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HOK’s George Heinlein on Using Hospitality Design to Improve the Fan Experience in Sports Venues


In The Business of Sports, George Heinlein, a regional leader of HOK’s Sports + Recreation + Entertainment practice, writes about the impact hospitality-driven design has on improving the fan experience.

Hospitality [hos-pi-tal-i-tee]: The friendly reception and treatment of guests and strangers; the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.

As we make decisions about the guest experience for teams, universities, cities and communities, designers of successful sports venues must think about this definition of hospitality.

The hospitality experience starts long before fans arrive at the stadium, arena or ballpark on game day. It’s the experience they have purchasing a ticket online. It’s the traffic they encounter on the way to the venue. It’s the ease with which they find their seat, get a beer or find a restroom. It’s the quality of seating, retail and concessions. It’s the communication that occurs after a game.

At the start of each new year, as we get bombarded by lists outlining the year’s top trends, I pay special attention to the trends related to hospitality. I do this because, as designers of sports venues, hospitality is at the heart of our business. And as a diehard sports fan, I live and breathe these trends.

From a business perspective, we know the challenges involved with attracting people to live events. From a customer perspective, we know when an experience leaves us wanting more. Based on the questions we ask fans and how we experience these places, we are uniquely positioned to catalyze improvements to the in-stadium sports experience.

With their diverse program requirements, sports venues can serve as a melting pot for trends shaping other building types. They provide other industries with a model for how they can engage customers to turn them into loyal fans and brand ambassadors. As information and experiences are shared online – faster than ever before – teams must differentiate themselves. Hospitality-driven design can advance the fan experience and facilitate deeper connections between people and a place.

Customer Service

When a fan walks into a venue, teams have a high-profile opportunity to tell their stories and reinforce their values in every square inch. Graphics can communicate customer service values and interactive wayfinding elements can supplement personal greetings from staff. Stadiums are the physical extension of a team’s brand. The goal should be to turn customers into fans who will act as brand ambassadors long after they leave the facility.

Innovative Technology

Much has been said about technology keeping fans away from the stadium. Instead of distracting or detracting from the stadium experience, though, technology can improve it. As Russell Scibetti describes in his “Strategy Before Systems” post, a technology master plan can be created concurrently with a facility master plan. The technology plan allows teams and universities to understand the different types of fan relationships at play and to identify opportunities to enhance the stadium experience.


At Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, scheduled to open in 2017, we see this with the incorporation of a first-of-its kind halo video board. The video board will create an immersive “football in the round” experience that people can only get by attending a game.

Technology can give fans more control over their experience. Through mobile applications and the appropriate infrastructure, fans can order food and drinks from their seats, control camera views and provide real-time feedback that helps teams refine the experience. The venue becomes a living laboratory, particularly if organizations use technology to mine data and customize the way they interact with each fan.

Social media creates digital connections between fans and athletes, and design provides an opportunity to marry that virtual connectivity with a physical experience. Giving clubs, bars and suite spaces views of a portion of the locker room or player tunnel, for example, makes athletes more accessible.

Health and Wellness

Widely discussed as a trend in hospitality, health and wellness also has become an important part of sports facility design. We have been working with teams to suggest farm-to-table solutions – harvesting produce in house with a green roof, for example – as well as sourcing food locally and involving local restauranteurs and chefs.

Future sports training facilities will undoubtedly be integrated with health, sports medicine and research components, enabling organizations to better understand the bodies of high-level athletes while engaging fans with a behind-the-scenes look into their training.

Designing for Every Fan

Each sports venue must cater to many different fans with diverse needs. While many would point to Millennials as the key fans of the future, I’d argue that we should pay equal attention to Generation Z and monitor how Baby Boomers’ expectations continue to evolve. Don’t assume that any group’s needs are static. Fans who show up to watch a game will only come back if they enjoy the experience. We shouldn’t limit our designs by addressing the needs of a singular type of fan.


This plays out in the design of a seating bowl. Traditional seating bowls provide minimal opportunities for congregating. The primary interactions of fans occur with the individuals directly to their left and right. New concepts for seating bowls will encourage social interaction. At Avaya Stadium in San Jose, we designed the largest outdoor bar in North America. At Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the seating bowl will feature multiple standing room gathering spaces and a 100-yard bar on the upper concourse. In addition, we have reduced capacity in arenas the past several years by eliminating traditional seats to create social gathering spaces.

What If?

Looking to the future, we’ll be able to address the needs of all types of fans by asking “what if?” rather than discussing “what is.” What if the suite experience of the future isn’t actually a suite? What if designing for the fans of the future means making technology less visible and more embedded? What if a stadium can bridge the gap between accommodating local attributes and an international fan base?

These are the types of questions that will advance innovative, hospitality-driven design thinking in sports. Let’s continue to challenge each other to answer them as part of our efforts to create friendly, comfortable and high-quality sports facility experiences.

This article was reposted courtesy of The Business of Sports.

george-heinleinGeorge Heinlein, AIA, is a regional leader of Sports + Recreation + Entertainment at HOK.