The Future of Key West Race Week
Published on January 23rd, 2011
For 2011 Key West Race Week, it’s a story of how some things change and how some things stay the same. For the race course, the tropical climate continues to provide the respite from winter weather that haunts most North American sailing areas. And the town is, well, unique, and very recreational. But with event numbers down, the shoreside headquarters was downsized to adapt the party scene to the crowd. And it has been a slam dunk.
“The shoreside facility we have been using for the past 7-8 years was based on a 250+ size fleet,” explained event organizer Peter Craig of Premiere Racing. “But with the fleet size down, we didn’t need as much room, so we got creative.” Having before relied on a parking lot with a huge circus-like tent, the new venue has a street festival feel. “When you look at this venue it has a village atmosphere,” noted Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck. “It says Key West throughout. The trees and patios naturally blend in. Everyone I talked to seemed pretty pleased.”
But even with the revised venue, rumors continued to flow about the future of Key West Race Week. Here is an exclusive interview Scuttlebutt had with Peter Craig on the subject:
Will the new venue for the 134 boat regatta in 2011 allow the event to sustain itself for 2012?
Peter Craig: The sustainability of the event is not wholly reliant on fleet size, but it remains a critical component. However, a regatta this size without a title sponsor, and without sufficient sponsorship to accompany that, cannot sustain itself. We are now in the second consecutive year without a title sponsor, but we do have some terrific secondary sponsors. Our industry partner program remains vibrant, and while it’s not what it was a couple years ago, the industry continues to stand by the event. So we have different revenue sources, but you don’t need to a math major to see that when you drop from 260 boats, and you are without a title sponsor, there is trouble at the OK Corral.
Any sense the economic environment is improving for sponsorship?
Peter Craig: My take on sponsorship for this age we have been living in for the past three years, it has been an extraordinary difficult environment for sponsorship. And I am talking about the majors, the big sports. We talk to people in sports marketing, and we hear how golf, Nascar, NFL, major league baseball have struggled and had to redefine themselves. So when you get to a sport like sailboat racing, particularly in the U.S., sponsorship has always been a struggle. We are well down the pecking order as companies consider sports sponsorship. For what has been a 2-3 year struggle, I don’t see that changing any time soon.
So how do you plan for Key West 2012?
Peter Craig: The honest answer is that we plan with a blank sheet of paper. We dove in about a week after the 2010 event, and had an aggressive promotional campaign to expand existing classes, both one design and handicap. You name it, we really went after it for the better part of 6-7 months to get the downward trend turned around. And we halted it for this event, we are flat this year, but I am not happy with that. How could you be? If the Farr 40 Worlds hadn’t conflicted with us, we could have had 150 boats this year. That would have been a difference maker, but the bottom line is that we are flat.
So what does that make me think about next year? I don’t know. Where is our sport going? Are people going to travel? Is there a new norm – post 2008 – for attending lengthy travel regattas? Between travel, practice, and racing, this is a nine day event for the majority of this fleet.
So what’s the game plan? Well, you’re the first person I have spoken to about this. And while right now I am very much focused on this event, I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t thinking about it. We are much smaller company now. There are only two of us. At our pre-regatta meeting with our race committee I said how I couldn’t assure them that this was happening next year. But we are going to make every effort to strategize and plan to make a viable event in 2012.
Do you have a preliminary vision of the 2012 Key West Race Week?
Peter Craig:I will give you one idea that I am thinking about. With leisure time getting stretched, I am hearing that a five day regatta is now too much. So you still have a ten race series but over a four day period. Consider Saturday through Tuesday, with Monday still being the U.S. national holiday. While it is only one day different, it would allow people to work parts of both weeks while slightly stretching the three day weekend in the middle. That’s huge. People would still get a great ten race series that would have a lesser impact on their responsibilities at home and work, plus there would be a day less of expenses at the event. So that is just one idea we are working on.
We have also been talking with the housing people. The old issue about Saturday to Saturday rentals doesn’t appear to be an issue anymore. Most of the options say they will rent for the dates people need. So a blank sheet of paper, thinking out of the box, looking for feedback from the industry, talking to both the amateur and professional sailors on how to build fleet size.
But on the sponsor side, I don’t have an answer. Believe me, I have my ear to the ground on the interest level. We continue to invest tremendous resources into building our sponsorship base, and acquiring sponsors, but I am just not seeing it out there, even for a major international event like Key West.
So if we took a snap shot of all the variables contributing to Key West 2011, could this event be duplicated in the exact same fashion for 2012?
Peter Craig: What you see right now…absolutely not. It cannot happen. I cannot have 134 boat regatta without a title sponsor that takes five days, at this venue or the previous venue. That’s why I say we must start with a blank sheet of paper and some creativity. And it is not whether the economy is going to change that much in the next year, the question is whether the economy is going to change that much in the next seven months because that is when people are going to decide to come to Key West Race Week.
There must have been a lot of fence sitters these past few years that did not come down.
Peter Craig: We hear from a TON of people like this. Believe it or not, I have already gotten my first entry for 2012. It came from a guy who said, “If I can enter, I want to enter right now.” He just had his first baby and couldn’t come this year, but he wouldn’t miss for the world, said his class would be there stronger than ever, and was ready to pay right then to help. It was wonderful to see that support; I think it was a pep talk more than anything else. But it is that type of support and enthusiasm that we need for next year.
With online registration, the fence sitters are seeing who has committed, but how do you show how many people are nearly committed? If they all knew how big this group was, I bet a lot of them would jump in too.
Peter Craig: That is my biggest disappointment for this year because we did that. If you looked at our website for each individual class we had categories to show those people who were thinking about attending and how serious they were. And while I am painting with a broad brush, this was a big disappointment in the response from many of the classes. We are not getting the close working relationship with classes that we used to get. But that doesn’t apply to all the classes, like the J/80 and the Farr 30 for example showed their support early. And that’s what it takes. People can no longer send their entry in the day before the deadline because there is a larger group determining whether to attend based on the level of competition. So we fully recognize this.
Sounds like it’s time for everybody to step up to help or be haunted by the chorus of “wasn’t it fun when we once went to Key West in January”.
Peter Craig: In our heyday, the J/105 class would post on their website what their membership was doing to help organize and encourage participation. And these numbers came early and were very reliable and useful for our planning. That’s what classes need to do. Each individual one design class, and to some extent the handicap classes, have to roll up their sleeves and play a role in these travel regattas. It can’t just be an event organizer, knocking on the door, sending emails. It’s got to be a two way street where they see the importance of the event for their class. And we really need it now.
ANDY NEWMAN – Florida Keys News Bureau
CRAIG LEWECK – Scuttlebutt sailing news
January 24, 2011