Examining a Global Airline’s Multi-Faceted Sponsorship Strategy
Luke’s career has seen him on the agency side at Prism in London, with stops as senior manager of global sponsorships at Williams Formula 1 team and head of commercial partnerships at F1 before taking his current role in Doha nearly two years ago.
He recently sat down with host Jim Andrews to discuss the airline’s extensive portfolio of global, regional and local commercial partnerships and their role in achieving communications and business-building objectives in a competitive environment. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: If I were to read your list of sponsorships, it would take the entire time we have allotted for this interview—official airline of Formula 1, FIFA and Ironman—principal partner of Paris Saint-Germain and IPL Royal Challengers Bangalore, etc. What is the strategy behind Qatar Airways’ extensive commercial partnerships program? What goals and objectives are you planning to achieve and where does sponsorship fit within the marketing mix?
Luke: We are very lucky to have so many great relationships across the world of sport, culture and entertainment. Sponsorships and sport are very important to the vision of the country, as well as the airline. We are very committed to hosting the biggest and best events in Qatar.
The country did an amazing job hosting the most successful and well-organized FIFA World Cup in 2022. Part of my brief when joining the airline was to deliver the FIFA World Cup 2022 from a sponsorship perspective, which was a huge effort on behalf of the airline and the country. The airport is also included within our airline group and is the world’s best airport along with the world’s best airline.
That points us toward the strategy around sponsorships. We want to be associated with prominent teams, federations and leagues around the world that mirror the image we have in the marketplace. We always want to deliver for our customers and we want to work with partners who are equally passionate about delivering great experiences and amazing hospitality for their customers and guests.
That’s always important when we choose whom to align with. We are representing Qatar in the interest of bringing some of the best tourism opportunities here, as well as serving a global airline network of over 160 destinations. It’s a two-pronged strategy: looking after our global network and making sure we have the best opportunities for Qatar from a sports and entertainment perspective.
Jim: Your sponsorship portfolio is quite diverse. Beyond geography, are there different target audiences and objectives for individual partnerships, or is there one focus for all of your commercial relationships?
Luke: We categorize our sponsorship portfolio into three buckets. The first is our global partnerships. A key objective of those partnerships is driving mass visibility for the airline. Our partnerships with FIFA and Formula 1 do a fabulous job of increasing our brand awareness and brand health of Qatar Airways and also the most prominent assets—very premium and prestigious assets that we are lucky to have.
The second bucket is our regional partnerships. We have regional partnerships that are very specific to the goals of the local market. A good example of that is our partnership with the Sydney Swans, an AFL team very important to the local culture. Another is a fantastic partnership with the Brooklyn Nets, which services the New York area—an important gateway in the U.S.—extremely well.
We recently did a partnership with the United Rugby Championship and the European Professional Club Rugby competitions. The reason for that was to support South Africa and Europe because for the first time the European club rugby teams and the South African club rugby teams were playing within the same league and there was a great travel requirement that we facilitate via Doha. There was a real regional objective to tell that story and open up the South African market to a sport that is very dear to the community there, but also to stimulate travel between those two destinations.
The final bucket is our domestic partnerships, which are often with international federations—FIFA being a great example of a big league that has come to Qatar—but we’re also looking at Ironman in the same way. We are a global partner of the Ironman series, with part of that deal to host an Ironman event in Qatar.
Equally, we launched a new hotel under the umbrella of the airline at FKB resort, which is a kitesurf beach. Together with Qatar Tourism, we are sponsors of the Global Kitesports Association and title sponsor of the GKA Kite World Tour, which brings two championship events per year to the hotel.
Jim: I’ve noticed the recent promotions of Qatar Airways Holidays packages around your new partnerships with F1 and RCB in India. Is tying partnerships directly to sales and business-building initiatives something we can expect to see more of in the future and with other deals?
Luke: Absolutely. Previously, sponsorship was considered a communications tool within the airline. More recently, in line with my appointment, sponsorship is now more of a commercial tool. Obviously, it has great communications relevance and delivers fantastic PR and brand awareness opportunities, but it’s really important that we commercialize, as well.
My reporting line is into Discover Qatar and Qatar Airways Holidays within the airline, so we have a natural commercial incentive between the two groups to take the assets we receive in our sponsorship contracts, which we discuss actively with rights holders so that we can convert those into products that we can have on the market.
It’s a commercial objective but also a brand objective. I’m a big believer that in all sponsorships the brand has to have a very clear and defined role. Our role is delivering amazing sports travel experiences to fans. You can really live the Qatar Airways brand while you’re enjoying your favorite sport.
Jim: You are in such a competitive industry, with many other airlines also actively involved in sports partnerships. Does that factor into what you do and are there ways to stand out from that type of clutter to make sure your partnerships are resonating with your target audience?
Luke: While we are very lucky to have a very healthy portfolio of sponsorships, I’d like to think it is also quite concise and tight in terms of what we choose to partner with. Our approach is always to ensure we have premium assets, but also that we heavily activate them correctly.
That means activation across commercial, across marketing, digital and social initiatives and making sure that we don’t leave any rights to go to waste. We would prefer not to do something rather than do it halfway or just show up with the brand logo. We are always there with a very clear and concise plan.
That helps us to stand out and to differentiate. The whole business, right from the very top and our group chief executive His Excellency Mr. Akbar Al Baker, is very committed to sponsorships. It’s our job to ensure a very strong return on investment and the only way to do that is by activating smartly with the resources we have, both human resources and making sure we have a really good investment that we can put next to these sponsorships.
There are plenty of examples of brands in the marketplace that have a lot of rights but don’t tend to activate them. That is counter to our strategy. We like to activate a lot.
Jim: How does Qatar Airways determine how its partnerships are performing? Can you share some of the metrics or a bit about the evaluation models you use to determine the ROI on a sponsorship?
Luke: What we are striving for, which can be difficult, and other sponsorship marketers share the same challenge, is getting timely data in order to evaluate sponsorships and make decisions. We haven’t always cracked it, but we are striving toward a system where can effectively put all of our partnerships next to each other and pound for pound judge which one is performing the best on an equal scale.
Obviously, the investment levels will be vastly different across different partnerships but we try to create a level playing field with our trackers and evaluation techniques to be able to say, for example, that a partnership in the U.S. which is x amount is delivering a better return on investment than another partnership that we spent far more on.
Of course media return on investment continues to be a really important driver. When you are looking at investments that are of significant cost to the airline, we have to demonstrate significant return on investment, and media is one of the strongest ways of showing that.
We also closely track all of our commercial contributions. That could be how much cargo business do we do with a particular federation. Or how much passenger or charter business are we doing? Equally, we can keep track of all of the package sales we put together through Qatar Airways Holidays or Discover Qatar for events here in the country. So it’s both commercial and media driven. We’re always tracking PR and how much reach we are attracting through our different initiatives.
Our absolute goal is understanding which partnerships are performing best and which need more work, because that gives us a good argument to speak to rights holders about how we can make active improvements and give them some solutions to help us achieve our goals.
Jim: How important is it for your partners to play an active role in developing activations and experiential platforms to engage their fans and followers? What are the elements of your business that are most important for your partners to understand?
Luke: The sponsorship department, my team—which I must say is absolutely world-class—is well resourced because of the value that the company places on sponsorships. But we are not the marketing department, we’re not the PR department. The contracts and the negotiation on the commercial side is one thing, but the role of my team is very executional when it comes to activation.
It can be challenging to navigate a big corporation such as ours, to execute small and large programs at pace around the world in multiple venues often happening at the same time. So there is a very important role to play for rights holders. To be able to step up and provide solutions to help brands activate, especially when they have large portfolios like we do.
Some of the partners we work with are exceptionally good at that. We work with activation resourcing and funds in sponsorships we negotiate, in terms of the commercial deal itself, because it gives us the flexibility to turn on certain events or activities with the clubs or federations at pace, with a light lift. We will be working on one big project, but there are other projects that need to keep moving as well.
Working with great agency partners, which we have onboarded recently in order to be more execution agile, and also working with rights holders on smart solutions that are quick to deploy is super important for a big corporation like us with a large portfolio.
Jim: How many people do you have on the sponsorship team?
Luke: Before I joined, it was a relatively small group, probably four or five, but as we’ve grown the portfolio and continue to invest in it as a commercial sponsorships department, we are probably more like 15-plus people now, which is really exciting.
We work really closely with the local markets. We could not deploy those programs the way we’re doing without their support. And of course we are briefing the marketing team, briefing the PR teams and the events teams with the assets and opportunities that we can bring to the table. And together with the rights holders we are executing the plan.
So we are a core team of 15 or so people, but key to our success is working seamlessly with the other departments because it’s not something we do on our own. We’re executional, we negotiate the deals, we make sure the rights holders are delivering everything they should be, but we really work in synchronization with all the other departments.
Jim: That’s the only way to make sponsorship work. The sponsorship department cannot do it alone, so I’m glad to hear you have that kind of support.
Luke: We especially found that with the FIFA World Cup. For the programs we manage with Formula 1 at the moment, an event can be anywhere between 30 and 100 people. That’s a very manageable group for us to be able to look after in terms of putting the program together. But FIFA World Cup Qatar, you were talking about thousands of guests and customers coming.
So it was essential when we prepared for that event that we distributed the responsibility across all of the hosting teams. We gave them the tools and the knowledge of how they were to be looking after their guest programs. We created a great program called Qatar Airways House in the hotel next to our head office. That was our main hospitality hub that we gave to our departments to host all of their guests. Distributing the responsibility was key, otherwise we would have struggled to manage those kinds of numbers.
Jim: As someone who previously marketed commercial partnerships and is now on the brand side, can you share what are the best and worst aspects of your current role and what do you miss the most and the least about your former position?
Luke: One of the things that is eye-opening when you move to the brand side, to a big corporation, is just how high the stakes are when you strike up a partnership with an organization you haven’t worked with before. You are really putting your trust in that organization to deliver to the high standards that your brand and all of the employees that represent the brand are working daily so hard to upkeep.
When you are selling sponsorships, you’re confident in the product you’re putting out there in the marketplace with a set of deliverables. But when you are on the brand side, you realize just how high profile these relationships are. Certainly in our organization—voted the world’s best airline and the world’s best airport—these standards are really important to get across to your partners about how they need to deliver for you in a certain way that is aligned with how the brand likes to be seen globally.
That’s a really interesting dynamic that is quite exciting. Things become a lot more personal. You are so invested in making these partnerships work on the brand side, whereas on the rights holder side, if you are a Formula 1 team for example, you are thinking about how you can make your car. Sponsorship is a revenue stream, whereas on the brand side, what happens on that racetrack or that football match with your LED branding is really high stakes.
It’s a double-edged sword because that can mean when things don’t go right it hurts that much more. That’s what I take away and what I would say to people on both sides—just how personal it becomes when brands get involved because it’s a leap of faith.
The things I miss from my old job. I miss the speed of working with a Formula 1 team. When you are part of a team in a competitive league and you win or lose, things go your way or they don’t, there are financial difficulties or it is doing really well, there is a great deal of excitement in that which I enjoyed.
But now even though I work for a company that travels to 160 destinations, my schedule is more stable. I don’t travel out of Doha all that often. I’ve got a great team that do a lot of the travel. I’ve done plenty of traveling, which was exciting at the time, but having a young family, it’s nicer to be located in one place.