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PODS: Expansion via exposure

By SCOTT HAMILTON
Business Writer

When Peter Warhurst envisioned expanding PODS, a regional portable storage company, to overseas markets such as South Africa and the United Kingdom, he knew exactly where to begin: Tampa, Fla.

Tampa?

It’s not the first city that comes to mind as a mecca of international commerce, but as the host site for last week’s PGA Tour event, it suited Warhurst’s goal perfectly.

As title sponsor of the PODS Championship, his company’s name was beamed to 200 countries on six continents, including golf-hungry markets in South Africa, the UK, Canada and Australia, which conveniently match PODS’ geographic interest.

It’s one of several reasons why the company signed a $39 million, six-year sponsorship deal and debunks the stereotype that only corporate America’s “blue chip” companies sponsor the Tour.

But a desire to be perceived as a member of such elite company – and perhaps, to one day join it – also spurred PODS to partner with the Tour.

“No matter what market (we’re) in – Chicago, Los Angeles, Tampa, or wherever – most of the residents of that market still put us on the same playing ground as the start-up, mom-and-pops,” says Warhurst, chief executive of Clearwater, Fla.-based PODS (portable on demand storage). “I think this tells the nation that PODS is much more than a regional company.”

Nevertheless, title sponsorship of a PGA Tour event is a hefty investment, especially for a still-growing company like PODS. Plus, the company’s union with the Tour occurred in an 11th-hour scramble, limiting its ability to fully leverage the sponsorship this year. (Formerly the Chrysler Championship, the tournament was moved up on the Tour’s FedEx Cup schedule to a spring date from October, leaving organizers about 17 weeks to stage two Tour events at the same venue, Innisbrook Resort and Golf’s Copperhead Course in Palm Harbor, Fla., near Tampa.)

Such challenges underscore the obvious question: Is it worth it?

Concedes Mike Gavelek, PODS chief marketing officer: “The difference for us is everybody associated with the PGA Tour is a multi-billion dollar corporation. We’re spending a huge percentage of our budget here, so it’s a bit of a gamble on our part.”

But Gavelek insists PODS didn’t make the investment on a whim. Company officials measured the sponsorship’s value from several cost-benefit perspectives.

For instance, the company hired WestWayne, an advertising and marketing agency, to calculate a dollar value for the TV exposure PODS would receive. Based on a formula that included factors such as “air time” the brand received, and advertising rates charged for commercial spots, WestWayne projected an exposure value of nearly $5 million – offsetting more than 75 percent of PODS’ annual sponsorship fee.

Officials also expect to reap a substantial return-on-investment from a boost in corporate sales.

Thus far, the company’s growth has been driven by individual consumer usage of its portable storage units. But PODS wants to diversify sales by courting more corporate accounts, which it accomplished by hosting dozens of prospective clients at the tournament’s hospitality tents.

As part of their sales pitch, PODS executives were able to tout one of the company’s newest clients, the Tour. The sponsorship deal actually calls for Tour usage of the sponsor’s products and designates PODS as “the official moving and storage company of the PGA Tour.” (Company officials would not disclose sales goals for its corporate business.)

PODS did all it could to get the most bang for its buck this year. But the fast turnaround left some branding opportunities on the table. For example, the deadline to customize caddie bibs and hats with the PODS logo fell on the same day executives signed the sponsorship contract.

“Some things we weren’t able to get branded for this year,” says Henry Hughes, PGA Tour’s chief operating officer, adding that PODS recruitment was the most last-minute sponsor switch the Tour had ever executed. “Of course, PODS had to understand coming in at the 11th hour that we wouldn’t be able to give them the program we can give them in the years going forward.”

He adds that the Tour assisted the company as much as possible, including loaning the services of PGA Tour Productions to help PODS create two commercials.

To supplement the ads’ brand-awareness efforts, the company also focused on product placement.

It used scale models of PODS storage units as tee markers, and custom-built a PODS case, containing small mailbox-like storage units, for patrons to store their cell phones. Next year PODS plans to set up an open-ended storage container between the 17th green and 18th tee for players to traverse. Says Warhurst of the short prep time: “Admittedly, we’re not going to execute as well as we could have if we had six months. . . . But we’ve got six years to perfect this.”

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Scott Hamilton is a Golfweek business writer. To reach him e-mail shamilton@golfweek.com.

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