One of the most gratifying moments that any race fan, veteran or rookie, looks forward to is receiving and opening his/her race tickets. It’s the instant in which the race goes from in your head to in your hands. While this might be when your DAYTONA 500 experience begins, the journey of your tickets began months before inside Cleff Smith’s office in Daytona International Speedway’s Tickets & Tours Building.
While he has several responsibilities as DAYTONA’s Senior Manager of Ticket Operations, including taking care of on-going customer needs and making sure events are properly staffed with tickets sellers, Cleff’s main objective is simple: to make sure everyone gets what they’ve ordered to ensure the experience Daytona International Speedway wants its customers to receive.
“I’m behind the scenes of the ticket office looking after the operational side of things. The ticket ordering, getting together all the tickets, parking passes, wristbands and everything that needs to be mailed out to fans,” he detailed.
While it may seem rather straightforward, Cleff confirms that there’s much more to the process than meets the eye.
“From a day-to-day standpoint, we’re keeping up with all of the tickets, parking passes, wristbands and everything that needs to be mailed out to fans,” he explained. “We just have so many tickets and passes that we have to handle from ordering, proofing, approving, receiving and verifying, to finally stuffing in envelopes and sending them out.”
Cleff stressed it’s a far more detailed-oriented, organizationally-demanding job than most people know.
“It’s all about attention to detail and communication. You can't make a mistake, because if there's an error on even one ticket then it will make a huge difference for the experience of that one fan,” he said.
Perhaps the reason that Cleff is so in tune with the perspective of the fans is that, before motorsports became his career, he was a fan.
“I started coming to the races in 1999,” he began.” “My father-in-law got me into it. I was really intrigued with the atmosphere. The racing was great, don't get me wrong, but the atmosphere was really what got me.”
The first time he came to DAYTONA, like many before and many to follow, the first word that came to his mind was “huge”.
“You really don't understand the perception of this place until you've seen it in person,” he said. “I hear that from fans constantly. It's fun to watch the look in their eyes when they arrive here because then you start to realize that you really do work at a special place.”
In order to work at such a special place, Cleff took several risks to make it happen. In 2002, looking to get back into sports after a stint in the non-profit, he and his wife moved to Daytona Beach.
“My wife and I decided that this is where we wanted to live, so we packed up shop and moved,” he recalled. “We decided to simply make a go of it and see what happens.’”
While he worked in the ticket office at the Florida International Festival, Cleff knew that the ultimate goal was to get in the door at Daytona International Speedway. And, in 2004, he did.
“I came in and started selling tickets on a part-time basis in May of 2004, while I was managing the ticket office for the festival,” he explained. “In December of 2004, they brought me in full-time to run the Event Time Ticket Seller operation, handling the daily ticket sales along with cash handling and other logistics.”
After about a year in that role, he was moved up front to the job of ticket sales manager, wherein he was part of a group that underwent a philosophy change.
“We went through quite a change as we transitioned from an order-taking ticket office to an outbound sales team. It was a very different way of operating, including hiring people. Overall, we were much more proactive in reaching out and building relationships.”
Lucky for everyone, whether he’s on the Ticket Operations side or up front with ticket agents, interpersonal relationships are something Cleff prides himself on -- with a strong belief that a critical part of his job is to create a strong first impression with fans.
“That’s what this job is; it’s the fans’ first impression of Daytona International Speedway,” he said. “More times than not, our ticket office personnel are the first people fans are going to interact with.
Cleff transitioned into Ticket Operations once again in 2009 and although Ticket Operations deals with the execution of orders rather the traditional ticket office duty of selling tickets, he believes there’s a strong similarity at the core of both jobs.
“With both, you're dealing with people,” he began. “The way I look at it is, when you buy something and it gets delivered to you, you're excited for it. And there's nothing worse than opening that box and having something messed up or missing. At the end of the day, we both have the opportunity to set a great impression and get their interaction started out with us well.”
As 2016 was a year of first impressions for Daytona International Speedway, with the opening of the world’s only motorsports stadium, Cleff had a rather unique surprise in store for fans…a lenticular ticket.
“We were looking to do something different for the customer,” he explained. “I presented the idea to the team and was tasked with the team in executing the idea.”
A word not in the personal dictionary of many, lenticular print surfaces produce images that have the ability to change or move as the image is viewed from different angles.
The Speedweeks 2016 commemorative event tickets take advantage of both moving and changing imagery. Easy to see from just a slight angle change are the two iconic images shot from roughly the same angle: an image the inaugural 1959 DAYTONA and a rendering of the 2016 DAYTONA 500.
However, Cleff points out something that’s quite a bit more subtle.
“If you look closely, you can see that the cars kind of move. Early on we had a version that made you kind of nauseous, so it was a process, but eventually we got to look perfect.”
And perfect is exactly how it looked as the new tickets dangled around the necks of nearly every fan in attendance.
“I've worked a lot of places and I've worked a lot of events, but I've never saw as many people wearing their tickets as I did that day,” he recalled fondly. “We wanted to do something that nobody had ever done to celebrate the new stadium and I think we accomplished that. We gave fans something that they can keep forever.”
In his 12-year career that’s seen more change that the previous 48, Cleff has been witness to many groundbreaking, pivotal moments in addition to last year’s DAYTONA 500. The construction of the UNOH Fanzone, the Turn 1 tunnel, the 2011 repave and the 50th DAYTONA 500 and 50th Rolex 24 At DAYTONA were some that came to top of mind. However, at the end of the day, Cleff is adamant that there is one thing that keeps him coming back…the people.
“The people that I get to work with and the people that come to the track and I get to meet really make the difference for me,” he explained. “No matter how many years go by, there’s just a culture here that just attracts great people. Ultimately, it’s all about the people for me and I’m so proud to be part of the team that kicks off a great race experience for the fans.”