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A Posh Business District

While drama plays out on the field, corporate America plays host to its most prestigious guests in hospitality village.

January 27, 2003|Ralph Frammolino | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Forget 90210.

In the hours leading up to Super Bowl XXXVII Sunday, the nation's most prestigious address was an 18-acre expanse of the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot.

There, 7,000 of corporate America's most prestigious guests gathered in the 22 air-conditioned tents of the NFL's hospitality village for a final round of elite parties before kickoff of America's ultimate sporting event.

"It doesn't get any better than this," said Lynn Thompson, a Springfield, Mo., Cadillac dealer, one of 250 the company invited to San Diego for an extended weekend of sales pep-talks and a bit of corporate back-slapping.

Overall, corporate hospitality at Super Bowl XXXVII was down from two years ago, a victim of the struggling economy, corporate cost-cutting and a certain executive bashfulness, given the faltering stock market and last year's accounting scandals.

But for those companies that did roll out the red carpet, Sunday's gathering provided the finishing touches for many of their high-achieving employees, best customers and biggest business prospects.

Firms renting space in the village included NFL and Super Bowl sponsors Cadillac and Coors, as well as other household names such as Jack Daniels, Sports Illustrated, Coca-Cola, EDS, Warner Home Video and Anheuser-Busch.

While the gatherings didn't have the glitz of Academy Awards parties, the trappings -- from air-conditioned commodes to silver buffet servers warming barbecued beef, sausages and pasta salad -- nonetheless underscored a quiet exclusivity.

"You have 65,000 tickets and there's how many people in the United States? A couple hundred million?" said Craig Benedetto, a consultant working for Anheuser-Busch this week. "People that actually get access to the game and a hospitality tent, they feel special and that's what we're trying to do -- make them feel special."

After a record year, Ameriquest, a secondary mortgage lender, popped to hold a party as part of an all-expenses-paid trip for 450 sales people and managers who helped write a record $10 billion in loans. Among them was Rick Williams, a branch manager from Orlando, Fla.

Williams said he joined the company in 1997, the last time it brought people to the Super Bowl, and that he's been thinking about it ever since.

"I've been on [business incentive] trips to Mexico and Vegas, but this has to be the best," said Williams, who was wearing a Tampa Bay jersey. "It's a sports fan's dream."

In the Cadillac tent, dealers and their spouses were in a jovial mood as they took a breather after two days of intense meetings to discuss new models, marketing plans and a 16% gain in sales.

They mingled with Cadillac chief Mark R. LeNeve and flocked to get their game tickets or Super Bowl hats autographed by former New York Giant quarterback Phil Simms, who made a paid appearance.

Cadillac officials declined to say how much they spent for the pregame setup, but it is a small part of a three-year league sponsorship that began in 2001 and costs 8% of the company's overall promotions budget. As part of the deal, the company gives a car to the Super Bowl MVP and allows NFL officials to use 400 vehicles during the week.

LeNeve said Cadillac decided to buy into the NFL sponsorship as part of a corporate strategy to re-energize the brand, especially with younger customers.

"We think it has great cachet with the younger audience," LeNeve said about the game.

Not everyone inside the exclusive confines of the village was impressed, however. Sitting in the 81-degree sunshine, San Diego artist Diana Duval was gloomy.

Duval was one of several artists invited to sell their work at flea market-like stops along the walkway leading to the party tents. She had no takers.

"People that are interested in sports are not very cultural so that includes the different forms of art," said Duval, who confessed she couldn't care less about the game. "I heard that only one person made a sale so it's not a great venue."

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