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Stephen Reid | Hybrid hospitality is the new norm for brands

Stephen Reid, managing director for Hill+Knowlton’s Sports Marketing, Entertainment, Culture and Sponsorship Team across the Middle East, Turkey, India and Africa, looks at the opportunities ahead for ‘hybrid’ hospitality activations

Photo: Stephen Reid

The sports sponsorship activation game has changed for hospitality and for communications. Previous SportBusiness articles have signposted the change. In a recent column, James Mercer, commercial director at Formula E team Envision Virgin Racing, talked about a “revolution of the sponsorship model”, while Ben Cronin, SportBusiness’ Europe editor, wrote last year about how behind-closed-doors sport had given fresh impetus to innovations in virtual hospitality.

With more and more big companies adopting hybrid working practices which span virtual and live experiences, I believe we have reached a point of no return in the sports industry. Hybrid activation for brands across communications and hospitality around sports assets is not just a phase. The right mix of digital, virtual and in-person experiences are here to stay.

Two things have convinced me of this:

1. We already have the technology

I was lucky enough to be at the HSBC Women’s World Championships held in Singapore earlier this month, where some of this new tech was in evidence.

With the tournament’s corporate guests gathered in groups of eight around the 18th green and restricted from roaming the fairways of the Sentosa Golf Club, the event organisers were able to pipe a broadcast-quality feed into their devices. This allowed them to not only get together (a welcome treat) but also connect with the action – thanks to HSBC’s new ‘Hex-live’ service, which showed them unique content, unavailable to the watching TV public, and took them inside the ropes virtually. It also allowed interaction with the golfers as they stepped off the course, as well as introductions to a number of local business entrepreneurs.

The level of innovation was taken a step further because this tournament was Asia’s first golf event to be broadcast at a remote production facility using Internet Protocol technology.

With graphics, sound and commentary all done remotely from an Asian Tour Media-run production hub, all the usual infrastructure and fleets of broadcast trucks were not required on the course – a 75-per-cent reduction in on-site kit and crew, which equated to a big safety and environmental plus.

2. Things will be like this for some time to come. Especially for the biggest international sports events

Sponsors have always sought to ‘add value’ to the fan and guest experience; that’s been the modus operandi for a while. But the opportunities in the industry have broadened even further during the pandemic. Not just to offer a ray of light to those stuck at home, through entertainment, but to also shine a brighter light on important societal conversations such as sustainability and equality.

Extreme E, the brand new electric motorsport series highlighting environmental issues in five different locations across Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Greenland, Brazil and Patagonia this year, isn’t just a sporting proposition with a purpose, it is also a hospitality proposition with a purpose.

The electric series’ plans to provide remote VIP access to live streams and to send virtual reality headsets to corporate guests’ homes, conceived before the pandemic, now look clairvoyant.

Only a small number of guests will travel to Senegal later this month for the second race and they will spend as much time mixing with environmental scientists and planting mangroves with the drivers – to sequester carbon, one of the main gasses contributing to global warming – as they watch the racing.

Both are examples of sport leading the way, in different ways. With its influence, its high profile and its compelling protagonists.

This is where sport can do even more and brands can add their weight. Persuasion through the prism of something people really care about will only amplify the impact.

I’ve listened to a number of the key decision-makers at brands tell me that one positive of the Covid-19 shutdown has been the opportunity to take a fresh look at how they plan the hospitality and communications around their sports events and that they will not simply be rubber banding back to what they did before.

As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos famously once said: “If you double the number of experiments you do per year, you’re going to double your inventiveness.”

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