Tailgating Heats Up
Sports fans extend outdoor cooking season
Alexa Boschini -- Casual Living, 8/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
Each fall, thousands of football fans descend upon Jacksonville, Fla., armed with portable grills, food and as much Gators and Bulldogs gear as they can carry for the college football blowout known as the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party."
The University of Florida versus University of Georgia football rivalry has been a heated one since 1915. But while the 80,000-seat stadium is typically filled with fans, it's the massive tailgating event that draws crowds of an estimated 200,000 people.
The annual tailgate in Jacksonville may be the largest, but the tailgating pastime as a whole is on the rise, and grill manufacturers and retailers are taking notice.
"Manufacturers want to sell more grills. Tailgating and football season, this gets them to sell more grills," said Leslie Wheeler, director of communications with the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association. "It extends the outdoor cooking season. Now we're going into September, October and November. It's not just the summer months."
According to the HPBA 2011 Barbecue Consumer Survey, 35% of households that own a grill or smoker have tailgated within the past two years, up 22 percentage points from the 2009 survey. And with more manufacturers offering portable grills, tailgating is easier than ever.
"In the old days, you had a handful of portable grill manufacturers," Wheeler said. "Now almost every grill manufacturer has a portable grill, so they certainly see the market there."
Weber-Stephen Products manufactures a variety of portable grills for tailgating. The most popular is the Smokey Joe charcoal grill, a small, easy to-pack product that sells for an affordable $30.
"At a tailgate, the grill and the person doing the grilling are the star of the show," said Brooke Jones, director of marketing for Weber. "Performance is very important, because you don't want to let your tailgating friends down. Our portable charcoal and gas grills are designed to do a great job of grilling in all weather conditions."
Jones said Weber typically sees a spike in portable grill sales around Labor Day, likely because of the start of football season. The company uses that connection as a marketing tool, demonstrating the products at sporting events likely to draw large tailgating crowds.
According to the Tailgating Industry Association's 2012 Research Initiative, while it's difficult to pinpoint a dollar figure for the tailgating marketplace, 69% of manufacturers and 76.5% of retailers believe $20 billion is an accurate assessment. That's a huge consumer base that thrives off the relaxing entertainment of outdoor cooking, friends and sports festivities.
"It's been a market that's been expanding, and I think you see that by the number of products that are going out at different industry events that are now focused on that," said Alex Dinsmoor, president of Best of Times, which manufactures a portable, customizable patio bar for tailgating or home use.
Respondents to the Tailgating Industry Association Research Initiative listed "creating more opportunities for members to market their products" as a key goal for the association. About 20% also indicated "establishing business relationships with leagues, schools and stadiums" as a goal.
Weber has conducted tailgate promotions at college games and grill demonstrations in conjunction with Chicago Bears, New York Giants and New York Jets games.
"Grill sales are highly seasonal, with sales peaking in the spring and early summer," Jones said. "Extending the selling season improves cash flow, balances production schedules, helps with inventory turns, and tailgating sales are a benefit for our retail partners, too."
Football season has also proved to be a marketing boon for Best of Times, whose patio bar includes four barstools, a 6-foot square umbrella and a side table for a portable grill or food preparation. The company offers an expansive selection of interchangeable prints so customers can display their team spirit on game day, including 32 NFL teams, 55 college teams and nine NASCAR drivers.
Best of Times regularly seeks out tailgate festivals, NFL games and college games - anywhere the company's core demographic might be - to market the product directly to consumers in the heart of the sports fan environment.
"Our product is one where you really have to see it to understand how great it is," Dinsmoor said. "Everyone loves the concept. To be the ultimate fan is a huge part of being a fan ... For every bar we set up, we sell at least a few just from people being able to come up and experience it for themselves."
Retailers are also finding success catering to the tailgating crowd, driving prospective customers into their stores when they leave the field. The staff of Percy Guidry Hearth and Patio in Lafayett e, La., promoted the store's products at University of Louisiana at Lafayett e football games.
With a trailer in tow with red flames and the Percy Guidry name emblazoned on the side, the staff fired up the grill and displayed barbecue accessories and even patio furniture to create the outdoor living ambience.
"We were doing it because we love tailgating, but for potential and existing customers to see us out there supporting the local university and seeing the equipment in action, you can't buy advertising like that," said Keith Guidry, the store's co-owner an d manager.
Guidry said it's difficult to quantify how significantly grill promotions boosted the store's sales, but he's confident it made an impact.
"If you like sports and you like grilling, if you're not tailgating and promoting your grills and your company, you're missing the boat," he said.
Connecting with the tailgating demographic goes beyond the football field. Percy Guidry Hearth and Patio also hosts grilling demonstrations at golf tournaments, and Best of Times promotes its product for use at home or at the game.
For those who prefer watching sports on TV rather than going to the stadium, Dinsmoor said "homegating" brings the freshly-grilled food and teamlspirit of tailgating to the backyard or outdoor kitchen.
"When we talk about tailgating, it's not necessarily at the stadium," said Brian Eskew, marketing manager for Twin Eagles, which specializes in grills for outdoor kitchens. "It's a gracious and luxurious party held in someone's backyard."
According to the Tailgating Industry Association Research Initiative, two in five manufacturers say traditional tailgating accounts for the majority of sales, while one in five responded that most tailgate sales result from the home tailgating market.
La Verne, Calif.-based retailer Outdoor Elegance focuses on giving "homegaters" the full outdoor living experience, from grills and accessories to complete outdoor kitchens. The mouth-watering aroma of food emanating from the grill during product demonstrations entices customers, and once they learn about Outdoor Elegance's grill offerings, they're oft en interested in what else the store has to offer, President Doug Sanicola said.
"Right now our barbecue sales are way, way up, and we're building a lot of islands," Sanic ola said.
Thanks to popular cooking programs on channels like the Food Network, grilling is also going gourmet. Though the traditional hot dogs and hamburgers remain the most popular tailgating cuisine, Eskew said he's seen tailgaters expand their horizons by grilling brisket or pizza.
That trend is the marketing focus of Grill Innovations, which manufacturers a grill plate that allows the grill to function like a convection oven, enabling barbecuers to cook everything from meatloaf to au gratin potatoes on the grill. The company has participated in several barbecue demonstrations, but President Ed Hamlin said he hopes to reach the sports fan market directly through a new partnership with Tailgate Radio.
"As big as the tailgating industry is, we want to be able to get out there and say, ‘You're not stuck with doing just this,'" Hamlin said. "You could take lasagna to the game with you, put it on the grill, close the lid and kick back."
Whether your products are meant for use at home or on the go, for classic cooking or out-of-the-box creations, marketing to sports fans is a surefire way to score points with a key demographic that could lead to a business touchdown.