The Savannah Ghost Pirates is a professional minor league hockey team in the ECHL (a mid-level professional ice hockey league) launched in the fall of 2022. While professional sports and leisure attractions are often seen as separate entities, how the team engages its fans feels more like an immersive experience usually found at a destination attraction than it does when attending traditional sporting events.
The Ghost Pirates are based in Savannah, GA, where skeptics say that hockey can build a different level of engagement than regions further north. However, in its inaugural season, the Ghost Pirates sold out 33 out of 36 games, with many selling out before the season began. Bryan Sklover, Director of Community Relations and Game Presentation for the Ghost Pirates, joined the Guest Experience Show to talk about how community engagement, combined with incredible elements of immersive experiences, led to a fantastic first season, with the promise of many more to come.
Build fans by engaging the community
Savannah is a community-centric town; however, the residents have been underserved regarding local entertainment offerings compared to similar regions. Bryan says it was easy to get the fan excited about a hockey team coming to the city, and the community immediately embraced the arrival.
The Ghost Pirates’ marketing and branding strategy largely relies on community relations, which involves delivering the guest experience outside the arena and being present in the local community. Instead of educating or marketing just the team at local events, they educate people on hockey itself, even by bringing sticks, pucks, and goals with them and teaching people how to play. Getting the community excited about hockey naturally leads to the desire to attend a Ghost Pirates game. To amplify it further, they bring the high-energy atmosphere that guests sense in the arena to events throughout the region.
Immerse your guests in the experience
When asked to describe the experience, Bryan says, “We’re an attraction. We’re a show.” Ghost Pirates games are accompanied by choreography, lighting cues, music cues that ebb and flow to influence the mood, and the mascot that skates onto the ice and amplifies the crowd’s enthusiasm. It’s more than just going to a sporting event. If people just wanted to watch a hockey game, they could easily do that while sitting at home, presenting an exciting challenge to create an experience in the arena that can’t be replaced.
Bryan compares to the Tampa Bay Lightning, where guests feel the “wrath of nature” as lightning bolts are sensed when the team scores a goal, or the Seattle Kraken, where you attend a hockey game at the bottom of the ocean. Guests attending a Ghost Pirates game enter a graveyard on a pirate ship, and a young guest gets to hoist the flag at the beginning of the game.
Build engagement through genuine guest connection
Bryan shares incredible stories that occurred throughout the Ghost Pirates’ inaugural season that fostered a genuine emotional connection between the organization, the employees, and the fans. One example is a staff member who was diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of the season, and his colleagues were able to rally behind him and fundraise for him. At the end of the session, he finished his treatment and was in remission. To celebrate, he was invited onto the ice to drop the puck at the beginning of the game.
In another example, the Ghost Pirates honor a local military veteran as a “hometown hero” during each game. In one instance, a guest attending the game was nominated by his children. When the man’s name was called, he was in total shock, as he was unaware that he had been nominated and did not know that his children would be at the game too.
While these moments build advocacy that leads to further brand engagement, it also shows that the Ghost Pirates are making a genuinely positive impact in their community, which goes far beyond ticket sales.
Bryan says that emotions are not just about tears but about goosebumps.
How are you immersing your guests into your experience, building engagement within your community, and creating an emotional connection?