Anne M. Eberhardt

Panel: Transform On-Site Racing Experience

Bricks-and-mortar got its due at the International Simulcast Conference Oct. 7.

Upgrading the on-site customer experience, be it for live horse racing or full-card simulcasts, is critical to the growth of the business, panelists said Oct. 7 on the first day of the International Simulcast Conference in Lexington.

The discussion was a refreshing change for the conference, which by nature has focused on simulcast-related issues in its 20-plus years. But Chris Scherf, executive vice president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, noted the largest share of pari-mutuel handle still comes from bricks-and-mortar facilities such as racetracks and off-track betting parlors.

Scherf showed a video of an interview with an NFL official who explained how the league wants to use technology to create at-home amenities in stadiums. The object is to create social experiences at games–and still get revenue from ticket, concession, and merchandise sales.

Todd Gralla and Brian Mirakian of Populous, a design firm that develops and re-develops sporting venues to maximize space and increase customer value, showed various examples of how some high-end facilities have been recreated to attract people. They said for horse racing, it comes down to upgrading facilities to the standards expected by attendees and recognizing that people want to congregate and socialize.

"There is a desire by people to interact face-to-face," said Gralla, a principal in Populous and director of equestrian services for the company. "It's very important to remember we're all in the entertainment business. People want to interact on a personal level when they seek experiences."

Gralla also noted that most people attend sporting events with no expectation of financial return. Racing has a legal wagering component at its foundation, but that doesn't mean the overall on-site experience isn't important, he said.

Mirakian, an associate principal and director of the Populous Activate Group, said there has been a major shift in sporting events from "traditionalists"–those who sit in seats–to "experientialists" who want interaction while at sporting events. He noted the Super Bowl experience isn't just the game, but the month of activities leading up to it.

The mantra in horse racing for the past 10 years or more has been that the future of the game is people sitting alone in front of computers to place their bets from home or work; only recently has racing expanded into on-site mobile wagering. Mirakian offered a different view.

He used examples to show how, about 10 years ago, there were a handful of people in a group of thousands with a mobile device. Now, the devices are prevalent–but those people still flock to live events to capture them and disseminate the experience to others via technology.

"It's all about flexibility and adaptability," Mirakian said. "We must design a more powerful fan experience (to bring people to facilities)."

Jason Settlemoir, chief executive officer and general manager of "New Meadowlands," where a new grandstand/clubhouse will open in November, previewed the facility. It will be much smaller than the cavernous existing grandstand that was built in 1976 when crowds of 20,000 on a Monday night for harness racing weren't unusual.

The New Jersey track will have multiple areas to congregate, including a VIP club, dining room, sports bar and night club, outdoor picnic area, and a rooftop terrace with views of New York City. Settlemoir said the focus will be on technological upgrades to enhance the on-track experience, as well as emphasis on customer satisfaction.

"Customer service is a lifeline for any good industry," Settlemoir said.

Keeneland president Bill Thomason kicked off the opening session with a call to pay attention to horse owners and customers at tracks. Representatives of Keeneland, Del Mar, the New York Racing Association, and The Stronach Group met in Lexington the weekend of Oct. 5-6 to continue discussions on how to improve the racing experience.

"We're asking ourselves, 'What can we do together.' The process is just beginning. It's going to be long, and it's going to take some time," Thomason said. "Our sport is national and international. We can compete. We've shown that. We have a lot of things to be proud of."