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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix set to fuel tourism sector

Despite the championship being decided, the world-renowned event will still draw in hundreds of thousands of visitors

Lewis Hamilton won the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. He will be going for a fourth win at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26 when the ninth staging of the race takes place. Andrej Isakovic / AFP
Lewis Hamilton won the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. He will be going for a fourth win at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26 when the ninth staging of the race takes place. Andrej Isakovic / AFP

Sports enthusiasts in Abu Dhabi and the tourism industry across the country have a lot to be excited given the schedule of events set to follow in the next few weeks.

While the Fifa Club World Cup takes precedent in December, this month’s 2017 Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix over the weekend of the 24-26, in its own right, will capture the attention of those within and outside the country's borders.

From its debut in 2009, Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit has become one of the most iconic settings for the season finale of the world championship calendar.

While defending champion Lewis Hamilton has already retained his crown this season with his win at the Mexican GP two weeks ago, the final race will still generate as much lustre as it has in the past. While the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is broadcast to millions around the world, it is safe to say that the two-hour race will act as a commercial advertisement for Brand Abu Dhabi and the wider country. For example, the 2016 race saw a peak audience of 4.99 million viewers in the UK who watched Nico Rosberg clinch his first ever Drivers’ Championship at the event.

“We have been in both positions when the race went to the wire and when it was already decided and, on both occasions, the response was pretty much the same. It did not take anything away from the event itself,” pointed out Al Tareq Al Ameri, the chief executive at Yas Marina Circuit, during the launch of the 2017-18 calendar in September.

Now in its ninth year, Abu Dhabi has reaped the benefits of joining forces with Bernie Ecclestone, the former chief executive of the Formula One Group, which manages Formula One and controls the commercial rights to the sport, and part-owns Delta Topco, the ultimate parent company of the Formula One Group. As such, he was commonly described in the media as "F1 Supremo". The association helped the emirate garner much positive global PR while showcasing it as a major poster event for the city and the country as a whole.

As Liberty Media looks at invigorating the sport by making it more accessible to fans while potentially bringing in new followers, there is no hint that plans could include greater fan access to the drivers, which is a common sight across the Indy Car series in the United States.

While new innovative ways of engaging with the fans are being considered, officials at Yas Marina have got a few tactics up their sleeves to keep them entertained.

"Not only do our fans get all the on-track action, but off-track they will get to experience A-list after-race concerts, the chance to get the best-access to the after-race concerts with our Golden Circle up-grade packages, fantastic entertainment in our Oasis Areas, a ‘Kids Go Free’ offer this year on the Friday for the first time which allows an adult three-day Grandstand ticket holders to bring up to four children under 12 to the event and finally, easy access to Yas Island entertainment including Ferrari World Abu Dhabi and Yas WaterWorld,” Nick McElwee, the director of sales and marketing at Yas Marina Circuit, tells The National.

The sold-out event brings in huge number of spectators from across the region and beyond, primarily from Europe. And with the influx of spectators comes a boost in revenues for businesses in Abu Dhabi with some hotels achieving 100 per cent occupancy rates.

“We are lucky to have both our hotels, Radisson Blu Hotel, Abu Dhabi Yas Island and Park Inn by Radisson Abu Dhabi Yas Island hotels run a strong occupancy throughout the year, around the mid-80s. During the race weekend, we will have 100 per cent occupancy in both hotels,” says Stephen Kamat, the communications director at the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group.

For Mark Griffiths, the regional vice president and managing director at Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi - the only hotel located atop an actual F1 track - this event is key and "really an asset to hold on to".

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"We have seen the F1 weekend grow year-on-year and we are pleased to report that 2017 is pacing well ahead of last year for rooms, hospitality and restaurants," he says.

However, there is more to consider than just the usual hospitality hotels in the vicinity offer. To reap the benefits and create a larger brand value, hotels have to think about innovative ways to keep their guests entertained - and wanting to come back.

“We have some big and exciting after-race parties for everyone at our restaurants & bars," Mr Kamat tells The National. "Filini Garden, a stylish sophisticated new lounge that will launch very soon, will have an exciting line-up of international DJ's and live performances. For Latin music lovers, Amerigos Mexican Bar & Restaurant will be offering an F1 themed street party brunch and live music. Then Belgian Beer Cafe Yas Island, which was quite the popular venue last year, will have a DJ and saxophonist playing house tunes. On top of that, we plan on having a pop-up nightclub set up in our ballroom open for all party goers."

Yas Viceroy will continue to be the social hub for Formula One from day to night, with an option for everyone, whether looking for relaxed trackside dining or a party vibe.

"For the fifth year running, we have partnered with Rich List Group, however, this year we will making it even bigger and better by hosting a series of world-class acts in the Palm Garden," says Mr Griffiths. "American rapper and producer, Busta Rhymes will be performing on Friday November 24, British singer and song writer Craig David will be giving his first TS5 DJ set in the UAE on Saturday 25, with rapper Rick Ro$$ marking the grand finale on Sunday."

But for F1 in general, there is a cloud hanging over the sport, which has come under heavy scrutiny surrounding the sale of Formula One Group to Liberty Media Corporation earlier in the year.

The boss of the UK's Serious Fraud Office (SFO) this summer promised to carry out a "thorough examination" of bribery allegations in F1 following a tip-off by the British policymaker Damian Collins.

The London SFO director David Green is considering whether the Concorde Implementation Agreement, which underpins F1, broke the Bribery Act.

The contract was signed in 2013 by F1's governing body, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) and rights holder Formula One World Championship (FOWC). The agreement sets out how the rules that govern F1 are made.

In 2013 it was changed at the expense of the four smallest teams by giving votes to the top six teams, with the FIA and FOWC also getting six votes each. The contract says the FIA will be paid US$5 million for signing up. Mr Collins said in July "the SFO is reviewing materials pursuant to allegations of bribery and corruption". All parties deny any wrongdoing.

Christian Sylt, the publisher of F1's industry monitor Formula Money, provides some insight on how the investigations could alter the way sponsors look at their investments within the sport now.

“If the fraud investigators conclude that there are reasonable grounds to suspect serious or complex fraud, sponsors could claim that it damaged their reputation, giving them reason to pull out," he tells The National. "Similar to what happened at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, when the Renault F1 team lost a number of sponsors in the wake of it being implicated in a race-fixing scandal.”

While any negative conclusions from the investigation might not have an immediate impact, in the long term, the organisation of the sport as is could be cast in doubt.

“The focus of the investigation is not on the races so it isn't likely that it will directly affect the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. However it could indirectly affect it as it could have an impact on the future of the owners and management of F1," Mr Sylt says.

"This is because the UK authorities may move from a pre-investigation to an investigation, which would be a criminal investigation and would carry commensurate penalties,” he adds.

Meanwhile, officials at the circuit are working tirelessly to create a modern fan experience while making sure safety comes first. Few realise the effort that takes place behind the scenes to keep the event functioning smoothly.

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"We have a rolling 12-month planning programme that sits under a long-term and ongoing strategy to position Abu Dhabi as a world-class, leading Grand Prix," says Mr McElwee. "As a promoter, we work tirelessly to update and improve the overall Abu Dhabi Grand Prix fan experience from every aspect – including safety – and it's important that after every Grand Prix we wrap up with a comprehensive understanding of what worked well and where we can innovate for the future."

As the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is on a rolling contract, the race’s long-term future in the city looks secure.

“F1 has boosted the profile of Abu Dhabi on the international stage but, crucially, it is part of a wider local entertainment complex featuring the various theme parks around it along with a Warner Bros indoor theme park with a Sea World park also on the horizon," points out Mr Sylt. "This could potentially rival Dubai Parks & Resorts and could even attract visitors from Orlando, which is known as the theme park capital of the world. The benefit of the race is that it showcases this to an estimated 154,000 spectators who visit annually."

Mr Kamat and Mr Griffiths agree the race has expanded visibility for their respective hotels and Abu Dhabi in general.

“Since the first race in 2009, the capital has received huge media exposure, both locally and internationally, which helped in positioning it as a tourist destination," says Mr kamat. "Hosting the race in Abu Dhabi has also helped create additional demand in the city and while the Yas Island hotels may close 100 per cent [full] over the race days ... and the city hotels also achieve high occupancy levels, which directly shows the success this event brings.

"But beyond the race weekend the whole event in tandem with the fantastic leisure attractions such as Ferrari World, Yas Waterworld, Yas Mall and the many exciting new leisure and cultural projects being developed, all helps raise awareness of Abu Dhabi as a leading leisure destination."

Mr Kamat says the unique architecture of the Yas Viceroy has been key in boosting the venue's visibility globally.

"The hotel’s distinctive design ensures it is instantly recognisable on TV screenings of the racing and it has quickly become an icon in the UAE.

"However, Yas Viceroy is far more than just the race weekend, and has experienced tremendous growth in recent years from the local and international markets across leisure, MICE and other sectors. The race weekend is an excellent platform to showcase the hotel to an international audience and demonstrate our ability to host large-scale events and functions."

And similar sentiment is echoed by Mr. McElwee, whose team aims to make sure that Abu Dhabi’s status remains in the global conscience after the F1 race weekend.

"We now have tens of thousands of people from more than 170 countries attending the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix each year and this year we are on track to see 65 per cent of attendees being non-UAE residents," he says.

"That is because we not only provide world-class motor sport action on track but great value, and unmatched world-class entertainment off the track, too.”

So it seems the future's bright for F1 in Abu Dhabi, the perfect mix of sophistication and raw power.

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