The two main stadiums dominate an aerial view at Indian Wells in California. (Courtesy Indian Wells Tennis Garden)

Recent additions to California complex help turn event into unique fan experience

When it came time to really embrace the garden aspect of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden name, officials for the site of the BNP Paribas Open learned that when it comes to buying palm trees it must be done in groves. So, they opted for roughly 500 new palm trees over the last few years.

But far more than making flora a theme — and from a “secret garden” to photo op benches throughout the central palm tree grove that ties together site, they’ve done just that — a bevy of renovations, upgrades and facility improvements over the last few years continues to give the BNP Paribas Open high marks from fans and players.

The event, the largest tennis tournament that’s not one of the four Grand Slams, drew more than 450,000 fans last March, 85 percent from out of town. It was named the top ATP (men’s professional tennis) and WTA (women’s) tournament for the fifth straight year. The 2019 event launched this week and runs through March 17.

“This is a very special place,” said Steve Birdwell, Indian Wells Tennis Garden chief operating officer. “It might not be a super ‘wow’ type of thing, but it is a special place. I think the group of people is special and the site is special. The fans come and players come, and they can let their hair down and relax.”

The changes for Indian Wells really started in 2009 when BNP Paribas signed on as the title sponsor — in 2018 the bank extended its deal into 2023 — and billionaire Oracle co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison bought both the event and the complex.

In 2014, Stadium 2, the second permanent stadium on site, opened next to the complex’s new east entrance. The 8,000-seat venue provided the ability to host events that wouldn’t otherwise work in the 16,100-seat Stadium 1, the second-largest tennis-specific venue in the world.

“I think adding Stadium 2 made the site a true tennis paradise,” Birdwell said. “I think adding that and the fan experiences where we’ve got Nobu and two other high-end restaurants, a broadcast booth, it gave us a lot of options. It was the catalyst.”

The opening of Stadium 2 gave Ellison and the tournament plenty of momentum, seen again in 2018 with a complete refresh of Stadium 1, which originally opened in 2000 and had gone largely untouched since.

Birdwell said most people didn’t realize Stadium 1 didn’t have restrooms or concessions on upper levels. Fans were forced to exit the stadium to use the restroom or find food on the outside. And with only three concession stands for the 16,000 fans, it “made it very challenging.” In an effort to allow fans to get everything they wanted without leaving the venue, the remodel added new square footage on the ground floor for support services and a banquet room for year-round events, and served as the foundation for a completely revamped upper level that includes restrooms on all levels, 44 suites and now 20 concession options. Stadium 1 also received all new green seats throughout and the renovation of every suite, along with a larger videoboard inside and an 80-foot-long 4K videoboard on the exterior facing the central circle of palms.

Fine dining has become part of the scene at the BNP Paribas Open tournament. (Tim Newcomb)

From Stadium 1’s complete food overhaul — Wolfgang Puck’s Spago overlooks the court in Stadium 1 — to the three fine-dining options at Stadium 2, two of which overlook the court, dining became a key theme across the tennis garden.

“Our owner wants an amazing experience for fans,” Birdwell said. From Nobu, a world-famous restaurant that the players flock to, to the partnership with Levy, Birdwell said they knew the seasonal visitors they get in the Coachella Valley have food high on their list of social activities. Indian Wells worked to ensure it had the proper mix of food products, to create experiences for fans but also to keep them on site. “We didn’t want people to feel like they could get just the basics, but to get something nice they had to go off site,” he said. “Then, once off site they ask if they feel like coming back. We are doing anything we can to keep them here and keep them happy.”

Ian Orr, regional vice president of operations for Levy, said the mix of fine dining and local fare created more work in setting up kitchens and taking orders but was critical to serve those coming from Los Angeles expecting the big names and the locals they love.

Everything comes down to creating an atmosphere of experience, whether the food, the shopping, the surprises — the tournament has scattered photo opportunities throughout the site, often in conjunction with sponsors or local artist Mike Sullivan — or even the accessibility of the tennis. Indian Wells was among the first venue to really open up its practice courts. Those 20 courts, now with 3,000 seats, give the 54-acre venue a total of 42,000 seats.

“You can get so close to the players and that is a unique experience,” Bridwell said. “Even if you buy a grounds pass, you can have that experience.”

For the this year’s event, Indian Wells expanded its north gate for improved traffic flow, added rows to the Champions Club in Stadium 1 and renovated the locker rooms inside Stadium 1 to create more space and make the area more comfortable for players. “Each year we try to improve,” said Philippe Dore, the tournament and site’s marketing director. “I don’t know if it will ever stop.”

An additional fountain this year joins the palm trees and two shade canopies, each encompassing 19,000 square feet. The four acres of commercial space fall within one main area, with a tournament store and large spaces for Fila and Tennis Warehouse.

“We are trying not to be too commercial,” Dore said. “We are not like an expo and we do that on purpose. We want people to be comfortable here. It is not our thing to sell you something. We are pretty proud and continue to do that. I think that is why people come back and say this is tennis paradise. It is pretty mellow and cool.”

Beyond the two-week tennis tournament, though, Birdwell said the event management arm of the company, Desert Champions, has moved to take advantage of the improved site by placing a larger emphasis on event management. It will host a Garden Jam Music Festival in April with Buddy Guy as the headliner, signed on a pickleball tournament that debuted there in 2018, added tennis tournaments of various levels and will serve as a destination for the Ironman. Concerts, while tough in the blistering heat of summer, are a welcome addition throughout the year. “If it is the right product for us and our fans, we would definitely entertain it,” he said.

The focus now, though, remains on creating a destination-style event for the 450,000 fans that stream through the tennis garden over two weeks.