For one week each year, Yas Marina Circuit (YMC) has the eyes of the motorsport world transfixed on its glistening grandstands and sparkling blue waters. The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has been a fixture on the Formula One calendar for the past decade, and this year celebrates its 10th edition.
But while there is global attention on YMC when the F1 circus rolls into town, life does not end when it leaves.
A year-round operation, YMC could not exist if it relied solely on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and since its inauguration in 2009, the circuit has developed a broad spectrum of events and retail experiences. At the heart of shaping its offering is Nick McElwee, sales and marketing director for YMC and Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management (ADMM).
McElwee has overseen eight of Abu Dhabi’s nine previous Grands Prix having joined YMC in 2010 and has played a key role in the evolution of the circuit’s business proposition. Traditionally, the summer months have meant a degree of downtime in the UAE and Middle East, but McElwee says that both he, and the circuit, are as busy as ever right now.
“To some degree the business has seasonality but we’re finding that less and less,” he explains to Sport Industry Insider. “More people are staying in the UAE; the time they spend abroad over the summer has definitely reduced. There is certainly still an appetite for our track experiences in the summer months and although we don’t have any big public events, we will still have people coming through the doors.”
A number of those people visiting Yas Marina Circuit will be running, cycling and walking around the track. YMC’s TrainYas and StartYas fitness initiatives have snowballed in popularity in recent years and are perhaps the circuit’s biggest success story in terms of the diversification of its business.
With 200,000 fitness visitors a year and a sum total closing in on one million, YMC’s focus on health has proved a hugely effective grassroots initiative, which has earned both public and critical acclaim.
“It is something we are really proud of,” McElwee says. “It’s just not something that Grand Prix venues and tracks had done before. I don’t think we can lay claim to being the first to think of the idea of using the track for other sport but I do think we were the first ones to put a proper structure around it. We committed to the audience when there wasn’t a proven business case.
“We started to build a community, innovate on the product side and we now believe it is the strongest health and fitness platform in the region, not just the UAE – in terms of the consistent visitation and engagement. That continues in the summer months; even on the hottest days we have a rock solid crowd who will come, still probably around 1,500 people for whom TrainYas on a Tuesday or StartYas on a Saturday is a key part of their training regime.”
— Yas Marina Circuit (@ymcofficial) June 26, 2018
The health and fitness programmes have exposed a new, non-motorsport, crowd to Yas Marina Circuit and opening up this new customer base has helped other aspects of the business including corporate, retail and events.
“It has spun us off into other opportunities, absolutely,” McElwee says. “Now you’re just as likely to come to us as a non-motorsport fan; people who didn’t think of us before do now.
“Breaking down those barriers and those preconceptions has been a really hard thing to do but it is hugely rewarding. It takes a concerted effort over time. It’s not just one campaign. It’s not just going to be done in a season – it is multiple seasons and multiple years, as part of a long-term strategy.”
While the development of non-motorsport offerings has been a major boost to the business and the brand, Yas Marina Circuit’s bread and butter remains servicing those who are enthused by engines.
Yas Island offers an array of leisure options for visitors, with the imminent opening of Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi the latest arrival. It would appear the plethora of alternative destinations could be damaging to Yas Marina Circuit’s bottom line, but McElwee insists the relationship with other properties is cooperative rather than competitive.
“I don’t see the other assets at all as a threat and I think that would be a really bad mind set to have. Aside from the fact that ultimately we’re sister companies [under the Miral Asset Management umbrella], it is also good business. Having those options gets people into going out and spending money on new products and once you get an appetite for that you want to do more; it’s in everyone’s interest to engage the audience.
“Warner Bros is a great example. Firstly it’s a significant piece of new news so it brings the spotlight back on Yas Island which is great. You can’t keep pushing out the same messages. It’s going to bring in a family audience, which is a complementary audience as far as we’re concerned.
“For the F1 this year we’ve developed a Super Parks Pass – it gets you a Grandstand ticket to the Grand Prix and unlimited access to the three parks including Warner Bros World. This shows how we are all working together to make a compelling proposition for the consumer.”
Driving Yas Marina Circuit’s proposition towards both residents and tourists is one of the key challenges for McElwee and his team, particularly over the summer months. One audience segment yet to be fully explored is transit passengers at nearby Abu Dhabi Airport.
“It is now a year-round economy here in Abu Dhabi and part of that is the traffic that comes through the airport,” McElwee explains. “In the summer, 90% of the traffic coming through Abu Dhabi Airport is in transit but there is definitely still an opportunity there.
“We’re only 15 minutes away from the airport. We can put on a venue tour or a karting experience for example. You could be in and out and back at the airport in 90 minutes. It’s a case of understanding the available time and showcasing the product to the right audience. Pricing is also really important because if it’s too exorbitant it’s not going to work.
“We already work with the Department for Culture and Tourism (DCT) and Etihad Airways on this but there are still significant opportunities for us to build that business together with all of the Miral and Yas Marina assets. The consumer could have multiple experiences on Yas Island, only one of which would include us. There is plenty of room for growth in that space.”
Like any business, sponsorship plays an important role for Yas Marina Circuit. The appeal of a globally viewed event like the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is clear but McElwee has brought on board a number of year-round sponsors who see value beyond the F1.
“What we’re finding is that success comes from more sophisticated partnerships, rather than straightforward sponsorship agreements. That old model is not hugely interesting for us – we want a deeper, more complex partnership that will range across multiple activations and span across multiple years, as well as across F1 and non-F1.
“Richard Mille, Pirelli and FAB (First Abu Dhabi Bank) are some of our strong year-round sponsorships. FAB for example reaches out into multiple elements. So we’re looking at their business plans, and seeing what is of relevance to them and then bringing it to life across different activities here with the help of our in-house events team.
“The Grand Prix is a big draw of course but actually we find more interest from companies seeking deeper partnerships and we encourage that. Hopefully they see what we see, which is that Yas Marina Circuit is a really strong proposition across multiple platforms.”