How the Clipper Round the World race sets the commercial standard for sailing
The seventh edition of the Clipper Round the World Race begins on Sunday when the fleet of 12 leaves London's St Katherine Docks and makes its way down the River Thames, the starting point of what, for many, will be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
For the amateur crews - ordinary people doing something extraordinary according to Clipper's promotional motto - ahead lies a 40,000 mile voyage around the world, which will take around nine months. For the brands on the boats, however, the focus is very much on the 16 ports that will punctuate the route.
From London, the 2013-14 Clipper race will take in destinations including Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Sydney, Singapore, the Chinese city of Qingdao, San Francisco, Jamaica's Port Antonio and New York. The race's stopover model has become its chief commercial calling card, an opportunity for networking and relationship-forming in multiple markets that otherwise simply wouldn’t be possible. Not for nothing does Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the legendary sailor who founded the race, describe the Clipper as "a floating trade fair".
This year's race has attracted a variety of boat sponsors, each of whom has taken ownership, in a branding sense, of one of the fleet of 12 identical, but newly designed, Clipper racing yachts. Corporate brands such as Dutch leasing and financial solutions company De Lage Landen and whisky brand Old Pulteney have signed up; the cities of Qingdao and Derry-Londonderry are both returnees to the race from the 2011/12 edition; while national tourism campaigns from Jamaica and Great Britain, the latter an arm of the UK government, intend to use the nine-month race as a global promotional trade and branding mission.
In recent weeks Clipper Ventures, the company which organises the event, has upgraded several central partners, including Henri Lloyd, PSP Logistics and Garmin, to full boat sponsorship to complete the fleet, a reminder that the economy still makes a multi-million dollar investment to brand a boat a tough sell, but the range of race partners who have committed to the race has maintained its position in the top-bracket of global sailing properties.
"Weirdly for an event which prides itself on being the most Corinthian, it's probably the most commercially successful"
"It's become an opportunity for sponsors who want to do something different with customers and potential customers in any of the countries and ports we visit around the world," says Knox-Johnston, the 74-year old who was the first person to complete a solo circumnavigation of the world in 1968 and has become the Clipper race’s inspirational frontman.
"From those meetings, that shared experience on a boat, comes the friendships that lead to business."
Angus Buchanan, managing director of The Sports Consultancy, which specialises in sailing, perhaps sums the race up best when he says: "Weirdly for an event which prides itself on being the most Corinthian, it's probably the most commercially successful".
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That Corinthian spirit is very much in evidence, even if a distinctly commercial sheen has been applied. Since the first event in 1995, some 3,500 novice sailors have been trained up and competed in the race; around 270 will take the start in London on Sunday, with the intention of completing just one leg or, in some cases, the whole route.
Clipper Ventures expects a near 50:50 split between revenues from crew fees and sponsorship once all the sums for this edition are done, while organisers are already taking bookings for the next two races, with a place for the full route costing around UK£45,000.
The opportunity to host the race is also worth its weight in gold. The Australian city of Albany, for example, is expecting an economic boost in the region of AUS$1 million from Clipper's visit as one of the 16 ports on the route. London, meanwhile, can expect a UK£50 million economic boost, according to Clipper, for hosting both the start and finish of the race this time round.
The 12 yachts are spending this week on display in St Katherine Docks, central London's only marina, while Sunday's start will be the first time in 40 years that a world sailing event has been staged on the River Thames.
By the time the race returns to London in July next year, Knox-Johnston will be able to gauge the success of the 2013/14 edition by the reaction of its stakeholders. "I want the crews to be saying, at the end, 'That's the best thing I've ever done in my life,'” he says, “and then I want to hear them say 'So far,' because I know we've widened their horizons.
"Second is I want the boat sponsors and race sponsors to be turning around and saying 'Wow, that was one heck of a way to activate and promote ourselves'. And thirdly I want the cities we visit to say 'We want you back; that was fantastic'. If we get those three things right...boom.”