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Beer, Beer, Everywhere – F&B at The Rugby World Cup

It has been described as ‘the cauldron’ and the ‘birthplace of Japanese Rugby’, but during the Rugby World Cup (RWC), the Nissan Stadium, as it is known for most of the year, reverted back to its original name: the International Stadium Yokohama (ISY). Built in 1998 for the FIFA World Cup in 2002, ISY was designated by World Rugby as the main venue for the 2019 RWC Semi-Finals and Final after the proposed new National Stadium would not be completed in time.

I was very fortunate to have secured a ticket to the World Cup Semi-Final between England and New Zealand last weekend and although I was hoping for a Trans-Tasman clash, my team (the Wallabies) were defeated by a composed English outfit in the quarter-finals. Over the weekend, that composure stepped up a notch and saw the Red Roses absolutely outplayed the All Blacks in every aspect of the game, setting up a thrilling repeat of the 2007 Final, against the Springboks. The match itself was great, and I’m still fascinated by how good Curry and Underwood were playing, but what about the food & drink offer

I’m always keen to find something to eat and get my hands on an ice cold beer before the game. So, with Japan having the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world; home to two of the world’s biggest beer brewing companies; and pre-tournament articles suggesting there would be “cold, endless beer”, I was expecting good things.

But media coverage mid-tournament revealed other issues, in particular with the food offerings at the Tournament. 

For any event, F&B is a key revenue driver. For the Rugby, a report published by Ernst & Young showed that the +400,000 international visitors to RWC2015 spent almost £1 Billion during their stay, of which c20% was on food and drink. These figures obviously included spend away from the stadiums, not just on game day, but nevertheless it highlights the opportunity. With this year’s tournament held in Japan, the international visitor figures (and resultant F&B spend) would naturally be bolstered by nations such as England and Wales, who were not included in the previous numbers.

Research by the organizers also suggest high-income earners account for a larger percentage of rugby fans than those of other sports, meaning they can afford to spend more on alcohol. According to the report, the RWC is expected to create roughly ¥437 billion ($4 billion) economic boost for Japan. That includes a direct impact of over ¥100 billion from spending by overseas visitors, with a significant amount expected to come from purchase of beer.

The precinct

According to my ticket, stadium doors were to open at 2pm, three hours before the game. I arrived at the closest train station at 1pm and made my way towards the stadium.

I had expected the stadium itself to be closed, but I was surprised that not only was the stadium closed, but also the surrounding precinct leading to/from the stadium was closed. Security (who were incredibly polite, by the way) suggested nothing would be open until 2pm and advised me to walk the 500-800m to downtown for something to drink. With beer sales in many stadiums representing over 60% of F&B sales, it felt like an opportunity lost for ISY and the event, particularly given the attendees were not really going to be price-sensitive. 

I headed into town and, truth be told, it was not much better. Some street food available, and some bars were open. Most fans, however, had the same idea as me – simply buying drinks from a street-vendor selling beers from a big ice-bucket, or going to the local supermarket. 

Leakage to surrounding businesses capitalising on stadium events can be as high as 40% of revenue, meaning best-in-class recently planned and built stadiums can better control the precinct to almost completely minimise the leakage, capturing all or most of the spending. 

By controlling the precinct, event organisers and stadium managers also have a much easier task of managing things like security and crowd behaviour before, during and after the game. Fortunately, in this case, the crowd was a good-natured bunch and no one caused any problems. 

Once inside – the beer …

Let me get the most important thing out of the way first. Once I made my way inside the stadium, there was definitely no shortage of beer. The tournament sponsor made sure that beer was available absolutely everywhere. Roaming beer hawkers, a massive beer pavilion, beers within the stadium, beers outside the stadium, beers in the food stalls… Beer, beer, beer everywhere. 

Other non-alcoholic and alcoholic (including Ciders, Highballs, Chuhai) beverages were available and so, from a beverage perspective, aside from some service and technological enhancements around dispense, all credit to the organisers for providing several avenues to make purchase easily accessible. 

Beer, everywhere – sure brings a smile to MY face!

… and now, the food

So, here is one of the big dilemmas for international stadiums around the world. 

During the normal course of the year, ISY runs a number of dining options, including:

  • sMiLe table (a full-service restaurant that is actually overseen by the nutritionists of the Yokohama Football Team … and uses only ingredients provided by growers in the local Kanagawa prefecture)
  • Gourmet Town (a hospitality haven that combines restaurants, stands and various vendors selling everything from medium-rare wagyu steak to fries). To my disappointment, all of the ‘normal’ offerings were replaced during the Tournament. 

Whilst some ‘local’ options like Yakisoba and Karaage (one of my favourite ‘easy eats’) were available, the majority of food on offer were good old pies (in fact, in some stands marketed as “Aussie Pies”, which probably meant most Kiwis and English didn’t want to eat them!) and hot dogs. Given the demographic of this match, the food mix probably made sense. However, had the match been Japan vs France, I suspect the offer would have been largely the same and that is where the opportunity lies.

The challenge / opportunity for stadiums

A key question for stadium organisers is how to encapsulate the essence of (a) local cuisine and (b) stadium ‘favourites’ as well as introduce event-specific offers that cater to the audience. How do you ensure you don’t either ‘over-invest’ in infrastructure or find ways to maximise any investment over the course of the year (or concession)?

There are some real creative solutions, including the use of food trucks, self-service alternatives, centrally equipped kitchens, etc. that CAN deliver on this requirement without over-spending. There is also the opportunity to integrate some of the ‘local’ operators into this arrangement so that they, too, don’t miss out on the ‘tourist dollar’. 

The marketing mechanic must also change depending on whether the stadium is being used for routine matches or for one-off events. There was no collateral about the precinct or food & beverage options available that came with the tickets or generally available online. At the expense of a flyer or tear-off, a couple simple promotions and a well thought-through precinct can really drive significant increases in sales. 

Importance of Food & Beverage

A number of factors ultimately shape the fan experience: venue safety and security, seating quality, luxury services, technology offerings, entertainment, and food and beverage. Based on our experience, sports fans across the board resoundingly produced a synonymous ranking of priority improvements – with the top three choices all related to food and beverage. Although venue operators are spending more than ever to win over fans, it’s possible that whilst spend on extravagant amenities may have wow appeal, our findings underscore that overlooking staples of the stadium experience – eating and drinking – can be costly. With F&B typically being the second or third highest revenue driver for stadiums, it is imperative to get this right.

Clearly, the role of F&B is, and will continue to be, central to the overall fan experience. Quality, cost and speed of service are at the core. Improving concessions demands the attention of venue operators because it represents “low-hanging fruit” to boost sales and engage fans.  An integrated approach to both stadium and precinct F&B thinking, in many cities with international stadiums, is the way forward.