Leadership / 05.24.23
From Filling Empty Seats to Creating Lasting Connections, Vet Tix Makes a Difference
In 2008, Navy veteran Mike Focareto embarked on a self-improvement course, unaware of the significant impact it would have. He was assigned a project as part of that course — to do something good in his local community. Inspired to contribute positively, he observed something during the Super Bowl in Phoenix that year that ignited his desire to help his fellow veterans.
While watching the game, Focareto noticed that after presenting the colors and leaving the field, the color guard had to stand in the mezzanine area even though there were empty seats scattered throughout the stadium. This perplexed him, prompting him to reconsider his original plan for a community project: taking a group of veterans to a baseball game over Memorial Day weekend.
A moment of realization struck, propelling Focareto to think on a larger scale. He pondered how he could acquire those unoccupied seats, not only at sporting events but also at concerts and other live entertainment events and distribute them as a gesture of gratitude to veterans and service members. This brilliant concept laid the foundation for the Veteran Tickets Foundation, also known as Vet Tix. Since its inception, this organization has assisted more than 2.3 million veterans, enlisted service members and first responders nationwide.
The foundation’s Chief Strategy Officer, Steven Weintraub, picks up the story from here.
“[Founding Vet Tix] was important because, for Mike and the other founders who were either veterans or came from military families, it was a way to identify that at these events, there are empty seats. If they could send veterans, service members and their family members to these events as a way for them to rebuild the bonds and relationships that they missed while they were serving their country, that would be the least that they could do. Being a veteran myself, [I know that] you miss family events when you are deployed or away from your family and friends for extended periods or even a short time. It could be childbirth, an anniversary or birthdays. These are things that you do not get back.”
Most of the tickets Vet Tix receives as donations are in the same sections. Therefore, VetTixers are sitting among each other, creating an environment that assists them with reintegrating with their local communities. It also allows them to meet other veterans, service members and first responders.
Vet Tix is an incredible success, to put it mildly. Throughout the years, the organization has distributed over 16 million free event tickets across multiple genres. The organization has also been showered with gratitude through more than a million heartfelt thank-you notes and testimonials. While their primary mission is to give back to those who have served or are serving, they have also unintentionally become a source of solace for many veterans. These brave men and women have shared stories of facing intense feelings of isolation, depression and even thoughts of suicide. Vet Tix has played an inadvertent role in helping them address these challenges. One particular story stands out as particularly poignant and touching.
“A veteran who retired from the military had tickets to a NASCAR race,” Weintraub says. “He was going to bring his son, and his son got overloaded with homework, so he invited his buddy, who is a fellow veteran. His buddy was going through some hard times in the process of a divorce and child custody issues … At the race, they sat with other veterans and service members and enhanced the bond. On the way home, his buddy said, ‘If you didn’t invite me to attend this race today, I was going to kill myself, but being with you and this experience and other veterans, I’ve changed the direction that I want to take in my life.’ On the way home, the veteran … dropped [his friend] off at a treatment facility. [That friend called him] and said, ‘Thank you again for doing this. I have a different outlook on life now.’ That type of testimonial is, again, not a one-off. We get hundreds of testimonials like that.”
Weintraub also shared that many VetTixers could not attend an event if they had to foot the bill themselves. But thanks to Vet Tix, they can participate without worrying about the cost.
“There is a demographic of our members that are either on a fixed income, maybe because they are retired, or they do not make a large amount of money, and therefore they do not have the budget for entertainment … We hear these stories [often]. We get thank you messages [saying] that if it wasn’t for Vet Tix, I would never be able to bring my family to a baseball game, football game, basketball game, concert, play or ballet because the ticket price for a family of four just to get through the turnstiles could be cost prohibitive.”
The entire system operates smoothly largely due to the incredible generosity of approximately 30,000 donors. Those who give include professional and collegiate football, hockey, baseball, and soccer teams, venues, artists, promoters, corporations, private donors, and season ticket holders. Among them, Live Nation is the largest donor, generously giving over two million tickets as of November 2022. Additionally, Vet Tix itself holds an admirable position as the fourth largest donor. In addition to distributing donated tickets, the organization buys tickets to meet its members’ varying tastes and needs.
“The primary way we procure these funds [to buy more tickets] is internally,” Weintraub says. “It is free to join Vet Tix to receive tickets. Even though the tickets are free, there is a small delivery fee because Vet Tix has some internal administrative … costs [like] payroll, paying the bills, keeping the lights on, and things like that. But the other part of that nominal delivery fee is used to buy more tickets. From that nominal delivery fee, 4–5% … goes to our admin costs. The other 95 or 96% of that delivery fee goes to … Tickets for Troops.”
Vet Tix has also formed partnerships with many other organizations. As Weintraub mentioned earlier, Live Nation is the largest donor, but they are not the only organization making a significant difference. Throughout the years, numerous groups and individuals have joined to support this cause. Together, they contribute to the ongoing mission of Vet Tix, ensuring that even more currently serving military members and their families, honorably discharged veterans and their families, and immediate family members of troops who died in the line of duty can benefit from the program.
“A lot of organizations want to support the troops and veterans. Our sister organization 1st Tix does the same exact thing for current and retired first responders, including police, fire, EMS, 911 dispatchers and registered nurses. A lot of times, these organizations want to give back, but they don’t know how. And many times, they have tickets or funds that they have allocated for different charities and organizations. Our ticket distribution process is efficient and they realize how easy it is for us to distribute these tickets. They see that partnering with Vet Tix is an easy way to give back and support our veteran service members and first responders.”
For Weintraub, Vet Tix is not just a professional endeavor; it holds a deeply personal significance. He had a 32-year career in the military, enlisting with the Marine Corps Reserves in 1987 and serving as a Combat Engineer. Weintraub saw active duty in numerous locales throughout the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf regions aboard the USS Rushmore participating in Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. He was also mobilized from the reserves to active duty several times, including two combat tours in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2019, he retired from the United States Marine Corps Reserves, attaining the rank of Colonel. More than 10 years earlier, while serving in the reserves, he stumbled upon Vet Tix through social media. Little did he know that this chance encounter would ignite a profound connection to the cause.
“I did some research on the organization and thought their mission and what they do is so cool, so I offered my services because I’m networked in the military and veteran community,” he says. “I said if there’s any way I can help you with your mission by connecting you with organizations in the military and veteran community, I’m happy to do so. I connected with the leadership [team]. We would communicate, and I would help them out here and there, and we would meet once or twice a year and talk about different things.”
Back in 2016 or 2017, when Vet Tix began looking for someone to oversee strategy, they approached Weintraub about taking on this role.
“[Doing this work is] important to me because having served in the military for over 32 years, I understand what the lifestyle of a military member or a veteran [is like],” Weintraub says. “Many times, military and veterans, especially veterans, when they leave the military, are looking for some type of purpose beyond what they did serving their country, regardless of how long they served. I am fortunate because I work for an organization, though I don’t even like to call what I do work, where I am able to give back and pay forward in a way that is enriching not only to me but the military and veteran community, as a way to enhance the lives of those we impact, our members and their families.”
Despite Weintraub’s lack of prior experience in the ticketing industry, he recognized the essential role Vet Tix played in the ticketing ecosystem and quickly grasped the significance of the organization’s mission.
“When there is distressed inventory that would otherwise not be used, hence go to waste, we are that apparatus where we can use that distressed inventory, in essence, to help it be used and go to a good cause,” Weintraub says.
“The message that we are striving to get to the community is that Vet Tix would like to be the organization that the ticketing, entertainment and sports community considers first when they have distressed inventory and want to put it to good use. We want to be the organization at the top of the list of those with distressed inventory to donate.”
Looking at the metrics, it is clear that Vet Tix lives up to its promise of putting seats that may otherwise go unused to good use.
“For the tickets that we get through donations, distressed inventory and such, the scan rate or utilization rate is, on average, over 87%,” Weintraub says. “So, when we get these tickets and distribute them to our members who request them, 87% of the time they attend these events, sometimes [the numbers are even] higher. In the ticketing world, these tickets are going to be used and for a good cause.”
As the Chief Strategy Officer, one of Weintraub’s responsibilities is to help drive the growth of the organization. With approximately 200,000 individuals leaving the military each year and new people enlisting, there is a continuous influx of potential new members for Vet Tix. Weintraub recognizes the opportunity this presents for the organization to expand its reach and impact, ensuring that even more men and women can benefit.
“We are on about a 40% growth trajectory,” he says, adding that this includes an average of 900 new members each day plus new donors and tickets in Vet Tix’s inventory. “From a growth perspective, we have this endless supply of prospective new members on that military and veteran side. And that’s not even considering the first responder demographic.”
Weintraub continues, “The other part about metrics that is important to us is our technology, that we are able to stay on the cusp of technology when it comes to the ticketing industry, and that is ensuring that our processes of integration with ticketing agencies are updated and current. That is [how] donors can electronically transfer tickets to Vet Tix efficiently, and we are able to electronically distribute them to our members on a reliable, secure and consistent basis.”
Vet Tix is also leveraging technology to make it easier for donors to support the organization and its mission.
“On the upper right-hand corner of our websites — vettix.org or 1sttix.org — there’s a button that says, ‘Donate Now,’” Weintraub says. “If there’s a prospective donor, they can click on that link to learn more and be walked through the donation process. That includes tickets or if they have cash that they want to donate.
Weintraub continues, “The thing about donating cash to Vet Tix is that 100% of every dollar donated goes to buying more tickets. So, that is not where a percentage goes to our admin costs. All money donated to Vet Tix goes to procuring more tickets.”
Because Vet Tix is a 501c3 national nonprofit, all donors receive a tax form that they can use as a tax write-off. These forms are automatically generated and can be downloaded through each donor’s Vet Tix account.
“Our mission is to give something to those who gave,” Weintraub says. “It is a way to give back and an apparatus to thank our members for their service and sacrifice.”