AmEx Serves Up Mega-Pong and a Subway Ride Through the Past at the U.S. Open

Bess Spaeth explains this year's activations

Pong competitions staged on giant screens, with the classic arcade game flashing across New York's five boroughs. Interactive murals you can decorate with virtual spray-paint cans. High-tech music remixes. A subway journey through the past.

With all these free American Express fan experiences to enjoy at this year's U.S. Open, who needs tennis? 

To entice potential new customers and reward cardholders, AmEx is hosting a multi-faceted cyber-sideshow at the 139th edition of the Grand Slam tournament, which starts its two-week run today at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. For 2019, the ball's in Bess Spaeth's court. The 17-year company veteran ascended to svp of global brand media and experiences four months sago, and she'll oversee AmEx's activities during the event. 

"Tennis is a passion point for our customers," she says. And coming off its first major experiential effort at Wimbledon last month, the financial services giant has much in store. Along with the fan experiences mentioned above, perks accessible to folks using contactless-enabled AmEx cards or digital wallets include a member lounge with snacks and beverages, changing stations, hair touchups and sneaker cleaning. A separate suite at Louis Armstrong Stadium provides Platinum and Centurion card members with complimentary treats, WiFi and other amenities. 

"We're reaching our card members in those moments that they're passionate about," Spaeth says. "It's great for us because our customers who engage in these types of experiences are more loyal and engaged with the brand. And the prospects who get exposed to these experiences or get a taste of membership and are more likely to consider American Express the next time they're thinking about getting a card." 

In our conversation, edited for length and clarity, Spaeth discusses AmEx's U.S. Open strategy and why technology can augment, but never replace, the allure of live activations. 

Muse: Can you catch us up on what AmEx did at Wimbledon?

Bess Spaeth: This was our first year as a big presence at Wimbledon. We had a branded fan experience where one component was a Champions Rally. It was an immersive virtual reality game where fans came and played on Centre Court with [British tennis legend] Andy Murray. Three or four fans could play at one time. They put on the VR goggles, and played against a virtual Murray. Venus Williams came and played. And John McEnroe. There was some good competition between the pros playing the virtual Andy Murray, so it was pretty fun for fans and pros alike. 

How do you gauge the success of these big-event experiences?

First and foremost, we were excited to engage a lot of fans—this is a great sort of sampling of memberships [because fans can learn about AmEx as they enjoy the activations]. We also had a lot of card members come through our hospitality experiences. And then, we're a payments product, so we had a lot of success in terms of the level of AmEx usage on the grounds for retail this year versus the prior year. Plus, it spins up a lot of PR and media exposure for the brand that's quite positive. 

AmEx always has a sizable presence at the U.S. Open. Are you doing more this year than in the past? 

It's a great opportunity to be part of a cultural moment in our backyard here in New York City, so our physical footprint is comparable to years prior. We're got experiences for fans and card members. We've got our Card Member Lounge for our members and their guests. For our premium card members, they've got our Centurion Lounge and by-invitation-only ticket packages. For our business card members, we've got some special stuff happening this year. We've got pop-ups for corporate clients in five offices in the tri-state area.

Click/tap to see images of the activations:

And I'm really incredibly proud of what we're doing to support small-business owners. This is a new component to the Open this year. We commissioned a survey of small-business owners and asked what would help them land a business meeting with a new client, or develop a relationship with an existing client. Half of the small businesses that we surveyed said it was really about organized networking events. With that insight, and the U.S. Open as a resource, we're going to be giving away over 100 tickets in hospitality packages to small-business owners in the New York metro area. This is going to give them a totally new level of access to one of the city's premier events. This is something usually only large corporate customers are able to do. This is going to enable small businesses to host a new customer, a prospective customer, hopefully get some business done, and do some networking along the way.

AmEx is hosting a big interactive game of Pong. Can you describe this for me?

There's two humongous boards inside the Fan Experience, and you are actually a player on the game board. And the game board is going to change up, and it's going to reflect different boroughs of New York City, because we're really embracing our love for New York City across the experience. You're going to have Venus Williams' voice there to cheer you on while you're playing.

And you have digital interactive murals of NYC with spray cans for tagging?

We worked with Brooklyn-based artist Askew One to create these bespoke murals. As you know, street art is a part of the vibrant life of New York. So using that artwork, fans will be able to do a very grown-up paint-by-numbers using these virtual spray cans to fill in the blanks and bring the art to life. They interact with the board, but look like real cans. 

Can you explain what the Rally Remix is?

This is an interactive space where you're going to be using different tennis balls to create different rhythms and sounds and kind of make your own soundtrack. They're on a panel, and you press on them. Different tennis balls represent different sounds or a different beat. And you can make your own mix.

Also, you're recreating a NYC subway car for a virtual ride?

It's not a real one, but it has some pretty authentic elements to it. It's going to feel like you're on a subway car. It's using audio and visual elements to take you through the history of the U.S. Open, showing you some of the different players that American Express has backed along the way, including our most recent tennis partners, Venus Williams and Frances Tiafoe. It's a cool review of what's happened at the Open through the years. It goes by as you're looking out the windows. 

Click/tap to see more images:

Is Venus appearing in any media advertising around the Open for AmEx?

Venus is an amazing longstanding partner for us. She's not just a role model in tennis, but she's also a proud small-business owner and an entrepreneur, so we work with her in a lot of different ways. This year, the role that Venus is playing is to bring these super memorable experiences to life for tennis fans at the Open. We talked about her cheering them on, and she plays a role in the experience of the subway car and digital mural. 

Can you talk about Frances a bit? 

Frances is a real up-and-comer [a U.S. pro who recently ranked among the world's top 30 players]. So, that's a nice pairing—we've got Venus, who's an amazing veteran and a role model, and Frances, at the beginning of his journey. I'm having him make an appearance at the Fan Experience to meet and greet our club members. 

Where's event marketing heading in the next few years?

It's going to continue to be an integral part of the brand. Whether it's tennis, basketball, music—this is going to be central to the lives of our customers and our prospective customers, so we're going to be in this phase for a long time. We're constantly thinking about new and different ways to serve our customers through these experiences, and to evolve them as the tastes and needs of our customers' change. It's certainly worth thinking about the role of digital in all of that, in terms of how digital impacts the end-to-end experience—before you get to the event, while you're at the event, after the event. To be clear, I'm thinking about digital as an enhancement to the experience. I don't see anything replacing the engagement and excitement and emotion you get from an in-real-life experience. 

Any sports marketing around today that you really love that's not from AmEx?

Verizon's campaign at the Super Bowl … "The Team That Wouldn't Be There." It sort of flipped the usual narrative on its head because it told the real-life stories of a dozen or so NFL stars who had these really dramatic near-death experiences and accidents. It made the first responders, who saved those NFL stars, the stars of those communications. I thought it was just beautiful and emotional. That was a really engaging and different way to see sports personalities.

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David Gianatasio
David Gianatasio is senior editor at Clio Awards.

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