village, Maryland. I moved to North Carolina in ‘94, so North Carolina is home.
What was 15-year-old Garrett like?
All about sports. Not so much school, unfortunately. Playing sports, and trying to meet as many people as possible.
Have you always been a racing fan?
No, it came with the area. When I moved to North Carolina it was an eye-opening experience. You have to go to appreciate it. The atmosphere is what makes our sport so great. I went to my first race in 2001, and that's where I grew to really appreciate and love it.
So who’s your favorite driver: Ricky Bobby or Cole Trickle?
Coke Trickle! I LOVE Days of Thunder. That Mello Yello car is a favorite of mine. It's so badass!
[BTW - If you haven't scene the movie Days of Thunder. Just stop reading now and stream that baby. One of Tom Cruise's best.]
Event Operations Advice #1: Building relationships is critical to the future of event production.
So if you were a driver, how would they describe your racing style?
My racing style would be patient but still aggressive as hell because that's what wins races! But, the old Garrett was bullheaded and would wreck anything around him.
"And rubbin, son, is racin"
Hah! That’s Right.
I understand you have a bit of a heavy foot. So if you were in a race and your crew chief told you that you probably don't have enough fuel to make it through the last lap. What do you do?
a. Keep going. Screw him.
b. Draft on the cars to conserve fuel (but you'll come in second or third).
c. Try a few fuel saving tips that daddy taught you.
Screw Him! If you're not first, you're last!!
Seems like the "old Garrett", might not be totally out of the picture.
Event Operations Advice #2: Enjoy the experience and the benefits of the job. It shows in your work.
Charlotte Motor Speedway: Best seat in the house?
First Row in Turn 1 Grand National Grandstand. Not only do all the rowdy fans sit in that grandstand (I love a rowdy NASCAR fan) but it's the fastest part of the track. There is nothing else like watching 40 stock cars coming at you at 195 mph!
Photo Cred: Charlotte Motor Speedway
What specific areas do you particularly oversee?
My daily duties kind of coordinate between the events department and the operations department on how the event flows, the cleanliness of the facility, the functionality of how the fans get in, etc.
What do you think a person in your role will need to be an expert in 5 years from now.
It's interesting because clearly there will be a need to adopt new technology, but I think it will still be about building relationships, not only with colleagues and the people around you, but with your vendors. I think it's very important that people stay in tune with personal relationships, face-to-face meetings with folks, knowing who they are, and what their needs and wants are.
When things get a sideways and they always do, your relationships are usually what gets you through. I don't see that changing.
Garrett & the Crew helping out and shoveling snow before the Panthers NFC Championship Game
What impact do you see technology making in event ops within the next three to five years.
Definitely mobile and web-based. I like paper, I'm old school. But I'm slowly starting to realize that I can make my job easier with a phone or a tablet because I'm not in my office a lot. Being mobile will help in the event industry in general.
What type of collaboration goes on with other tracks or arenas?
Actually quite a lot. It's very important from an inventory basis for us.
I bet that helps you take advantage of a lot of efficiencies in purchasing.
Although our company is set up on a track by track basis because if we try to put everything on one system, it might be too much. However we're one big family, so when we can share resources and information we definitely try to. It’s kind of like having an aunt and uncle across the country.
Nothing like a few hand-me downs to get you through.
As a venue that can host many types of events, what's the mentality about new events with varying needs?
We don't have tunnel vision here. We've got all this space and if it works for your event, we're going to make it work for you. We have passion too host and help create amazing experiences. Our awesome management team is always thinking of new and different ways we can host new things. It's really cool that our company has the infrastructure and resources to host a variety of events and that’s exciting for us.
Event Production Advice #3: You have to find ways to get creative. We are all looking for unique experiences.
So... If you could host any event in the world at the Speedway, what would you want it to be?
Damn, good question. I would have to say a festival like Bonnaroo. We really want to do a large scale country festival in the Charlotte area. Personally, it would probably be just one big music festival geared toward everybody. Week long, maybe each day is different - maybe one day is a country day, next day heavy metal/rock and roll, then jazz.
What are the biggest operational problems you deal with during a major race?
Weather. Any light mist and everything kind of stops. If that happens then keeping the fans engaged is another challenge. If you've got a 3 or 4 hour rain delay we have to offer things on the concourse for the fans, whether it's just a driver going up there and signing autographs or maybe we have a band playing. We always have to stay 2 or 3 steps ahead.
Event Production Advice #4: Always ask, what you'll do if the main event is delayed. Especially when you have thousands of people waiting around. Photo Cred: Charlotte Motor Speedway
I'm sure the comforts of home are always a huge competitor. How do you combat air conditioning and actually getting people to the race?
First thing you do, is build one of the world's largest TV's on the backstretch. We've got a TV the size of a hockey floor. That way fans get the effect of being at home and watching it on TV while being there.
So what you're saying is that 'Good old boys' still love their amenities.
Hah! Yes they do and they love the racing, baby. They love it, they love it. There's nothing better, Chris.
But our company invests so much more money back into the sport, so people can enjoy still coming to the races.
Now that's a TV! Photo Cred: Charlotte Motor Speedway.
What challenges do you forsee tackling over the the next 5 years?
First: The attention span of the average customer my age or less, is getting shorter all the time. They're on their phone and they're maybe not as engaged in the entire race like my dad would be. Our company understands that. We have to renovate spaces looking toward the future.
Two: we still have to market to the traditional race fans that love to sit in their seats and watch every pass of a drag race or every lap of a dirt or NASCAR race, but we also have to be in tune with the younger generation. We have updated wi-fi and cell phone service and starting next year every Speedway Motor Sports Track is offering $10 tickets to all kids.
Event Production Advice #5: it's never too early to engage your future fans. Photo Cred: Charlotte Motor Speedway
We also want to make sure we stay true to the roots of the sport and generations before us that really grew up NASCAR. We're a good ole' boy sport. Drag racing is a little different and dirt track racing has a passionate following. We love it. We hit so many demographics here, it's pretty cool.
Wait. Is that my accountant? Event Production Advice #6: Even with an eye on the future, doubling down on your die hard's is a huge opportunity.
I understand you used to work at an indoor arena prior to this position. So what was the biggest change moving to an outside complex other than no air conditioning?
Man. Somedays I miss that A/C.
The variety is what was the biggest thing for me. At an arena, we had a little bit of everything, so God bless the people at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, NC (my first full time events job) because they taught me variety and to think outside the box. Although every day is a little different at the racetrack and the outdoor facility, our focus is mainly on our core events throughout the year. At the end of the day it’s about throwing parties. We throw great parties that make all generations happy.
Photo Cred: Charlotte Motor Speedway
Camping is such a huge part of race weekend, and the community at the track. So what are some of the things that you've done to have major impact on that experience?
Well first off, we open up camping the Sunday before a race and we have a lot of land and not as many campers as we used to have. So for us, we really try to focus on making the experience really quality and not just about quantity.
We've got some of our most die hard fans here for a whole week. So it's very important from a programming perspective to make sure they are taken care of. We make sure that we offer tours of the facility like a track side tram tour, or offer tour vans that go to all of our local race shops and other racing themed venues like the NASCAR Hall of Fame. We try to show off the community of Charlotte/Concord,NC and not just the race track.
I can definitely see how other events and venues could extend their VIP offering by taking more advantage of the community around them.
Definitely. It's worked incredibly for us.
Event Production Advice #7: If you're thinking long-term, building community should be one of your top priorities. These guys just happen to take it to the next level. Photo Cred: AutoWeek
What's the best piece of professional advice that you’ve kept close?
It's okay to step away from work from time-to-time, and be with your family and be with the ones you love because some people let work consume them.
We are getting ready for our biggest event, and my boss sent every one of our people in our department home at lunch today and told them to take the whole weekend off because we've had a pretty grueling schedule up to this point.
If you were to give the State of The Union to the Event World, what would you say?
First, I think that people need to get more involved with the average fan. Yes, it's important to have corporate sponsorships and to bring people to the race to sell more, but I think that a lot of sports teams, a lot of concerts and and music acts aren't getting to the average fan anymore. That definitely has long-term effects.
Second, The levels of ticket, parking, and concession pricing really reduces the amount of people that can afford to come to the event. I think that starts from the artists or the team or a league. We have to find ways to be more accessible for the every-day fan. Do venues really need to charge $5 for a bottle of water? Or $10 for a Cheeseburger? That’s why people want to stay home and watch it on TV.
Third, I think that people need to put their phones down, and open their eyes. There's so much out there and it just breaks my heart to know that people don't come to the events to just enjoy them anymore. So we have to create experiences that will them do exactly that.
It's something we talk about constantly.
Photo Cred: Charlotte Motor Speedway
There are two mottos I live by.
FIRST is to be an optimistic, positive person, because it always reflects on people around you. You can have all the resources in the world, but if you’re not making people smile then you have nothing.
SECOND is, from chaos comes clarity. You're always going to go through something hard, just know that when it's done and it will go away, and you will have clarity after that. Don’t panic.
As I do these interviews, no matter how different the market or the event, I am constantly reminded of the similarities everyone has. The idea that Garrett and the Charlotte Motor Speedway has to evolve to the needs and desires of their audience is something we all battle with.
What's even more interesting, is how we all need to be looking at competition differently. We're in such a fascinating time for event industry, because we're no longer competing with just other events or what's going on that weekend. With all of our entertainment accessible in our hands at all times, we are all competing for people's attention every second. And this isn't going away. It's only going to get more intense.
The answer is to have to think about every aspect of the experience and how to deliver that experience in different ways. It's not necessarily easy, but if you don't figure it out, someone else will. I actually think it makes things a lot more exciting and will force our experiences to get better and better over time.
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