More than 11,000 people packed Fiserv Forum in downtown Milwaukee last month to see iconic singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffet in concert. Unlike the impressive lineup of shows held at the arena since it opened last summer, the performance was never publicly announced and purchasing a ticket was not necessary.
It was a private show open only to Northwestern Mutual financial representatives, staff, executives and their families as part of the Milwaukee-based life insurance company’s 139th annual meeting.
The concert was just one of numerous functions held at the almost one-year-old Fiserv Forum during the four-day event. Holding its annual meeting at the arena was a first for Northwestern Mutual. Last year’s meeting was the final event at the now-demolished Bradley Center, which had been a host venue for a number of years.
As Milwaukee’s largest annual convention, the company’s annual meeting makes sense for a high-capacity sports venue such as Fiserv Forum, but size isn’t the only appeal.
“A stadium or arena is built to not only seat large numbers of people, but also to bring them in the building in an orderly and secure fashion,” said Paul Upchurch, president and chief executive officer of VISIT Milwaukee. “With arena-style seating, lighting, and audio-visual capabilities, corporate event planners can put attendees in the mind of cheering on their favorite home team, in this case their favorite organization, boosting excitement for and throughout the event.”
Sports facilities, such as Fiserv Forum, Miller Park and Lambeau Field, are perhaps best known for the teams that play there. But in recent years stadiums and ballparks nationwide have continued to bring in revenue during the off-season and in between games, positioning themselves as unique, turnkey venues for conferences, trade shows, board meetings and company parties.
The Milwaukee Bucks, which are the operators of Fiserv Forum, capitalized on that opportunity when designing the $524 million, 714,000-square-foot arena.
“The building was designed for the purpose of having multiple types of events, so it’s not just for the tenants, the concerts, the family shows or big public ticketed events. It’s really for any type of event that somebody can think of,” said Jonathan Zuckerbrod, director of business strategy and platform development for the Bucks.
There are 10 main event spaces throughout the arena, the largest being the 17,500-seat bowl. The Green Room is the smallest, with seating room for 30 people and standing room for 50.
Other areas include the BMO Club, located on the ground floor near the Bucks’ locker room; the top-floor Panorama Club, offering a bird’s-eye view of the seating bowl and city skyline; the suite-level West Bend Lofts; and the outdoor plaza on the east side of the building that can fit up to 10,000 people standing.
The Bucks’ new bar-restaurant, The MECCA Sports Bar and Grill, can also be rented for events for up to 750 people. The MECCA is one of four establishments that opened earlier this year in the Entertainment Block across the plaza from Fiserv Forum.
For events, Fiserv Forum has a full-service food and beverage program that can be customized for any menu, and all audio-visual needs are handled in-house, which cuts costs for the client, Zuckerbrod said.
In its first 10 months of operation, from August to its fiscal year ending in June, Fiserv Forum hosted more than 50 corporate events. That number greatly exceeded year one expectations, but the Bucks intend to “blow it out of the water” for the arena’s second fiscal year, Zuckerbrod said.
“I think more and more meeting planners are looking to use space that is not your typical four walls of a hotel ballroom, so I think something huge for us is that we want to embrace how unique this experience is,” said Mallory Brigman, manager of private event sales for the Bucks.
Like Fiserv Forum, Miller Park includes a number of adaptable spaces used for hosting small and large events, many of which take place in conjunction with home games, said Tyler Barnes, senior vice president of communications and affiliate operations at the Milwaukee Brewers.
“We can host hundreds of people in our parking lot tailgate grids, or all-inclusive areas such as the JCI Club, Northwestern Mutual Club or our Miller Lite Deck, Johnsonville Party Deck or Aurora Health Care Bullpen,” he said. “One of the smaller areas is a suite where a company can host a meeting of executives, then stay for the game. We also use the SKYY Lounge, the JCI Club or even the seating bowl for larger events on non-game days.”
As a business centered on entertaining people, hosting large group gatherings is already part of its DNA, Barnes said.
“Entertaining fans and making them comfortable is in our wheelhouse,” he said.
Of the three facilities, Lambeau Field is perhaps used the least for its original purpose. The Green Bay Packers only play eight regular season and two preseason home games each year, but the stadium is far from underutilized.
Lambeau Field annually hosts about 800 total events and 75 percent of those are corporate functions, said Casey Ausloos, Lambeau Field events outside sales account executive with the Packers.
The venue draws corporate clients not only from major Wisconsin cities such as Milwaukee, Appleton and Madison, but also from across the Midwest, including Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois.
“Events held at Lambeau Field are special for all guests, even those who may not be Packers fans,” said Christopher Piotrowski, chief marketing officer at Associated Bank. “It’s hard to beat the history and nostalgia only Lambeau can offer.”
The Green Bay-based company, and the team’s official bank, said it hosts year-round events at the stadium to entertain current and prospective clients.
Built in 1957, Lambeau wasn’t originally designed to accommodate special events like newer stadiums are, but the structure has since adapted to industry trends.
In 2013, the Packers completed a major expansion project that added four premium-seating areas with 7,000 seats. The main goal was to move fans off the ticket waiting list, but the project also included additional space to host events, including a loft area with a bird’s-eye view of the field, Ausloos said.
And in 2015, the team unveiled plans to develop the Titletown District on 45 acres adjacent to Lambeau Field. Construction on phase one of the project wrapped in 2018, adding six spaces equipped to host events. Among them is TitletownTech, a 46,000-square-foot innovation hub facility that opened in early June.
Often, the customer experience offered at stadiums and ballparks is simply attached to the novelty of the sport itself.
“We can differentiate ourselves from everyone else because we have that field in the backdrop. That’s something other places can’t offer,” Ausloos said. “It’s one of 32 pro football NFL franchises and we have the luxury of having it in our backyard.