NEW ORLEANS ( MainStreet) -- The Final Four is presumably about the NCAA men's basketball championship, but some of the best games in New Orleans are being played on smartphones, in luxury suites and behind the flaps of corporate hospitality tents. The Final Four is one of little more than a handful of in-demand events routinely circled on the corporate calendar, as regional vice presidents and chief executives all too familiar with the Pareto Principle (80% of sales come from 20% of your clients) try to impress their most valuable vendors. Jacob Turnage, co-founder and vice president of marketing for Atlanta-based organizer of high-end sports hospitality EB Corporate routinely counts the Final Four among the "Big Six" corporate hospitality events that include the Super Bowl, the Masters Tournament, tennis' U.S. Open, the Kentucky Derby and, this year, the Ryder Cup.
The action on the court is great, but the NCAA tournament's biggest plays are made in corporate suites and at celebrity meet and greets.
Back in 2003, when the Final Four was last in New Orleans, city native Turnage sold a client from Kellogg's ( K) a package so he could entertain one of his top clients, an executive from Kroger ( KR). The supermarket bigwig was a Syracuse University alumnus and wanted to see his Orange and star freshman Carmelo Anthony make a run for the national title. Turnage secured low-level seats for them at the Superdome (a good idea for a basketball game played in a football stadium), a luxury suite and a meet-and-greet with current and former NCAA basketball coaches. Since it's a two-day event, with the semifinals on Saturday and the final on Monday, Turnage made sure his client and guest got a nice meal at a top area restaurant on Sunday and had some time to discuss business. "While the game's going on, they're not talking business," Turnage says. "On Sunday, if they can stay sober, they can close a deal that day." As luck would have it, Syracuse won its first national championship that Monday by beating the University of Kansas. Kellogg's had a happy supermarket exec on its hands and Turnage didn't have to wait long to hear from his client about the business impact of that win. "We chatted on Tuesday after the final when we shared a cab to the airport and he said, 'My customer will never forget who was by his side when 'Cuse won it all ... that's why what you do is vital to what I do,'" Turnage said. "He didn't close a contract that day, but he cemented a customer relationship, and whatever he spent with us is pennies on the dollar compared to what Kroger does for Kellogg's business."