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From America’s Team … to a World of Opportunity: The Evolution of Dallas Fan Fares by Susan Storey
DiversityBusiness.com Magazine Article/- If you ask Kaye Burkhardt today, almost 30 years after she founded Dallas Fan Fares, if she ever expected her company to reach the heights it has in the fields of meeting management, incentive travel, destination management and sports hospitality, she laughs delightedly.

“I don’t think, if someone had painted the entire picture for me back then, I don’t feel that I would recognize myself or my company today,” she responds, with a touch of amazement also in her voice.

That’s because, for starters, Burkhardt never imagined Dallas Fan Fares as anything other than a company providing sports hospitality programs for corporations at Dallas Cowboys football games. At least that was the objective when she founded Dallas Fan Fares in 1980, turning an investment of 50 Cowboys season tickets into a viable organization … from her kitchen table.

Everything else, Burkhardt says, “just came along with it;” a natural progression of events and circumstances that has evolved her company into a globally recognized leader in its fields of expertise, with earnings of more than $20 million in 2007 and a client list that includes Fortune 500 corporations and major sports conglomerates such as the National Football League.

Over the years Burkhardt has managed to transform herself into a savvy businesswoman, a consummate professional who one colleague describes as “talented, smart, competitive and kind,” while adding, “and you don’t often find those last two qualities together.” Dallas Fan Fares’ president also has surrounded herself with a talented staff of 75 full- and part-time employees, team players who are committed to service and devoted to their portfolio of loyal customers.

So just how did a mother of four—a former schoolteacher and lifelong sports fan with no business training whatsoever—turn a start-up company into a multimillion-dollar corporation that has enjoyed such longevity in the midst of economic downturns and changing regulations within the hospitality industry?

“Over the course of 28 years, we have had to reinvent ourselves over and over again,” Burkhardt answers humbly. “We’ve recognized when it’s time to change, while at the same time, we also keep what’s working.”

Every year, almost like clockwork, Kaye Burkhardt’s phone rings and the caller asks the familiar question. It is a query he’s made for 28 years running, and is an ongoing joke between Burkhardt and a friend who works in the banking industry.

And her answer always is the same … no, she still hasn’t put together a business plan for Dallas Fan Fares, thank you very much.

In 1980, Burkhardt literally didn’t know the difference between an executive summary and a market analysis—much less how to compile a complete business plan—when she sought the advice of her banker friend on the intricacies of starting a business. She was a former schoolteacher in the midst of a divorce, a soon-to-be single mother who needed to return to the workforce in order to provide for her four young children.

What Burkhardt did comprehend was the service her new company would provide: a program that would take corporations attending conventions in the Metroplex to Dallas Cowboys’ home games, providing pre-game meals, transportation to and from Texas Stadium, as well as post-game entertainment. So she purchased a block of season tickets, recruited her neighbor/morning jogging partner as the first employee and set up shop in her kitchen.

Despite her lack of experience running a company, Burkhardt says her love of sports—in particular, as a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers and legendary coach Vince Lombardi—provided the most important lesson in Business 101.

“I’ve always enjoyed watching coaches, and I could see a direct correlation between sports and business,” she says. “I could see how emulating the different coaching philosophies, how they motivate players, also could be beneficial in the business world. You can take all the principles, all the things that work, and apply them to any business situation. I’ve never seen it fail.”

Establishing ties with local sports celebrities provided a big boost to Dallas Fan Fares’ bottom line, as well; not to mention tapping into the city’s resource of college and professional sports events and teams, including the Dallas Mavericks of the National Basketball Association.

Some of the company’s first customers, former Pittsburgh Steelers star Joe Greene and his then business partner, Cincy Powell, formerly of the American Basketball Association, teamed up with Burkhardt to host clients at a pre-game meal at The Peach Basket, Greene and Powell's Dallas-area restaurant. Patrons then boarded a bus for a Mavericks game, and afterward got the opportunity to mingle with local sports celebrities at a post-game party at the restaurant.

The company's big break, however, was in orchestrating a business meeting coupled with a hospitality program for a pharmaceutical company at Super Bowl XXI in Pasadena. With a million-dollar budget and the task of entertaining 800 guests at stake, the staff at Dallas Fan Fares set out to incorporate the success the company had been enjoying on a local level into a program on a grander scale.

“When I started the company, my goal was simply to take corporations to Dallas Cowboys home games; to work eight Sundays a year. It was that specific, that narrow,” Burkhardt explains. “So, for us, the Super Bowl was a milestone … one of the finest hours for Dallas Fan Fares. That put us in the meeting management/corporate hospitality business, big-time.”

It also meant the addition of employees such as Lisa Neunaber to the team. When Burkhardt landed the Super Bowl program, she recognized the need to expand her team. Neunaber, who had been working in the travel industry since graduating from college 10 years earlier, was referred to Burkhardt from a ticket broker. Signing on for a three-month contract, Neunaber was brought on board to lend her expertise in air and hotel management.

It also would come in quite handy during the strike-shortened 1987 NFL season. While the normal 16-game regular season was only reduced by one game (although two games were played with replacement players), Burkhardt decided it was time to start looking around for other money-making avenues for Dallas Fan Fares.

The ultimate outcome has been the evolution of a company that originally offered corporations and groups a chance to see “America's Team” as part of a premium package based on Burkhardt's season ticket investment into its current status as a globally recognized specialist in all phases of the hospitality industry.

Dallas Fan Fares now provides hospitality at every major sporting event in the country—including the Masters, Kentucky Derby, Breeders Cup, Major League Baseball's All-Star Game and World Series, the NCAA Final Four, the US Open (golf and tennis) and Ryder Cup, to name a few— and is one of only two companies with the designation of “An Official Hospitality Provider to NFL On Location,” the league's official source for corporate hospitality for the Super Bowl and the Pro Bowl.

The company also plans all the logistics for meeting and incentive groups at destinations around the world—South Africa, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, England, France, Australia, China and more. Its experience, resources and technology have led to a world-wide presence, as well as long-standing relationships with leading organizations in industries such as healthcare, technology, finance, communications, manufacturing, automotive and food and beverage.

Dallas Fan Fares has thrived even when other companies have had to shut their doors during sluggish economies … when travel curtailed following the events of September 11, 2001 … during changing regulations within the healthcare industry … and even during NFL and Major League Baseball strikes. When the technology industry began its decline during the early ‘90s, for example, Dallas Fan Fares was innovative in replacing that segment of the company’s market share with new pursuits among other industries.

The company has diversified and evolved throughout each step of its long-running journey … much like its founder and president.

“In every era of Dallas Fan Fares, we’ve met with challenges. Conversely, each challenge unveiled a tremendous amount of opportunity,” says Burkhardt, whose company will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2010. “I’m grateful we’ve been flexible enough to move along and benefit—to take advantage of every opportunity.

“We’ve learned that when one door closes, another one opens. I know that sounds trite, but it’s true.”

Exactly 23 years after Lisa Neunaber signed a three-month contract to work for Dallas Fan Fares, she is still with the company. Now the Vice President of Sales, Neunaber has gotten married, raised two children and sent them off to college during her longtime career with the company—a tenure which she describes as “serendipitous.”

“I was blessed to have found Kaye and Dallas Fan Fares. It’s been a great fit,” Neunaber says of the company selected by DiversityBusiness.com on its lists of Top Woman-Owned, Diversity and Small Businesses in America.

“And along my life journey, Kaye has supported me. She has that empathy because she has four children of her own and is able to strike a great balance between business and family.”

The typical Dallas Fan Fares employee joins the company upon graduation from college and undergoes an extensive two-year training program to learn all the ins and outs of the hospitality industry. Once trained, they are literally given an opportunity to travel the world … punching their passports for destinations ranging from Prague to Perth, from Bangkok to Brazil.

The mostly female staff at Dallas Fan Fares has coordinated programs on six of the seven continents … and for some of the top corporations in the world. Under the poised leadership of Operations Manager Andra Dowling, Dallas Fan Fares employees incorporate creativity, ingenuity and a huge dose of customer service into everything they do, tapping into new and emerging technologies to deliver each and every product launch, investigator meeting, incentive program or special event with flawless execution.

At a product launch for one pharmaceutical client, for example, attendees were sent player contracts as invitations and were treated to an NFL training-camp style theme once they arrived at the event. Sports legends served as player-coaches for each “team” throughout the meeting, and even provided bed checks for the attendees at night. Imagine having NFL greats such as Mean Joe Greene knock on your hotel room door at midnight to hand you the company's newest product, with Pat Summerall announcing all the play-by-play action throughout the event.

Dallas Fan Fares also has made a strong commitment to corporate responsibility, following the example of the NFL, which has planted hundreds of thousands of trees in Super Bowl cities in order to be more carbon neutral. For instance, on behalf of their corporate customers, the staff at Dallas Fan Fares has constructed team-building activities involving local food banks, in which participants pack boxes of food products for distribution to different shelters.

“Not only do the guests/attendees learn how to work together while giving back to their community, but we make it competitive and fun at the same time,” Burkhardt says. “The end result is that a whole segment of the population is going to benefit.”

During its 28 years of existence, Dallas Fan Fares also has been proactive when it comes to recycling … its employees, that is. While several members of the staff, such as Neunaber and Dowling, have enjoyed continuous longtime tenures with the company, many have left to get married and start families, only to return once their children are older.

“That’s a big testament to Kaye and to the huge amount of respect we all have for her,” Neunaber says.

The immense loyalty among the ranks—reflecting a diversity of ages, backgrounds and skill sets—also translates into repeat business for Dallas Fan Fares. As Neunaber points out, Dallas Fan Fares programs are executed with such heart by the company’s dedicated staff of team members, clients can’t help but respond favorably.

Strong attention to detail also is imperative, combined with what Burkhardt—and many longtime customers—deem as key to the company’s immense success.

“I've always maintained that our only product is service,” she says. “It's our people who deliver that service, and Dallas Fan Fares really has the most incredible, quality staff of professionals in the industry. Our clients repeatedly make comments about the quality of our staff and the tremendous service they provide.

“We have great team players in every department, and our customers know that everybody is working for them. And we always want our customers to be the winners.”

As specialists in designing marquis events with a diverse range of destinations and budgets, Dallas Fan Fares has been recognized for the past four years as one of the “Top 25 Destination Management Companies in the Nation” by Special Events Magazine.

Drawing from its years of experience in the meeting and event industry, and by tapping into its global resource of world-class service providers, the company is able to provide cost-effective and creative turnkey solutions for its large portfolio of satisfied clients. The Dallas Fan Fares team understands how to maximize a client’s investment by negotiating the best possible price for a meeting or event … without sacrificing quality or compromising the end result.

“We’ve used Dallas Fan Fares in the past and will continue to use them. And if you use them, I promise you three things that will occur,” said John Gates, President of Brokerage, Americas, for Jones Lang LaSalle. “One, they will enhance the experience in ways you never imagined. Two, they find value and discounts that you will not be aware of and won’t find on your own. And, three, they’ll save you an inordinate amount of time, for you and your staff. The net result is you’ll find that it is a fantastic value and a great experience being involved with Dallas Fan Fares.

“It’s a really well-run company with a fantastic group of people. And that’s a point of difference, as well. Engaged at the individual level, you’ll find that people are incredibly friendly, hard-working and flexible. They’ll go the extra mile to make it work for you.”

Certainly, Kaye Burkhardt has thought about it … but she says she’s almost afraid to rename her company after all this time. After all, why mess with success?

Given what she knows now, Dallas Fan Fares indeed is an unlikely name for a company that travels the globe to produce world-class hospitality programs for some of the most powerful corporations on Earth. But Burkhardt says she wouldn’t change a thing, especially altering a name on which an impeccable reputation has been built.

Throughout the course of almost three decades, Dallas Fan Fares has opened doors … and a world of opportunity for Burkhardt, her loyal and talented team of employees and the portfolio of clients who so amply reap the benefits of the first-class services the company provides.

No, indeed, why change what works?

“Looking back, I probably should have taken a business class, but it never occurred to me because I was having so much fun,” Burkhardt ponders with a look of satisfaction on her face.

“I’ve never looked at it as work. Getting to do this job every day has been a joy, a highlight. This is an incredibly wonderful industry in which to work, and I don’t know how it could be any better.”

About DiversityBusiness.com
Launched in 1999, DiversityBusiness, with over 50,000 members, is the largest organization of diversity owned businesses throughout the United States that provide goods and services to Fortune 1000 companies, government agencies, and colleges and universities. DiversityBusiness provides research and data collection services for diversity including the "Top 50 Organizations for Multicultural Business Opportunities", "Top 500 Diversity Owned Companies in America", and others. Its research has been recognized and published by Forbes Magazine, Business Week and thousands of other print and internet publications. The site has gained national recognition and has won numerous awards for its content and design. DiversityBusiness reaches more diverse suppliers and communicates more information to them on a more frequent basis then all other organizations combined. We also communicate with mainstream businesses, government agencies and educational institutions with information related to diversity. Our magazine reaches over 300,000 readers, a monthly e-newsletter that reaches 2.4 million, and website visitors of 1.2 million a month. It is a leading provider of Supplier Diversity management tools and has the most widely distributed Diversity magazine in the United States. DiversityBusiness.com is produced by Computer Consulting Associates International Inc. (CCAii.com) of Southport, CT. Founded in 1980.

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