Start your engines for a new era of sport tourism

The sports tourism market is growing quickly, and making a buck is no longer localised around legacy events such as the quadrennial Olympics and FIFA World Cup. MYLES STEDMAN explores how the sports tourism market has evolved, and how travel advisors can cash in on sports fans travelling to all corners of the globe for their passion.

IF A person’s pet is part of their family, then their sports team is a part of their furniture, and holidayers are now taking their passion for sports on vacation with them. Last year, the global sports tourism market within a still-recovering travel industry was valued at USD$588 billion – a value which is expected to expand 17.5% from this year until the end of the decade – and the sector is taking notice.

“People are wanting to spend money and go overseas, we want to look at these other strategic opportunities and partnerships where we can really grow and scale,” Rod Harys, founder of FAN+, told travelBulletin.

As Australia’s first “fan access marketplace”, FAN+ is at the coalface of expanding the pie of the sports travel industry for all. Founded in 2018, FAN+ connects fans with their favourite sports team and athletes via live, immersive experiences. Since its foundation, it has struck up partnerships with Qantas Airways, Schwartz Family Co, and TEG, meaning FAN+ is expanding its global audience.

Rob Marcolina (left) and Alan Joyce (middle right) of Qantas, with FAN+ founder’s Aaron Warburton (middle left) and Rod Harys (right).

“There’s a very big appetite for Australians, because we love holidays, we love sports, to really grow that sporting experience travel piece,” Harys said.

“Australians love sport, and to get the biggest and best sports and give them access to it globally, that’s what a lot of people are after,” Harys said.

F1 Experiences official sales agent Wendy Brockbank told travelBulletin 2022-23 has been “an absolute boon”.

“It’s been fantastic this year,” Brockbank said. “I have guests at every single race.”

As F1 Experiences’ Australian representative, Brockbank’s business offers official ticket packages to motorsport fans, and with international travel (almost) back in full flight, she is doing it at a pace which would make Michael Schumacher blush.

Those directly involved in the sports travel sector, and even agents who have dealt with sports travel in the past, know there’s no substitute for experience and knowledge when it comes to such an event.

“There’s a lot of information at an event that, if you’re just buying a ticket and organising it yourself, you’re not going to know,” Keith Prowse Travel owner and Managing Director Dan Morahan told travelBulletin.

This is why all of Keith Prowse’s packages are curated with a purpose in mind, Morahan said.

This knowledge ranges from knowing just how far Wimbledon’s All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club is out of downtown London, to where not to sit at the Singapore Grand Prix in case it pelts down with rain, and even which towns in England have an EPL club, and which town’s team is down in the fourth division.

The Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park in Melbourne is a huge event each year for F1 aficionados.

This is all knowledge Morahan is inviting travel advisors to lean on his team for help with. “The wholesale channel, the agent challenge, is really important for us, it’s a big part of our business,” he enthused, “When the travel advisor calls in, they won’t actually know what an EPL game is, or what team they should try and get to see.”

The world’s biggest sports events have long been a magnet for tourism, and over the next 24 months, France will be on a sports spree. Akin to when Brazil hosted the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup within the space of two years, France will host the Rugby World Cup later in 2023, and 12 months after, will be the site of the XXXIII Olympiad.

For all the money and man hours spent on these two events, the return will be immense. The Rugby World Cup, which kicks off in September, will spread its more than 2.5 million tickets between 600,000 foreign visitors. These are valuable visitors too, as unlike many who travel to France, they will disperse among the 10 host cities, spreading their collective dollars far and wide.

The touristic benefits of hosting the Cup will also reach rugby fans who are staying at home during the tournament, with millions of viewers around the world receiving exposure to the country’s cultural virtues, as well as smaller destinations they may not have considered visiting before. The Cup’s two smallest host cities, Nantes and Toulouse, will enjoy almost 1 billion cumulative eyeballs on them over the two months of the tournament.

The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyongchang drew large crowds from all around the globe.

All the benefits of hosting the World Cup later this year will be multiplied in 2024, when Paris hosts the Olympics and Paralympics. Thirteen million tickets to the Games will be sold, bringing millions of tourists to the French capital, and ahead of the major event, Atout France has highlighted four major opportunities to make the most of its golden goose: to showcase the French art de vivre, to bring France’s heritage to life, to show the face of a welcoming and inclusive France, and to showcase France’s tourism industry as a whole.

The lasting legacy of these opportunities is to nurture a new imagination around France, reinforce the country’s event know-how, illustrate the nation’s commitment to sustainable & inclusive tourism, and optimise economic benefits by encouraging international visitors to extend their stay – all of which create benefits far beyond the host city.

Of course, not all destinations can afford the global marketing offered by hosting the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup, or the Rugby World Cup, meaning some have found ways to make sports tourism work for them, rather than the other way around.

When F1 Experiences opened its Australian Grand Prix packages for sale on 26 October, they were sold out in under 24 hours. “Even before the date was confirmed, people had already booked flights, booked hotels, it’s extremely difficult to get a hotel that’s close by to the track even before Christmas, even before they confirm the dates,” Brockbank said. She said the Australian Grand Prix, alongside the Australian Open, has put Melbourne on every international traveller’s map.

“The tourism is incredible, and also the fact that Australia has now opened up internationally as well, the international market coming in is so important for Melbourne. I believe that tourism, the value to the economy of each of the places where it’s being held, is crucial,” she said. Some destinations such as Azerbaijan and Bahrain, have built entire tourism economies off the back of their Grand Prix. As Brockbank points out, most had never heard of these destinations before the Formula 1 arrived in town.

Perhaps the greatest misconception about sports travel is that fans just want help buying their ticket. However, just as general travellers do not just want to be booked onto an aircraft and handed a checklist of places and things to photograph, fans do not want to be handed a ticket to a game and pointed in the direction of the stadium – they want a fully immersive experience, and this is where the opportunity for travel advisors lies, according to FAN+’s Harys.

“There’s a lot of opportunity all year round that we can tap into,” he said. “We’re getting a lot more interesting inquiries and demand for people wanting to travel overseas. It’s really identifying those opportunities as we see them and building a unique travel experience around it.”

In the past, where a soccer fan travelling in the United Kingdom would’ve been content just to get into Etihad Stadium to watch Manchester City play, FAN+ offers the ability to walk out onto the field in front of 55,000 fans and present the official game ball to the Citizens’ captain and his adversary prior to kickoff. At the end of the game, fans can enjoy a photo opportunity with the players, and celebrate what is hopefully a victory. You can also be received with drinks, canapes, a behind-the-scenes stadium tour with a Man City legend, and more. If you’re a basketball fan, there’s no need to hope for a last-minute ticket to the Barclays Center organised by the hotel concierge. FAN+ not only scores hoops-lovers tickets to watch the Brooklyn Nets play, but also the ability to join the stars of the NBA at centre court prior to tip-off.

A chance to meet the players is just one of the unique sports experiences FAN+ offers.

On a Keith Prowse Travel tour, guests are greeted at a welcome function before their tour begins in earnest. Morahan said this is so travellers know what to expect, in order to prepare them for the best experience at their event, to allow fellow sports fans to meet each other, and get to know those they’ll be travelling with to see their favourite tennis player or F1 driver – or even meet said superstar.

“Last year [at the Singapore Grand Prix], we had Mark Webber as a guest speaker,” Morahan said. “At Wimbledon, we would typically have Jim Courier or Pat Cash as a guest speaker. We tend not to do entry level tickets, because we found inevitably people were buying on price and they won’t have a great time. The key thing for us is about creating and creating a community of like-minded people.”

Through F1 Experiences, motorsport fans can not only secure themselves a seat in a premium grandstand with trackside views. The myriad packages on offer, which range from highly affordable to worthy of Lewis Hamilton himself, offer a wide range of inclusive hospitality in the Champions Club or Paddock Club, with additional trackside activities including driver appearances, an exclusive pit lane walk, a guided track tour, and more.

Because not every track is Albert Park – a short stroll from downtown – F1 Experiences also includes the ability to book a hotel, transfers, and anything else to ensure the day runs smoothly.

“I believe these days they’re wanting more than just a ticket, they are wanting an experience, and a life experience moment, and that’s where we come in, and it’s going from strength to strength,” Brockbank said.

As an MTA agent by trade, she is often also arranging flights and other plans for her clients, and frequently, double- or triple-headers, especially during European season.

“I get many requests for, okay, we know we want to go to this Grand Prix, but can you help us out with flights, and can you help us out with the additions, or what else we want to do, and what can you suggest, etc,” she said. After all, the travel industry is finally through COVID, sports all across the world have started the ball rolling once again, and sport fans are travelling like they mean it.

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