Millennium Estoril Open – despite Covid restrictions it was magic all the same!
High-profile national and international brands need equally high-profile sporting events like the Millennium Estoril Open to keep their products in the spotlight. But with a reduced number of spectators, or none whatsoever, was TV, radio and social media enough at this year’s tournament?
It was blazoned all over Lisbon, on a massive JCDecaux street advertising campaign and on ATM screens. After being cancelled last year, Portugal’s premier tennis tournament & social event, the Millennium Estoril Open was back, from 24 April to 2 May, but under very different circumstances.
Joao Stilwell Zilhão, Tournament Director and managing partner of 3Love, the company that organises the Millennium Estoril Open, says he was always unsure if the sponsors’ VIP guests, let alone members of the public, would be able to attend, and if they could, how many would be allowed into the venue and under what conditions.
“I spoke with the Secretary of State for Sports, João Paulo Rebelo, at the beginning of March. Obviously, the Millennium Estoril Open is a very important event, but there are also other big events in April and May, including Formula 1 (2 May), the Portugal Masters (29 April-2 May) and Moto GP (28 March) and lots of decisions had to be taken. We are just one of many events that needed an answer over rules and regulations concerning the attendance of public,” he says.
That answer came after a second meeting with the sports minister who announced that the event could go ahead, but without the usual crowds to cheer the players on.
Nevertheless, this year’s tournament, which ended on Sunday (2 May), was a great success despite the constrictions. The Catalan tennis player Albert Ramos-Vinolas won the Estoril Open by beating British player Cameron Norrie in the final by 4-6, 6-3 and 7-6 (3), in a tense and dramatic game that lasted 2 hours and 45 minutes.
It was the third head-to-head between the two tennis champions, the Catalan player, aged 33 who ranks at 46 in the ATP world hierarchy, managed to claw back losses in the first set and knocked 25-year-old Norrie, who ranks at 50 in the ATP world tennis hierarchy, after a tie-break in the third set.
It was Albert Ramos-Vinolas’ third ATP Tour title at the Millennium Estoril Open. On Sunday, he rallied from a set and break down and won 51% of his second-serve return points (19/37) bringing him to 16-5 on clay this year.
“It means a lot (to win the title). I won three torments in my career, so this is one of the best three weeks in my career. It was a really difficult match against Cameron. I think he played a really good tournament. I am happy for me, but he is a really good friend of mine and I am sorry for him because I think he deserved to win the tournament a much as I did,” he said on Sunday.
Joao Stilwell Zilhão, Tournament Director of the Millennium Estoril Open had always said that he wanted the event to go ahead as it normally as was possible, but understandably needed to abide by the health authorities.
Luckily, the tennis stars received exemptions to fly, and in other cities where ATP Tour tennis is happening, the organisers had liaised with the local authorities to ensure the players were tested for COVID-19. All the players were able to move within the strict bubbles at the hotel and tennis venue.
Sanitation measures were tough and uncompromising. The players were in Estoril two days before the event started, were taken to the official hotel, Cascais Miragem, tested in their rooms, and once they tested negative, were able to circulate within the hotel and Estoril Tennis Club compound.
The event, which cost in excess of €3.8 million in 2019, is important for the brands such as the title sponsor, Millennium bcp bank, Altice, Emirates, Rolex, Betway, Nespresso, Vanguard Properties, CTT, Sacoor, Heineken, ISDIN and so many others. And it is equally important for Cascais Municipal Council (CML), which knows the value of an event like this – televised around the world – in attracting tourists to the chic seaside resort and keeping the town’s luxury brands Estoril and Cascais at the forefront of people’s minds.
“Most of the brand sponsors have been with us on this trip from the beginning, including Cascais Council which has provided fantastic support since day one,” Stilwell Zilhão explains. “We are fortunate to have very loyal sponsors that want to help us get through this COVID-19 pandemic, and they knew that in order for us to keep alive, we needed to run the event this year. We just couldn’t skip two years in a row.”
In terms of international visibility, the Millennium Estoril Open enjoyed a full lineup of TV channels around the world, with over 100 countries on five continents broadcasting over 1000 hours of live transmission from the event. In Portugal, the host broadcaster was the independent media group TVI, and it was also be broadcast by Tennis TV to over 220 territories around the world.
“This coverage guaranteed our multinational sponsors a full spectrum of visibility and sponsorship value for their brands,” says Stilwell Zilhão. “For the Portuguese brands which are more locally-focused, it’s all about more national activation, lots of digital marketing, social media and public engagement with the brand ambassadors.”
Stilwell Zilhão adds that the team had always had a strategy, so that even if the public could not be on site this year, as was the case, the sponsors would still get a fantastic return on their investment, although the level of that investment from sponsors was reduced by the organisation.
Despite a reduced presence of spectators, Stilwell Zilhão is convinced that it still made sense for them to be involved in the event. He explains that a brand like Symington Family Estates (Symington’s), which make some of the best wines and port wines, have continued being a sponsor because they wanted their brands to be visible on court. Their brands Graham’s & Dow’s port is sold in 176 countries around the world.
“It’s obviously relevant for them to have lots of TV hours, and in Portugal the brands were able to activate lots of spots through digital marketing,” Stilwell Zilhão points out, adding that each brand extracted the maximum they could without having spectators physically at the event.
He gives the example of Wimbledon sponsor Sipsmith, which distils London dry gin. The company is already running a slick campaign this year as the first official gin partner of the British tennis event, running recipes and engaging with the public and partners on social media platforms and TV, even though the event will probably not run with spectators physically present.
“Perhaps 2021 may not be a great year for them in terms of on-site sales, but they still got huge visibility from the Estoril Open and this event represented a road towards returning back to normality,” he says.
Not just about tennis
And while admitting that the Millennium Estoril Open may not be on the scale of Wimbledon, Stilwell Zilhão highlights that the event is one of the largest social and sporting events in Portugal, great for networking and public relations.
“In Portugal, it is much more than just an ATP tennis event, being one of the most important society, gastronomic, PR and networking events, which is why we have had so much success both on the court and off court in the hospitality & corporate hospitality areas.”
Every year, he says, the boxes are sold out, and not all of them are necessarily keen tennis fans, but just love the whole atmosphere and conviviality of the event. In that way, it is a little bit like Ascot without the horses, where people go to meet and greet, see and be seen.
And as for the future, Stilwell Zilhão says it would be wonderful to have their own permanent facility. Nevertheless, he has had the opportunity to set up a temporary village with a lovely restaurant overlooking the centre court at the Clube de Tenis do Estoril.
“After all, many events at fixed venues don’t always have that kind of magic,” he points out.
“This really has been a year of survival, of some losses for our company, but the bottom line is that this event which ended on Sunday was our comeback. We were here this year, despite the challenges, and are here for the future,” Stilwell Zilhão concludes.
Millennium Estoril Open – a little bit of history
The Millennium Estoril Open which takes place annually at the Estoril Tennis Club sports complex, was reborn in 2015 in the heart of Estoril to replace and maintain alive the historic ATP event which happened over 25 years in Estadio Nacional and which ended in 2014 (at the time called Portugal Open)
The tournament was created by a new company called 3Love formed by U.COM (Dirk Glittenberg and Joao Zilhão), Van Veggel (former Dutch tennis player Benno van Veggel & Armindo Mirante) & Polaris (owned by Portuguese football agent Jorge Mendes)
“It was a huge race against the clock, because we decided to take a substantial risk to keep alive the ATP Tour in Portugal. It was a huge gamble for the 3Love partners who were involved in the project because there was so much doubt as to our ability to come up with such a huge financing in such a short space of time,” says Stilwell Zilhão, recalling the run-up to the first Millennium Estoril Open.
Then there was the great unknown of putting on such a large ATP event at a new venue, the Estoril Tennis Club. There were doubts as to how it would work, how the venue and Estoril could deal with the flow of such sheer numbers of people and traffic, where cars would park and whether there was sufficient parking, but also how everything would work from a corporate sponsors point of view and so many other doubts.
“The support and sponsorship we get from the two title/main sponsors Millennium bcp and Cascais has been absolutely fundamental over the years for the success of the project, which has only increased in visibility and prestige, both nationally and internationally, over the years,” Stilwell Zilhão said.
“Companies need to communicate their brands even in tough times and those that do have a competitive advantage over those who don’t.”
Five years on, 2020 threw up the COVID-19 challenge, which for perfectly understandable reasons had to be cancelled when the organisers were just 38 days away from the event.
In fact, ATP cancelled many months of events and the tour only recommenced in August in New York. “Our small, but dedicated 3Love team, that works throughout the year to organise this event, saw 10 months of hard work ruined because of the virus,” says Stilwell Zilhão recalling the lost year.
“We were just a short time away, and so much of the temporary infrastructure had already been built, including much of the stage and the backdrops, the seating areas and public areas for nearly 4000 people, the Slice Lounge and Slice Restaurant which seats over 800,” he adds.
“Having said that, although 10 months of hard work went to the wall last year, we are simply delighted that the event will take place this year, albeit under strict sanitary regulations and with no live spectators,” concludes Stilwell Zilhão, partner and tournament director of the Millennium Estoril Open.
Text: Chris Graeme