This weekend will see the Curragh Racecourse stage a Dubai Duty Free Derby like none other in its 150 year plus history.
The winner will return to cheers from more TV screens than would ever normally be the case but to virtual silence across the rolling grasslands of the Curragh.
The magnificent new stands will bear silent witness to the latest chapter in the races history.
In a special exclusive interview this morning Sport for Business sat virtually with Colm McLoughlin, CEO of race supporters Dubai Duty Free and a long time champion of Irish sport through support for the race and for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf.
He has had plenty to deal with in terms of his global business but for these few moments he was good enough to share his thinking on the role of the sponsor on such high end sporting occasions.
SfB: 2020 will be different for many reasons, how will you adapt to staging the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby behind closed doors?
CMcL: We have very much relied on The Curragh and Horse Racing Ireland to manage the staging of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby behind closed doors. The health and safety of all involved is of the utmost importance and we have fully supported The Curragh for this much-altered situation.
SfB: You have always focused very much on entertaining key customers and stakeholders. Is there a way in which you can still make them feel a part of the event in 2020?
CMcL: Unfortunately, it is not possible to host guests this year due to travel restrictions. We would normally have had guests travel over from all over the world with a huge contingent travelling to Ireland from Dubai, the UK, Singapore and Australia to mention just some regions.
SfB: Enhanced viewing figures and media interest will come from the Festival standing almost alone in terms of Live Irish events this weekend. Will that enhanced media coverage and visibility make up for the lack of a physical presence?
CMcL: Yes, I think it will be good to have the TV coverage compensate for other aspects of our sponsorship, which are just not deliverable at this time. There has been no sport on television for months now, so we do anticipate strong television ratings.
The public in Ireland and indeed across the world have been completely without sport for so long and we expect there will be many people who will relish the chance to see some live sporting action again.
Live television coverage of racing in Ireland and at Ascot last week gave people a connection with sport once again and was very positive.
SfB: Was there any point along the way where you felt that it was not going to happen this year or that even if it did that it might have been without you?
CMcL: We have been in talks with The Curragh for the past several months, so we were aware of potential options for the running of the race. I think it is good that the racing goes ahead, it is good for the industry and for Ireland, and The Curragh were keen to have our support, despite the limitations in terms of attendance and our own presence.
This is the 13th year of our sponsorship of this racing festival, I think that we have helped build it up to the level of where it is today, and while this year is definitely different, we are happy to keep the sponsorship going in order to keep our name on the race meeting.
SfB: What was the communication like between your Irish sporting partners, with the DDF Irish Open still on the postponed rather than the cancelled list?
CMcL: We accepted and agreed with The European Tour’s decision to postpone the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open which was due to be held at Mount Juliet in May. Although it was hugely disappointing to postpone the event it was absolutely the right thing to do.
SfB: How hard has DDF been hit in terms of the core business and how long do you think it will take for international travel to bounce back?
CMcL: Dubai Duty Free has been very badly hit by Covid-19 which resulted in the closing of our retail operations in both Dubai International and Al Maktoum International Airports since the 25th of March. We noticed a decline in sales in February, and a drop in sales to Chinese passengers, and it just got progressively worse until the closure. Year on year, our sales are down by 56%, which is over US$404 million.
We have started a gradual re-opening of our retail operation in Terminal 2 and Terminal 3, but the traffic is still quite low. However, it is growing and there has been a few announcements in recent days – including the re-opening of Dubai to visitors from the 7th of July which is obviously good news. But this is going to be a long term recovering, it will take time for traffic to return to 2019 figures, possibly 3 years or so.
SfB: As a long term supporter did you feel something of a responsibility to stand by your partners at a time when they needed you backing more than ever, but also at a time when you were facing immense challenges to your business?
CMcL: Yes, we have a great long term relationship with The Curragh and we appreciated their understanding of our situation when we first talked around March time. We are happy with the final sponsorship level for this year and just wish we were able to be there to see the races.
SfB: Is there anything you have learned through this crisis that gives you hope for the future being as bright as it looked at the start of the year?
CMcL: We have learnt a good deal during this crisis, especially that we have a great team of management and staff who have really pulled together over the past several months. I have been in regular touch with our employees through video messages and they in turn have undertaken great initiatives to help with online sales for staff. We also launched a Home Delivery service in the UAE. All of this is a great example of putting our ideas together and being creative.
The 2020 Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby will take place at the Curragh this Saturday, June 27th and will be broadcast live on RTÉ Sport.