Designing the Flawless Fan Experience: An Interview with Katie Clifford

Pete CodellaArticles

Here is the latest in the series of conversations with inspirational Utah women in business. I’m Foreste Peterson. I set out to speak to the women behind the business, research and ideas that are changing the world. They share their work, thoughts and advice. Note the opinions expressed by interviewees do not necessarily represent those of GOED, but they do promise to be interesting.

I sat down with Katie Clifford, Marketing Director for Infinite Scale Design Group. We chatted about how she got into the sports industry and what she and the rest of her team at Infinite Scale are working on to optimize the sports fan experience.

 What brought you to Utah and why did you stay?

I was born and raised here in Utah. After working for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, I left for 14 years to work in other parts of the country. I came back here one year ago. Not only is my family here, but everything that I love is in Utah – skiing, mountains, etc. It is gorgeous, and a super easy place to live.

What’s been your career path? How did you get started in the sport industry?

I did theater in high school, majored in advertising at Southern Utah University and served an LDS mission in Switzerland. That’s to say I was not really a “sports person” growing up. When I returned from my mission, the Olympic Committee was starting to ramp up their planning for the Salt Lake City games. A friend referred me and I become the Assistant Sports Manager for speed skating and figure skating at the Kearns Oval, and I was immediately drawn into the sports arena.

Working for the Olympics opened my eyes to the extent to which sport brings people together. Though I had no interest in living the gypsy lifestyle following the Olympics around the globe, I was determined to stick around this industry.

Thanks to the power of networking, I landed several different jobs in different parts of the country for the next 14 years. I first worked for a women’s shoe company called Ryka, where I signed Kelly Ripa as a spokeswoman. I was then approached by Puma to work in their golf category, and signed Rickey Fowler. Next, I moved to Colorado Springs to work for the US Olympic Committee for five years.

After I returned from Sochi, another opportunity arose – this time in the Bay Area. I became a brand manager for The North Face where I got to work with amazing athletes. As much as I loved this job, I was living in San Francisco by myself while my family was in Utah. My friends who worked for the Utah Jazz suggested I talk to Molly Mazzolini, one of the partners at Infinite Scale. Before I knew it, I was back in Utah in a new line of work, but with many of the same contacts. For one year now, I have been the Marketing Director for Infinite Scale Design Group.

What exactly does Infinite Scale do? How is it unique in the sport design industry?

We at Infinite Scale are the only people that do what we do. We are not fabricators, but are designers who create a fan experience through partnership integration and signage. We work with the venue architect, the team, and our own creative team to create a wayfinding package that prevents disorganization and confusion. Our signage is designed to take fans from their cars to their seats as seamlessly as possible. Our mission is to integrate brands into an event or venue so that they are one with the team. Furthermore, we ensure that our sponsors and partners receive the recognition they deserve and feel integral to the fan experience.

 What kinds of marketing strategies do you deploy to sell the Infinite Scale brand?

From my former job experience, I feel comfortable working for brands and selling to customers. At Infinite Scale, however, we have a much more targeted and older decision maker to engage when in the sales cycle. And that sales cycle can take years.

We deploy a business-centered marketing strategy that depends on bottom lines and statistics. We are less concerned about our social media content and more about creating cutting-edge proposals and presentations. The Vikings stadium, for instance – our “latest and greatest” NFL stadium – took three years to be constructed, and two years before that to settle on a deal. Winning these deals is the essence of our business. That said, as the marketing director, it is also my job to make our company look enticing so talented designers want to come and work here!

What’s the one interesting facet of sports design that the lay person might find surprising?

 I think the lay person may find the most surprising facet is that we even exist! Creating a fan experience is something that can be easily taken for granted. Fans spend a lot of money just to go to a game, and shouldn’t have to waste any time navigating their way around the venue. In order to optimize their experience, we make sure that every little detail is dialed in.

The amount of work and design that goes into wayfinding signage, for instance, is extensive. That being said, there are only a certain number of times fans will experience a venue in a season – eight home games at an NFL stadium – so we only have that many chances to wow them with an experience well worth the time, money and energy they expend to be there in the first place.

 What is the most rewarding aspect of your work? img_2523

There is nothing like seeing a venue come together. I love watching people interact with our work and enjoy the experience we created. Being at the Vikings opening game against the Packers was one of these moments.

What are some of the big trends that are impacting sport design companies? What are the major challenges Infinite Scale faces?

 It is not enough to just build a building and open the doors to a venue. Like I said, going to a game is not cheap! As designers, we need to guarantee that the fan experience is a major experience. At every point, fans want to feel energized and excited by the game atmosphere. Making venues resemble “little Disneylands” is thus a challenge we face here at Infinite Scale.

Another challenge for us is convincing teams that the earlier we come in, the better. Teams have one shot at creating their ideal venue, and they can only do this with the expertise of the architect and our designers. Working collaboratively and involving the whole team early on is critical. Opening a major sports venue is a billion-dollar investment that really needs to land.

 What do you value about doing business in Utah? What could be improved in regards to doing business in Utah?

 Because so much of our business takes place outside of Utah, being based here can be a bit tricky. Sometimes it feels as though Utah lacks an understanding of design and doesn’t value design as much as other places. Working here, however, is a much friendlier and more supportive environment than anywhere else. People are always willing to help out. For that I am truly grateful.

 As a woman in business, what are the challenges you face vs. those faced by your male counterparts? Are these challenges unique to the industry, to Utah, or to business in general in our country?

 In general, I think that women in business have to work a little harder and be on their game that much more to be taken seriously.

Working in the sports industry as a woman is no doubt an extra challenge. It is easy to sometimes feel like we don’t belong, even as female sports fans. We get asked questions like, “Do you even like sports?” or “Who’s the quarterback?” I think these challenges are not only unique to the industry, but to Utah as well. Traditional gender roles are ingrained in many communities here and there are a number of men who think women should stay home with their families. I do not believe it is intentional chauvinism, but it is a way of thinking that has been instilled by structural institutions for generations. Women in leadership roles thus are certainly still questioned, not just in sports but in all industries.

Things are changing for the better. It will get there because there are lots of girls doing incredible things.

I personally am very grateful for the jobs I’ve worked at in my career, as they all have been very safe places for women – Infinite Scale included. It’s a women-owned business.

 What advice would you have for someone interested in the sport design industry?

My favorite piece of advice comes from Conan O’Brien: “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

In this day and age, it is extremely important to keep your mind open to the millions of possibilities out there. Kids tend to have this narrow vision of exactly they want to do. Be open to what your dream job looks like, and be willing to work for pennies for a little while. It may even mean having 10 roommates and living off of Ramen noodles for some time.

What do you tell people when they ask what it’s like to live in Utah?

Utah is the best hidden gem in the country. If you like to play outside, there is no better place in the country. Nowhere else can you ski in the morning and get back to work in the afternoon! It’s beautiful, affordable and big, but not too big.