Cowes Week Claims Don’t Do The Event Any Favours.


Cowes Week means something different for everyone. The event is primarily for sailors. Those who compete in one of the many classes enjoy tough racing in challenging conditions including large fleets, strong tides, the occasional container ship or cruise liner passing through the middle of the race. At the end of the day, the stories are shared in the beer tent, the crews retire to a B&B or sleep on the boat and start again the next day.

If you are a sailor, racing in a  J109 or Red Wing or XOD or some other shape and size of boat, the experience of Cowes Week is always the same – irrespective of event sponsorship.

Like many sporting events, the competition is the platform for other activities. In recent years an industry has been built around using Cowes Week to deliver corporate hospitality and entertainment. With a large number of people from a ‘desirable demographic’ all in one place, the event is a natural opportunity for sponsors who want to reach sailors and visitors.

For over 10 years, Skandia has become synonamous with Cowes Week. The financial services company’s title sponsorship enabled the event to become more than just a sailing regatta. Skandia Cowes Week was a place to be and be seen. It is wrong to blame the economic environment for Skandia’s withdrawl from the event. The company’s contract ended before the downturn and in fact Skandia ‘bailed out’ the event in 2008 when no replacement sponsor could be found.

Tim Sewell, who looks after Skandia’s sponsorships is reported as saying:

All sponsorships have a lifecycle ans we had to make a judgement call. It was by no means easy, but it was the right thing to do. Costs were going up, but the benefits were fairly static and weren’t really saying anything new. The concern was that we were becoming wallpaper.

Skandia has not given up on sailing though. The company’s sponsorship budget is stable, but it has been reinvested in backing th the Olympic Sailing Team  – Skandia Team GBR. The company has also done a deal to sponsor sailing on SKY.

Skandia leaving Cowes Week is probably a good thing. Sometimes, when events have long term sponsors, it is easy to get complacent and get into a mentality that the money will always be there. Many sporting properties have had the same reality check in 2009. Who are your stakeholders? What are you offering them? Are you providing value?

For the competitors, the answer is still probably yes. The fleet numbers, though down on last year are still impressive. For visitors, there is probably more that can be done. The first 3 days of Cowes week featured the iShares Cup. This is one of the best examples of sailing as entertainment anywhere. Without the extreme 40s – Cowes week is start after start after start after start followed by a gap of several hours while the fleets race around distant parts of the Solent and then finish after finish after finish after finish. Without Cowes Radio, it would be incomprehensible to a non-sailor.

Based on the first couple of days in Cowes, it’s looking pretty healthy. Why then do the PR people and the press continue pump out figures that are just wrong?  Almost every article published trots out numbers like 1000 boats and 8500 competitors. The visitor numbers are quoted at 100,000.

It’s a tough year. No-one expects Cowes Week to be as big as it was when Skandia was pumping money in and the bankers were all taking the day off to go sailing. The event’s ‘official’ Twitter feed says that the boats entered for 2009 will be 887 – a pretty good number by any regatta standards. If this is the case, then to get 8,500 competitors you would need an average of 9.5 people per boat. The fact is that most of the boats have less than 5 crew, so the competitor figure could be overstated by 30% or more.

The 100,000 visitor figure is even more unbelieveable, but it depends on what you define as a visitor. This number is only meaningful if the 100,000 is over and above the number of visitors that would be in Cowes on any given summer weekend. It shouldn’t include those in the town for a hens party, who are oblivious to the sailing. Many of the 100,000 only visit for the Friday night fireworks and have little or no interest in Cowes Week itself. It’s probably just as well the number isn’t 100,000 real visitors, because Red Funnel would struggle to get 14,000 people per day on and off the island and the handful of resturants and bars would be even more overwhelmed than they are now.

With sponsors looking harder than ever at the numbers, there is no point in be lazy with the figures. The media should be doing a better job too – and not just swallowing the press-releases without asking ‘is that right?’

Cowes Week has solid foundations for a great event and marketing platform. It has tradition, it has great racing and world class race organisation. When the legacy of Skandia’s participation has faded a little from the public’s mind, there will be an opportunity for a sponsor to put their mark on the event.