Lynn LaRocca is the SVP and Chief Experience Officer of the New York Racing Association. While they hold numerous events throughout the year, their benchmark event is The Belmont Stakes. Under her leadership, they turned it into a three-day festival. In 2015, Sports Business Journal called The Belmont Stakes “The Sporting Event Of The Year.” To win that award, it beat out the Super Bowl (a pretty large event), the FIFA Women’s World Cup final, and more. Lynn also oversees a lot in her role: marketing, event planning, social media, hospitality and group sales, owner relations, media relations, and more. I wanted to talk to her about crafting all these roles and experiences, and that’s just what we did.
The Syracuse tie and her path onward
Lynn attended Syracuse (noted above) and worked in the Carrier Dome, one of the biggest on-campus college sporting venues in America, for a number of years. She fell in love with events and experiences during that time. She had a marketing degree when she left Syracuse, and ended up getting a job in advertising with a firm that worked with motion picture companies. She ended up moving to Los Angeles to work for Paramount for a few years, loved it but got homesick, and returned to the east coast to work out of a different office. After a while, though, she transitioned to retail. Throughout all this, there was always a large focus on events, experiences, and sports/sponsorship. That all led to the current role.
“You can’t please everyone all the time”
That’s a big mantra in their business, and she understands that not every business decision will resonate well with fans. It’s on her teams to make sure it’s communicated properly. I added something in this section — years ago, someone told me that if you get a survey back with only 1 or 2 items of data, you can call it a “Mother-In-Law Survey.” You can use that too, if you’d like.
The evolution of her role
When they brought in a new CEO (prior to her starting), the CEO wanted someone to manage a lot of the front-line functions of the racetrack and its events. It needed to be someone with a context in marketing, events, hospitality, customer relationships, and more. The job description was completely written — that attracted her to the role to begin with, as it seemed thorough — and she understood she would be “all things customer,” but that the role hadn’t existed before. That is always some degree of challenge.
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The initial foray into the Belmont Stakes
She came in a few weeks before the 2014 Belmont Stakes, which is the year California Chrome had a chance to win the Triple Crown (did not). Her boss told her that she’d be able to observe, but not change anything right now — but the 2015 Belmont Stakes would be her show. She observed the work for a few weeks and realized that everything was very functional, but people were working in silos. In horse racing, the silos tend to cluster around front-of-house and back-of-house, which ties to how close you are to the track-attending customer.
The team in place didn’t have a grasp of benchmarks, platforms, analytics, etc. So she kept KPI simple as a concept:
- Keep it simple
- People, processes, platforms are the focus
Her whole goal initially was to get the right people in place to run the individual departments, work with them, build them out, etc.
The 2014 Belmont Stakes had thousands of attendees, because of the Triple Crown potential. They got dinged in the press a little bit for some problems that attendees had, so to make the 2015 version better, the first thing Lynn did was rather simple: institute weekly meetings to keep people on the same page. This helped break down silos.
The 2015 Belmont Stakes
This is the one they won the award for.
It was another Triple Crown year, this time with American Pharaoh. (He did win.)
The first decision they made was to cap attendance, which at the time was considered a little bit controversial. The decision came from the different types of fans they knew they needed to serve and some of the concerns from 2014. They also extended the 2015 Belmont Stakes into a three-day festival and added a Goo Goo Dolls concert, which actually helped with the departure times. Instead of everyone trying to leave after the race (logistical snafu), now the departures were across a wider variety of time.
They ran through their plan hundreds of times, especially as it got closer. They mocked up how customers would flow from area to area and played it out constantly. It was about building processes and holding everyone accountable.
- Sounds simplistic, but be open and be open to feedback. Don’t be someone you’re not. It’ll be impossible to work with other leaders or get the right stuff done.
- Listen and be a good colleague
- Be cross-collaborative
In her mind, these are the “secret sauce” ingredients of doing anything well in customer experience. It’s much less about what you have on the spreadsheets or what tools you buy, and much more about making sure you are hitting all the targets you need to as a professional and as a colleague.
One caveat on horse racing (applicable to other industries)
They have very different types of fans — hardcore betters, hardcore horse racing enthusiasts, and then casual fans, college students in the area, etc. They need to optimize the experience for all types to deliver the best possible end game. This is very true in horse racing, but applies to multiple industries as well. You need to know all your different stakeholders and customers and optimize content (and sales collateral) towards each set.
The Pay It Forward Question
“What do you know NOW that you wish you knew THEN?”
- Do more networking: Lynn never considered herself strong in this area. It’s a good way to reach new audiences and new perspectives, as well as to help others with best practices and develop new marketers.
- Open door policy as a manager: Crucial.
- Experience will only rise as a company priority: … so don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty with it. More and more execs are going to care about the experience they deliver, because it will eventually be one of the only differences between their company and a rival.