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Professionalization of Sailing Events in the Caribbean

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Worldwide trends are now seeing major boating and sailboat racing events increasingly organized by professional, profit-driven organizations rather than volunteer nonprofits.

In the Caribbean of the 1980s, everything was run by volunteers: Antigua Sailing Week, Nicholson’s Boat Show, BVI Spring Regatta, Tobago Race Week, Bonaire Regatta, and the St Thomas Rolex Regatta, to name a few. Everywhere enthusiastic volunteers took the lead and imbued the events with passion driven by the superb boating conditions in the Caribbean. Given the newness and excitement, a special spirit and energy emanated from those events.

Today that has largely changed and most events have some degree of paid/professional involvement and, inevitably, a high percentage of their revenue comes from sponsorship. Recently we have seen the introduction of several professionally run, apparently for profit, events like the Loro Piana Regatta in Virgin Gorda, the RORC 600 and the Bucket Regattas. Increasingly they are owned by out-of-region entities with favorable connections and a good understanding of the source markets.

It is significant that most of the newer regattas are for profit and/or professionally run and it is not surprising that their focus has been the higher-end audience. The professional nature of these events is likely to remain with us. Increasingly they will become a clear and tested business model, built partly around entities with high-end sponsors that see value in linking their names to these events, and participants that represent the pinnacle of financial success in yachting.

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Many of the smaller events remain largely volunteer-based and, when compared to the larger events, will suffer from less marketing dollars, less quality of organization and smaller numbers. Often they are based in territories where local government has aspirations for increasing their marine tourism and have an interest in raising the standards of local regattas. Events aimed at youth – and where the sport of sailing is central – are going to be seeking sponsorship from a very different type of sponsor with very different dollar levels. Regional yachting organizations are more likely to be dominated by the well-funded regattas.

What will happen, and what is already happening, is that these low revenue (usually focused on local residents and youth) events will be left in the hands of volunteers and be neglected by those organizations driven by profit and other motives. They will be forced to find new formats.

Besides changes in organizational structure, events are remodeling as a result of technology and the type of participants. Events are now run more effectively, operated with sophisticated computer-driven results and other data along with higher quality marketing and communication skills. In early Caribbean regattas you were often pleased to get your results late in the evening and, because you expected to wait so long, you joined your competitors at a bar close to the results board and the consequent parties became legendary. Today you can receive all the results on your iPhone and professional sailors can go to bed early to satisfy the crew boss.

Inevitably, the essence of the party/regatta that the Caribbean is well known for is changing. The top racing sailors are paid and cannot afford to risk their positions with partying. Partiers who enjoy both sides of the race/party fence are present but they are less likely to have much chance of competing on the race course. Organizers now face the challenge of pulling participants away from their mother-ships and luxury hotels and getting them to mix socially and enjoy the parties that originally made Caribbean regattas famous and attractive.

Running regattas and boating events in the Caribbean will evolve into a business like any other, whether it is for profit or not. Like any business, success will depend on adapting to the market and the interest of participants, dealing with contradictions, and sparking the excitement that drives participation. The challenge to the sport of sailing in the Caribbean is to ensure that the big money events don’t suck the funds and organizational talent away from the basic level of the sport where Caribbean residents, of all ages, enjoy simple events on smaller boats at manageable costs. Successful events will be those that adapt to changing conditions and, by levering the advantages of their location, promote and enhance their destination as a whole.

To comment on this article or any article in All At Sea, Email: editor@allatsea.net

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Sir Robbie Ferron founded the Sint Maarten Heineken Regatta and served as Caribbean Sailing Association President for nine years.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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