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When the world No1 walks up to you and asks for support, the chances of you saying ‘no’ are fairly remote. That’s what happened earlier this year during the Dubai Desert Classic.
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Apart from trying to win the tournament – which he eventually did – Rory McIlroy was also busy meeting people in an effort to secure sponsorship for the Irish Open, one of the oldest tournaments on the European Tour.
McIlroy’s charity – the Rory Foundation – got involved with the tournament this year, making the popular Northern Irishman the host of the event.
So, when McIlroy and his caddie JP Fitzgerald approached Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice-Chairman, Dubai Duty Free, it would have been easy for the charismatic Irishman to say yes to his fellow countryman then and there.
After all, Dubai Duty Free, which logged sales of $2 billion last year – the largest single airport duty free operation in the world – are known for their love of sport. Last year, their total spend on sponsorship and marketing was Dh175 million.
But McLoughlin did his due diligence, and as attractive the proposal sounded, he has cautiously signed on the dotted line for just one year, with the option to extend it for another couple of years “if everything goes as per our expectations”.
There were many reasons for Dubai Duty Free to extend its portfolio of title sponsorships beyond the mega successful WTA and ATP Dubai Tennis Championship, the Dubai Duty Free Darts Championship, the Irish Derby, the Shergar Cup at Ascot, the International Raceday at Newbury, aside from playing a big part in the annual Dubai World Cup, Omega Dubai Desert Classic and DP World Tour Championship. And yet, the biggest reason was McIlroy himself.
“Rory McIlroy is a remarkable young man. Even though he is just 25 years old, for me, he is already one of the finest sportsmen in my lifetime,” said McLoughlin, a passionate golfer himself who has been Captain of both Dubai Creek and Emirates Golf Club.
“We all know about him as a golfer. What he has achieved at such a young age – winning four majors already and I am sure there are many more to come – is amazing.
“But I am more impressed with the person that he is. For someone who has got so much fame and money at such a young age, he is still a very grounded person. It hasn’t gone to his head. I think that is the most endearing quality about Rory.
“He spoke to me about the Rory Foundation and what they want to do, and it resonated a lot with the objectives we have at our Dubai Duty Free Foundation.
“You can see he wants to do a lot for the underprivileged. He is quite passionate about it, and is very mindful of his responsibilities as one of the leading sports stars in the world.”
When asked if it was a good investment to get McIlroy without paying any appearance fee – the Ulsterman is supposed to be charging in the vicinity of $1 million to $1.5 million for playing events that do not fit his schedule – McLoughlin could not suppress a chuckle.
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“Smart, aren’t we?! We are not paying him anything, and he is even helping us sell the tournament,” quipped McLoughlin.
“No, Rory has been great for us, but he has been even better for the tournament. He has invested his own time and effort in ensuring that the Irish Open is a success.
“Obviously, everyone wants to see Rory and it also helps that he is playing so well. But he has also made sure that several of his friends on the Tour turn up and support the event.
“There is Rickie Fowler, who just won the Players Championship. And there are guys like such greats as Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia who are in the field.
“It’s already a field that is world class and once you have good players, you are sure of getting good media exposure. That is very important for us to justify our sponsorship of the tournament.
“This will be the first time in the history of the tournament that The Golf Channel is sending its own team for live coverage. All this is very encouraging news, especially from our point of view.”
— GreenKeeping Ireland (@greenkeepingire) May 18, 2015
The Irish Open has been without a title sponsor since Three Mobile pulled out in 2010 and, while the economic situation remains bleak and not many local companies were coming forward to embrace the event, it wasn’t the case with fans. The tournament has consistently seen some of the best crowd attendance on the European Tour, with the 2012 edition at Royal Portrush exceeding 131,000 people walking through the gates over six days.
It became the first tournament in European Tour history to be sold out for all four days and McLoughlin is expecting more of the same this year because of the involvement of McIlroy.
“I think there is an amazing buzz around the tournament, and most of it has to do with Rory’s involvement. Having said that, I have been receiving mails from many people in Ireland thanking us for our support to the tournament,” added McLoughlin.
“I have been told that the ticket sales have been brisk and in fact, we are expecting the last two days of the tournament to be sold out in the next couple of days.”
McLoughlin ruled out any personal sponsorship of McIlroy, saying that wasn’t the model followed by Dubai Duty Free.
“Many years ago, we used to sponsor Thomas Bjorn for a few years when he moved to Dubai but we haven’t sponsored any athlete personally after that, and I don’t imagine us doing it for Rory either,” said McLoughlin.
“I don’t know. I have no good answer why we don’t do that, but we don’t. You can call it company philosophy. We like to be part of events, and we like the fact that fans can come and be a part of it.
“Obviously, we have (WTA stars) Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki as our global brand ambassadors, but that comes to us with being global sponsors of WTA.”
And since no interview with McLoughlin can be complete without asking a question on Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, we asked ours: Would he like to reveal any future plans for the popular tournament?
“We have our 25th anniversary celebration in a couple of years, and we are already making plans towards it. We want it to be an unforgettable moment for all tennis fans in Dubai,” said McLoughlin.
“But no other plans apart from that. If you want to ask me whether we are thinking of elevating it to a ATP1000 event, then no. We are very happy with our tournaments as they are.”
Hublot have a lot of time for sport. They have a clear understanding of the profile of their most valuable customers and a high percentage of them either make a living out of it or are people who enjoy a lifestyle that is synonymous with sport and also happen to be more than a little wealthy.
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Their watches have always been distinctive since the company was founded in Switzerland in 1980. They are award-winning mechanical masterpieces with a chunky, sporty feel so the fit is perfect, whether it be Formula One, where Hublot are currently one of the sponsors of Ferrari or football where they have a high profile.
As a global company that focuses on exclusivity they are also incredibly particular about who they use to promote their brand but they have a knack of picking the right people at the right time, no more so than Floyd Mayweather Jnr.
He carried their name on his shorts, the first such deal in his career, when he beat Manny Pacquiao in Vegas in the early hours of yesterday morning. Mayweather delivered the kind of global clout that is invaluable from an awareness point of view.
Wow. First time I’ve ever seen Mayweather with a sponsor on his shorts. Hublot must be paying serious dough. #MayPac
— Paul Smith Jnr (@PaulSmithJnr) May 3, 2015
Since 1980 the company has grown spectacularly, thanks to the innovative Jean-Claude Biver, who took over in 2004. He is currently chairman. It was bought in 2008 by the world leader in luxury products, LVMH, and is now famous for its Big Bang, King Power, Classic Fusion and MP timepieces.
Marco Tedeschi who started with Hublot in 2007 in charge of design and production is now Regional Director Middle East and Africa. He has a second role as creative manager involved in the product design, marketing and distribution and is in no doubt that sport has played a major role in his company’s spectacular growth.
He said: “It was very logical for us to be associated with sport because we have a sporty product and sport is life. Football is extremely important because we were the first luxury brand to be associated with the game.
“No other luxury brand was doing anything with football because it is a sport for the masses. That may be the case but many wealthy people love football.”
Hublot started their association with football in 2006 with sponsorship of the Swiss national team but the first major deal came in 2008 when they became the official timekeeper for Manchester United and the European Championship.
Two years later they made history by becoming the first official watch and timekeeper for FIFA and the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, giving the Swiss company instant global visibility.
Tedeschi said: “The main benefit of involving ourselves in football was to spread the knowledge and visibility of the brand and we knew we would get that because it is the most viewed sport on television.
“We did some research by monitoring our name on Google and it was clear that whenever there was a big match you saw a huge peak in search requests for Hublot. People see the brand name and maybe they are not sure what it is so they go to the internet and search.
“Have we seen a tangible increase in sales because of this? Yes, and no. Because people are searching for the brand does not mean we will sell to all of them but brand knowledge alone is important. This eventually drives sales and helps us develop the image of our brand.”
Although many football fans couldn’t afford to buy a Hublot watch the link with football obviously brings the brand into contact with rich footballers and managers who clearly like what they see.
Tedeschi added: “We have a huge list of players who buy our products. It’s quite funny because sometimes we have requests from players or managers asking for free watches, telling us that if they wear the watch it will promote the brand. We always say no because those people are our potential clients. If they want one, they will buy one.
“We do have two big name ambassadors in Maradona and Pele but that is different because they are out of the game and they are legends which is important for us. So, although I never say never, linking up with active players is not really part of our strategy.
“However, we do sponsor teams. We are with Juventus, Bayern Munich and Paris St Germain who we see as the very best in their respective countries.
“We were with Manchester United until two years ago when we decided to end our relationship mainly because Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Today, in the UK, we are with Jose Mourinho, so we have a link with Chelsea. We also use referee Howard Webb as a friend of the brand.”
Apart from football Hublot are also visible in cricket, creating a World Cup watch for this year’s tournament when they were official timekeepers, and they were the first brand to sponsor an NBA star with Dwyane Wade and Miami Heat on the East coast of America.
On the West coast they have Kobe Bryant and the LA Lakers. They were also the first luxury watch brand to sponsor American football with the Dallas Cowboys.
They also have links with Usain Bolt and golfer Justin Rose is an ambassador. Tennis is seen as an overcrowded domain for watch manufacturers which is why Hublot tend to steer clear.
Tedeschi said: “We chose Kobe because he has been active for a long time in basketball and he is still one of the most respected players. We went with Dwyane because that gave us our first involvement in the world of basketball.
“It is also worth pointing out that we do not pick the sports stars we work with randomly. It is always because they were Hublot clients before. That way we know they are already into our brand.
“Apart from these sports we are also actively involved in golf and are about to announce the Hublot Tour for amateurs. The idea is to invite our clients to play golf which is a good way to socialise with our customers. It will be a series of invitational tournaments in Europe and should start in June.
“Formula One is very important to Hublot. We were the official watch a few years back but decided to stop because we signed a partnership with Ferrari which meant, effectively, we had two contracts with the one benefit.
“As the Ferrari deal is a much wider partnership we decided to stop the F1 deal. We have been succeeded by Rolex which we are very happy about. When you are followed by Rolex it means you must have been doing things right.”
Since that first deal with the Swiss national team in 2006 Hublot have seen sales increase 20 times over. In 2005 they were producing around 2,000 watches a year. Today, it is around 40,000 and they employ around 450 people. The turnover of Hublot in 2005 was around $42million. When it was bought in 2008 it was estimated to be $250 million putting the company at a totally different level.
Tedeschi added: “Our typical customer profile is aged between 25 and 40 and they like to wear products that are the latest trends, have cutting-edge technology.
“We are a men’s brand but now we are selling 35 per cent of our watches to ladies which is huge for a company that does not do jewellery. As a company, we want to be the first, different and unique. That is our strategy.”
Hublot opened a new boutique in Dubai Mall last week to cater for growing demand for their watches. They remain committed to sport and only time will tell how much more success it will bring them.