Mark Turner interview
Mark Turner remains Mr Dynamic. Having turned Offshore Challenges, the company he once ran with Ellen MacArthur, into OC and then in September 2010 into OC Thirdpole, following a merger with the Switzerland-based company Thirdpole taking him into ‘outdoor events’, he last year set up the Haute Route one of the world’s most challenging cycling events. Running between Geneva and Nice, in this competitors scale and descend the equivalent of Mount Everest from sea level three times...
While, when it comes to sport, cycling is personally Turner’s first love these days, still the largest part of OC Thirdpole’s business lies in sailing where their no1 property is the Extreme Sailing Series. This had significant reinvestment last year to take the 40ft catamaran stadium sailing circuit global and this year it has already visited Oman and China and next heads for Europe before the circuit culminates in Brazil, visiting South America for the first time.
“I suppose it is a bit of a long term bet what we’ve done in terms of trying to be a global circuit on three continents and however many different cultures with our limited resource," says the great man. "We are a pretty small team trying to do something quite big. But I think it was a good move.”
While the bulk of the events this year are in Europe, starting in Istanbul in June and visiting Porto (Portugal), Cardiff, Trapani and Nice before heading south, Turner admits going to countries still fairly green when it comes to sailing and sponsorship is more of a long term investment. “We have upped the stakes and we need more money, need more sponsors, better deals with cities, but we made some good progress last year. We pulled off some amazing things in China and America, but they all have their special challenges. Southern Europe – trying to get paid is pretty hard quite frankly...”
However a real feather in the cap is that the Extreme Sailing Series has dramatically managed to boost their media return, tripling the value of their coverage. “For us that is a really big result,” says Turner, adding that they now want to boost interest from specialist sailing fans and for this reason they have introduced a ‘race of the day’ that can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.
With the advent of the AC45s and the America’s Cup World Series, so this year the Extreme Sailing Series has lost Artemis Racing, Luna Rossa and Emirates Team New Zealand, but the competition has got no less competitive, Turner maintains. Eight boats are regularly competing on the circuit this year, down from last year but this was also a deliberate policy by the organisers who wrote into this figure into the 2012 Notice of Race.
“We need some room to have some wildcards, because we need a local team in a venue where we don’t have one already and we need the ability to have potential sponsors - whether they are ours or a team’s - to come and race.”
Turner says that they turned down three teams (presumably some AC teams) that only wanted to do a few events. “That would have been good from a revenue point of view, entry fees and hospitality, etc, so it was a fairly ballsy move to turn them down, but it was the right thing as we have got to eight boats, without having teams that pick and choose which would ultimately kill the concept of trying to win the year.”
Turner points out that they struggled with more teams last year and in some venues they had to split fleet, which wasn’t ideal. “What is more important - the number boats or the fact that we are racing in a stadium in front of people? There isn’t any question: it is about racing in the stadium.”
However he adds that the problem when you have eight is that it only takes two teams to drop out before the numbers feel too light, while 10 or more is too many. “The level is more homogenous at eight, all eight are mixing it, more than probably ever and the level is great. I don’t see any benefit in having 12-14 boats. We have got a stadium size – you wouldn’t increase the number of footballers on the football pitch just to get more action.”
Importantly having more boats also diminishes the media return on investment for teams, although this isn't important to some team.
Of possible significance is that like the TP52 class of old, the Extreme Sailing Series currently has a a mix of private owners and commercially-funded teams, the latter being in the majority. “There is another event to create perhaps in multihulls with a private focus in different locations...”
Interestingly, while team numbers are down, demand remains at the highest it has even been in terms of sailors wanting to compete in the Extreme Sailing Series and sailors/teams attempting to secure campaign budgets. That Turner points out is pretty healthy, although he thinks it unlikely they will be inundated with entries come 2012 as he reckons it is currently five times harder to get sponsorship today than it was three years ago.
“If you are genuinely trying to put together a professional team with an international outlook and are looking for a sponsor and believe there is a product for a sponsor, there aren’t a lot of options out there in the 100,000s [Euros] range. If you are looking at 10s of millions you can go and do the Cup or the Volvo. But there really isn’t anything else.”
Including 120,000 Euros per annum to rent a boat, Turner reckons that a team could win the eight event Extreme Sailing Series on an annual all-up budget of 650,000 Euros. A team could spend up to about 800,000 Euros by having their own container/workshop in addition to the central one, while at the other end of the spectrum a team could squeeze through a season on to 450-500,000 Euros.
To ease the financial burden for the team, they have done much to curb costs including bringing GAC on as a partner, guaranteeing shipping costs for the year, which previously has been a decidedly variable part of a team’s budget. They have also dropped the prices on parts for the Extreme 40s and limited the sails.
The Extreme Sailing Series still lacks a title sponsor, after the contract with iShares came to end in 2009. OC Thirdpole’s commercial team went into action last September to try and secure one and although they have made substantial process and came very close, Turner says they still have yet to nail this: “We’ll probably see some of the people we’re talking to coming on board in some way of another going forward. It is never easy finding sponsorship. It is a tough market, and while we have got a good product, it takes time. What we are trying to sell today is radically up a few levels from where we were two years ago, so we restarted that selling process.”
Fortunately in the current business model for the Extreme Sailing Series, title sponsorship represents only a minority of the circuit’s annual funding with the majority coming from host venues in cash and the direct value they provide the events, plus the supporting partners, entry fees, hospitality, merchandising, chartering boats, etc.
“A sponsor coming in now isn’t paying for the event to run, it is the activation side and aside from the financial aspect, to be honest that is what we miss most having done two years now without a big brand sitting on top of the whole event, driving us in a particular direction. At present we are trying to be all things to all people whereas iShares drove us in a particular direction.”
So where would he like the Extreme Sailing Series to be down the track? Turner says that rather than wholescale change they would prefer to develop all the areas they currently have. However he would like to see there being more consistency with the set-up from event to event. “That is a big challenge to be honest, because each venue deal is different commercially, the value in kind is different, the set-up is different, the culture is different. We have everything at a minimum level that we want, whether it is on the public entertainment, VIP or the sports side. It has got potential to be masses bigger.”
The most significant outgoing is the television. This year they are providing more live TV coverage, but Turner points out their output is modest compared to the offering from the America’s Cup World Series. “It’s up a significant level from what we were doing, but to keep it in perspective, our total annual budget is about 7-8% of one America’s Cup World Series event. We should never try to seek to compare ourselves because we are never going to be able to do so.”
He is very impressed with the TV coverage from the ACWS, but says there are few things they can pick up from it without there being a high price tag attached. “There will be some stuff that comes out it. Something that I have picked up from it, the audio on board and that level of quality, is worth having and maybe that is the step we would make.”
Moving away from sailing?
Since the merger with Thirdpole, there’s been a sense that OC has been wanting to move away from sailing. However Turner refutes this: “The only clear decision we made a year and a half ago was that I have taken so many risks in sailing and some of them have paid off and some of them haven’t and I am still paying for some them and I still have a lot of the line and the risks are huge.”
Setting up the Haute Route for example, the risk is very much less, an investment of around 200-250,000 Euros compared to the 3-5 million Euros investment that has gone into the Extreme Sailing Series or into an IMOCA 60 campaign.
“To continue developing the company and growing and being in different areas and be motivating, also for me as well, to go into different sports, we decided not to take any mega-risks any more in addition to what we already have on our plates. Whereas in the outdoor events we can take some risks and it won’t take the business down if it goes wrong. At some point we might take the risks again in sailing, but it won’t be this year or next.”
Already OC Thirdpole’s business is diverse within sailing. In addition to the Extreme Sailing Series they have the Artemis Offshore Academy now in its second year with Sam Goodchild and Nick Cherry currently competing in the Transat AG2R and three boats entered in this year’s Solitaire du Figaro. They are managing the logistics and the venues for the MOD70 European Tour this summer, which starts in Kiel on 29 August, and visits Ireland, Cascais, Marseille before winding up in Italy. “That wasn’t easy in Europe at the moment. If you are going to choose a place to try and create an event today in the world, it wouldn’t be Europe quick frankly. So I am happy with what we have managed to pull together,” says Turner.
They are also involved with Nespresso, among other clients.
Turner admits their portfolio currently lacks a big boat campaign. Having put Ellen, Nick Maloney and then Seb Josse through the last three Vendee Globes, for the first time since the late 1990s they currently have no IMOCA campaign. “That is a great federator internally. Those projects I know are great for pulling everyone together and they hold a significantly higher level of passion and emotion. So an IMOCA campaign, a MOD70 campaign a Volvo campaign would be great.” A while back they were in the running for putting together the Abu Dhabi Volvo Ocean Race campaign for example.
“It takes a lot of focus to get those projects going and finding the money for them and while we talk to a lot of people about those projects we haven’t made it our no1 commercially and if you don’t put the resource into that, you probably won’t get the results. We’d love to have one of those projects again and a skipper who spends their whole day focussed and dreaming about that one thing. So in talking to someone, a brand, we’ll have a conversion and we’ll go ‘an event is not the right thing for you, you should do a project’ - I’m sure that will happen in the next few years.”
However the IMOCA class, which Turner has been deeply involved with in the past, is not without its problems at present. While the entry for the Vendee Globe is looking healthy and the last Barcelona World Race was genuinely successful, there is the Route du Rhum and Transat Jacques Vabre, but not much exists any longer on the circuit outside of these two events, with the class’ Europa Race nearly falling by the wayside this year. And this coincides with costs of running IMOCA 60 continually escalating.
“It is a dichotomy,” says Turner. “If you are non-French team, you really need a circuit with a lot of events in it to make it make sense. It may just end up how it used to be – you do a Vendee and maybe a Barcelona [World Race], but you don’t do a lot in between. The Round Europe was a good concept when that circuit has been growing, but it is harder to sell when it is not. Also the Round Europe Race was the first time IMOCA really tried to sell its rights, but it always comes up against this problem that it doesn’t have any power over the boats in any way. Until someone takes it on commercially and really takes the risk to do it, it is going to be tough to create new events in that class now.”
In this respect Turner believes the MOD 70 class has set itself up better with more control held centrally and a much better cap on costs due to the one-design nature of the boat. They have the advantage that they learned the lessons from both the IMOCA and ORMA 60 class. “It is not much of a secret that there is a hard interaction between the teams and organisation some of the time, because they are trying to impose more things and drive it a bit more. It is the right way to do it, but it will never be easy to find that right balance.
“I have done both sides of it and being an event organiser is way, way harder than running a team with all the different stakeholders, etc, but sailing it is a very particular thing. The budget of the teams is very significant – more than the events in almost every case, so it is a very difficult equation, because it means therefore it is normal [as a race organiser] that you have to look after teams more, yet teams have their own individual opinions and they are not often all lined up and they all come from different countries and backgrounds, and have different reasons for being there on any circuit.
"I think MOD have done the right thing having a more centralised structure and long term view, but in detail it is hard to manage and a one design of that size technically is very hard to manage. Right now it looks quite good with a good fleet of boats and I think there will be some more in the pipeline.”
Meanwhile Turner is enjoying his cycling. The Haute Route attracted a number of sailors last year including the likes of Paul Larsen and Fraser Brown and Turner expects more this year. “It is a great sport for sailors because their leg muscles don’t get a lot of looking after otherwise. You can stick a bike into a container and they go to a lot of places around the world that are good for cycling. The Haute Route there will be another 10 or so sailors in that this time. It is an interesting challenge and it is outside of sailing.”
In this vein, another ambition of Turner’s (one which you can see fires him up) is to put together a pro-cycling team. “We came close to that this year,” he concludes. “I love inspiring people to do things in business or events, just to do something they don’t think it is possible to do and to get to the other end to see if they can do it...”