Inside the Comets: Kelly Esche

by Don Laible

Mar 18, 2014

Whether at The AUD, in Vancouver, or on-line, getting your hands on a Utica Comets jersey today remains difficult, if not impossible. Even for Kelly Esche, the club’s Director of Brand Management, keeping up with demand for merchandise remains an ongoing challenge.

Although Esche does her best to keep the Comets store stocked, fans who attend Comets home games on a regular schedule have seen first hand how quickly items are scooped up. Try to find any inaugural hoodies, pennants, or hats on display. Comets jackets, too. Since opening night back in October, one suggestion rules for shoppers of all things Comets – if you see it, buy it then. Hesitation equals a dejected customer.

“We (the Comets organization) knew this is a hockey community going in. How people have supported us is just amazing,” says Esche.

Seeing residents throughout the Mohawk Valley, be it in malls or going about their everyday lives, displaying their Comets pride is gratifying to Esche. The store in which Esche greets fans in at each home game is as new to The AUD as the team itself. With approximately three months to create and introduce a Comets brand, from the time the team was introduced to when the Albany Devils arrived for opening night in Utica, Esche and the Comets started from scratch.

“I knew it (branding) would be a challenge for us because of time restrictions. The way it works is, I had to have my orders in February for next season,” says Esche. “Next year there will be a lot better variety and quality of items.”

During our 15-minute telephone conversation last week, it is clear in Esche’s voice that she is enjoying what she is doing. Amazingly, with the success of Comets merchandising, Kelly jumped into her position will no formal background. The ‘if you like what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life’ adage is spot on when describing Esche’s position.

Comets jerseys are the hot topic. With nine home games remaining in the inaugural regular season, a glance through the glass doors of the Comets store reveals a few small children jerseys on hangers. For quite some time there have been no selection of adult jerseys. The selling out of jerseys is a predicament that all AHL clubs would like to be confronted with.

Esche tells of having ordered 600 jerseys this season. “I wasn’t sure how they would sell, but after Christmas all adult sizes were sold-out.”

The quick-thinking marketeer that Esche has evolved into has located 33 additional jerseys. Back in January, Esche tells of making a visit to Vancouver, along with her husband, Comets President Robert Esche, and other staff members. Doing what she could in keeping up with demand locally, Esche purchased Utica jerseys in British Columbia.

The plan is for those jerseys to accompany the Comets back from this past weekend’s road trip in Abbotsford, en route for sale in The AUD’s store. Orders for jerseys, according to Esche, have been taken.

Perhaps learning as she has gone along, without a plethora of outside influence, is what continues to make Esche’s branding of the Comets successful. Last summer, while the Comets were born, and beach time were top priority for future ticket buyers, Esche looks back at starting her mission from a single desk in the Comets office.

“I didn’t have the knowledge on who to order from, and the store wasn’t finished,” Esche recalls. “It has been fun. I love it. The fans are happy to be here. While I’m working the games, there are regulars who stop in to say hi and see what’s new.”

There are aspects of branding merchandise that are out of Esche’s control. There are certain licensees that Esche is required to deal with. She tells of all pucks sold in the team store coming from Sherwood, a 60-plus year company based in Sherbrooke,Quebec as the distributor. For jerseys, you go through Reebok. Getting products to Utica, as well as other AHL cities can be challenging at times.

“There will always be bumps in the road,” Esche suggests.

One such bump was experienced this past November, for Esche’s efforts to keep the store stocked. “I ordered merchandise (coming from Canada) before Black Friday, and they arrived in February.”

But, for whatever bump that has been felt in branding the Comets, the unforgettable experience witnessed by Esche on October 23 (Utica’s home opener) remains a motivator. After months of planning, designing, and earning her stripes in creating a Comets brand, Esche’s efforts paid off as the store swung open it’s door.

“Things were so busy that I didn’t have time to enjoy the game. It was great, there was so much excitement,” Esche remembers.

There were good reason to anticipate the success of not only opening night, but what continues on throughout the season. Back on October 9 at the Hotel Utica, the first-ever season-ticket holder party was held. At this affair would be the first opportunity for Comets fans to see and own Comets gear. Hats, t-shirts, hoodies, and clothes racks were set up in the lobby, setting off what resembled a feeding frenzy of buyers, as apparel were stripped off the racks rapidly.

“It was hard to predict what would sell; what people wanted,” Esche states.

Since last Fall, the community has bought into the Comets team and has wanted to personally identify with them. Outside of The AUD’s store, you can find Comets apparel in Herb Philipson’s, a 63-year retail business throughout Central New York. On a recent visit to Philipson’s Herkimer location, while entering the front door, staring at customers immediately were Comets t-shirts and hats.

“Next season there will be a whole array of items that we didn’t have this year”, Esche promises.

Products, ideas, whatever it takes to satisfy Comets fans in their identifying with their team, rests with Kelly Esche. Perhaps her biggest obstacle to fulfilling these requests is rest itself. Kelly Esche has found her niche and enthusiastically continues to reshape it.

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