CMO interview: How Michaela Chan is building fresh marketing muscle at West HQ

Marketing leader shares how the Western Sydney precinct is developing its destination marketing strategy through customer and data intelligence

Unifying customer service and data insights and building a destination marketing mindset and approach are key priorities for West HQ chief marketing officer, Michaela Chan.

Chan joined the executive team of West HQ in late 2020 as part of the next step in realising the precinct’s potential as an entertainment and event destination for the local community, wider NSW population and even internationally.

The West HQ brand was adopted in 2018 and incorporates the former Rooty Hill RSL as well as wider precinct offering. Alongside the core venue and club, the 8-hectare location includes a growing range of dining experiences, purpose-built Sydney Coliseum Theatre with capacity of 2200, the Sydney Gymnastic and Aquatic Centre (SGAC), One55 fitness centre, a Novotel Hotel, Sydney West Sports Medicine and Zone Bowling. West HQ boasts of 4 million visitors annually and more than 60,000 members across its estate.

As well as the 2019 debut of the purpose-built Coliseum, West HQ has recruited several high-profile restaurant franchises in the last few years, including Steak & Co by Sean Connolly, Chu by China Doll and Chur Burger. A 5-star Pullman hotel is also planned onsite in coming years. Visitation and customer potential are further expected to increase after the Western Sydney Aerotropolis opens in 2026.

Chan’s ambition is to position West HQ as the Western Sydney destination for friends, families and businesses across greater Sydney and regional NSW. She spies the potential for visitation to grow to up to 6 million annually, as well as to increase visitation and spend opportunities onsite.

In Chan’s arsenal are a whole-of-destination mindset, customer experience-led orientation, data and insights, competitive differentiation, optimised marketing and operational systems and processes and positive employee engagement.

Here, Chan shares her playbook with CMO for realising West HQ’s ambitions as Australians emerge out of Covid-19 restrictions and embrace physical engagement once more.

Embrace destination marketing

The key is to position West HQ as a destination offering. Chan highlights two pillars underpinning the business: An arts, entertainment, lifestyle and events offering; and a strong community program. As Australian emerge out of lockdown, she spies a huge opportunity to attract the ‘social customer’ from both camps.

“There is a consumer benefit – whether you’re from the local area, within Sydney or NSW – but also a corporate one,” she says.  

In this vein, Chan, working with former employer, Tourism Australia, has positioned the venue this year as a strong contender for corporate and business events. She points to figures suggesting at least 75 per cent of Australian businesses will maintain or increase their event budgets in the next 12 months, even as decision makers stay closer to home.

“The value proposition is we’re accessible, we can be at fully capacity and still socially distance, we have iconic F&B brands onsite and we’re on the apex of A4 and M7 and purpose-built events venue,” Chan says.

More broadly, the long-term strategy for West HQ includes building stronger local and NSW Government ties to be part of the growing number of event programs planned for Western Sydney.   

Onsite attraction

Chan is applying similar destination thinking to West HQ from a consumer perspective. The ambition is to bring in more people who in turn, spend more time and money onsite.

One example is a deliberate strategic adopted to attract families. Initiatives include a wide program of kids shows at the Coliseum, plus meal deals and promotions supporting the NSW Dine and Discover voucher program. In April, the SGAC onsite also hosted the first state post-Covid gymnastic spectator event, which saw many attendees staying at its Novotel onsite, opening up more cross-sell and upsell opportunities.

“This has brought in a different style of customer,” Chan continues. “It also shows our evolution from RSL to destination.

“That’s why we have premium food offerings with a huge following. And it’s not just about the local area.”  

Bring everyone with you

In coming in as CMO, Chan quickly worked to identify the challenges she faced straight up. A big one is historically siloed approaches to customer service, data and P&L management.

“It was important to get all teams onboard and the rest of executives with a whole-of-destination mindset. What I mean by that is consistent customer service and pricing,” Chan explains. “What I love about this marketing function is we’re influencing the pricing, product strategy, promotion and place. It’s customer experience-led and there is a wealth of data and insights to support us.”

Chan agrees this kind of cultural shift takes time, especially when you’ve been around since 1964. “When something isn’t broken, there’s always the question of whether you need to change,” she admits.

“But that’s where Covid gave us that impetus to change. Coming out of Covid, we have been able to ask: What are some of the things we should focus on as a business, and what are the opportunities?

“When staff saw what this is helping to enable, that buy-in increases. Dine and Discover NSW has been a great program for that – everyone was seeing why we needed to bring our work together.”   

Take a consistent approach

Tech is another area of integration. Chan points to six separate websites and seven separate databases across West HQ that need to be unified and optimise if the precinct is to deliver a consistent approach to customer engagement, increased visitation and spend.

Having oversight of customer service, Chan is already working on customer service and has brought an SGAC customer service leader into the core events venue to share best practices. In addition, one customer service team leader is helping inform decisions around digital UX and CX.

“This customer leader has to stand there physically as people enter our venue, and watches guests struggle with adding in information and where our data gaps are,” Chan says. “That insight is much more valuable than spending eight hours in a room, working out personas on post-it notes.

“It also helps with internal stakeholder management to have someone who has been working in customer service sitting down with the Web team and informing those decisions. It’s those little things that help drive change.”

Another step helping Chan tack together the approach is overseeing the weekly operations team meeting. “Someone asked me as a CMO why I should be running an operations meeting. I said it’s because I then have my finger on the pulse,” she says.

“At the same time, it brings people together. That’s again key to being a CMO.”  

Using data to drive quick and long-term wins

Data is a core foundation for Chan in informing and improving marketing strategy, audience engagement and team momentum.

One project she’s already commenced is a deep dive into postcodes to segment members and customers by various radii catchment areas for analysis and tracking. Having started with the assumption that the majority of West HQ visitors are local, she was pleased to show the precinct is attracting a larger share of 25km consumers than thought.

“If we are attracting those people, then we should be advertising to them. Again, it was much easier to put together the business case because I could show what the data was telling me,” Chan says.  

“With Covid, the QR codes and check-in process from a safety and security point of view have enabled us to collect additional data. It’s really simple and it’s nothing like the advanced work we did when I was at oOh!media working with Quantium. But that’s the thing – it can be simple. It comes back to understanding your audience and taking a different approach.”  

Complementing this is understanding the revenue versus advocacy opportunity of West HQ’s target audiences.

“Over time, it’s about how we start to think about that from a marketing and destination point of view. To do that, we will work more closely with the likes of Destination NSW, the media and then with local authorities,” Chan adds.   

Deliver against outcomes

Driving towards shared outcomes across the organisation is a further unifier. For Chan, these stretch from the proposition of a $25 meal deal to lifting foot traffic and F&B spend.

“As marketers, we need to be driven by the business ROI, particularly if we want to achieve those commercial outcomes,” she says.   

Among Chan’s early wins are an increase in foot traffic, as well as identifying and tracking the 25km audience opportunity. She describes the latter as “an aha moment” and says the weekly ratio of non-members coming through West HQ’s doors is significant.

“I’m not claiming to have discovered gold, it’s just having that different approach to data and importantly, tracking those target segments,” Chan says.  

“The role of marketing is to get people in the door, then to increase spend. Attribution is hard, but if I can say there are more people coming in, they’re spending longer and more in F&B and the theatre and hotel, then marketing has done what it supposed to do.”

Understanding the levers for success medium and longer-term aren’t forgotten either. Helping West HQ to build behavioural-grade customer profiling is ticketing and audience data from venue partner, Ticketek.

“I can then look at post-show, the impact on F&B and different destinations within here,” Chan explains. “Knowing that impact and profile means we can start to be more predictive.

“So if we have an X type of show, and Y type of audience, it’ll impact this type of revenue. Over time, you can build a model. That to me is the Holy Grail. And if you have that, you’re being more effective from a marketing point of view.”  

Applying hard-earnt lessons

Having joined West HQ with a reduced team as a result of Covid lockdowns, Chan’s job this year also involves rebuilding the marketing team. In April, West HQ appointed AgencyB&Co (formerly SBPR) as its lead agency partner for the precinct. 

Having been in the US when the global financial crisis hit, she appreciates some of the advantages of “getting down to the muscle”.

“That’s also why you have to look at platforms – if you have six different websites, that’s inefficiency. If you have eight different databases, there is inefficiency. There is also further work to be done across our programs and platforms to improve those aspects as well,” she says. “It’s also not just being inefficient from a cost perspective, but also the customer experience perspective.”

Other lessons Chan has learnt over her career are the criticality of working in real time and communication across the broader organisation. Both are vital in an environment where things continue to change rapidly.

“The other thing is reassurance. The team is taking on a lot, and I’ve said to them you don’t have the muscle memory of situations where things could change in an hour,” Chan says. “The beautiful thing is here we are the masters and mistresses of our destiny. There’s lots to be proud of as a team here.”  

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