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Minor-league ballparks become major league hits

Courtesy Albuquerque Isotopes

There’s a new player in the meetings game — the minor-league ballpark, where you can have great meetings and great fun.

From Albuquerque, N.M., to Akron, Ohio; from Lancaster, Pa., to Louisville, Ky.; and from Tacoma, Wash. to Trenton, N.J., minor-league baseball stadiums are proving they can host productive meetings, provide first-class service and offer reasonable rates.

And they’re heeding the calls of planners for new types of meeting and event spaces by adapting their facilities for groups or creating new facilities specifically for the meetings trade.
There’s something about a ballpark that seems to bring out creativity that might well be stifled in the usual meeting room back at the office. Perhaps it’s the green grass, the field of dreams, the American pastime or the fact that thousands of empty seats will be filled with excited fans in a few hours.

“And let’s face it,” said Linda Severino, human resources manager for the Professional Golfers Association (PGA), headquartered near a minor- league ballpark in Jupiter, Fla., “you can have a much more effective team-building exercise — and a lot more fun — with a softball game at a professional ballpark than you could ever have back in the office.”

These days, when meeting professionals are looking for more ways (with less money) to stage imaginative meetings that generate enthusiasm, it might be wise to consider taking people out to the ballpark. And here are six good places to do it.

Bisons have showplace stadium
Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo, N.Y., has long been a prime meeting venue. But other than on the field, management is not letting any grass grow under its feet.

“We just opened up our new SLR Media and Conference Suite on July 1,” said Brad Bisbing, director of public relations for the Buffalo Bisons of the International League, a farm team of the New York Mets. “And planners have been telling us it’s one of the most innovative spaces they’ve seen. It’s specifically designed for meetings, with Internet, phone-conferencing and video-conferencing capabilities. And there’s a wet bar for after the meeting.”

The room also has hardwood floors, a full-size conference table, cafe tables for smaller breakout groups and touch technology that controls every feature.

“And one of the best things about it,” Bisbing said, “is that you can see all the action on the field.”

The Buffalo Bisons have the advantage of a showpiece stadium;. At 18,025 capacity, Coca-Cola Field is the largest minor-league stadium in America. In the heart of downtown Buffalo, it’s convenient to everything. Its Pettibones Grille is one of the city’s better-known restaurants. In addition, the new media and conference suite is just one of its gathering places. There’s a three-tiered party deck in right field that can hold 50 people on each level. Pettibones Grille has an outdoor patio where patrons can watch the game, and the Labatt Blue Zone, which offers a bird’s-eye view of the action on the field, can hold up to 75 people for group outings.

“When you hold a meeting outside of the office, your attendees are more relaxed,” Bisbing said. “When you’re more relaxed, you’re more productive. And when you can tie it in to a ballgame or to bringing your attendees out on the field for team-building exercises, it makes for a fun atmosphere in which everyone’s involved.”


A pioneering ballpark in Pennsylvania

State College, in western Pennsylvania, is best known as the home of Penn State University. But it is also the site of 5,500-seat Medlar Field, home of the State College Spikes of the New York-Penn League, who are affiliated with the nearby Pittsburgh Pirates. Built in 2006, Medlar was ranked the No. 1 ballpark in America in the (short-season) Single-A leagues by “Baseball America.” And it’s the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified baseball park in America, making it a pioneer in the green movement.

Among the park’s environmental features are low-flow sinks and showers, a system that allows the stadium to reuse gray water for irrigation and other uses, and automatic lights that turn off after five minutes of no movement. About 75 percent of the materials used to construct the stadium were recycled.

The ballpark has a luxury-suite level with units that are leased to local companies for the season and used for their meetings and events in addition to the ballgames.

Suites are not the only option, however; this is one ballpark that gets creative with its meeting spaces. Meetings have been held in the batting cage and in the locker rooms.

Automaker Nissan recently held an executive meeting in the locker room, regarding its sponsorship of college football’s Heisman Trophy. Nissan executives took photos with the trophy, got a personal tour of the ballpark and tossed around ideas while sitting by the players’ lockers.

Medlar also offers attendees a chance to stay after meetings, with discounted rates for that night’s game.

“Planners tell us over and over again that a change of setting creates a stimulating influence on attendees,” said Scott Walker, director of group sales at Medlar Field, “and that it really unleashes some creative thinking.”

The ballpark is located on the Penn State campus, and it can be booked for meetings on football Saturdays in the fall.

“But one of the best things we can offer is the view,” Walker said. “When you look toward the outfield, you have a stunning view of Mount Nittany, which dominates the landscape here. People tell us it’s an incredible setting for a meeting or event.”

Eric Fiscus is senior community director for the area’s March of Dimes chapter. Every month, his committee meets at the ballpark to plan fundraising events.

“We’ve found that the atmosphere at the park is very conducive to getting things done,” Fiscus said. “It’s a more relaxed atmosphere, not stuffy. And when people are more relaxed, they’re more likely to contribute and more into the spirit of the meeting.”


Get your kicks and see some hits on Route 66
Albuquerque is one of those cities that really evokes a special sense of place. Sitting astride legendary Route 66, it’s as Southwestern as it gets, surrounded by high desert and the spectacular peaks of the Sandia range, with a fascinating mixture of Hispanic, Native American and Old West culture. Just south of Route 66 is 13,279-seat Isotopes Park, home of the Albuquerque Isotopes of the Pacific Coast League, an affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

A ballgame at Isotopes Park is really an event. And so are meetings there.

“We have 30 luxury suites,” said Steve Hurlbert, director of media relations. “We rent them out to corporations for a minimum of 10 years. And these companies often use their suites for meetings.”

In addition, planners can use the Blake’s Lottaburger Picnic Pavilion, which overlooks the bullpen and can hold up to 425; the Club Level Lounge, for up to 40 people; the home locker room (attendees love the opportunity to sit amidst the lockers, the uniforms and the bats and gloves — it seems to be a great motivation builder) and other common areas around the park.

“We’ve realized that companies in our city have a need for more nontraditional meeting spaces,” Hurlbert said. “And we believe that when you hold a meeting in an out-of-the-box venue, it helps generate out-of-the-box thinking. Where else can you hold a meeting in the afternoon and then see a ballgame at night?”

Jennifer Brower agrees. Brower is project manager for Project Heart Start, a New Mexico organization focused on heart health. In June, the organization held CPR training at Isotopes Park, and more than 2,000 people showed up. In addition, her committee holds bimonthly meetings at the park and not just during baseball season.

“We find that it’s an ideal space for us,” Brower said, “both for our large events and for our committee meetings. It’s a beautiful ballpark, and it’s great to have the pageantry of our national pastime when we meet. But we’re also finding that people are more relaxed in our meetings there, and when they’re more relaxed, they speak more freely than they might in an office setting. So we end up with a more creative exchange of ideas.”

Brower said that senior management bought into the idea of meeting at the ballpark immediately because of the park’s experience at hosting big events.

“We’re sold on the effectiveness of meetings at the park,” Brower said. “And we have the results to prove it.”


Waterside ballpark steals show on the Mississippi
In the heart of the Midwest lies perhaps America’s only minor- league franchise representing two states. The Quad Cities River Bandits, which play in Davenport, Iowa, also represent the cities of Bettendorf, Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island, Ill. The two Iowa cities and the two in Illinois are across the Mississippi River from each other, and the River Bandits, an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, play in the Midwest League.

Modern Woodmen Park, a 7,000-seat facility, offers an incredible view across the Mississippi into Rock Island, with the bridge across the river brilliantly lit at night.

“We can accommodate up to 500 people for a sit-down dinner in our suite-level area,” said Stefanie Brown, assistant general manager of the River Bandits. “And we have a nice variety of other spaces. Our Mediacom Sports Lounge can serve dinner for 80. Our double suites can fit up to 20 people. And we’ve just added a triple suite, which can hold up to 50 people. We have flexibility that a lot of traditional meeting spaces don’t.”

Many local companies choose the park for training, as well as charity events and holiday parties.

“We just held our annual recognition meeting at the ballpark with 150 attendees,” said Emily Jepsen, senior program director of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mississippi Valley. “And we’re already planning our next one there, because the staff is so responsive, and because you get to see a ballgame, too.”

After the organization’s senior executives saw the park, they needed no convincing. “It’s such a beautiful location,” Jepsen said. “When you look across the Mississippi into Illinois and you see that lighted bridge, you know you’ve made the right choice.”


Tourists swing in Smoky Mountains
Nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, Asheville is a beautiful town and a special place to hold a meeting.

Its minor-league ballpark, McCormick Field, seats 3,500 and sits against the side of a mountain. It is the home of the Asheville Tourists of the South Atlantic League, an affiliate of the Colorado Rockies.

“We offer a bunch of options that enable groups to meet in the daytime and then see the game at night in a suite or box,” said Ryan Koehler, group sales manager. “That’s become a really popular choice for a lot of local companies here.”

Larger groups generally meet in the Pepsi Party Pavilion, which can hold up to 200 people; most smaller groups use the Clubhouse Suite, which can hold up to 40 in the daytime and 20 during a game. In addition to local companies, civic and community organizations also meet there, among them the prestigious Leadership Asheville.

“Which do you think generates more productivity and more participation,” Koehler said, “a conference table with four walls and no windows, or a ballpark on a sunny day?”

Tiffany Erwin is a former Miss South Carolina contestant who owns a marketing company and a consignment shop in Hendersonville, N.C. She frequently holds Rotary Club Appreciation Nights at McCormick Field and recently held a retirement party for a local college president there.
McCormick is built in the old-fashioned style: cozy and comfortable. And Erwin says it’s a great place to hold a function.

“Meeting at the ballpark is very convenient,” she said. “Everything we need is right there: the meeting facilities, the food, the entertainment. And the Tourists staff really knows how to stage a meeting or event.”


The park in Jupiter’s palms
In Jupiter, Fla., Roger Dean Stadium is home to two teams that play in the Florida State League.
The Jupiter Hammerheads are the farm team of the Florida Marlins, 70 miles down the road in Miami, and the Palm Beach Cardinals are affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals. The stadium holds 7,000 and is ideally positioned to capture a large share of the meetings market.

“Most of the companies and organizations that hold meetings here have them in the suites or on the party deck, which can hold 300 people” said Alex Inman, ticket sales and group events coordinator at Roger Dean Stadium.

“We give them the suite for the whole day, including the games at night. So after a successful meeting, they have the opportunity to reward their people with a really good time.”

Large corporations, law firms, Florida Atlantic University and the nearby Scripps Research Institute are among the organizations that have met there.

“We make meetings fun,” Inman said. “If the meeting’s during spring training [the Marlins and Cardinals both train there], we even have meet-and-greets with players and managers.”

The Professional Golfers Association of America, located in nearby Palm Beach Gardens, held team-building activities at the stadium during a company picnic in May for 300 employees and family members. The PGA plans to meet there again.

“Our attendees felt it was a great experience,” said Linda Severino, human resources manager. “It’s really something to hold your team-building exercises on the ball field where the pros play. It was one of our most well received events ever. I’m a big advocate of holding your meetings at a minor-league park.”