Heineken Regatta enters its 33rd edition – John Leone: “So far it has been a worthwhile investment”

POSTED: 02/26/13 3:31 PM

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – Heineken is not involved in that many sports as a sponsor, but the company has been a staunch supporter of St. Maarten’s Heineken Regatta for more than 25 years. “This event is highly regarded, also among Heineken employees in the Netherlands,” says John Leone, manager of International Liquor and Tobacco Trading, the company that markets the brand on the island.

The Heineken Regatta begins this week in its 33rd consecutive year. “Unofficially Heineken was involved in every edition of the regatta,” Leone says. “The company started by delivering beer to the boats with dinghies. From the sixth edition on Heineken became the headline sponsor.”

The brand has been linked with St. Maarten’s main sailing event for more than three decades, so there must be some synergy there. “It allows us to stand out among the competition,” Leone says. “The regatta gives us the opportunity to form a close bond with the people on the island – consumers and businesses alike. They know the value of the event for the island.”

When the economic crisis hit in 2008, it seemed that the regatta was heading for tough times, that sailors might stay away and that sponsorships might dry up. But Heineken stayed the course: “Over the past three, four years we experienced greater appreciation for staying with the event when times were tough,” Leone says. “We are very dedicated to keep this event alive.”

The ILTT-manager considers the regatta as a world class event. “Even if we do not have all the resources, it is held here and it is the biggest regatta in the Caribbean. It has become a model for other regattas and it has kept the same headline sponsor for more than 25 years.”

How the regatta is perceived locally is another matter. Former Commodore Robbie Ferron said in an interview with this newspaper in 2010: “Sailing is perceived as a couple of rich white guys going out on the water. The benefit of the regatta for the locals is not the free parties we organize. The value lies in the island’s promotion.”

Leone says that the event is enjoyable for everyone. “There is something for everyone. We need to change the mindset that the regatta is only a boat race. And sailing is of course not the best spectator sport. You don’t get close to the boats unless you go on the water. The regatta-parties are inclusive, they generate very positive vibes.”

Heineken will keep supporting the event for the foreseeable future. “I do not see why Heineken should stop,” Leone says. “We have to make the case every year of course, but so far it has been a worthwhile investment.”

At the same time, St. Maarten could do more by embracing the opportunities the regatta offers, Leone says. “There is a lot more we can do to fill up whatever hotel rooms there may be left, or to let the cruise ships stay longer; in other words: to create more value. We have Christmas and New Year and the regatta when the hotels are full, the rest of the time it is at best 80 percent. The island could do more with package deals. The Carnival Foundation has now started offering such deals with Maho. We have tried to pick this up as well.”

Leone says that 20 percent of Heineken’s sponsorship goes into the headline sponsorship – that is, a payment to the yacht club to be recognized as the main sponsor. The remaining 80 percent of the budget goes to the artists the company brings to the island for the after-sailing parties.

“We are the sponsor on one hand, but on the other hand we organize the parties. We take care of everything,” Leone says. “The unique aspect of this event is that it brings sports and entertainment together.”

Talking about Heineken’s corporate responsibility towards the community, Leone rates the company with a 9 on a scale from 1 to 10. “We are ahead of the industry,” he says with confidence, referring to the beer-maker’s Enjoy Heineken responsibly campaign.

There is of course, also the matter of empty beer bottles. The great Freddy Heineken – known for his sense of humor but also for his environmental concerns. In the sixties of last century the legendary beer magnate visited Curacao and he was appalled by two things: the empty bottles strewn all over the island and the poor state of the houses.

Back in Amsterdam he asked architect John Habraken to develop a square beer bottle –dubbed Wobo, or world bottle – Heineken’s beer bottle brick. It did not become a success at the time, maybe because the idea was too far ahead of its time, of maybe because Wobo-houses in the Caribbean simply became too hot. Heineken had a shed built of Wobo’s in his back yard in Amsterdam.

In St. Maarten such an idea is not up to the distributor of Heineken to pick up. How about simply collecting all those empty bottles? Leone: “In an open market like ours it is a little bit too much to ask from one company to take a stand for returnable packaging. If I charge my clients a deposit for each bottle and tell them that they have to keep them until I come to pick them up and that they will get their deposit back at that moment, I put myself at a disadvantage in the market. This has to be something whereby all companies get together and create a solution that is beneficial for all parties.”

In the meantime, a small private initiative in this field has been budding for already a couple of years. “I set it up together with Steve Hammond. He collects bottles and cans from bars and restaurants and sends them off island. It is small scale, but any bar or restaurant that wants to participate is free to contact us. We can do more, but in the end it has to be commercially feasible.”

For quite some years, Heineken has been selling bracelets of which the proceeds go to environmental organizations like the Nature Foundation. “In the past couple of years we have raised around $20,000 that way,” Leone says. “We like to be involved in local initiatives that are making a difference.”

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