Six years. That is how long it took for the story we are about to share with you to unfold.

This week’s Monday Morning Huddle Up outlines the long pathway taken by leaders in the Fox Cities (WI) to go from an idea, to opening a new facility (the Community First Champion Center). There are many lessons to be learned from Fox Cities’ process. Here is a case study summarizing their journey, and a few lessons learned along the way…..

In 2013, our team at the Huddle Up Group was engaged to develop a strategic plan for the sports department of the Fox Cities CVB. At the time the CVB had had some historical success in securing and hosting events, and was looking for ways to grow the impact of sports tourism there. Fox Cities is a growing region that encompasses 19 different communities in the east central area of Wisconsin. During our work there, it became obvious that development of a new indoor facility would move the needle in a big way. Specifically, one that could be used as a tourism driver first, and a community user asset second.

As we rolled out our final recommendations through a series of community presentations in the Summer of 2014, it was apparent that there was a large amount of support for the development of a new tourism driving facility. At the end of the final presentation, a community leader approached us and said basically, “If this project will impact our community the way you think it will, we have some land that we would be able to contribute to the effort.” It just so happens the land that this community had available was a tract that we had our eye on as one of a handful of sites that would be perfect for a new indoor venue.

Lesson: Share your vision with enough people and you never know who may step forward to help the cause. Also, don’t lose sight of the fact that a new tourism driving venue can also positively impact the local community user groups in multiple ways.

From here, things got going relatively quickly. The key players in this story are Fox Cities CVB Executive Director Pam Seidl, and Director of Sports Matt Ten Haken. Both Pam and Matt were integral in the success of this facility development process.

Our game plan had multiple elements to it, but the primary focus was to fund new a tourism focused indoor facility that could attract many of the larger regional and national youth tournaments to the Fox Cities. Funding for projects like this is usually the biggest challenge, however in this case, the hospitality community was supportive of what the new facility could do for their businesses and the community. They supported the concept of a bed tax increase to fund this new initiative. Given that many of the communities around the Fox Cities were already collecting a higher bed tax, that made this concept even more palatable. The challenge? All 19 communities had to approve the concept of an increased bed tax, even those that had no hotels.

Think about that for a minute…… The CVB had to convince mayors and city councils to pass a bed tax in communities where there were no hotels. These cities were not used to collecting a bed tax at all, let alone having to increase the percentage for something they don’t currently collect. Enter Pam Seidl.

Pam spent the better part of two years educating each of the 19 jurisdictions why the bed tax was important to the project and what the new facility would mean for economic development in the area. In the end, the increase was passed in 2015 (from 6% to 10% with some funds going to pay for a convention facility as well as the Champions Center).

Lesson: Someone has to own the political process and they must be ready for the long haul.

Once the $30 million Champion Center was funded, the presale began immediately. Matt and his sports marketing team started the business development process in a somewhat unique position. They were able to not only talk about the new facility, but also to simultaneously ask their event rights holder clients what they wanted the facility to look like. Design of the new venue took pace in 2016 and 2017, so allowing rights holders to chime in on what they wanted to “buy” gave them some skin in the game once the venue was set to open.

Lesson: Ask your clients what they want to “buy” and they are almost beholden to commit to that product once its ready.

The Champion Center broke ground in the Summer of 2018 with an opening target date of October 2019. The structure of the deal basically included three elements:

• Bed taxes funded the bonds to build the facility.
• Operational profit and loss are the responsibility of the CVB.
• A professional management company would be hired to run the day-to-day aspects of the facility.

The facility opened on time this past October with over 50 events booked for 2020. These first year events were signed to one-year agreements so Matt and his team can effectively analyze which events perform well and which may need to be replaced in the coming years. The goal is for many of these initial agreements to become recurring annual events.

Lesson: Be strategic in how you structure initial deals with rights holders, and keep the door open for longer-term extensions that can benefit both parties when each side delivers.

This journey has been a great one for Pam and Matt and their community. The Champion Center promises to make a positive impact on the Fox Cities for years to come. While developing this case study, Matt took the time to share a few tid-bits about the process that he learned along the way. Here are a few of those lessons, paraphrased from Matt’s comments…..

• Have patience, you never know how long these types of things will take.
• A collaborative and collective vision is needed for success.
• Early stakeholder engagement is key.
• Teamwork will win the day – “We over me”.
• Over study, educate, and execute. They did three professional studies, all with the intent to execute on their recommendations and not let them gather dust.
• Dedication by the entire team. Be ready to do things outside your job description. Matt stated that 95% of his time the last two years were dedicated to this project, including things like equipment sourcing, hiring staff, and political alignment. Add to that Pam’s relentless education effort on the bed tax increase as outlined above, and you can see what we mean here.

Watching this process unfold over the past six years has been a great source of pride for our team at the Huddle Up Group. Pam and Matt and the leaders in the Fox Cities showed an unwavering drive to bring this vision to reality and positively impact the communities they serve. They are great partners, superior leaders, and always think “community first”.

Congratulations to the Fox Cities for staying the course and bringing the Champion Center to fruition. We hope their story is helpful to you and your destinations as well.

Have a great week ahead!