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A Free Ticket to Ride

A partnership between Valley Metro and the U.S. Airways Center allows event attendees free rides on the light rail to and from events.

U.S. Airways Center is right in downtown Phoenix near a Valley Metro light rail station and the venue is home to the Phoenix Suns, Phoenix Mercury, Arizona Rattlers and a variety of other concerts and events. Senior Vice President General Manager Ralph Marchetta and Director of Ticket Operations Daren Mitch talked about the partnership between the U.S. Airways Center and Valley Metro, which allows venue attendees to use the light rail system to and from the event for free.

The genesis of the arrangement goes back to 2009 when the NBA All-Star game was coming to the center. There were a lot of meetings, Marchetta said, about what the center was going to do and what the NBA was going to do. When talking about the various events included with the All-Star game, he said he had the idea that what if people coming to a program, Suns game or concert would ride light rail for free.

“The way the system is set up, it’s kind of honor-based,” Marchetta explained. “We struggled a little bit with that because it would be different if you took your ticket and you scan the ticket and got through a turnstile, but that’s not the way we’re set up.

“We worked into the idea of basically reimbursing Valley Metro based on what our drop count is, and by drop count I mean actual attendance.”

He said they came up with a number everybody was comfortable with and round-trip rides are offered free the day of the event with the event ticket.

Valley Metro Public Information Officer Hillary Foose said the program has been in place since 2010 and in 2011 it was renewed for a five-year period. “We did it like a pilot,” she said, “just to test the waters.”

Marchetta mentioned that one thing he struggles a little bit with and pushes on their end is how to create wider awareness of it. They market the service on their website, in emails, in the center itself prior to a game, and include information in will-call envelopes. One season they even did an in-house video with the Phoenix Suns Gorilla to promote it.

On Valley Metro’s side, Foose said they’ve done some things at the station, including having the gorilla mascot at the station, the Mercury Suns dancers and giveaways.

“The popularity of the program has been amazing,” Marchetta said. “People love it. Why some of our colleagues don’t do some kind of the same program, I don’t get.”

He said they get great feedback not only from the season ticket holders, but people that go to concerts, as well. “The feedback is really amazing.”

The Downtown Experience

The free ride has made it easier for people to get downtown, to get there early and not worry about parking and to begin the experience as soon as they step on that rail line.

“It’s really funny when you see a train for a concert or a game and you see the crowd get off; it’s an extension of that experience,” said Marchetta. “People are coming to the game and they have their Sun jerseys on, people are talking.”

Foose agreed. “It’s a micro-community on the train. They’re all going to the same place so they’ve already built excitement and energy on the train.” Mitch added, “I was going home after Lady GaGa and everyone had their programs out. It was definitely an experience.”

That energy is creating a whole downtown experience for many of the event attendees. Marchetta said a lot of people had never been downtown, so it’s easy for them to feel comfortable coming downtown, not having to worry about where to park or how much it’s going to cost to park.

Marchetta said, “Our goal is to get people downtown, to get people to experience how downtown has evolved over the past 10 years. It’s pretty dramatic.” He continued, “Between light rail, ASU and the CityScape project and other things in the works, it’s a pretty amazing transformation; I think we’ve finally gained critical mass.”

Multiple Benefits

Marchetta and Mitch explained that the program not only helps get attendees to the event, it helps market the venue itself. Marchetta said, “I use this as a tool when I’m marketing the venue. When we’re talking to artists, when we’re talking to Jimmy Buffet or a background band, I’m always pushing about this.

“We’re in a super competitive market so there are tons of options out there so I talk about centrally located, downtown Phoenix, and this light rail program that’s a huge benefit for your program.” He stressed, “It’s beneficial to us on multiple levels.”

Foose explained that the program has also had operational benefits, such as streamlined boarding. People already have their pass – their ticket. “They’re not waiting at a ticket machine to buy their ticket.” And, she said it’s an easy checks and balances from a security inspection perspective because they’re looking for a uniform ticket.

She also said of the partnership, “Not all venues have this same affinity for the downtown and the customer experience from start to finish and it’s just been a great partnership. We feel very lucky to have the partner that we do in the U.S. Airways Center.”

Marchetta reiterated, “It was a pretty easy arrangement.”