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Experiential hospitality – the unique side of sailing

In 2005 I wrote The Business of Yacht Racing, a major industry review on sponsorship in sailing published by Sport Business International.  It was an extension to my MBA dissertation research into how sports sponsorship delivers stakeholder value.  Much has changed since 2005 – the growth of social media, collaborative-sharing and pier-to-pier selling, plus Brexit to name a few things.  However, like much of ‘real’ strategic marketing, the core framework and principles still remain.  It may just be the channels you use to implement and communicate that are different.

Influencing your customer with experiential hospitality

Corporate hospitality is an important business tool and there are many sophisticated opportunities to entertain guests as spectators at sporting events.  However, with the growth of the industry has come the growth of the “standard” corporate hospitality package, frequently using the same caterers, same marquee, same menu, different venue.  It is increasingly important for the hospitality experience to be memorable to be commercially effective.  Otherwise, the investment risks costing the brand owner a lot of money, for guests to consume some food and alcohol and have a jolly time, but achieves little business impact.

Yacht racing is one of the few sponsored sports where it is feasible to share the experience at a variety of levels.

Guests can be taken afloat to get close to the race action, or the start of an ocean race.  There are a variety of craft available, offering different types of hospitality experiences including other racing yachts, Thames barges and tall ships, and motor-powered vessels from converted fishing trawlers through to super-yachts and restored steamboats.  A trip on many of these vessels is an experience in itself, and, combined with the opportunity to get close to the powerful racing yachts followed by a flotilla of spectators, is not something that you can do everyday.

Yachting also enables guests to participate in sailing on board the race yachts, frequently with the racing sailors themselves.  Taking guests to the rugby, tennis or Formula 1 is undoubtedly a good day out. However, you cannot put your guests on the field with the All Blacks, without  seriously endangering their welfare!  Equally, there are no opportunities to drive a Formula 1 car around the track and it gets very expensive for your guests to have quality time with the driver.  Further, it is difficult with “yet another” corporate hospitality box, at “yet another” sporting event, cluttered with other sponsors branding and perimeter advertising boards, to achieve any long term stand-out.  In contrast, yachting hospitality offers a totally branded experience.

A benefit many sponsors find with sailing hospitality is that their audience is captive and unable to slip away for that early train.  It provides quality time with stakeholders, away from office distractions, in a totally different, captivating environment, which is memorable.  There is something about boats that when leaving the shore you leave a lot of other clutter in life behind.

Skandia’s then group sponsorship manager, Tim Sewell summarises the potential of yachting hospitality:

…at the rugby you can have a great day out, staring at other people’s brands and a few months later you probably won’t remember who took you.  Also, you can buy your own ticket and have the same experience.  However, you can’t buy a day out on a tall ship or a 60 foot Swan racing yacht.  It is about the money-can’t-buy experiences.  And for us, it is a lot cheaper than taking guests to the rugby..…it is difficult to think of another sport where we could entertain this level of numbers as an event title sponsor for the same kind of money.

The fact that sailing offers a unique experience is consistently repeated by yachting sponsors.
“Taking our guests sailing on Mari Cha IV (the worlds’ fastest, record breaking 140 foot schooner) is something we could never have offered our guests had we not been involved with yachting and Emma Richards.  Very few people will ever get the chance to sail on her,” Andrew Pindar, Chairman of the Pindar Group.

At the 2004 Transat Race a couple of French sponsors sailed their guests across the channel to watch the start.   Involving guests in an experience, such as undertaking the actual sailing, plays an important role whether the guests are external or internal stakeholders.    Sailing a large yacht requires a co-ordinated team effort.

Relationships are built on shared experiences and learning which are important both, within teams, or with a customer.  Shared experiences are fundamental to creating closer understanding and building loyalty.

The Challenge Business specialises in providing corporate sailing days for people with no sailing experience and the model can include arranging onboard team building activities.   Challenge sponsor, the BG Group, chose to set up ongoing leadership and development programmes and teambuilding initiatives using their chartered yacht.    This includes an extended sailing Tour for employees, across the Group, to work together sailing the boat from port to port.   The unprompted feedback from such exercises demonstrates how learning can take place on board.

It was a humbling experience ….. we all saw each other in natural state, you couldn’t doll up and pretend to be someone you are not.

The Tour was in all ways getting to grips with a global challenge.  In this rapid era of development , where the only constant is change, we were given the opportunity to see that adapted and ‘moving the cheese’ was the only way to survive…the experience truly ‘mirrors the qualities BG needs to succeed’ in its business.”

The typical benefits from such onboard exercises creates awareness and understanding of :

  • working towards a common goal
  • the process of teambuilding and team-working
    • forming, storming, norming and performing
    • working with strengths and weaknesses
    • operating as a unit
  • coping with new environments and  learning new skills
  • dealing with responsibility
  • developing trust through depending on others – relationships become more than just colleague the other side of the desk
  • operating under pressure – especially under extreme tiredness or sea sickness, 24/7
    perseverance and pushing personal boundaries
  • organising time – sailing and surviving – repairs, eating, sleeping, navigating
  • getting on with people – there is no escape to the canteen or photocopier room or getting off in stressful situations!

Many events ensure there are places for corporate guests within the racing itself.   The America’s Cup race boats are designed to allow a 19th man to sit behind the skipper and tactician.  Whilst guests are not allowed to contribute, they get an in-the-face view of the race action and teamwork at the highest level.

The Volvo Ocean Race has introduced sponsors places on board the Volvo 70 racing yachts for their dramatic in-port racing, which counts towards the overall results of the round the world race.  On the Swedish Match Tour, races are arranged for guests to sail with the leading America’s Cup skippers, such as Russell Coutts.

Before the 2002/03 Around Alone Race, the organisers held a prologue leg from Newport to New York.  This provided sponsors with the opportunity for corporate guests to sail with their skippers on board the spectacular Open 60 racing yachts.  The impact of a unique and extended hospitality experience might be difficult to put a cost accountancy value to, but can result in some incredibly positive feedback – which may never occur in a conventional sales relationship.

As long as I live, I will never forget sailing into New York as one of Emma Richards awe-struck crew members aboard the fair ship ‘Pindar’.  It was an honour and privilege to have sailed with someone as remarkable as Emma, and I cannot thank you enough for providing that opportunity to me”  Mike Voucas, Vice President, Yellow Book USA.

The most important principle behind any experiential hospitality programme is that there are clear objectives driving the programme, whether it is increasing customer loyalty, integrating customer and employee relationships, creating networking opportunities or internal team building.   Too frequently, programmes can lack planning or clear targets about who to invite or select and effective timescales to ensure they can attend.  One of the most useful elements of yachting hospitality is that it offers many different levels of experience and is flexible.  It can be arranged around key events, such as ocean races or regattas, or can be set up as an event in itself without having to wait for the next season of matches or racing.

This article was originally published in Sport Business Magazine, Nov 2004

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