Friday, August 13, 1999

ATP mixes business, play


Companies are top fans

BY AMY HIGGINS
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Agassi, Rafter and Sampras aren't the only names scoring at the Great American Insurance ATP Championship this week. Add Sprint, Cincinnati Bell and Entex Information Systems to the roster.

        From the board room to the corporate suites and hospitality tents, the tennis championship has become the preferred venue for business this week.

SPOTTED IN THE CROWD
  The Great American Insurance ATP Championship always attracts a who's-who among Greater Cincinnati business executives. Should you attend matches this weekend, don't be surprised if you see:
  • Carl Lindner — financier whose family controls Great American Insurance and several other local companies.
  • Robert Hoverson — president and CEO of Provident Financial Group.
  • John Haller — regional presi dent, PNC Bank Ohio.
  • Robert Castellini — chairman of produce firm Castellini Co.
  • Marge Schott — general partner of the Cincinnati Reds.
  • Nat and Michael E. Comisar — cousins who manage The Maisonette.
        Skeptical? Consider that one investor is said to have transferred $8 million into a financial account after a visit to that firm's hospitality tent.

        “It's a great way to talk to customers one-on-one in a very pleasant setting,” said Elaine Bruening, associate tournament director, who often hears companies credit the tennis tournament for increasing their business.

        Still skeptical? Consider that the tournament is said to attract Greater Cincinnati's richest citizens (such as Cintas Corp.'s Richard Farmer and financier Carl Lindner) as well as bank presidents and CEOs, such as George Schaefer of Fifth Third Bancorp. Politicians such as Jim Tarbell and Rob Portman have also been seen, as well as former Cincinnati Reds managing owner Marge Schott.

        While the tournament itself is celebrating its 100th year in Greater Cincinnati, the hobnobbing, see-and-be-seen atmosphere is no more than 20 years old. And it was actually slow to catch on, Ms. Bruening said. One hospitality tent was set up in the early 1980s; 14 exist today. Two corporate suites were built overlooking center court in 1987; now, there are 10 luxury suites, four in the north terrace and one pavilion suite.

        “It's a popular way of entertaining,” Ms. Bruening said.

        Indeed, about 34 companies are hosting hospitality tents while about 30 have rented the luxury suites. A few have both. Whatever they have and however much they spend, most companies agree that the investment and client invitations are all about relationship building.

        “It's just like dating,” said Adam Cohen, account manager at Stephen Gould of Ohio, of his business relationships. “You have to put into it what you want out of it.”

        Mr. Cohen said Stephen Gould, which deals in industrial packaging and printing, has sponsored a tent at the championship about six years. It has grown steadily every year as the company's Cincinnati office has grown. This year, he expects close to 200 Stephen Gould employees and guests to grace the tents reserved for Sunday.

        While he doesn't think any deals have been cemented between sets, he knows that relationships with customers and suppliers have been strengthened.

        Chriss Harris, manager of corporate communications for Sprint, agreed that is why her company spends at least $40,000 to sponsor the tournament and reserve a hospitality tent for the whole week. She expects the company to host at least 300 guests throughout the tournament.

        “The relationship-building is key to everything,” Ms. Harris said. “We know we've gained as much as we've spent; for us, it's very successful.”

        Cincinnati Bell spokesman Tom Osha said the telecommunications company brings about 500 people to the tournament for much the same reason. The tournament is popular with the customers, and it helps build name recognition and goodwill, he said.

        “It pays off on a number of levels,” he said. “It's a nice investment because it lasts more than just single time.”

        Paul Piechota, client director with Entex Information Services, also measures that success in relationship building, as well as in the enjoyment of the sport itself. He said the venue is better than other sporting events for families and for companies to “enjoy spending time with each other while not trying to sell something or purchase something from each other.”

        Entex reserves a 12-seat luxury suite for three days, including the finals Sunday. Despite the focus being on enjoyment, Mr. Piechota said work inevitably creeps into the conversation.

        “The common bond is work and business,” he said, beer in hand, shortly after watching Tommy Haas' first-round defeat of Xavier Malisse (7-5, 6-2) from the luxury suite's air-conditioned comfort. “The discussion might be work-related in that sense. Some deals are made, some are not.”

        At most, deals might be solidified later, thanks to the strengthened relationship that a casual pleasant afternoon brings. And at the very least, a few free tickets to watch world-class tennis might keep the relationship from being lost altogether.

        “If I don't invite my client,” he said, “my competition might.”

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