Business at the beach – Swatch Beach Volleyball Major Series

21 years ago, the Austrian city of Klagenfurt hosted a beach volleyball tournament for the first time. In 2016 the event has become part of the Swatch Beach Volleyball Major Series, a global tour formed as a joint venture between Red Bull and Hannes Jagerhofer. SportsPro made the trip to this year’s A1 Major Klagenfurt to experience the heady mixture of high-end entertainment and world-class sport, and to hear about the series’ plans for the future.

21 October 2016 Adam Nelson

The famously landlocked country of Austria may not seem like the natural home for one of the world’s biggest beach volleyball competitions. Nor, on the grey, drizzly Thursday on which SportsPro arrives, does the sleepy Alpine city of Klagenfurt appear a likely venue for one of the country’s biggest annual celebrations, an event which is billed by its organisers as “a unique combination of world class sport and outstanding entertainment”.

Yet for the past 21 years, Klagenfurt has hosted a yearly beach volleyball tournament – a staple of the calendar that has grown from an audience of 2,500 for its inaugural year in 1995 to welcoming over 50,000 guests for 2016, with the city being named by the Financial Times Deutschland as “the global capital of beach volleyball” in the process.

By the time Friday rolls around, it is easy to see how it has garnered that title, and why this event has endured and continued to grow in popularity.

The rain clears and the banks of the stunning Wörthersee, the lake on whose shore the temporary stadium is erected every year, are bathed in 30-degree sunshine. The site itself has more in common with a music festival than a typical sporting event: many attendees arrive in advance and camp for the duration of the tournament, while all around the stadium supporters engage in activities put on by the event organisers or by its sponsors. The music begins playing early and continues throughout the day, so that even when the 6,000-capacity stadium is full of fans cheering on beach volleyball stars from across the globe, the fun around the arena never stops. Beach volleyball events always retain something of the sport’s laid-back, party origins, but this is beach volleyball ne plus ultra.

The Klagenfurt event was started by Austrian entrepreneur Hannes Jagerhofer and its 2016 edition is on the Swatch Beach Volleyball Major Series, part of the global governing body’s FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour, for the first time. Formed as a joint venture between Jagerhofer and the Austrian energy drinks brand Red Bull, the Swatch Beach Volleyball Major Series was created as an attempt to give beach volleyball a high-profile global annual tour, a platform for showing off the sport around the world and telling a consistent story over a season. In a similar mould to show jumping’s Longines Masters Series, the Swatch Beach Volleyball Major Series combines a well-loved sport with all-round entertainment and a high-end VIP experience.

For Jagerhofer, it doesn’t matter which of these elements people come for – it’s why they stay that’s important.

 “The challenge we’re facing, if you’re talking about beach volleyball,” he says, “is what everybody’s understanding what beach volleyball might be. If you are coming here to Klagenfurt and you’re walking around, you can see we’re talking about a different product than usually we’d associate with the sport.

 “When we were looking into this I talked to people from all different kinds of companies, and they all said that we really have to create a special USP so people understand this is really something special. Because competing with NHL [National Hockey League], NFL [National Football League]… that makes no sense. We’re looking for a completely different kind of positioning.”

A lot of that different positioning, particularly in these early stages of its development – the Swatch Major Series concludes its second full season in mid-September – has come via a business model that focuses on maximising the value of the series’ commercial partnerships. Most of the sponsors of the event are also technical suppliers, offering their expertise as well as a financial package, and Jagerhofer and his team have worked to make sure no opportunity to team up with a partner goes unexploited. The Klagenfurt event even has an official toilet partner, with Geberit supplying an astonishingly high-tech lavatory to the VIP section.

Austrian telecoms giant A1 has title sponsored beach volleyball at Klagenfurt almost since its inception, but has stepped up its involvement considerably in recent years. This year it installed over four kilometres of cabling, running through the lake itself and under the ground, in order to supply high-speed internet access to the arena.

Susanne Speil, head of communications and sponsoring at A1, outlines the four key criteria A1 looks for in any sponsorship, and they neatly surmise why the A1 Major Klagenfurt, and the Swatch Major Series in general, has become such a popular target for brands and commercial partners.

“First, we want to provide fun for our customers, and they get that,” Speil explains. “The image transfer for everyone is important, so we look at brand images which correspond with ours and that’s definitely true for ours and the Majors.

“The second thing is we want to showcase our technical knowledge here, which we are clearly doing by supplying the cables and installing the connectivity to this whole arena.

“Third is to benefit our employees. We always have a raffle for our employees so we have 100 employees who can take part in the raffle and win the chance to come and spend time here in this amazing VIP area, have fun and relax.

“The fourth thing is that this is a perfect business-to-business platform. You can invite your most important customers to spend time and see what we do, but also just reward them also. You meet a lot of new clients here, this is a great area with lots of different businesses. But this is time to say thank you for our existing customers.”

Jagerhofer is keen to emphasise the business-to-business element of the event. Walking into the arena’s vast VIP section, it is clear that this has had as much thought put into it as the rest of the set-up, with myriad food buffets serving up all manner of global cuisine, a reserved area of seating within the stadium for watching the action and – the pièce de résistance – a cocktail bar on a floating island on the lake.

With over 4,000 VIP guests expected over the course of the weekend, getting this right is a challenge for everyone involved, but particularly for DO & CO, the Austrian catering company charged with feeding 1,200 guests every day. Over the course of the weekend, 40,000 plates and 70,000 items of cutlery will be used, with DO & CO employing 250 staff to look after every aspect of the experience.

“Everyone is expecting something special always from our part,” says Michael Hailer, senior catering and events manager at DO & CO. “We’re working almost half the year on this event, thinking it all through: what kind of furniture, what kind of culinary concept, what kind of new ideas, what kind of table set. Everything has to match to each other and we always have to fulfil or even surpass our previous performance, but it’s always a very new surprise for the guests who are coming.”

The key concept, says Hailer, is that everything is prepared fresh on site, using local ingredients, and is cooked at the buffet stations, “so the guests really have the experience that they can see what they’re eating, they can see how it’s done. Hopefully this is the best tournament with the best food on the entire tour.”

For the series’ corporate partners, the attention paid to the VIP experience is well worth the effort. Andreas Klauser, brand president of tractor manufacturer Steyr, agrees with Speil that the A1 Major Klagenfurt is a perfect way to thank customers and clients.

“It’s like a special reward,” he says. “We are recognising them doing business with us, and then they are coming and joining here and they’re really enjoying it as one of the major events we’re having in Austria and in the entire region.”

Back outside the stadium, Steyr is the sponsor of the ‘Beach Camp’, where fans have pitched their tents for the weekend, and also has a tractor on display in the trade village surrounding the stadium. Klauser readily admits that the congruence between a tractor brand and a beach volleyball competition might not be the most natural, but says that the demographic attending the A1 Major made the decision to get involved “quite simple.”

“Our brand is very well recognised, it’s a very traditional brand, but our average customer age was 50 and above,” says Klauser. “We knew we needed to be more modern, more innovative. So we are combining now with this kind of sports events to make sure that people understand that we are interested in younger people, that we have proper communication with younger people. It’s an innovation of the brand itself to a younger audience.”

The demographic at the Swatch Major Series still skews young – the event in Klagenfurt has been running so long that Jagerhofer jokes that “we now have the kids here of the people who were coming at the start!” – though as the numbers grow, so too does the range of people coming, opening even more opportunities for brands to capitalise on the event’s popularity.

Indeed, the buzz around the event now infects the whole of Austria. Thanks to the media partnership with Austria’s largest daily newspaper, Kronen Zeitung, images from the beaches of the Wörthersee are seen across the country, filling out newsstands from Vienna to Innsbruck. The A1 Major Klagenfurt produces over 100,000 overnight stays in the city, giving a huge boost to what is already one of Austria’s most popular tourist destinations.

The tournament’s final, meanwhile, is given widespread visibility live on ORF Eins, the flagship channel of the country’s national public broadcaster. Up to 200,000 people were expected to tune into the men’s and women’s finals over the weekend.

ORF produces three feeds from the event – one for national distribution and two for international – and works closely with the event’s second broadcast partner, Red Bull Media House, to distribute content on an international scale. This is where much of the real value lies, explains Christian Baier, chief executive at Capcom media and moving images director for the Swatch Major Series, with the company’s videos from across the series now reaching more than four million viewers on Facebook and other social media services. “For beach volleyball it’s a huge step out and big development,” notes Baier. “With these numbers on our social media channels we can’t stay unnoticed anymore in the world of sports and events.”

The figures following the final event of the season in Toronto help demonstrate the growth. That tournament garnered over 60 million social media impressions across the course of the week alone, bringing the total from the five events to a projected total of almost 550 million. Videos shared on the Red Bull and Swatch Major Series channels attracted over 20 million views.

This kind of visibility offers brands a great platform to all partners and none more so than Swatch, the watchmaker which serves as the title sponsor of the entire series. Carlo Giordanetti, creative director at Swatch, notes the “consistent messaging and interaction with fans” afforded to the company by the series throughout the four months of its season, both on site and online.

“Being title sponsor allows Swatch to have a much closer, more constructive and productive relationship with the Beach Volleyball Major Series organisation,” explains Giordanetti. “We signed on as title sponsors right from the start. We are a passionate promoter of this sport, as beach volleyball brings together not only athletes and sport fans but also music, active lifestyle, and an overall energetic and positive lifestyle. It’s a sport that lives from the enthusiasm and passion of the crowds around it and we get to engage with them throughout the series.”

If the Swatch Major Series has a weakness at this point, Jagerhofer says, it is that there is not enough of it. With four of the five events taking place in Europe during the summer window between June and September, there is a lot of the globe, and a lot of the year, left for the series to expand into.

The 2016 series took in five countries – with Klagenfurt joining Poreč in Croatia, Hamburg in Germany, Gstaad in Switzerland, and with Toronto, Canada replacing Fort Lauderdale in Florida as the venue for the finals – and Jagerhofer is determined to see this number grow.

Choosing the right destination is always a challenge, he says,though the first and most important consideration is always the venue itself.

“When we chose Poreč, there was no beach volleyball history,” Jagerhofer explains. “They had no players, no teams – the only thing was an exciting venue. We knew there is a huge potential and, we also knew that Austria is very close, so our fans will follow there. It helps a lot if you have these ambassadors who show the others what the moves are and what exciting beach volleyball looks like.

 “So we start small, and then in five years we will aim to have ten events all over the world, in bigger sizes of tournaments. We want to go to eight first, looking to the Asian market which is very big for us. Maybe Japan, with the next Olympic Games, or maybe China.”

The Swatch Major Series will not dive into a new location where it cannot maintain the standards it has set for itself, says Jagerhofer, and plenty of work will continue to go into ensuring the quality of the tournaments – with the success of Toronto as the final leg of this year’s tour acting as a trial run for its eventual inclusion on the regular schedule. Jagerhofer plans to continue building the tournament out in this way, with the venue for one year’s season finale then joining the tour for the next season over the next five years.

The comfort and luxury feel of the series extends to the players as well as to the sponsors and VIP guests.

“It’s such a plus how Hannes has set up these events,” says the 2013 world champion and Olympic bronze medallist from Rio, Alexander Brouwer, who won in the first Poreč Major last year alongside his partner Robert Meeuwsen. “You can see that this is an event where they really pay a lot of attention to the players. The area at the lake is so comforting and so relaxing and you can see that they did a really good job on making the athletes comfortable when they’re inside the tournament playing, but also when we’re outside relaxing.”

Meeuwsen echoes his teammate’s sentiments. “For me, this is for a long time the leading event,” he says. “And it’s the one where most people, the players and the fans, look up to. Around the world at other events, when you hear most people talk about it it’s always, ‘Look at what Klagenfurt is like.’”

It is the A1 Major Klagenfurt that remains the gold standard for the series, the benchmark against which Jagerhofer will hold the rest of the tour. Having grown its audience from scratch to now command a loyal following, he hopes that the model can be recreated around the world.

“This is the dream,” he says. “To have lots of Klagenfurts, and let them grow.”