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March Madness Is a Suite Deal For Corporate Clients

That's about the best Turnage can hope to assure clients from companies such as Oracle (ORCL - Get Report), Caterpillar (CAT), Bayer and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ - Get Report): That when a competing company or vendor comes in with a lower price or a better deal, the client in question will remember the event, the souvenirs and the cushy amenities and show some loyalty. If there's any doubt a weekend at the games, a few autographs and a commemorative seat cushion can secure a business relationship, consider the $4,000 to $5,000 a head companies such as General Electric (GE) and Intel (INTC) shell out for packages including private tents and suites or the $12,000 to $30,000 per person companies spend when they want to really impress clients with limousines, hotels, parties and celebrity guests in the suites.

"It's so much tougher to get a new customer than it is to keep an existing one," Turnage says. "I went to business school, but I didn't have to go to one to know that."

That's true on all levels of business, which gives the NCAA tournament and its corporate suites, tents, dinners and concerts a distinct advantage. Sharyn Outtrim, executive vice president of strategic events at official NCAA ticket and hospitality provider PrimeSport, lays out March Madness like a corporate perks pyramid. The bottom tier is built from early-round match-ups that companies offer to local and regional clients or as employee incentives, usually based on a client or employee's school of choice. The Sweet 16 and Elite 8 rounds are often reserved for second-tier executives -- Turnage uses regional managers and district vice presidents as examples -- and school-specific clients they're hoping to impress.

The Final Four, however, breaks into two categories: companies' top-tier customers who would attend no matter who was playing; and companies' CEO partners who suddenly have a school in the semis and would happily scratch the back of anyone willing to scratch theirs.Those corporate whales tend to go for bigger bait, such as a $700 package including a ticket, Blues Traveler show and cajun buffet, a $1,350-a-head suite-and-seat package featuring a two-hour buffet before game time hosted by former University of North Carolina star Sam Perkins or former Los Angeles Lakers big man John Salley or a $3,000 package that includes a bit of the above and a room at the Hyatt (H). In the case of one prominent IT and online security company CEO, Outtrim was able to get the 5-foot-10 exec a one-on-one game with the 6-foot-11 Salley. This year, she and her staff are getting guests time with the Final Four trophy, "Chalk Talk" meetups with coaches and a few other celebrity surprises.

"We underpromise and try to overdeliver, especially in our hospitality events," Outtrim says. "Last year, I didn't tell anyone that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was coming because I love that moment of surprise and I know I've done a great hospitality event when I can bring the child out of the corporate executive. When you can do that and the corporate executive can do that with his customer, he has the customer in the palm of his hand."

The very nature of the NCAA tournament gives it a few advantages over its professional counterparts, especially for companies and clients looking to be the center of attention. For one thing, Final Four weekend also doubles as the weekend of the NCAA men's basketball coaches' annual meeting. That means Duke's Mike Kryczewski is in town whether the Blue Devils win or not and former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian is available to sign gear for CEOs and corporate drones who remember his powerhouse teams of the '90s. Why does this matter? Because they're built-in celebrities a hospitality company doesn't have to import and tack onto the price of a package.
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