Insights gathered during a series of visits to leading leisure venues such as Legoland and Chester Zoo are helping Football League clubs in their on-going quest to improve the match-day experience of supporters and to expand fan-bases through attracting a wider family audience.
Delegates from League clubs around the country variously spent a day at Legoland, Cadbury World, Chester Zoo and Eureka! The Museum for Children, in order to see how these top visitor attractions strive to ensure that customers not only enjoy their day out but also want to pay a return visit.
The programme of day trips was organised by The Football League's Customer Services department, whose manager Darren Bernstein said: "The League aims to give our clubs the very best support in relation to attracting and retaining supporters, and as part of our 'Fans of the Future' initiative we put together this series of events for clubs to look at family provision in the leisure industry outside football.
"The events were designed so that club officials could relate the various venues to their own environment and to hopefully get a better understanding of what families are looking for when spending their leisure budget.
"When we made these visits the venues were extremely busy and it was very interesting to see how they handled important issues like managing queues, food outlets and toilet facilities. Plus, very importantly, we wanted to see at first hand the family experience and how children in particular were engaged through measures like inter-active areas in and around the venues."
Huddersfield Town's Director of Business Development, Sean Jarvis, one of 28 club representatives who went along to Chester Zoo, said: "When you're in an environment outside your comfort zone you see things differently and I certainly leaned things from the day.
"It reinforced my views on where we want to take our club's family approach and I picked up a very good idea we can use in a big venture we're undertaking next season in our Family Stand. It was an inter-active puzzle which we would never have thought of but, having seen it and decided it wouldn't be difficult to integrate into our plans, if we can introduce it next season that will make the Zoo visit very worthwhile."
Matt Grayson, Head of Marketing & Communications at the Championship's 'Family Club of the Year,' Wolverhampton Wanderers, added: "I saw things that we are already doing at Wolves but perhaps we haven't gone far enough with. Face painting, for example - it's been so successful at Chester Zoo that they've built their own studio, and that's something we'll think of doing so that kids can sit down in a friendly, comfortable environment where we could maybe sit and talk with them about what other kinds of activities they might like us to provide for them."
The League 2 Family Club of the Year, Shrewsbury Town, were represented by Chief Executive Jonathan Harris and Commercial Manager Andrew Tretton, the latter a former player with the club. "As a player," said Tretton, "you never thought much about the off-field stuff, but I always fancied eventually moving on to the commercial side and luckily, when I was at Accrington and my playing career was ended through injury, there was an opening at Shrewsbury and I've been back since last year.
"I'm really enjoying it and I found the Chester Zoo trip really useful, being able to see how they look after families and also to bounce ides off people at other clubs. I will definitely be taking ideas back to Shrewsbury and implementing them."
Harris added: "Winning the Family Club of the Year award came on the back of a year of massive improvements, but we've no intention of standing still and so to be able to take part in a day like this with 15 to 20 other clubs was a great opportunity and a great source of new possibilities for the way we move forward."
All of the club representatives were impressed with not only the zoo complex and its facilities and customer activities but also the venue-knowledge and friendliness of staff throughout the zoo, which is the UK's sixth largest visitor attraction and on its busiest days caters for up to 20,000 customers.
"The attendants certainly knew how to help and engage visitors," said Andrew Pomfret, Marketing Manager of Preston North End. "It doesn't cost money for staff to be friendly and amenable and if any club can improve in this area, for instance with ticket office staff and match-day stewards, that can only help in terms of building stronger relationships with supporters."
Macclesfield Town's Penny Baguley said: "Customer service is important to our club and I got some good ideas out of the day to take back and hopefully improve the way we deal with supporters on a day to day basis as well as on matchdays."
Sue Beedles, the Tranmere Rovers Commercial Administrator, was already familiar with Chester Zoo having been on many family trips to the venue as a youngster. "It's quite different to how I remember it," she said, "but it's still a very good family attraction with a number of pointers that football clubs could pick up on.
"Interaction with kids is one good example. Having seen how they do things at the zoo I feel that concourses in football grounds could be made more appropriate for kids, to engage them outside of the match itself. But there's a good opportunity to use concourses to engage other age groups as well, for example you could have historical information about your club to interest older fans."
Ideas such as these will almost certainly be implemented at a good number of grounds next season as Football League clubs look to improve the match-day experience of supporters. Bernstein, who is enthusiastic about the club's response to the seminars and their embracing of The League's Fans of the Future concept, said: "We wanted the clubs to go away from these venues with an expanded vision of how to make themselves more attractive to supporters and that certainly seems to have happened.
"The visits took place during the run-up to the end of the season, a very busy time for clubs, but the fact that over 120 people from more than three-quarters of the League's clubs attended these venues showed their willingness to look and learn from different surroundings and their commitment to go on improving levels of customer service."