Abu Dhabi set fair after victory at Volvo Ocean Race

When Azzam, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s 65-foot carbon-fibre yacht, sailed into Sweden’s ancient port of Gothenburg late on Monday, it was as the first winner of the Volvo Ocean Race to hail from the Arabian Gulf.

Azzam had held an all but unassailable eight-point lead at the top of the seven-vessel standings and only last place on the final Leg 9, and victory for Team Brunel and a two-point penalty could ruin the party. However, the spoils of victory are not the only benefits of this race win.

“We added 30,000 extra hotel rooms in the three weekends that the ocean race stopped over here [in Abu Dhabi],” says Faisal Al Sheikh, the director, at the events bureau for the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.

“We have put Abu Dhabi in the forefront of people’s minds as a marine centre.

“The race is an international promotional campaign for Abu Dhabi. We want to be thought of as a waterfront destination and what better way to do that than in a round-the-world ocean race?,” he says.

“When people think of yachts and maritime leisure, they think of exotic locations, glamour and excitement – with our marine heritage that is Abu Dhabi.”

The race began 10 months ago, on October 11, in Alicante, Spain, and covered 38,739 nautical miles across nine legs with stops including Cape Town, South Africa; Abu Dhabi; Sanya, China; Auckland, New Zealand; Itajai, Brazil; Newport, US; Lisbon, Portugal; Lorient, France; The Hague, Netherlands; and finally Sweden’s Gothenburg.

The gruelling race has been run every three years since 1973. Rather than allow money to dictate the winner of the race, as often occurs in racing events on land and sea where success comes down to the richest team, the Volvo organisers have ensured all boats are identical down to the last halyard.

Another element boosting sporting prowess sees each team having make it around the world using just a single mainsail, a huge stretch of synthetic fabric covering 158 square metres – there is no such thing as plain sailing in this event.

While the cost of each boat is not cheap, yachting seldom is, the approximate price of running the yachts with crew and the crews that meet the boats at each stop over and to maintain, replenish and repair the craft is about US$20 million, organisers say.

Other than the spectacle of watching identical craft pit a crew’s skill, yachtsmanship and navigational nose against another’s, what are the benefits to the sponsors of the event? $20m is still a large chunk of change.

“Firstly it is to do with visibility,” says Andrew Campbell, the managing director of Abu Dhabi’s Brand Finance Middle East, a consultancy that performs valuations of brands and intangible assets.

“Just being in the race gives an excellent profile. Every port it stops in, with the crowds flocking to the event villages, means it is one of the stars of the show and a global TV audience is an added bonus – winning gives it extra kudos and exposure.

“To someone who has never heard of Abu Dhabi before it creates an emotional attachment that resonates with adventure, azure blue waters and wealth,” he says.

“These are intangible assets and therefore not easily transferable to a brand. It could be argued that $20m is cheap for the exposure and emotional attachment that is driven from this one event.”

Those intangible rewards are mixed with some very tangible promotion for hosting international sporting competitions.

Doing so with events of worldwide prominence and with the solid Corinthian values that the sport carries is a strategic decision in the marketing of a country, city or company

The lengths to which countries will go in pursuit of major sporting event sponsorship can be seen whenever the venue for an Olympic Games or Fifa World Cup, for instance, is being awarded.

South Africa, which hosted the World Cup in 2010, continues to celebrate its legacy to the country’s tourism industry with a 21 per cent year-on-year increase in US tourist arrivals in 2014, four years after the tournament ended.

The fillip has been seen not because it hosted a World Cup but because it showed it was safe for tourists, a hospitable and polite nation with infrastructure that allowed travel throughout.

“Branding is as much to do with emotion as it is with advertising and marketing,” says Mike English, the director of Abu Dhabi-based Superbrands Middle East.

“Intangible forces are at work when anyone chooses a product over another product.

“Abu Dhabi hosts the Red Bull Air Race, it is very closely connected with Manchester City Football Club, it has touch points in a variety of differing ways to a variety of different people,” says Mr English.

“Maybe a city will not be on a list of destination choices but an emotion can put it on the list.

“First the city has to be chosen, then that city has to host the hotel chain you want. All the emotional decisions spin off from the first decision,” he says.

Regarding the Volvo Ocean Race, each stopover host city enjoys significant financial reward.

For example, for the previous race series, the total economic benefit for China’s Hainan Island, home to the port city of Sanya, which hosted the Leg 3/4 stopover in 2013 as it did again this year, came to 735.4m yuan (Dh434.6m), according to a PwC/GfK survey.

To capitalise this time round, Abu Dhabi built a sprawling 35,000 square metre, purpose-built waterfront site on the capital’s Corniche Breakwater, the port-of-call for 23 days of sports, entertainment and leisure activity as part of Abu Dhabi’s hosting of race Leg 2.

It promoted a free-to-enter Village with a unique 440-metre “floating” Skyline Stage, which played host to performances by stars such as the Lebanese singer Myriam Fares, the Argentinian guitar maestro Dominic Miller and the Grammy nominee Kamal Massalam among many others.

Another aspect helping to promote brand Abu Dhabi were several activity areas in the village, including themed zones, covering culture and heritage; adventure; family; exhibitions; and the environment as well as five international pavilions covering China, Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands and Great Britain.

While the tangible rewards are myriad, it remains to be seen whether that promotion keeps working race after race. Abu Dhabi first began its quest for victory in the Volvo Ocean Race in 2009, and it has now fulfilled its wish but does that mean it will fight to retain its crown in the next installment three years hence?

“We cannot say right now whether we will be there for the next race,” says Mr Al Sheikh.

“It is not until 2017-2018 and we do not have to make a decision for another eight to nine months.

“These decisions are not taken lightly and we will see whether we still have the desire for it.”

For now, that desire has been transformed into the sweet scent of victory – for the Abu Dhabi team and for the capital.


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