Q: What have been the main differences in your experience of the race from competitor to organiser?
A: There are so many stakeholders in this event with so many objectives it is extremely important to crystallise an overall strategy and a set of objectives that work for everyone and enable you to work together towards a common goal.
Of course the overall objective of the teams is to win the race and to maximise the return on investment for sponsors. This race is really about managing expectations, about managing the unforeseen and the unpredictable whether, you are a sailor or a CEO. You have learn to deal with things at very short notice. A lot of things in the world are predictable, this race is not. As organisers, this is also a race around the world. As organisers, often we don’t know what we are dealing until it lands on our table. You have to shoot from the hip to some extent. I like the challenge of dealing with that unpredictability. It is very similar to racing.
Q: What challenges have you faced in organising the 2008-09 event?
A: Actually I’ve discovered that we get thrown a lot more challenges than I imagined we were going to get. This race is a huge mountain to climb and the satisfaction of getting on top of those challenges is immense even if you don’t win. It is the essence of this race whether you are a sailor or an organiser. Green Dragon has been a good example of that.
It has been a struggle for them to get to the start line but they have worked really hard to get round the world in this race and at the same time they have performed very well on some legs. They can look back now and feel proud that they did something really big. Similarly we set ourselves tough objectives as organisers and I am pleased that in most case they were met.
Q: What do you see as successes?
A: It is impossible for me to compare the last race as a competitor with this race as a CEO because I am not looking for the same issues. As a competitor you don’t really have a sense of how big the crowds were or how media coverage was generated because you don’t really have that focus. So, the only measurement I can go on are the numbers we recorded. From a competitive aspect, the biggest positive for me was the closeness of the racing.
This has been the toughest competition in the race’s history, the closeness of the racing between the fleet has been exceptional. So many teams have been on the podium. The margin of Ericsson 4’s victory was only nine points. We could have easily had another boat other than Ericsson 4 winning.
Although Ericsson 4 has been talked about a lot as being superior she hasn’t been that superior. I could see that there could have been another boat winning overall. Telefónica Blue or PUMA, for instance, could have won this race if things went right for them in certain areas and on certain legs. Still Ericsson 4 did a great job and deserved their win in every way.
Another highlight was the globalisation of this event. It had a very strong international flavour among the sailing crews, the race village visitors and the media. The footfall figures were much bigger in this race. The crowd numbers we had in Alicante, Galway, Stockholm, Cochin and Qingdao were huge. That has been really positive. We have demonstrated that the event works on new and innovative platforms like the mobile channel and the online game where we had over 220,000 players from over 180 countries.
Q: How have the new territories embraced the race?
A: It is extremely important for the race to explore new regions and new countries such as China. The public reception the race received in Qingdao, for instance, was enormous with nearly 400,000 visitors to the race village. China accounted for 65% of WAP traffic on the race’s mobile channel. Through a partnership with CCTV, we reached an audience of over 260 million by the midway point of the race and the Qingdao stopover attracted 420 journalists from eight different countries.
One of our objectives from the Qingdao stopover was to bring awareness of sailing to the country and stimulate interest and ultimately involvement among young Chinese sailors. The fact that we had a Chinese-Irish boat in the 2008-09 race and having Chinese sailors among the crew of the boat helped that process enormously.
China has managed in a very short period of time to become a very big player in the Volvo Ocean Race. China took the race for what it is and said it’s an extreme sport, round the world, a huge challenge and Guo Chuan, the Chinese sailor on Green Dragon, did a good job. It was a refreshing and positive approach.
Q: Where do you see areas for improvement?
A: In some cases we have made it way too hard for ourselves. We started too late. Even three months before the start there was a lot to do. There were a number of things that could have been done earlier. We have to acknowledge that for organisers, competitors and stakeholders, time is the most valuable asset.
Ericsson started earlier than the other teams, that’s why they were better prepared and why their all-round performance was better than their rivals. It’s the same thing for us, time is absolutely essential. So for 2011-12 we need to get going much earlier.
Q: How are plans progressing for the 2011-12 race?
A: There are some solid foundations in place for the future of the race. The port of Alicante has committed to hosting the start of the next three editions of the race. The race headquarters will also locate to Alicante where we will have the infrastructure to begin the planning for the next event.
We already have a commitment from a number of syndicates to participate in the next race and the port bidding process is well advanced. We have had a huge response from ports around the world wanting to become part of the next race. We have undertaken a thorough review of the race and sought feedback from a number of stakeholders.
We have focused on cost-cutting while safeguarding the competitive element of the event. We have identified areas where we can make saving across the board for entries in the next race. Commercially we have never been stronger even in a difficult economic climate globally. Even in tough times, you have winners and we absolutely shall be one of those winners.
Q: What is the provisional entry list looking like?
A: From a competitive sense we have close to 50 teams at various levels that are interested. There are a lot of names that I always wanted to see in this race that are now interested in getting on the start line. That includes competitors and sponsors and particularly the French. There is a real hope that we will have a French team in the race.
Among the present fleet, the majority is looking to participate again with the same sponsors. I can’t recall that happening before. We had Ericsson returning from last time and you could argue that Telefónica is the same company coming back from 2005-06. Now we also have PUMA and Delta Lloyd working on getting on the start line. That is very positive. The race is a really a great opportunity right now.
Q: How different will the new rule be?
A: Obviously the new rule takes account of the full-scale review we have been undertaking during this race. It will reflect in particular the areas of cost savings we have identified we can make in certain areas. Those are savings that are easily achievable. We have looked at absolutely everything to see where we can make those savings.
We have managed to do as much as we could in the time frame we have set. For sure if we had more time we could have done even more, but at some stage you have to say, this is it. You have to have a cut-off point. We are working towards announcing the new rule at the end of September.
Q: What are your aspirations for the race in the long-term future?
A: I have thought a lot about how we take this race forward and how we develop it. Although we are looking at what works in other sports, we also have to remember what the core of this event is. The unpredictability is one of the core elements that makes this race unique. The fact that we are taking this race around the world creates that type of environment. We have to ensure that we are as well prepared as we can be for when those surprises arrive.
The global platform is unique for our race along with the heritage and history we bring with us. I want to widen our audience way beyond where we are today. Based on what we achieved in the 2008-09 race and the platform we have built for 2011-12 and beyond, the future looks very bright.