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VEES: Attendance jump cause for optimism

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Attendance at Penticton Vees home games is up 25 per cent over last season, but the team's president, general manager and head coach said the hard work is just beginning.
President, GM and head coach Fred Harbinson is a busy man on and off the ice for the Penticton Vees.
Attendance at Penticton Vees home games is up 25 per cent over last season, but the team's president, general manager and head coach said the hard work is just beginning.
"This is a business and you see teams losing a quarter-million dollars a year," said Fred Harbinson, six months into his added role as president. "Part of the equation is winning, but the only way to succeed now is to build your off-ice product."
An innovative, aggressive and fan-friendly campaign has helped the Vees increase season's ticket sales for 2013-14.
Penticton leads the BCHL with an average attendance of 2,081 through 17 games. Vernon is second at 1,669 through 18 games and Chilliwack third at 1,642 through 17 games.
So far, 35,379 fans have clicked through the turnstiles at the South Okanagan Events Centre for Vees games.
"A lot of teams have seen attendance fall while ours has gone up," said Harbinson. "It's more and more expensive to run junior hockey teams. It's not something you go into thinking you are going to make a lot of money."
Harbinson said it's a transition time for the Vees with the lease at the SOEC expiring after the current season.
"We've just started negotiating a new (lease) that will hopefully be beneficial to the City, Global Spectrum and our hockey club," said Harbinson.
"We'd like to get a five-year deal done, but we don't want to run a business that is bleeding money. That said, we've got great ownership willing to spend to ice a strong product, but there are lot of costs we have to manage properly."
Harbinson said the Vees have done a good job of finding a better "price point" for Penticton fans.
"It's not easy to have disposable income, so we've worked hard to make it more affordable," said Harbinson. "The atmosphere has improved immensely as a result and the players really feed off that."
The Vees have introduced more promotions, including car giveaways and dramatically reduced ticket and beverage prices for select midweek games.
"It's the only way you can have the kind of attendance you need … you can't just rely on the diehard hockey fans," said Harbinson. "You have to try to appeal to the casual fan, giving it a concert-type feel with the lots of energy in the building. We're seeing a lot of that now and it's the only way it works moving forward."
The downside of building a 'party' atmosphere and making a Vees game as the place to be is the inevitable complaints about the loud music.
"We appreciate everyone's opinions," said Harbinson. "We hope to attract some new fans and not lose the existing ones in the process. A lot of the changes we've made have been real positive but you're never going to be able to keep everyone happy."
Harbinson said the Vees have a chance to continue to gain traction in the new year, noting crowds are typically softer prior to Christmas.
"We've established a winning, competitive team and now we're into the second half of the season and hopefully the playoffs," said Harbinson. "We're not going to stop working at it, on and off the ice."
Harbinson said the hope is to get to the point where 2,500 fans per game is the norm.
"That's the responsibility being put on us, to get that to the standard," said Harbinson. "We're anticipating some growth so we need to put in the time and resources."
He said managing partner Neil Jamieson has done a tremendous job with promotions, radio play-by-play and media relations man Fraser Rodgers has taken on some added responsibilities, and Laura Carleton and Kevan Scott have come on board and done terrific work on game nights.
"It's just a matter of managing my time," said Harbinson, noting assistant coaches Steve Cawley and Michael Hengen have picked up the slack preparing the team for games and when he has had to miss a practice."
Harbinson said dropping ticket prices, marketing each game in the media and having the special promotional nights has helped spark the spike in attendance.
"We're hoping other teams around the league take notice," said Harbinson. "West Kelowna dropped their midweek prices and Vernon is doing some things as well.
"Our outlook is finding different ways to create revenue instead of slashing expenses."
The Vees have made two straight appearances in the BCHL final, winning in 2011-12 and then going all the way to capturing the RBC Cup national championship. Penticton is 24-9-1-3 and in first place in the division going into the Christmas break this season.
Building a winning team on the ice hasn't been a problem for the Vees, regarded as one of the model franchises in Junior-A hockey in the country.
"You can't go deep into the playoffs and still keep losing money," said Harbinson. "We're getting things on the right track and we want to keep building. That's why negotiating a long-term lease that benefits everyone is so important."

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