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From March Madness to Man United: Brands Make Fan Dreams Come True

Last Updated: April 8, 2024
As fans show up to the biggest events of the sporting calendar, many brands have fostered dream experiences. Boardroom goes behind the scenes to understand how these once-in-a-lifetime experiences come together.

The travel industry took a huge hit in 2020, but as of late both business and leisure travel are back up and booming. With that, fans are hopping on flights to catch their favorite teams in action. Through a combination of innovation and pie-in-the-sky dreaming, brands have crafted unique experiences that the average fan never even allowed themselves to dream of.

Back in 2019, Marriott Bonvoy became a leader of these opportunities. The global corporation began its foray into A-list experiences in the sports and entertainment space with the introduction of the Seat of Dreams at Old Trafford. During a Manchester United home game, some lucky fans had the chance to watch the club play from a once-in-a-lifetime vantage point while enjoying complimentary food and drinks, all whilst seated alongside Manchester United legends. Several years later, the two sides raised the stakes with the Suite of Dreams in April 2022. One Red Devils fan and a guest won the chance to wake up in Old Trafford on a Man United match day from the comfort of a suite made to look like a Marriott Hotels guest room overlooking the pitch.

“Part of our creative strategy is, ‘Hey, what could we dream up that would really cool for our members?’ That’s our team thinking from the perspective of consumers and working alongside the talent or the organization themselves to come up with these really cool activations,” said Peggy Roe, Executive Vice President and Chief Customer Officer of Marriott International, Inc.

Companies are motivated by delighting everyday devotees rather than catering to an elite group of individuals with the monetary means. Anyone can say they received tickets to watch Manchester United win in a thriller against Liverpool, but who can say they sat next to retired defender Wes Brown, picking his brain about the club’s future potential?

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Bringing Fans From Manchester to March Madness

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, sports tourism is the fastest-growing sector in the travel industry. With an estimated growth rate of 17.5% between 2023-2030, marquee competitions like the Olympics, World Cup, and the Super Bowl have become less of an avenue for fans to watch their favorite teams play, but now the perfect excuse to visit a city on their bucket list.

Tens of thousands will flock to Cleveland this weekend for the NCAA women’s March Madness Final Four. With the Elite Eight shattering viewership records, it’s only expected that this weekend’s Final Four and national championship games will break even more ratings and fuel an uptick in ticket prices for women’s sports.

For Marriott, it’s self-explanatory that entities like the NFL, NCAA, Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team, and others would partner with one of the largest hotel chains in the world. But what makes a fitting potential partner? Simple answer: the fans. The most loyal of all know the ins and outs of their favorite teams and the key aspects of game day rituals that set them apart. Roe explained this to Boardroom:

“I think in the beginning, we were just testing and learning. We started with tickets to Madison Square Garden and then would see what people were interested in from there. Out of that was born the NFL relationship, then NCAA and The Mercedes F1 Team. They can carry us around the world, or they’re big platforms for marketing, and we know that people are passionate about it, but increasingly, there are so many passions.

“Last year, we did some research and broke it down by age to try to better understand what people spend their money on and what motivates their travel. We found that music, sports, and culinary are top of the list. And those are even broad categories you have to dive in deeper to understand well, what about music, sports, and culinary makes people want to pack their bags?”

However, for the brands, creating experiences such as these allows for the opportunity to help improve systems that are otherwise broken. Marriott realized that instead of consumers fighting the bots and masses on Ticketmaster for a first pass at tickets, they’ll unveil their own system for attracting basketball enthusiasts.

Curating the Perfect Game Day Ritual

The most maniacal of fans are known for their fierce commitment to not only their favorite teams but also their game-day rituals. Per a Marriott Bonvoy survey administered by Wakefield Research, 63% of fans with a day of traditions believe their team will lose if they don’t complete said habit and 50% would even wear the opposite team’s gear for a week if it meant their favorite team would come out victorious. Even more fascinating, 74% of those with game day rituals said they would risk their job to watch their team play for a championship during work hours.

As the Official Hotel Partner of the NCAA, Marriott Bonvoy launched a campaign and contest where both fans and players could participate in game-day giveaways and personalized moments with basketball coach Sydney Carter at the Women’s Final Four in Cleveland. The “Score Big with Marriott Bonvoy Game Day Ritual” encouraged fans to post their most unusual game day ritual. One lucky entry won a grand prize for two including flights and hotel accommodations to the Women’s Final Four games this weekend in Cleveland that included a game day rituals session with Coach Carter. The opportunity to go behind the scenes of the biggest event in college basketball allowed fans to get a different perspective, while banking stories to tell for a lifetime.

“We want Bonvoy to help enrich people’s lives,” Roe said when asked about a through line between sports and hospitality. “We talk about connecting people to people, passions, and places in the world through community. But what we’re able to do because of that and 8,800 hotels around the world and 10,000 locations is to be able to unite people around the world. So there’s this element of, yes, we’re a hotel, but what we’re really doing is facilitating a new aspect of travel. Underneath it all, it feels like a hotel company, but it’s the communities that run our hotels every day.”

Marriott isn’t the first, and it certainly won’t be the last firm to pivot toward this method of experiential promotion. However, they’ve developed a blueprint that’s easily tailored based on the sport and activity. Not everyone will have the chance to say they saw Caitlin Clark or Kamilla Cardoso play in one of her last games as a college student, but for big brands, the games are only a small part of an unforgettable experience.

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Vinciane Ngomsi

Vinciane Ngomsi is a Staff Writer at Boardroom. She began her career in sports journalism with bylines at SB Nation, USA Today, and most recently Yahoo. She received a bachelor's degree in Political Science from Truman State University, and when she's not watching old clips of Serena Williams' best matches, she is likely perfecting her signature chocolate chip cookie recipe or preparing a traditional Cameroonian meal.

About The Author
Vinciane Ngomsi
Vinciane Ngomsi
Vinciane Ngomsi is a Staff Writer at Boardroom. She began her career in sports journalism with bylines at SB Nation, USA Today, and most recently Yahoo. She received a bachelor's degree in Political Science from Truman State University, and when she's not watching old clips of Serena Williams' best matches, she is likely perfecting her signature chocolate chip cookie recipe or preparing a traditional Cameroonian meal.