Interview with Ben Sharman, Venue Sales Manager, Arena Birmingham and Genting Arena
In this industry interview, SVB’s Katie McIntyre hears insights from Ben Sharman, Venue Sales Manager at Arena Birmingham and Genting Arena, confirmed host venues for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, on everything from cashless payments to enhancing the fan experience.
Can you start off by telling us a little about you, your background and career highlights to date?
I was recently promoted to Venue Sales Manager for the NEC Group Arenas. I’ve worked with the Group for three years already, having previously worked in the commercial team on naming rights deals for both arenas.
I’ve been very lucky in my career to date, having worked across three fast-paced industries. Fresh out of university, I worked as a Commercial Assistant at British Athletics, where I was representing two Paralympic gold medallists, liaising with agents and negotiating sponsorship deals. This is where I got the bug for sales. This led to a role as Sponsorship Executive at Aston Villa Football Club – one of just a two-man sponsorship team for the club. Working behind the scenes for the Premier League club I support, was a real privilege. I loved the unpredictability of it all and how we were selling experiences to thousands of fans every week; it was very similar to what we do at the arenas.
What are some of the key challenges as the Venue Sales Manager for Arena Birmingham and Genting Arena?
Building my profile within the arenas industry! I’ve already had exposure in my previous Group role, and I’m keen to strengthen this further. However, the only way to do this is to work hard and deliver profitable events for our clients.
I also want to drive new content to Birmingham, and look into new event genres for us, so it’s a challenge I’m really looking forward to.
What are some of the key drivers/objectives for the next 24-36 months?
Working across both venues (Genting Arena and Arena Birmingham), I will be working with the Arenas’ existing client base and nurturing many of the relationships the Arenas sales team has built with promoters and event organisers over the years. I’ll also be looking at attracting new business and bringing new event concepts to market.
Encouraging high-profile awards and televised events to come up from London to the Midlands is also a key driver for me. Both arenas are world-class, flexible and have some of the best transport links being located in the heart of the country – these are all fantastic assets we really need to demonstrate to promoters and event organisers.
As previously mentioned, another objective is to use our venues in ways we never have before. One recent example is the international esport event, the ESL One Dota 2 Major. Attracting alternative content like this to our arenas is fantastic news for us and the city. We’ve also had experience in co-promotion, so creating our own events and working with promoters is another route we’d like to focus on.
You have a strong sports pedigree, having worked for British Athletics, Aston Villa and having previously been Sponsorship Manager at the NEC Group between 2014 and 2017. Although different industry niches, what have been the key lessons you’ve learnt along the way? And how do you intend to build on your previous experiences in your new role?
It sounds a little cliché, but people really do business with people they like. I’ve always found that people who are just being sold ‘at’ aren’t receptive; people can see straight through the sales patter. You need to have clear communication between you and the client (whether you’re giving good or bad news!) and build a rapport. I think the ability to react quickly to changing environments is something that’ll be vital in this role, but honesty is really the key.
How do you foresee the sector evolving over the next 5-10 years, particularly in regards to the premium offering and fan experience at the two arenas under your remit?
Inevitably, the digital world is only going to keep going, and this will be translated into the types of events we sell for. Esports is fresh and only started gaining traction five or so years ago, and is already big business the world over.
Consumer brands are also starting to work with promoters to create their own events – offering fantastic promotional opportunities in our growing live events industry. However, industry growth also generates additional issues for venue operators like ourselves. Firstly, we need to maintain the level of service we currently give to customers, artists and promoters; more arenas are popping up around the country, and although it’s easy for everyone to get to Birmingham, it’s also easy for those in Birmingham to go to other arenas – we need to protect ourselves and deliver the best experience possible and move with the times. One example is Wi-Fi – now a core factor for any large venue, that was only in its infancy 10 years ago. In recent years, we’ve continued to enhance our Wi-Fi coverage for customers, which in turn helps to promote our venue through tags on social media etc.
Event ticketing will also evolve. Customers are becoming ever more savvy to pricing, so there’ll be a rise in ethical ticketing and hopefully more transparency from ticket agents.
Finally, the fan experience will be more personalised than ever before. Merchandise pre-ordering and in-seat ordering will be well established across all venue types, as we all strive to achieve the best experiences possible and ultimately, repeat custom.
Arena Birmingham recently hosted three major Commonwealth Games sports. How important is it to secure these types of high level events?
Arena Birmingham was built for sport and its part of the venue’s great history, so to host these was a real honour. Ahead of hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games, it’s important for Birmingham and the Arena, to create and protect this legacy and bring in more arena equivalent events.
The British Athletics Indoor Championships, IAAF World Indoor Championships and the 2018 Gymnastics World Cup all served us well in showing the venue to the world and highlighting our capabilities as a venue.
Genting Arena recently became the first UK arena to go cashless across its F&B concessions. What were the key drivers and benefits of doing this?
Prior to the initiative, 70% of food and beverage transactions were being paid for in cash – since November 2017, this has reduced to just 20%, with 80% of transactions being made on card. This has resulted in less queuing and a better customer experience with cashless payments speeding up every transaction by around 20 seconds.
Huge thanks to Ben for taking the time out of his busy schedule to do this interview with us.
Images, courtesy: NEC Arenas Group