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May 9, 2011

AWESOME ATMOSPHERE - An outside company critiques Tech's game day operation and fan experience, and the athletics department receives high marks

By: Jimmy Robertson

Quiz Tech fans about their experiences at Lane Stadium, and one would be hard pressed to find much in the way of negativity. Question them about their experiences at Cassell Coliseum, particularly for big ACC games – the Duke game this year comes to mind – and one figures to get a similar response.

The game day experiences for Tech fans rate among the best in the country. Fans say it, television broadcasters say it, and perhaps most impressively, folks from the opposing side say it.

But the Tech athletics department refuses to take the game day experience for granted. On the contrary, administrators are trying to make it even better.

Last fall, the athletics department hired a company called VenueChek to come to a football game and a basketball game to critique everything about the game day experience at Tech. This company looks for areas that need improving, while also promoting the positives that an administration does for an event. It makes suggestions, with the understanding that some of these obviously may fall outside the operations budget and others simply can’t be incorporated for logistical reasons.

“You never want to take anything for granted,” Tom Gabbard, Tech’s associate AD for internal affairs, said. “This was an opportunity to bring someone in who had never been to a game at Virginia Tech, so you’re getting a cohesive, thoughtful and unbiased look at our game day operations.”

The VenueChek representative who came to Lane Stadium and Cassell Coliseum was Bill Lavelle. His first trip came when he attended the Thursday night football game against Georgia Tech last fall, and then he came to the Hokies’ basketball game against Purdue on Dec. 1.

VenueChek grades everything on an evaluation point system it created. Basically, a “7” is an exceptional score in which no adjustments need to be made. A “6” is a good score, but not quite up to exceptional status. A “5” means fair and that improvements need to be made, and a “4” means poor, which means that this particular area needs addressing immediately.

“He looked at things like how easy was it to get here, how easy was it to park, how easy is it to get through the gate and find your seat, do the ushers know where everything is, how efficient are the concession stands, how does our pricing compare – things like that,” Gabbard said. “It’s a comprehensive report on what it’s like to come to Lane Stadium or Cassell Coliseum if you’ve never been. Overall, it was a positive report.”

Lavelle started the process by ordering a ticket for the games online through, and then he ordered one over the phone. He wanted to test the ease in which fans order tickets through the ticket office.

On his visit to Cassell, Lavelle gave the athletics department overall high marks. His only suggestion was to include more memorabilia in the concourse area, with an example being photos of former athletes.

“We’ve talked about that,” Gabbard said. “We just haven’t put it all together yet and come up with something that we like. But that’s on our radar.”

The more interesting critique came from Lavelle’s visit to Lane Stadium for the Thursday night game. The athletics administration runs into more issues related to football games at Lane Stadium simply because of the sheer volume of people who squeeze into a relatively small area.

For starters, on his way to Lane Stadium, Lavelle jotted notes down on the signs directing one to various parking lots. Then he made his way to the stadium, again taking notes on how long he waited to get inside the stadium and how the event people, more commonly known as ushers, treated fans.

He also visited some of the areas that sell merchandise and the concession areas, checking out the length of the lines, the quality of customer service, the cleanliness of the area, the pricing, and in the case of the concessions, the actual taste of some of the food. Lavelle noted that the cheeseburger he ordered tasted better than others at previous venues he had visited.

Interestingly, the Tech athletics department received high marks for pricing. Lavelle noted on his report that the pricing for cheeseburgers and hot dogs were on the low side compared to other venues he’s visited. The athletics department also received high marks for cleanliness, the ease of finding a concession stand and the quick service. Lines ran eight deep at some point, and Lavelle timed how long people waited. Most waited less than five minutes.

On the flip side, he noted some of the menu signage was outside the concession stand, and that made it difficult to read if one was waiting in one of the “middle” lines. He suggested moving the signage inside the stand, as is done at most places.

“Now, that’s something we probably wouldn’t have noticed,” Gabbard said. “So we’ll take a look at that and see if we can improve it.”

Additionally, Lavelle critiqued the cleanliness of the stadium’s concourse area and bathrooms. He noted that, “The concourse area held up well for much of the event, but as the game worked into the second half, the concourse started to take a hit.”

“That’s something we were already aware of,” Gabbard said. “At halftime, there’s a flood of people going to the concession areas for food and drinks, and to the bathroom, and the trash gets backed up. We take out the trash after halftime, but we’re looking at ways we can do a better job of keeping those concourse areas cleaner.”

Overall, the Tech athletics department received high marks in the following areas: game day ticketing, security, parking, entry to the stadium, guest services and corporate marketing and promotions. In fact, Tech was named a “VenueChek MVP” among the schools it has visited for the categories of security and game day atmosphere. Lavelle commented that the team’s entrance into the stadium to the blasting of “Enter Sandman” ranked among the best he had seen.

Lavelle wrote up a brief report following the game, and then later submitted a longer report to the athletics administration.

“Again, I think it’s good to have an independent source evaluate your customer service,” Gabbard said. “This is our attempt to make sure we provide the best possible game day experience for fans. We want to use this to make corrections and to enhance where we can.”

In addition to pointing out negatives and positives, Lavelle offered up some suggestions based on what other universities are doing on game day. For example, the University of Michigan sets up information kiosks throughout its concourse areas to help fans, and also, Wolverine ushers rank among the nation’s best according to VenueChek because of their knowledge of everything within the stadium.

“Some things may not work for us,” Gabbard said. “The kiosk idea probably wouldn’t work for us because our concourse areas are a little narrow as it is.

“But I do think that we need to continue working on training our event staff members. Every event staff member should know where the first-aid station is, where ‘Lost and Found’ is, the restrooms, ADA seating, the ticket office – things like that. We need to make our signage more visible outside the stadium, too.

“I do like some ideas that he pointed out. At Notre Dame, they greet people when they come into the stadium and when they leave afterward. We do it when they come in, but not afterward. We may change that. It’s all about taking our great game day experience and making it even better. We’re willing to do whatever we possibly can to do that.”

There is a lot that goes into making a great game day atmosphere. Most agree that the Tech athletics department has done a tremendous job of making Cassell Coliseum and Lane Stadium terrific game day venues.

Now, it’s just a matter of perfecting it.


The Tech athletics department and Lane Stadium scored among the best in the nation among the football schools analyzed by VenueChek in the following categories (with VenueChek comments):

Ticketing – “Outside will call windows, two staff members were positioned in a location that allowed them to direct fans to the appropriate ticketing windows.”

Parking – “Virginia Tech offered a very strong major route signage package. The signs on the interstate allow fans to follow the most direct path to the venue.”

Entry – “This venue [Lane Stadium] offered the most “big game” and “dramatic” feel of entry points. The entrances were clean and had a great atmosphere.”

Security – “At every football venue that we are at, security is in place. However, at Virginia Tech, the staff had a dominant position – sometimes well outside the immediate turnstile entrance. This created a nice visual of a secure building.”

Guest services – “Virginia Tech concourses are well marked and strategic placement of signage that outlines ‘Hokies Respect.’ They support this with a pregame presentation by a former Hokie with the message being about ‘Hokies Respect.’

Corporate marketing/promotions – “The strongest team entry, in our opinion, was when the Hokies entered the field to Enter Sandman. Not only was the student section bouncing up and down, but also the entire stadium was doing the same. This was a highly emotional entry.”