Some say Dennis Bickmeier has always been racing from one place to another. The sports management executive has worked in college sports (The Big West Conference), professional sports (Dodgers and <then> LA Rams) among other places. Now, he is the VP of Sales and marketing for the Michigan International Speedway. We asked him 10 questions and here are his views on a number of subjects.
1. Tell us about your Company, your job and your responsibilities
I work for Michigan International Speedway, located in Southeast Michigan, about an hour plus from Detroit. Our speedway is part of the International Speedway Corporation family of tracks that includes Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway to name a few. We host two NASCAR race weekends annually over the summer, one in June and one in August. The speedway is 41 years old and has a great tradition in the motorsports world, especially being in the heart of the auto industry.
As the Vice President of Consumer Sales and Marketing, I have oversight of our three primary departments with direct responsibility for selling our events: Communications, which includes Public Relations, Marketing, Advertising, Promotions, Social Networking and Event Entertainment; Corporate Partnerships, which includes Sponsorship Sales, Hospitality/Suite Sales and Fan Plaza Sales and Operations; and Ticketing, which includes Ticket Sales, Group Sales, Mobile Ticket Office and Ticket Operations.
One of the primary reasons for creating this position was to get the three departments outlined above aligned more strategically and efficiently, so that they were not working in silos. The biggest part of the job is working directly with the department heads within our group and across other departments to manage our business – set our goals, develop and execute initiatives to meet or exceed those goals and like I tell everyone, figure out a way to sell a ticket better today than we did yesterday.
2. Tell Us What Your Average Week is Like?
Well, no two days are alike. There are usually a lot of meetings. One consistent meeting is a weekly staff meeting I have each Tuesday for our group. We meet as a full team, so directors, managers, account reps, bi-weekly, and on the alternate weeks, I meet with the three primary department heads under me.
The meetings I mentioned earlier really depend on the time of year. Our events are eight weeks apart, one race in June and one in August, so unlike a lot of other race tracks that have two races that are spread out, when we kick into race mode, we just keep going. Some other tracks who have a race early in the year and then again later, go through a bit of a roller coaster where there is a ramp up and then a bit of a drop off and then another ramp up. When we go through our first event, those eight weeks go pretty quickly, and before you know it, those NASCAR rigs are pulling back into town. So, leading up to the events and through the events there are a lot of event planning meetings. As we go through the summer, we also have to start on the following year’s budget, so getting ready for the second event usually hits the same time as we are trying to get our first round budget done. We also have to use that time to make some decisions on the following year’s ticket pricing and renewal strategies because right after our August event, we go out with renewals. Right now, we are in renewals and getting ready for our on-sale, as well as trying to sell sponsorships and get in to meet with companies who are also trying to make some decisions on the following year.
So, it’s a lot of juggling. You always have some type of fire drill that surfaces that takes some time. As you move up in this business, you have more and more managing of people and issues that you have to deal with.
In addition, we are going through a major capital improvement project right now, building 30 pit road suites and a new media center, so it has been fun to be part of the planning process for that and watching it come to life.
3. Tell us about your career path including jobs in the sports industry
I came up primarily through the PR ranks but was able to diversify a bit and gain some knowledge and experience on a lot of different fronts. Coming out of the Ohio University Sports Administration program with my master’s, I was able to land an internship with the Dodgers, starting in Vero Beach at Spring Training and being able to continue that internship in LA. I went to LA on an internship and ended up living there for 20 years. I was able to get my first full time job in PR with the Los Angeles Rams when they were playing in Anaheim and after a couple of years in the PR office, I moved over for a stint in Sales and Marketing. Later, I served as the Information Director for the Big West Conference, and then went to work for Disney-owned Anaheim Sports Inc. The Big West job was great. We had a small staff, so I was able to do a lot of different things over and above the Sports Info side. For example, get experience in event operations with our basketball tournament and hosting an NCAA Tournament. With ASI, I was directly in charge of the Community Relations efforts for the then Anaheim Angels, but also worked closely with the Community Relations team of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, including the fund raising arm for both teams. The community side really pulled a lot of my previous experiences into one position, from the PR side, to sales, to event operations. While working there in the late 1990s, a new speedway was opening in Fontana, California, and one of my former bosses, Jay Lucas, who is now with the Astros, became the first PR director there. He called on some old friends to help him at his first event, so I did and was hooked. I was never a big racing fan, but the sport was really taking off at the time. After a couple of years of volunteering and helping Jay out at the events, he offered me a position there on the PR side. After six years at the speedway, I went out on my own for a couple of years before landing this job. I will say that being out on my own was a tremendous experience and an unbelievable education. Sometimes I feel like I learned more in those two years than I did in my previous 18 years of professional experience. While not looking for a job and trying to make my own thing go, this opportunity at MIS presented itself.
Always pick up the phone –you never know who is on the other end!
4. What was the best advice you ever received and let us know if you follow it today?
It is hard to land on just one, and certainly people are usually willing to give advice. For me, I would say this one – “Never stop asking questions. If you do, that’s when you think you know everything, and that’s usually the time something will come back to bite you.” A high school teacher dropped that one and it has stuck with me.
I do follow it today. We are constantly learning and seeking more knowledge, especially as technology evolves in our business.
5. What are your top sports memories you are most fond of telling others?
I have great memories of every place I’ve worked, especially the people I’ve worked with. We are in the fun business, so we should have fun. We get to do a lot of cool things and be around interesting people, so we should savor those moments, but working in the business, we have to keep our business hat on, so it’s really only in times like this when I’m asked in this type of forum or at a speaking engagement or with family and friends, that I really think back at what I’ve done or places I’ve been. I will say this, while I don’t have them on display, I do have at least one really cool piece of memorabilia from every place I’ve worked or major event I’ve attended. One of these days, I’m going to make my own museum or sports bar themed area in my basement!
To pick a few, I’ll probably be all over the map, but here you go…how pristine everything looked at Dodgertown in Vero Beach; in awe of the Dodger greats at a Fantasy Camp; a Rams trip to Berlin shortly after the wall started coming down; going to the NFC Championship game my first year with the Rams and thinking this is how it was going to be every year and then winning five games the next year and three the year after that; being able to have family and friends attend events I’m part of and witnessing them enjoying the events while I’m stressed out as part of the event; going to NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Fours; working a Super Bowl; a sellout crowd; meeting and talking to race fans who are extremely passionate about “their” sport and “their” driver; seeing a professional athlete make an impact with his or her time and money to help someone or a community in need.
6. Your area has been one of the hardest hit in the country. How has the economy changed the way you are running events?
There are really two things to look at with this, not just how we operate our events but how we sell them as well. From a ticket selling standpoint, fans are making decisions later or closer to the event. With that happening, we moved more of our advertising to closer to the event, while in the past we turned off the paid media and let the PR take over. Our strategy was that we need both closer to the event. We revamped our pricing structure and introduced a general admission ticket. One thing we did make sure we kept our eye on was not panicking and dropping ticket prices as the event got closer. You need to take care of your most loyal customers – those who renew and those who make the commitment early. So, we held the line and did not drop prices as the event got closer. We are using that strategy right now with our renewals. All of our creative right now during our renewal period for 2010 is focused on our renewal customers getting the best prices of the year and our prices will never go below what our renewal customers receive. After that, when we move into our pre-sale period, some of the prices may reset and then when we move into our general on-sale, additional tickets may go up.
On the operations side, of course you need to adjust for a decline in ticket sales. So, you have less gate staff or ushers or parking staff; HOWEVER, the one thing we committed to is that we would not impact the guest experience. So, for example, we would never cut something like tram service. You still have to provide a quality event for the people who have made a commitment to come. Our president always says you can’t worry about the people who aren’t coming, take care of the ones who are and deliver on your promise of a quality event, and hopefully, the ones who couldn’t make it will find their way back in the near future.
7. How Does Your Current Job and Responsibilities Compare to those in the Past?
Well, this is the biggest group I’ve ever managed, so I spend a lot of time troubleshooting and processing a lot of information from a lot of different people to render a decision. In some of my past jobs I’ve been focused solely on my department. I feel like I’m always shifting gears. I could be talking advertising one minute and then working with our ticketing director the next minute on an issue with an account holder. I think that my past job experiences have trained me well for my current position; however, I will say, that as you climb the ladder, you deal more with human resource issues and budgets! I’ve worked for publicly traded companies, family-owned companies and associations and everyone handles their budget and finance process differently, but in the end, it’s about managing expenses and maximizing revenue. Advice that I give young people getting into this business is to have a good background and knowledge of finance. I’m not a numbers person, which is why I majored in Journalism as an undergrad(!), but everything we do impacts the bottom line.
8. Name a Few Mentors you have had and Why They’ve Had an Impact
This is kind of like the sports memories question – where do you start? In high school, because I showed an interest in wanting to learn about events and how things worked, there were two athletic directors, Alan Jafrate and Buzz Donahue, at the school who really helped increase my interest in sports management. While I competed in sports in high school, they would give me game management responsibilities at other sports events and let me help them out, either selling tickets or getting the event set up, cheap labor I guess, but real practical experience. I had a high school coach, Bob Eaton, who also inspired me to reach for my goals and get the most out of every opportunity in front of you and that no task is too small – do whatever it takes to get the job done and done well. I’m proud to say that to this day I remain in contact with these three men and they are dear friends. Tim Mead of the Angels is definitely someone who has been an influence for me. I watched Tim work from a distance for a few years as I was housed in Anaheim Stadium when working for the Rams and Tim was with the Angels and still is to this day. He always had great respect from the media, a respect he earned. I was fortunate to work for him later in my career. He had a great ability to build relationships and earn trust. Dennis Farrell and Rob Halvaks of the Big West Conference have also had an impact on my career. I was fortunate to work for them for about five years. What was great about working for them, and they are still together leading the conference, is how well they complimented each other. Teamwork isn’t something that just happens on the court or the field – it has to happen in the front office as well. I’ve always been impressed with their calm demeanor when everything around them seems to be crumbling, and they are able to get everything pieced back together and moving forward.
9. Where Do You See Opportunities For Growth in the Racing Industry in the Coming Year and Why?
I think we have to create some opportunities. We need to get some younger fans more engaged in the sport. We need to take care of our hard core, avid, long-time fans, but we need to find the next generation as well. I think our sport has done a tremendous job of delivering a return for sponsors via exposure and in-market activation, but I think there are more companies out there that if they give it a try, will see that a partnership in our sport works. So, we need to find some different entry points for partners and be creative in promotions, more creative than other sports, so that we deliver a big return. Budgets are under tremendous scrutiny, so we need to make it a no-brainer for companies to make the investment
10. Executives always talk about passion in your job. What are you passionate about and why?
As it relates to the job, I’m passionate about our fans. Our vision statement is “To Create Lasting Memories for Every Person, Every Time.” That’s a big undertaking. We are extremely focused on the guest experience and delivering a quality event. I’ve enjoyed meeting fans and talking to them about their experience, sharing stories and hanging out with them. I think it’s important to spend time with them to understand what they like and don’t like about your event or your venue.
I’m passionate about trying new things and being creative. I like brainstorming sessions. The ideas might not get any further than the conference room, but at least you are trying.
Anything else you want to add for the blog? Add it below….
I’ll go back to what I stated earlier. We are in the fun business, have fun, but I will say don’t be afraid to be competitive in the sports administration world. A lot of people in sports management played some type of organized sport growing up or collegiately or professionally – take that passion and competitiveness to the administration side. You want your organization to be No. 1 – figure out how to get there.
Embrace change. Embrace technology and use it.