Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.
Coco Gauff makes an appearance at the American Express Courts at Hudson River Park’s Pier 76 last week before the start of the U.S. Open.Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for American Express
Fourteen of the U.S. Open’s 20 major sponsors are both activating and hosting hospitality at this year’s tournament, a total shift from the 2020 edition of the event when no sponsors were physically present at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
While the United States Tennis Association declined to detail which sponsors were hosting clients and VIP guests in hospitality settings in the tournament that begins this week, the number is up from the 12 sponsors that did so in 2019. That increase is promising business news for the USTA, especially given the uncertain circumstances in which the tournament is being held this year, a kind of middle ground between full-on pandemic and recovery.
On-site, masks won’t be required for vaccinated fans outdoors. On Friday, the USTA tightened its coronavirus protocols: Any U.S. Open attendee with tickets to Arthur Ashe Stadium, Louis Armstrong Stadium, the Grandstand, or the grounds of the U.S. Open, will be required to provide proof of at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to enter the grounds of the tennis center. Face masks are recommended indoors, but will be required at certain indoor locations, including many of the hospitality suites.
USTA Chief Revenue Officer Lew Sherr is optimistic about this year’s event even though some things will be different on-site. For example, the main sponsor booths off Fountain Plaza have been updated to storefronts and digital displays.
“It was an accomplishment last year just to have our event, but it clearly lacked the spectacle and energy that comes with New York crowds. We’re excited about restoring that,” he said.
While planning for this year’s tournament, Grey Goose brand manager Peter Walker said the USTA told him to expect around 75% of the event’s normal attendance of between 700,000 and 800,000 fans. But the relative uncertainty spinning off the COVID-19 delta variant’s flare-up in recent months made planning activations for this year tournament “really tricky,” said Walker, especially because the company showed more caution based on its 2020 planning experience.
Mercedes-Benz ambassador Sloane Stephens was at a dealership in Manhattan to showcase a new all-electric sedan.Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz
By March of last year when the pandemic fully affected the U.S., Grey Goose had already spent a quarter of a million dollars on the signature glasses for its U.S. Open cocktail, the Honey Deuce, but had to repurpose those in different ways once it was determined months later there would be no fans at the tournament.
Despite the uncertainty, Walker said Grey Goose, which is celebrating its 15th year as a tournament sponsor, will have a full activation and hospitality program on-site this time around, in addition to continuing the Honey Deuce cocktail kits it mailed to fans in 2020. Preparations included touching up the physical appearance of the Grey Goose spaces, which sat unused for almost two years. The company has six courtside seats, six loge seats and 20 suite tickets for each session of the tournament.
Walker is working with a smaller Grey Goose crew than usual on-site, and Bacardi, which owns the Grey Goose brand, decided earlier this year to mandate masks within its hospitality areas. Walker will be checking vaccination cards at the doors of their suites. Grey Goose will host about 40 people per day, including top purchasers of Bacardi liquors, like restaurant and liquor store owners and national accounts. But Walker said he already sent out an email pleading for guests to respect the pandemic and the need to limit bodies in indoor areas and not attempt to call in VIP access favors for friends or relatives this year.
“We’re not going to be inviting third cousins up to the suites,” he joked.
American Express’ U.S. Open activations will also reflect the current reality.
U.S. Open Partners
Twenty USTA partners will be on-site at the U.S. Open this year. Fourteen of those will host hospitality, up from 12 in 2019, though the USTA wouldn’t disclose which ones.
IHG Hotels & Resorts
Polo Ralph Lauren
“Our North Star has not changed in terms of delivering experiences that really provide enhanced value for our card members,” said Lindsay Ulrey, American Express vice president of global sports experiences and partnerships. “But this past year has taught all of us that it’s essential to be flexible and innovative in this uncertain environment that we’re living in.”
American Express, a 27-year partner of the tournament, has installed a grab-and-go shop at the Open like the one it activated at Barclays Center in the spring. Zippin again supplied the technology for the store, which is exclusive to American Express cardholders. The company shifted to an outdoor lounge area that it’s calling the AmEx Patio, a fresh air version of the types of premium clubs that sponsors like to offer at the U.S. Open, replete with picnic tables, cooling fans and plenty of drinks. And it installed six branded tennis courts at Pier 76 overlooking the Hudson River in Manhattan.
But the company won’t be opening the 20,000-square-foot American Express Experience for the second year running. It’s not clear yet if it’ll ever come back.
“That’s a great question,” Ulrey said with a chuckle. “It’s been a really unique year, it’s given us some opportunities to try things we never would have tried before, so I think we’re all excited to see how the activation serves fans this year, how they react to it and then when I talk to you in August ’22 we can have that conversation.”