Landing in a sunny and humid Miami at 7am after having caught an overnight flight from Los Angeles I hit the ground running by dropping my gear off at my airport hotel and arranging an Uber out to Hard Rock Stadium for my meeting with the Dolphins and the game against rivals Buffalo.
As luck would have it I was able to book an Uber at 9am out to the stadium using a game day code that only cost me $2.99USD and dropped me off hassle free in the designated Uber Tailgate section, which was a short walk across the road from the stadium. My driver Ralph was a knowledgeable chap from Jersey who had not dropped a passenger off at this new section before however even he remarked at how easy this was for both Uber driver and rider. The Uber Tailgate was a good first impression from a transportation perspective and featured a waiting area tent that had mobile charging stations, food and beverages as well as couches and customer service staff on hand to help with drop offs and pick ups.
I say my goodbyes to Ralph and cross the road into the stadium concourse where the tailgate is in full swing with the smell and sound of barbequed meats and beer cans cracking respectively. Standing directly underneath the eastern side of Hard Rock Stadium (formerly Sun Life Stadium up until this year) I look up to take in the new architectural feature of a venue wide shade canopy that now provides coverage to over 85% of the stadium and in turns adds to the fan experience by keeping fans comfortable in this humid and hot climate. While the 30-year-old stadium is dated in various parts inside the stadium, standing at a distance on a cloud free and crisp blue-sky day such as today enables every aspect of the new design to be perfectly illustrated in greater detail.
Walking into the offices of the Miami Dolphins for my meeting and it’s not hard to get a sense of the prestige about this place and team and how internationally renowned they are in the context of major sporting organisations. I laughed when even my non sports loving girlfriend knew who they were due due to the 1993 cinematic masterpiece Ace Ventura featuring Jim Carrey and the case of the stolen Miami Dolphin mascot.
At around 10am I meet with customer service manager Anthony Mozzicato who has recently taken on the role here at the Dolphins having previously left his mark working on world-renowned fan experiences at KC Royals and Sporting Kansas. Such is the hospitality and life long learning nature of so many American’s I’ve met on my stadium journey’s, Anthony has kindly let me shadow him and his team for the day and over the course of the next 7 hours I’m able to learn the in’s and out’s of the Dolphins fan experience which as you’ll read below is nothing short of outstanding.
Starting with a walk around the stadium to the pre-game briefing with stadium usher’s and his staff it was impressive to see so many smiling happy motivated staff who are clearly so pumped to work at the stadium and do their best for fans on game day. Witnessing both the professional and fun side of the Dolphins culture, it was really impressive to see one of Anthony’s team revving up the team with a talk about their core values and motto ‘I promise to care, I promise know and I promise to connect’ while also seeing the staff get behind and buy into this message of making sure the fans come first and are looked after here. It was nice to see staff being rewarded with certificates and gifts for their hard work during the briefing that as we all know goes such a long way in creating loyalty amongst staff. This was also highlighted by the fact that I met with so many casual staff members who had been at the stadium for 20-30 years or more and told me that they felt like they were a part of the family.
It’s 11am and as we snake our way around the venue we stop at every concession stand, police officer, security person and usher so that Anthony can greet them with a personable ‘hello, how are you, I’m Anthony, tell me about yourself’ which showcased Anthony’s skills in customer service but also his emphasis on educating his staff about how they too should talk and greet fans on game day. Furthermore when it comes to the importance of first impressions, I couldn’t agree more with Anthony’s take on this as he politely calls out a couple of the crew for slouching in chairs, being on their mobiles or chewing gum while we walk throughout the diverse suites and stands of the stadium.
I’m introduced to the staff at the Guest Experiences Headquarters booth on the top level and talk to them about their signs ‘How May I Help You’ and their first game badges and certificates as well as the work they do to help fans with any concerns or queries during the game. The first game badges and certificates are such a creative and cheap fan engagement idea that any stadium can do and I’d love to see more Australian teams give this a go.
Showcasing his creativity from his time at Sporting KC and SKC, Anthony highlights some of the latest football themed colourful paint jobs that have gone up around the venue’s walls that have been painted by local artists. This was a clever idea to both combine the talents of the local community as well as make a dull space vibrant and I look forward to seeing how this and the other ideas his team and him have to further upgrade the stadium before the Super Bowl in 2020.
With kick off an hour away I leave Anthony and hit the fan zone to soak up the fan engagement activations around the outside of the stadium concourse which was interesting in that any fan would have been able to participate in this as opposed to many other NFL stadium’s which I’ve visited whereby the fan zone is located after security. The fan zone was a hive of activity and colour and featured a host of the usual suspects activations as well as some other cool things.
Starting at a photo booth I have a picture taken with various Dolphins props and then turn around to see a young girl handing out free beef sandwich samples from a sauce sponsor. I venture into the Bud Light Tiny House Party where colourful icy cold teal cans of Dolphins branded Bud Light’s are available for $2. This sure beats the usual prices in US stadiums so I smash two back and ask if I have to stay in the tiny house or if I can keep walking around the fan zone to which the girl replies ‘Yes of course, just don’t go into the stadium with it’. Oh America, you and your liquor licensing RSA laws are indeed interesting compared to Australia where merely having a beer outside a stadium will result in a fine or refusal of entry at the very least. The Bud Light trailer house also had a cool big can, which represented a good photo opportunity. I would secretly love one of these in the backyard.
I check out the ‘Locker Room’ where you can lift up super lightweight weights and have pics taken and then I have a go at the ‘Push The Truck’ Ford activation whereby you get to push a huge Ford Ute which comically for the people that did it after me nearly drove straight into the other Ford car which was being used for a virtual reality bit of fun that involved fans pretending to kick a football into a TV in the boot of the car.
The ‘Dolphins Makeover’ allowed fans to have their faces painted in game day colours while the ‘Size Me Up’ wall enabled fans to see how they rack up against the players. The photo opportunities were endless and included area’s where fans could get their pictures taken with a pair of giant gloves, a cheerleader wall and a cut out of a life size player as well as a big ‘F_NS’ letter wall where fans could stand in place of the ‘I’ to complete the word. Making my way further into the fan zone I think about having a go at the fitness themed fan engagement ‘Tunnel Run’ and ‘Dolphins Combine’ but decide to avoid giving these a crack after having only just sampled a heart attack inducing Arepa and two beers. It was great to see kids and parents enjoying these activations that let them tackle the bags and catch a pass to make a TD on a cushioned landing try line.
While plenty of these sponsor led activation stations had iPad sign up’s that let fans walk away with heaps of freebies like sunglasses, flags (on all 60,000+ seats), pins, badges, stickers, t-shirts, drinks and wipes it always amazes me that these are not better under cover as filling in the forms is difficult with the glare on the screens and I nearly gave up and saw others do the same. I’m glad I persevered and signed up though to a few sponsor things so I could participate in the activities like this one where you put a round disc into a board and it hovers down to the bottom zig zagging along the way and landing on the name of a prize which you walk away with. Anyone know what this game is called?
One down side I’ve found on my US stadium travels with these activations is that in order to walk away with freebies you often need to be a US citizen as you need to have a US address to submit the online forms or survey’s. In a way it’s absolutely fair because naturally a sponsor like South Florida Ford is not at all wanting to tap into getting all the data from a Melbourne Toyota Landcruiser owner like myself. However you can get around this by just using your hotel or using the address of a famous US landmark that can be easily remembered.
Later on Anthony shows me The Tap Room which if you can believe this features over 50 Florida and Miami based beers from local independent breweries. I settle on an Islamorada ‘Sandbar Sunday’ and we keep walking. The concession stands offered diverse gourmet stadium food options such as wings, garlic waffle fries and sushi to locally inspired fare like arepa’s and all looked fresh although I truly think more US stadiums are going to start going the way of the MCG and Mercedes Benz Stadium in reducing stadium food prices as like any major US sports stadium the prices for food here are really quite outrageous. If you’re one of those people back home who complains about the price of beer ($7-8AUD for a schooner) then spare a thought for our American sports friends who are paying anywhere from $9-15USD for beer and the same goes for the food. One thing though to consider is that over here the quality and diversity of craft beer and food is very high and Hard Rock Stadium was no exception with some yummy stuff on sale.
Taking up my seat for the game and I can feel the heat from the very cool flame lit tunnel that is going off every time a player is introduced to the crowd. The in-game digital fan engagement was very good from the Dolphins and far out was these fans loud, possibly even louder then when I was at the 49ers and Levi’s Stadium last year. From the ‘Oblivious Cam’ to dance cam, lip sync cam, honouring service men and women, ARMY chopper fly over, seat upgrades there was plenty going on during the breaks in play for fans to get involved with.
The only negative on the day was when I made my way back to the Uber Tailgate to grab a ride back to the airport. I think this was an issue that is well and truly out of the team and stadium’s control but this was a debacle due to the nature of the road set up and traffic post event. The idea is that when you get back to the Uber Tailgate you load in your ride on the app and then you wait by a car space number i.e. 1, 2, 3 all the way through to about 20 or so and then call or text the driver to tell them what space you’re in and what you’re wearing so they can identify you easily.
However the problem was that all of the Uber’s were stuck in traffic in one congested line going back a fair way from the stadium pick up zone meaning they could not get in and out easily enough to pick up their rider. This was leading to frustration from the riders, drivers and staff as many of the riders could not even get out into a car space (i.e. car space 15) because fans were shoulder to shoulder trying to get through a small entrance to the car space numbers.
I gave up and called my driver to say I was going to walk and find him and after about a 20 min walk I found my driver Neil and his AC cranking Kia. What I found interesting was when I went up to one of the three Uber staffers to ask what direction to go in to find my driver I was told ‘oh no don’t do that as we have senior Uber reps here today, they won’t like that’ to which I replied you’ve got to be kidding if you think this is a good customer experience. However in no way did this put a dampener on the day for me as this was still an 11/10 fan experience. I can imagine though that this kind of hassle would be the last thing a fan would want to have to deal with after a game or worse a game day loss! I also wonder how the Uber Tailgate set up is going at the other US stadiums who have installed this in 2016.
One more thing I will add with this is that when I agreed to the UberX set price of $21.94USD for my trip I was annoyed to find that I had then been charged over $30USD but to Uber’s credit they refunded this and apologized saying it was an error. Thing is that same thing has happened to me before and I wonder if it has to other’s as well who use Uber around the world.
There’s way more to say and showcase about how exceptional the Miami Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium fan experience was and how much better it’s going to get under Anthony’s reign in the lead up to Super Bowl LIV however I’ll let the pictures below do the talking and leave it with you to make sure you check it out if you find yourself in Miami.
The Miami Dolphins focus on providing unrivalled customer service to fans by vowing to care, know and connect along with their creative fan engagement activations, gourmet food and craft beer options and the Uber Tailgate (drop off only in my experience!) all highlight what a truly marvellous fan experience this is that is up there with the best in the world. With the Dolphins taking the W over the Bills both the fans and myself left stoked at what was an epic day in Miami. Eternally grateful and privileged to Anthony, his team and the Dolphins organisation for allowing me to drop by and learn about their world-class fan experience.