It is not easy to get sailors to come and compete in any regatta that you might want to organize. Ask Larry Ellison, the Americas Cup organizer who has thrown millions at this year’s Americas cup and he has hardly attracted participation that is proportional to the amount of money spent. Many of us in the Caribbean have created great events and the outstanding natural conditions and the energy regattas produce make it interesting to consider what drives success in these ventures.
In the Caribbean, we have had plenty of experience trying every model of regatta based on a variety and mix of motivations. Let’s have a look at what has worked and what has not worked.
Authentic passion for the event – linked to type of boat – is a sure winner. The Antigua classic regatta is an example of passionate classic lovers running a regatta for other passionate sailors, ensuring consistently good turnouts in what is a very shallow market of participants. The resulting ambiance and experience drives even more interest in the event as a result.
Prestige is a factor that seems to generate a great deal of participation particularly with the super yachts. In the early days, Antigua enjoyed such prestige but more recently St. Barth’s has become the king of prestige and this (with other factors) has helped drive participation in the St. Barth Bucket and the Voile de St Barth’s. The prestige regattas have managed to cream off the largest super yachts from all regattas and actually drawn in boats that would never have felt at home in events with smaller yachts.
Strong existing classes drive and encourage participation. When a potential participant knows that by winning a class in that particular regatta he really has achieved a goal. Tight classes also make handicap racing (which we are largely stuck with) a much better experience.
Social atmosphere will always help a regatta trump other events even if the organization and marketing is not up to par. Bequia Easter regatta always had that laidback, comfortable image that helped it score over many years. The Sint Maarten Heineken Regatta also sells a social atmosphere albeit a very different one to Bequia.
The BVI Spring Regatta has led with the short course, high quality, racing card which has given it consistent success. Although it has attracted the serious sailors it has probably not created the ‘zing’ that might have brought more participants. Unfortunately, contradictions in regatta organization dictate that the more competitive the racing, the less dedicated the partying and, as a result, really sporting sailors are unlikely to party as hard as their laidback colleagues.
To attract sailors every event must work hard at preparation. Marketing well ahead of time and communicating clearly with possible participants is essential. But ensuring that this work is backed by a positive ‘buzz’ in the bars and the blogs is what makes the difference to the end result. Positive buzz can be helped along by spending money on marketing but ultimately this is not under the total control of the organizers. It can be enhanced by just one dynamic and influential person but also by an excited and motivated fleet. The information that high-profile boats are participating is the essential precursor to a major entry in that particular category of boat.
Organizing a regatta in the Caribbean is like throwing a party or running a bar. Potential participants must see something in the event that makes them want to come to the party or visit the bar, something that may be difficult to grasp but very real to their experience.
Creating that experience is often underestimated and many aspiring regattas are disappointed when numbers are below expectations, their expectations usually having been created by a limited set of conditions they had defined as driving participation.
We wonder why certain bars are successfully and others, with very similar attributes, are not. We wonder why certain parties are a rip-roaring success and others, in similar circumstances, fall flat on their face. It is my belief that organizing regattas is as mystical and complicated as organizing parties or running bars.
Sir Robbie Ferron founded the Sint Maarten Heineken Regatta and served as Caribbean Sailing Association President for nine years.
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