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(Re)imagining the races

Addington Raceway has had to change its event plans more than once in the past few months. Now, brand champion Carlo Gomez is on a mission to bring the whole country on the Cup Week journey. Words Anna Wallace

Like most of us, and no doubt every event organiser and hospitality brand in the country, Carlo Gomez has eagerly tuned in to the Prime Minister’s briefings.

The Addington Raceway brand and marketing manager is responsible for communication so, as the track hardened with the advent of spring, he has been providing Cup Week updates to various audiences. Carlo and the Addington team had to interpret what the differing Covid-19 Alert Levels and Delta variant meant to the trotting venue.

“Each week it felt like the rules changed, so we lacked direction at times and were desperate for clarity,” he says.

Indeed, operating in Alert Level 2 has thrown a new set of challenges their way. The climax to this period of uncertainty was when journalists stood on the track reporting to the nation that, for the first time in its 117-year history, Cup Day would not be open to the public.

“Cup Week is Addington’s store window, so with that gone, we had to rethink how we would get the race experience out there. We still wanted people to enjoy the week and Cup Day, even if we couldn’t host them.”

addington cup week horse 5
The trotting industry is pulling together, with IRT race sponsorship ongoing.
brian ceo talking to journalists
Brian Thompson, CEO of Addington Raceway, announces that Cup Day won’t be open to the public under Delta restrictions.

Planning for the unknown

For a while, Carlo’s marketing plans were changing daily. “It was pretty intense,” he confesses, “but also exciting.”

Lockdown started with a bang for the Gomez family, as they welcomed baby Otis less than 24 hours before Christchurch went into Level 4. With two other young children (aged five and three), you’d think Carlo would have retreated into his bubble. But brand reputation waits for no man, and this threat to Addington’s biggest event saw him enlist the support of two sets of grandparents, run Zoom meetings with Otis, and get back into the saddle.

“I didn’t want anyone or anything to drop off,” he says.

At first, they thought they’d just have to push the opening of ticket sales back by one week. Then another week, then another.

On September 27, Addington Raceway CEO Brian Thompson told media that the races would still go ahead, but if mass gathering restrictions remained it would not be possible to hold it as a public event.

“Cup Week, for many, is all about the race-day experience… and mingling with other people all in a party-like atmosphere. It’s just not an event where anyone wants to social distance from others,” Brian said.

With that, ticket sales were put on hold.

Carlo’s team of three had to devise a way to keep the brand and event alive. “We knew we couldn’t cut the timeline, so we had to focus on the how.”

Fashion-forward

An away-day in early September helped clear their heads. Firstly, they focused on the fashion element of IRT New Zealand Trotting Cup Day, and how they could “make it epic”. Melbourne Cup 2020 was a good benchmark, as they had run the best-dressed competition solely online.

“We’d always wanted to go digital, but this situation forced us to give it a go. We were refreshing our website anyway, but this prompted us to pivot into online entry.”

Carlo says The Crossing Fashion Starts Here contest is iconic. “It’s a major part of the Addington Raceway brand – and now it’s going to be even bigger,” he enthuses.

Participants will still vie for the Best Dressed title, but three new categories have been added: IRT Something Blue, Contemporary and Family Fun.

“Making changes like this doesn’t usually happen in the racing fashion industry – it’s traditionally had quite strict criteria. Fashion enthusiasts are going to be fizzing about entering new types of outfits from wherever they are [in the country].”

Carlo thinks the shake-up of the competition makes it more accessible. “Last Cup, we saw some amazing outfits that just didn’t meet the Best Dressed criteria. The new categories are more relaxed.”

He still expects to see fashion houses getting behind the day. “It’s a key part of their calendar. There’s so much blue clothing that’s come out this season – perfect for the IRT Something Blue category!”

Major sponsor The Crossing centre manager, Kelly Morrison agrees. “Covid has changed the way we do things, but that doesn’t mean all the fun should stop. We are excited to celebrate fashion this year with friends and whānau all across New Zealand, by taking our competition online.”

Bringing people on the journey

Having worked in agencies and run his own marketing business, Carlo is deft at adapting his skills to meet brand objectives. “I love new ways of doing things!”

He has learnt the importance of “gathering communities of people around a cause”. And that’s exactly what he set about doing in early September, when it became apparent Delta restrictions weren’t going anywhere in a hurry. The challenge of stakeholder engagement was perhaps most acute when reaching out to sponsors.

“I needed to look after our partners – if we couldn’t give the full experience, how could we provide value?”

Luckily, organisations had clocked the widespread media coverage announcing that the city would not be seeing the usual 20,000-plus dressed-up-and-feeling-lucky folks flock to Jack Hinton Drive on Cup Day.

“It’s a much-loved event, so the media coverage was pretty crazy. Even talkback picked it up!”

Before they met up with every partner, Carlo was “at peace” with the fact that some might drop off. But not one did.

“Our sponsors have been amazing – they were very receptive to us doing things differently. There was definitely a high degree of trust involved,” he says.

IRT is the major sponsor of Cup Day and director Richard Cole acknowledges that Addington’s “even-keeled” approach provided assurance that things would come together.

“Carlo and the team have really stood up to the challenge. It never crossed our mind that we wouldn’t be a part of the day. We came on board last year in the wake of Covid and in challenging times it’s so important we pull together as an industry. We’re disappointed the public won’t be there, but our brand will still be out there – just on a different platform. It hasn’t dampened our enthusiasm for the races,” Richard says.

With this mutual willingness to proceed, Carlo and colleagues set about leveraging partnership plans so no one was left behind. As the visionary new event plan took shape, it became a two-pronged approach (aka Cup Week 2.0).

Getty image of people serving themselves food from a table.

Broadening the field

With Alert Level 1 proving elusive, Addington drew a line in the sand on October 19. Brian Thompson advised media that the on-site event would be a smaller racing industry day for members, owners, trainers and partners.

Their new vision of ‘Cup from your place’ was pitched to the public. It’s a simple yet bold campaign to encourage Kiwis, wherever they are, to take part in the this prestigious harness racing event.

“We’re taking Cup Day across platforms and across New Zealand,” says Carlo. “The barriers have gone – it will be in homes, bars, restaurants, and at your fingertips.”

With millions of dollars in usual Cup Week revenue no longer expected, Addington Raceway has worked in partnership with regional entities such as ChristchurchNZ. By collaborating with Hospitality New Zealand, they have engaged with bars and restaurants nationally, supporting smaller race-day events to take place (within public health restrictions).

Hospitality NZ Canterbury president Peter Morrison says many members were already thinking about hosting events, but the marketing support offered by Addington Raceway encouraged them to do “something extra”.

“It’s been a terrible time for many of our members so we were really happy to jump on board with this positive initiative to take the racing into venues. Our members need it and we hope Kiwis who would usually take time off work to go to the parties will still do so, and support those who’re putting on a race-day event,” Peter says.

Participating Cup Week establishments have been listed on the Addington Raceway website and provided with partnership packs that will “give them tools and tips to create special racing moments,” Carlo says.

There are even some Hospitality NZ members from areas in Level 3 keen to get involved. “They’re doing contactless Cup Picnics to go!” Peter says.

“Why shouldn’t the whole city benefit if they can? We need some fun,” Carlo says. “The hospitality sector needs our support, now more than ever.

“A year ago, I couldn’t imagine people not turning up to the races – after all, it’s Cup Day! We’ve never not had guests, not in 117 years. But, it’s all about adaptation and accessibility. People can still dress up and bet, it can still be a fun event that signals the start of summer.”

cup day
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