Roger Duthie spent the past 19 years at Emirates building and managing the airline’s remarkable global sponsorship portfolio; he is now an independent sponsorship consultant and working with the newest agency to launch during COVID, Leverage Marketing Advisors LMA, and speaks with Sports Systems offering his experience and personal insights on the sports industry reactivating while still dealing with COVID-19.
What are you feeling now with Dubai coming out of lock-down?
Dubai is pretty much fully opened now but still with social distancing, including mandatory masks and gloves in most shops and restaurants. They have done a wonderful job slowly opening at the right time to ensure public safety. Although tourists and residents will be allowed to come back to Dubai or visit Dubai, there will still be measures in place to ensure those that do come to Dubai are not infected. The Government has done an incredible job during the crisis and continues to do so as we slowly come out on the other side.
As of now, the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby 7s and the DP World Tour Championship, among other international events in the region, including F1 in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, are all moving forward (with or without fans is still TBC).
What events or sports do you personally miss attending most?
Personally, I miss my own golf trips abroad with my mates. For example, for the past 15 years I’ve attended the Masters followed by a golf trip but we missed out this year. Professionally, I miss attending tennis events like the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. All incredible events with normally huge crowds and incredible atmosphere. If the US Open continues as planned they will do a worldclass job as always to ensure their staff and athletes are safe and monitored throughout the duration of their events.
What doo you find exciting in the current league re-activations?
The PGA Tour is doing an amazing job at the moment thanks to the cooperation of staff, players, and medical teams. As it learns and adjusts its protocols, the PGA is newly offering all staff and players of all its Tours the WHOOP wrist bands to support self-monitoring of everyones’ heart and breath rates, which, if high, could be a sign of COVID-19. This new technology, based on Nick Watney’s proof of effectiveness as a COVID-19 indicator and possibly preventing a major outbreak, is a classic success story of the PGA using technology. I am certain other leagues and teams will jump on this bandwagon.
I trust your connections with major leagues, teams and events worldwide give you more insight about when fans will be back than has been said publicly – what can you share?
Although I cannot discuss the specifics, my feeling is that leagues, teams, and organizations will start slow and allow main sponsors to become guests, followed by various tiered sponsors’ guests. Sponsors guests should get the first crack at attending events before anyone else. Valuable corporate partners such as Emirates, play a vital role in the sports world. Therefore, they have been hit the hardest, so when doors do finally open up, sponsors guests should and will be given priority. One league insider told me that its first guests, who will exclusively be corporate partner guests, will be required to have a COVID test to attend. I expect others to require the new-normal of a symptom check with temperature scans.
What should event sponsors be doing now?
For sponsors, I would say to take the time to review how they manage their sponsorship assets and get the best technology in place to streamline operations and enhance tracking and reporting before the return of live events. I was so impressed with what Sports Systems did for Emirates. With over 100,000 hospitality and general admission tickets each year, Sports Systems managed the back end of all of our invites so that when our staff around the world wanted to invite guests to an Arsenal match or tennis event in Australia, the system allowed us to do this with the click of a button.
Before we engaged with Sports Systems, we were struggling not only to invite all of our guests around the world to different events as we used hard copy invites for many years, but we struggled to keep track of the guests. Hard copy invites worked, but it was labour intensive for all. By engaging with Sports Systems, not only were we able to go completely digital with our invites, but they also enabled us to keep better records of who was invited, who showed up, and more importantly, why was that person invited and what was the benefit to the business. It tracked business success for us.
Coming out of COVID, what would you have Sports Systems do differently for clients?
I’d ask the company to come up with digital replacements or supplements for in-person VIP hospitality. Perhaps we could invite guests to a small-group cocktail party or clinic with one of our partner teams/managers/players. Also, responsibility should fall on Sports Systems to help with steps to be taken as part of the invitation and registration process to emphasize and secure guest and host health attending events this fall, and finally as some events are going to require, be prepared to help with guest symptom checks and temperature scans because this data has to be recorded and saved in each guest’s record just in case.
While no one has seen a shutdown like this before, any lessons from past experiences where Emirates had major service disruptions?
There have been so many disruptions in sports in the past, but the sports world and corporate world always bounce back. For example, the labour stoppages in America with pretty much all the major leagues have been halted/paused at one time or another during the past 30 years or so. Fans get upset and do not understand why there are labor issues between players and owners, but the bottom line is sports is a business, and the athletes are the employees just trying to earn a living and get paid what their market value is.
As far as my time with Emirates and our disruptions over the years, we have had plenty, including Gulf Wars, a major ash cloud disruption, SARS, MERS, and oil price crisis, to name a few, but the company always rebounded. Emirates always ensured they were respectful in their communications whether it was above the line or sponsorship LED boards and continue to do so. It’s the companies, like Emirates, that show they truly care about their customers during crisis who will be successful post crisis. That’s the lesson for any disruption: Keep in the public eye in a respectful way and keep reminding customers that you are still there and will be there post-crisis. It’s all about being respectful. Once this crisis has passed, and it will, those companies that have been successful during the crisis will be successful post-crisis. Customers will come back, and fans will be back to sporting events in the very near future.
And, to conclude, can you share a favorite activation story?
In May 2016, Emirates was looking to do something unique with our new Partners, the LA Dodgers. We were coming off the back of a series of cabin crew activations where we used our famous cabin crew with our football partnerships at Benfica and Hamburg before the opening kick-off to get the fans pumped up before the matches by performing a safety video on the pitch. It worked well in football and cricket too during the ICC World Cup in India, but I wasn’t sure if this would transcend with the American fans at Dodger Stadium. I knew we needed a hook and something a little different so that the Dodger fans could relate to and for Emirates to gain some traction and cut through during the activation.
We decided to use Dodger legend Orel Hershiser in a mock First Pitch Ceremony where Orel was the Guest of Honor throwing out the first pitch to Dodger Manager Dave Roberts. As he was winding up, one of our crew would tap him on the shoulder and ask for the ball and then do the pitch herself in full Emirates Cabin Crew outfit, heels and all.
I was terrified. We practiced the skit for about three days while the crew rehearsed the Safety Video and Emergency Exit routine perfectly but not in uniform and with no fans around. The selected girl to throw the pitch is a great ballplayer but add in a crowd, video, a Dodger Legend, the Dodger’s Manager, the Dodgers not to mention the opposing team, and high heels with only one take as we were shooting live and it nearly ruined me. I was a nervous wreck. Before they walked out to the pitcher’s mound to start the game, I whispered to the crew, “are you okay?” She looked at me like I was mad and said, “Yeah, I got this no problem,” and she did. She gunned a 70mph fastball to Dave Roberts to perfection much to the delight of the crowd. That was fun and helped Emirates become associated with the LA Dodgers.
Thanks Roger – and here’s the Dodger video of this for all to enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chhh4-2plYY