The owner of Dubai Polo Academy ells The National about his week
Week in the life: Dubai trainer is cream of the crop
Steve Thompson, 48, is the owner of Dubai Polo Academy and the author of a book, How To Look Cool Whilst Learning Polo. The British-born trainer, who once played alongside the UK royal Prince Harry, worked on Hollywood hit Gladiator and taught horse skills to the film stars Mel Gibson and Richard Gere, coaches everyone from UAE executives to wealthy holidaymakers at Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club, near Studio City. Here he tells The National about his week.
This is my day off. I'm still up early because of the animals I have. I go to Al Qudra Lakes, fly my macaw Rio, run the dogs, including a rescued Siberian husky and Bulldog. I get back home to The Palm around 10am. There are new beach bars next to where I live so I’ll brunch/lunch there. It’s nice to just chill out at the beach or pool, get back to what Dubai has to offer and we take for granted. I read newspapers and try not to think about horses or polo. Then I’ll go to the gym or swim. I’ll make an effort to do sundowners or dinner with somebody.
I’m up 4am. There’s no let up in the week from here. The client base includes many expats; they come earliest, as they have to go to work, lessons are anything from 5.30am. Then we have courses. Almost 80 per cent of business last year was inbound - people who’ve seen our YouTube video or the book and come for three/four days. From a commercial view, it’s guaranteed cash so we can work it into the budget. Dubai has evolved into a destination to learn polo. They come because this is where I teach, plus there are always distractions for the family.
In between teaching is the business, writing proposals, pitching for contracts. We’re about to sign with the cruise ships to do stable tours. They’ll meet me in reception and we’ll give them facts, walk through the equestrian side, see the show jumping team, the arena, take them to the stables and show the difference between equestrian and polo, how it’s managed. We’re also asked to conceptualise for brand launches because they want to incorporate polo. We think of something like a ride and drive day - a Mercedes racing a horse. If they’re going to choose this as a venue, what can we do with polo and horses that’s different? We almost operate as a creative marketing agency, using polo.
I started the academy in 2005 and it fluctuates between 10 and 15 horses. The reason we’re successful is we are boutique. When a guy books for 5am, we know he’s going to carry his suit over because he’s going to shower after the lesson and change. So we make things as efficient as possible. There are lots of cogs in the machine to produce the income to make the whole machine work. There’s much pressure on the academy to make money because it has one income stream; lessons. Other things are contributory, such as corporate days, whether that’s an activity, a spectator thing, or team building.
We still have lessons for expats and it’s the final day for visiting course members. Later I might drop them at the airport and collect the new people. In between lessons, I’m organising polo holidays we run to Argentina and Switzerland. There’s accommodation, flights, deals to be done. We sell a lot of gift tokens around Christmas and birthdays - an experience like Skydive Dubai - those people may come. We don’t discriminate on finance; we encourage everyone because it makes for a colourful client base, and great networking as it joins people on an emotional level. The people you meet here are extraordinary; you might find a website designer coming once a month, but also the super-rich. You get access to people you’d never normally rub shoulders with.
Four times a week there’s a playing day where we play polo; for the horses to remain polo ponies they have to keep playing. The weekend has a very set structure; beginners in the morning, 6/7am, because the ground is slippery and beginners don’t go fast, and as the grass dries, 9/10/11am, we get higher-grade players who go faster. The horses rest as they’re back playing polo at 3pm. Then we have our advanced students at 4/5. It’s a big schedule. We might demonstrate training aids we’re developing. As a coach I’m always thinking ‘how can I get this human better in the shortest possible time, within the realms of safety’. I’m redeveloping those aids to a stage I can take them to market.
There can be three meetings a week about sponsorship. A company may like the idea but we dig into their rationale; why they’re sponsoring and what they’re looking to achieve. Polo can work for a lot of companies; they have to entertain clients, find new ones, but do they want brand recognition, brand visibility, sales? Most are aligning themselves with the characteristics of polo. I’m also thinking of writing another book, so there’s research to do. We self-published How To last year, but finally found someone to publish this September so it’s officially launched globally. I’ve been asked to write more. I look at strange things that happen in lessons, anecdotes, and the cartoonist will partner with me.