Q&A with Honda Center President/CEO, Tim Ryan

In the span of nearly 40 years in the arena management business, Tim Ryan has pretty much seen it all. He started in 1992 at what was then known as Anaheim Arena – later renamed the Arrowhead Pond and known for the past 10 years as Honda Center – as part of a team of just four people. Now he oversees more than 250 full-time and more than 2,000 part-time staff and has helped guide the Arena into one of the world’s top entertainment venues, one that remains on the cutting-edge in an age when new arenas are seemingly sprouting up every week.  


Honda Center President/CEO, Tim Ryan, has been in the arena management business for nearly four decades.
Ryan has also led major efforts to upgrade Honda Center, assuring it remains one of the world’s top-of-the-line sports and entertainment venues. In September 2015, a new state-of-the-art scoreboard debuted, marking the largest and most impactful upgrade to the spectator experience in the history of a venue that has seen countless upgrades and fan enhancements over the last decade.
In this Q&A, taken from Honda Center’s website, Ryan talks about what it means to drive the growth of Honda Center, his thoughts on the fan experience and what has changed both at his facility and in the wider sports and entertainment business, how technology has affected the Arena operations and the live entertainment business, and the impact of the ownership of Henry and Susan Samueli.
What is your approach to running an arena like Honda Center?
Not a day goes by around here without us talking about how we can deliver a greater experience for the fan. Fans want to park close to the facility, they want to arrive early and they want to have a myriad of opportunities for food and beverage. With the opening of our restaurant here, the Standing ‘O’, the sold-out Shock Top Terrace, the private Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Club, everything we do on the Premium Level and everything we do at the concession stands is geared toward having something for everybody. It has gotten to the point where no longer is it an amenity to have easy ingress and egress, superb food and beverage, outstanding merchandise in a fully staffed team store. Fans expect a safe environment with a knowledgeable and friendly staff.  They certainly expect to be entertained at a very high level once they arrive at the venue.  I guess if you asked me the overall approach that we take to running the arena it is one that always looks at things from the fan perspective.  If you put yourself in their shoes, it provides the proper perspective.
How have fan expectations affected the arena management business?
Fan expectations are so much higher than they were even five years ago, much greater than they were certainly 20 years ago. Before, you bought a ticket, you came to an event, you parked, grabbed your favourite food and beverage, sat down and watched the event and you went home. It is so different nowadays, that the fans’ expectations from the ticket buying process through the entire arena experience are so much higher, and they should be. Fans want and expect a robust ticketing platform, a fair and fast resale environment on the team side and a clear idea online of where their seat is going to be located. Everything that comes about, whether it’s food and beverage, merchandise, Wi-Fi and other technology, transportation, it seems to be finding its way into our business. It’s a built-in expectation for things like Wi-Fi and great food. We need to have an easy environment and provide a great experience for these people. Otherwise, they may stop looking at live entertainment as one of their options. I haven’t said it before but I have always felt that fans sincerely appreciate a clean environment. When I walk down the street and see how spotless Disneyland is even when they have tens of thousands in attendance, I believe they are a model we should all try and emulate.
A few years ago, Honda Center brought all of the food and beverage operations in-house and then did the same with merchandise. Has that gone like you expected?

It’s hard to believe that we’re into our fourth year of bringing both of these operations in-house. From every aspect – the HR side of it, the constant hiring and training, everything – it is a tremendous amount of work. It’s probably more work than I thought it was going to be, but we really wanted it to be a seamless operation from top to bottom. The teams that oversee both of these operations would be the first to agree that it is much more work than having a third party handle this part of our business.  I also believe they like the level of control they have over an in-house environment. There are so many positive benefits when you run an arena and a team under one ownership that aren’t seen by the general public. One of them is that we’re all on the same page when we start talking about sponsorships that are food and beverage related.On the merchandise side of things, it has been so rewarding to see how our CMO has woven the marketing in to the merchandise operation. It has allowed him to have total control over the brand from every aspect.  All of us will admit, there have been growing pains. Both Food and Beverage and Retail Merchandise are very hard business units that people work very hard in behind the scenes, but it’s been rewarding. We will always follow the sentiment of the fans, and from what I hear from them in emails or when I see them at events, they seem to be very pleased with the changes we’ve made in both of these areas.  I think the one thing that is consistent with both of these areas of our business is that you can never, ever take your eye off the ball.


“The fans’ expectations from the ticket buying process through the entire arena experience are so much higher, and they should be. Everything that comes about, whether it’s food and beverage, merchandise, Wi-Fi and other technology, transportation, it seems to be finding its way into our business. It’s a built-in expectation for things like Wi-Fi and great food. We need to have an easy environment and provide a great experience.”

How has the construction of the Shock Top Terrace, which included a significantly improved Team Store, impacted the arena?
It’s almost like you wonder how we got by without them before. We went from a 1,500sqft Team Store to one that’s north of 6,000sqft. To see it so busy and to go from near the bottom of the league in merchandise sales into the top 10, a lot of it has to do with quality merchandise, available space and a number of points of sale. Our Merchandise Manager has to anticipate demand and styles. Like I said before, retail is a hard business. I have gained a tremendous amount of respect for the folks that run it from top to bottom. The fans have really embraced the fact that we have branched out significantly in terms of variety and styles.


I think the Shock Top Terrace and Standing ‘O’ restaurant were certainly ideas whose time had come. People were looking for an indoor-outdoor Southern California environment like the one we created. So the fact that it’s sold out and the people I talk to enjoy it, is very gratifying, though we’re constantly looking at what we can do to make it better. What’s catching on now is the Standing ‘O’, and for key events, it works out really well to give fans a great dining experience when they’re at a game or a show. As fans look for a seamless experience at an arena, this is another amenity that allows our patrons to arrive a bit early, sit down and have a great meal. They get up, attend their favorite game or event and head home. It is just another step in making the attendance at a live event as easy as possible.


Is there something in your Honda Center career you look back on and say, “That’s the thing I’m most proud of”?
I think it would be unfair to pick one thing, because our business has layers. There were probably 100 moments, and they all deserve, in the right context, to be No. 1. I hope it goes without saying that when the Ducks won the Stanley Cup, it was a top moment for all of us. I think the one I’m personally very proud of was the ability to help bring the operators of the arena and the operators of the team and create one organisation. They are different cultures with different expectations, so to be able to pull that off in a very short period of time was very rewarding. Maybe as I move along in my career, it is very rewarding to see young people come in to our business and move up.  If I have been part of a team that has provided an environment that allows individuals to move up in their careers, I would say that is pretty satisfying.


What is the role technology plays in the fan experience? 

When I started in the mid-‘70s, the technology was pretty much, “Do we have enough pay phones?” The world has changed, but I do think there is a fine line between embracing all technology and letting technology get in the way of the live experience. I think back to when arenas were contemplating in-seat playback with miniature screens or monitors. That hasn’t taken off, though it may in the future, but it sort of took people’s eyes off the action on the ice, stage or the court and put it on a screen next to their seat.
I think there are enhancements that take the experience to another level, such as our new high-def scoreboard, our new sound system that has perfect clarity where people can see perfectly and they can hear perfectly. The LED ribbon boards that really enhance the fan interaction during an event. Those types of things are fantastic. I always say, let’s not do anything to get in the way of a fan and their favourite athlete or the fan and their favourite entertainer. If the technology is an enhancement and doesn’t get in the way of that direct line, then I’m all for it. As we all know, fans bring technology with them to every event. They are constantly checking out of town scores, Snapchatting from a concert or texting friends. I do see fans looking to engage their own devices more and more at events. I think our Marketing team would agree that there is tremendous upside in this area. As I look back, it is amazing how fast technology has become part of our industry. We started with a part-time staff member in the ‘90s and we are now at a point where we have an entire IT Division headed by a very senior VP.
And in-arena Wi-Fi has become increasingly important as well, which Honda Center has addressed this year?
We’re making a seven-figure investment in upgrading our Wi-Fi, and it was three years ago where we thought we were state-of-the-art. A year after that, we found out we were already behind the curve. When [Ducks Executive Vice President & General Manager] Bob Murray and I speak to the fans, we talk about everything, and one of the loudest ovations we’ve gotten is when I’ve talked about upgrading the Wi-Fi. A really sophisticated technological environment is almost the same expectation as what drinking fountains used to be. It’s no longer looked at as an amenity. It’s now looked at as an expectation. Connectivity opens so many doors. Whether it is fan interaction of providing the ability for a parent to know that everything is fine at home, the ability to know you are indeed connected provides a comfort level. For us, making this huge investment to take it to the next level is going to make a difference not only for the fans, but what entertainment we can deliver to them. So that’s certainly one of the upgrades we’re excited about, and I think the fans are going to see a huge difference once the project is finalized.
In addition to the new scoreboard and sound system, you have added StadiumVision screens throughout the arena. How has that enhanced the fan experience?
Before when you left your seat, you went to a concession stand or the restroom and you lost touch with what was happening inside the arena bowl. StadiumVision just allows people to have that continuity from when they leave their seats to when they return. They don’t feel like they’re missing anything before they get back to the action. So I’m a big fan of things like that, but I’m not a big fan if somebody comes up with an idea that detracts from the business we’re in, the business of live sports and entertainment. We are always looking at new arenas that are opening to see if things are being put in place that we should consider. But for a facility like ours that is over 20 years old, to be able to say it’s state-of-the-art is very rewarding. Our ownership certainly gives us the resources to be able to maintain that.
Since the Samuelis took over the Ducks in 2005, the fans have really embraced them as fellow Orange County residents, as philanthropists and as great team owners. It’s so rewarding to work for such focused and caring people. Credit: Getty Images


Speaking of that, what have Henry and Susan Samueli meant when it comes to the growth of the Ducks and Honda Center? 
When Henry and Susan took over the management of the facility in 2003, they gave [Ducks CEO and Honda Center Chairman of the Board] Mike Schulman the autonomy to do it right. And Mike has given me the autonomy to run it properly. First and foremost, they are really connected to this facility. If I had to guess, I would say they are here no less than 75 times per year, whether it’s every Ducks game they can make, taking a grandchild to the circus or every concert they can make. Their input has been invaluable over the years. This isn’t just another property to them. It’s a crown jewel for them. When they walk into the facility and see a building some might say looks only 5 to 7 years old, my hope is they take a tremendous amount of pride in that, like the rest of us do. Since they took over the Ducks in 2005, the fans have really embraced them as fellow Orange County residents, as philanthropists and as great team owners. It’s so rewarding to work for such focused and caring people. There is a very solid connection between Henry and Susan and Mike Schulman that carries right in to my office. Decisions are made quickly and efficiently. Owning the Ducks is one of their loves, and they wear it on their sleeves. Like all of our fans, they hate it when we lose and love it when we win, and I believe they’re more passionate now than ever.
Aside from the technology side, is there anything you can say has changed the most in the time you’ve worked in this industry? 
One of the bigger changes – and it’s the way of the world – is the focus on security, especially after 9/11. We want to make sure we have an extremely safe environment, but we don’t want an environment that takes away from what people are here to do – and that’s to have fun. So, one of the things that is top of mind for me is having a safe and secure environment. Fans have supported the changes we’ve made, whether that’s walking through metal detectors, additional security we have in-house and all of the closed-circuit cameras we have in the facility. And of course there are the changes in food and beverage and merchandise offerings. I think the one thing that hasn’t changed is that people are still passionate about their team, their favourite artist.
What has being in this business taught you? 
I’ve learned a lot in almost 40 years. I’ve learned that we’re in the business of providing an outlet for people. There are people who have different struggles in their lives, whether it’s personal or professional. Our job is that when they walk in this door, we provide them an absolutely entertaining experience. That could be a fantastic hockey game, could be a basketball game, could be a great concert or a circus their kids are seeing for the very first time. Every time someone walks in the door, this could possibly be the greatest night of their life. I don’t ever take that for granted, and I’m still as enthusiastic about it as I’ve ever been.


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