The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is the jewel in the UAE’s sporting crown. With idyllic panoramas of Yas Marina beamed around the world, it is as much an advert for the capital as a sporting occasion for residents and tourists alike to savour.

The 2018 edition of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was the 10th to be held at the iconic Yas Marina Circuit (YMC), and Nick McElwee has overseen every one of them. Here, YMC’s sales and marketing director tells Sport Industry Insider about the growth of the race over the past decade.

What is it like working on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix?

Nick McElwee: Honestly, I’m thinking about the Grand Prix 12 months a year. The planning cycle begins the day after the Grand Prix. The consumer cycle is officially only nine months but the corporate campaign is 12 months and the planning is 12 months. Straight after the Grand Prix we look at diagnostics, we debrief, we have our customer satisfaction survey; we look at lessons learned across the whole site. And within three or four weeks we’re already putting together the product for the following year.

How has your approach to the event changed?

NM: We can sell out every single year but what’s interesting is the profile of that sell-out year on year will be different. The market changes, the dynamic changes – both local and international. The F1 product changes, where the championship sits. There are all these variables that can potentially throw you off.

Obviously as the years have gone on, we have more loyal customers and we want to do more for them – so we have a very strong retargeting program now. We know exactly who has bought over the past 10 years and we make sure they are looked after. We do an early bird discount for the beginning of the campaign to reward those loyal customers who are committed to the event.

The growing success has seen a change in the sales curve, which was once back-ended but is npw heavily front-ended, particularly on the consumer side. People are buying their tickets earlier and that speaks well for the strength of the brand and event.

Also interesting is that there has been a big shift in international vs local. In 2009, around 10% of those attending were international guests, now up between 50-60%. We’re no longer wholly dependent on a local audience, which is fantastic, though we do still want this to be a must-see event for locals too.

What have been the biggest challenges?

NM: Changing people’s mindset regarding tickets has been important.  Walking into the Grand Prix 2009, the region was notorious for last-minute purchase behaviour – it still is really. Even worse was a weak purchase culture full stop. People expected to get comp tickets through their office, colleagues or network. Buying tickets just wasn’t the done thing here. These were two barriers that we needed to address and over 10 years we’ve done that inch by inch – we have made inroads into those numbers.

Now no-one expects to get their tickets for free – if you want to go to the Grand Prix, you buy a ticket. That’s really important because it sends signals to the broader economy, not just our specific event. And that’s where the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix can lead in some respects. It can really change behaviour and attitudes.

Presumably the corporate side of things is still very important? 

NM: Of course. But we want a healthy balance between international and local, corporate and consumer – and also direct and indirect. It is really important to look at it and think ‘how healthy does this business look?’ The health of the business has improved year on year, and as we move into our 10th, dare I say it, we will have the healthiest mix yet.

On the corporate side, we’ve seen huge changes. We watch how the market shifts and if you look back at what the market wanted and expected five years ago, it’s very different to now. One key thing has been changing the conversation with the corporates so it’s not an annual conversation. A lot of our key clients will be with us until the end of our contract in 2021.

It’s about moving those towards more long-term agreements and partnerships, which is really important so that you’re not starting totally from zero every year. That’s not to say you don’t rebuild and re-engineer the product to fit the market, you do. But there are certain lock-ins you want at a high level in order to maintain the health of the business.

How have you found F1’s new owners, Liberty Media?

NM: They have an American entertainment background and have definitely been looking to mix it up –working the off-track stuff as much as the on-track stuff. That has great synergy with our approach as they’re trying to make a model in F1 that we’ve been executing since the get go. It’s about a multi-layered experience across sports and entertainment that works for the diehard F1 fan as well as the casual or even non-F1 fans.

What principles guide the running of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix? 

NM: I think the day you think you’ve cracked it is the day you’re not getting any better. Every year you have to start again. If you start thinking of it in terms of, ‘we did it well, let’s just do it again’ you’re cooked. I do think that we are leading the way here in Abu Dhabi and pushing ourselves the hardest. However, that doesn’t mean we think know it all. The key thing is to build it from the bottom up every year. We are always on the lookout for new ideas and input – curiosity is king and if we stop being curious, we will no longer be at the front.

How do you measure the success of Abu Dhabi Grand Prix?

NM: The brand equity of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix brand is very strong and we are now up there in the top three in the world. There are some Grands Prix that appear to be delivered without too much thought on how they are perceived or what their profile is. But we have driven the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as a consumer branding exercise. Building and creating an engagement with an audience who have a certain perception about our Grand Prix. We’re seen as the most technically advanced; we’re seen as the modern definition of a Grand Prix. This doesn’t happen by accident.

We are very happy with the health of the business. Despite the economic changes, despite the consumer changes, the health of the business is growing year on year. That’s because we’ve tried really hard to innovate and evolve, and not just turn up with the same product every year. It takes a lot of work but it’s the reason why the business is so healthy across the key parameters. Ten years in it’s in a very healthy state.