How does a relatively small property on the north Cornwall coast make headlines in Houston, Texas? The answer, in the case of Watergate Bay Hotel, is beach polo.
Since its opening, the property has marketed itself as a lifestyle resort offering a “contemporary beach holiday” by combining a quality F&B offering, high levels of service and a beach-chic design with a wide range of activities and a busy events calendar.
“From the very start, running authentic events on the beach has always been a really important way for us to express our brand,” says operations director Judi Blakeburn, adding that most hotel guests are aged 25-45 and travel from London and nearby cities for short breaks.
“We teach sports such as surfing, wave skiing and stand-up paddle boarding to a very high level with excellent instructors and throughout the year we’ll have events, including a kite-surfing event, that showcase the different sports we do,” Blakeburn says.
In 2006 the hotel held its first beach polo competition. That event has since grown into a far-reaching sporting event on the national calendar. Polo on the Beach 2013, held from May 18-19, attracted more than 8000 people, stirred the interest of thousands on social media and propelled the Watergate Bay Hotel into the public sphere.
Blakeburn explains how Watergate Bay has used the event to stand out from the crowd, bolster the brand and boost the bottom line.
“Seven years ago, Veuve Clicquot, who works very closely with us here, said ‘around the world polo is played on beaches, but it hasn’t yet been played on a beach in the UK, do you think that’s something you might be able to achieve?’ and we thought ‘why not, let’s give it a go’,” she recalls.
“There happens to be an excellent polo school [South West Polo] very close to us in Cornwall run by a man called Andrew Burgess, so we were able to work in partnership with him to develop the event. Up until this year it’s only been an annual evening event in September. It’s always been a very locally-focused event and unlike every other polo event in the country, our polo is free to watch and from the outset we’ve seen very large audiences,” adds Blakeburn.
Having grown the event year-on-year since, Watergate Bay Hotel set a higher goalpost for Polo on the Beach 2013.
“We had very clear objectives; it’s already become a credible national polo event but we wanted to cement it as a weekend event, we wanted to deliver brand exposure for the key stakeholders and we wanted to increase attendance.
“We ran an integrated PR and marketing campaign for the six weeks leading up to it,” says Blakeburn, who appointed an agency, Barefoot Media, to head up the PR side.
While the hotel runs numerous other lifestyle-related activities throughout the year, Polo on the Beach is the one event it owns and has trademarked.
“And we do everything,” says Blakeburn. “We engage with Andy Burgess and he organises all the riders and the horses for us, and he also manages the polo part of the event on the day. We provide all the hospitality because — we have a corporate event that’s based in the hotel, and on the beach we have food and drink on offer.
“This year, Veuve Clicquot created the most fantastic champagne bar on a deck that we put on the beach — the event has only been as successful as it has because of the support we’ve had from our sponsors. We’ve had an excellent relationship with Moët Hennessy, Verve Cliquot and then our two team sponsors First Great Western and clothing brand Joules.”
Creating an event with an audience of 8000 must cause all sorts of challenges for a hotel team, however, Blakeburn said the biggest obstacle was something completely out of their control — the elements.
“Watergate Bay is a two and a half mile long beach at low tide and at high tide, there’s no beach at all. So people will say ‘why do you always mess around with the dates of the events?’ Well, it’s all to do with the tide. So our biggest challenge is the natural environment.
“It’s an outside event, so the weather is another key challenge – how do you manage to mitigate weather?” she adds.
As Polo on the Beach takes place during the summer months, the property is already fully staffed and trained to cater to the event.
“We always use key team members to deliver polo; it’s not something that you can bring staff in for, they have to understand the brand and what we’re trying to deliver, so that’s incredibly important. It does take a lot of time and management efforts to deliver it, to address health and safety issues, environmental health issues, dealing with the police and so on,” says Blakeburn.
“ It has been a huge learning process over the seven years but we do think it’s worth it because we measure it, we can be sure we are seeing a return – not only on our investment in terms of money, but in terms of time,” she reveals.
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However, Blakeburn is quick to point out that sponsorship of the event does not directly bring in the money
“The sponsorship pays for the event; it doesn’t generate revenue in that sense. Do we make lots of money out of running polo? In straightforward terms it is a successful event for us because we attract so many people to the beach.
“We are a very small business relatively speaking on a beach on a north Cornwall coast, but this gives us real reach into a national and international market. Reach is the most important element for us.
Asked whether this reach converts to guests checking in, Blakeburn says: “You won’t see those kinds of stats. We’re very clear about our brand and the brand experience we’re trying to give our guests and this event goes to creating that understanding of the brand experience for our guests and our potential guests.
“We also do a lot on social media. We saw huge growth on both Twitter and Facebook, plus we had an Instagram competition that ran during the event and we had nearly 500 images entered. So looking at it from a marketing perspective, for content generation it creates fantastic opportunities to tell authentic stories about us, great opportunities for communication and meaningful interaction on all the social media platforms. We also built a mini-website for the event this year and saw a significant increase in traffic.”
Every boutique and lifestyle hotel must have a niche and offer a unique experience to stand out in the market, but are events that reflect your brand values a good way to do that? Yes, but only if done properly, according to Blakeburn.
“If you’re going to do an event, make sure it’s the best it can be. Make sure it’s the real deal, it’s authentic. In the very first year we played and the polo was okay but today it’s excellent, with very high goals. You want credibility for your events you want to ensure you’re delivering.
“Now it generates additional revenue for us, it provides absolute brand authenticity, it’s all about being on the beach and having wonderful, active social time, but one of its key points for us is it generates a huge amount of PR so our reach through PR, marketing and our social campaigns is tremendous."
The event’s global reach was realised when the hotel received a message from one of its international clients that read: “The event’s PR ability was redefined for me two weeks ago when I entered the lift at work, which has a small little TV screen in it, to see a great Watergate Bay Polo picture by Getty images. Well done to your PR team, it is quite something when Cornish polo reaches an elevator in Houston, Texas”.
AT A GLANCE:
HOTEL: Watergate Bay Hotel, Cornwall
INNOVATION: Events/sales and marketing
INITIATIVE: Polo on the Beach event
PARTNERS: PR – Barefoot Media
POLO: South West Polo
KEY SPONSORS: Veuve Clicquot, Moët Hennessy, First Great Western , Joules
RESULTS: 8000 people attended, brand reinforcement, marketing and PR benefits including social media boost
TWITTER: @watergatebay – 8104 followers, @poloonthebeach – 1017 followers
FACEBOOK: 4956 Likes
NEXT EVENT: Polo on the Beach, July 5-6, 2014