If you think the athletes in Rio are battling it out, you ought to see what corporations are up to.
From Heineken to Nissan to Visa, companies have set up ever more elaborate venues and marketing schemes to woo customers, sniff out future sponsorship deals and push their latest product.
Even at big sporting events, hospitality suites rarely hit this scale. Away from the venues, the Olympics has grown into a modern version of a World’s Fair.
Watchmaker Omega has converted a beach-front cultural center into a VIP cocktail lounge and watch museum. A-list guests include top model Alessandra Ambrosio and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
At a luxury hotel along Copacabana beach, Visa showed off a slew of wearable payment devices from rings to wristbands. A live band played for visitors grazing among food stations and an open bar.
Together with the Netherlands Olympic Committee, Heineken converted the rundown Clube Monte Líbano into an Olympic-themed beach club. While guests in swimwear drank cocktails poolside and watched the games, Heineken Chief Executive Officer Jean-François van Boxmeer hosted lunch for Brazilian business executives.
Earlier in the week, Formula One CEO Bernie Ecclestone attended the opening — the beer company sponsors the race series — as did World Rugby head Bill Beaumont, who is negotiating a 2019 World Cup sponsorship with Heineken. “The whole world is here,” said Hans Erik Tuijt, Heineken’s head of global sponsorship, as he sipped a smoothie on a terrace. “If you want to have a meeting with anybody in sports, Rio is the place to be.”
The original Olympic hospitality venue was established at the 1992 Barcelona games, a modest tent where visitors could grab a Heineken. Called the Heineken Holland House, it was the first time a country and a sponsor teamed up to brand a pop-up country club for the Dutch team and its fans.
For Rio de Janeiro, Heineken began planning three years ago. Scouts visited several sites before choosing a spot along the city’s lagoon, where the rowing events are held. The athletes grumbled — it was far from the dorms in the Olympic Village — but anything closer was isolated from mass transit. The winning location turned out to be popular, and France and Switzerland set up their clubhouses nearby.
Staffed by 300 paid employees plus volunteers in collaboration with the Netherlands Olympic Committee, Holland House has two floors, several dining areas, a pool and nightclub. Some 75,000 visitors are expected to stop by before the end of the games.
Heineken branding is everywhere. There are drinks for visitors, and when the Netherlands Olympic Committee celebrates its medal-winners, the athletes make their grand entrances through a Heineken-style star in the wall.
Judoka Anicka van Emden was the first athlete to celebrate at Holland House. Hours after winning a bronze medal, Dutch fans cheered her. “You never imagine it could happen,” van Emden said. “It’s really special.”
Of course Holland has competition from other nations. At Club France, companies like Alstom and Publicis pitch for business, and Paris’s 2024 Olympic bid committee makes its case to the media. At night, the venue turns into a Rio satellite of Ibiza’s legendary Pacha, with capacity for 2,000 guests.
Not far away, Qatar, which will host the 2022 soccer World Cup, has turned part of a stately 19th century mansion into an Arabian souk.
Some venues, like USA House, a converted school, are by invitation only. Set across several floors, the site has been rewired, fitted with wi-fi and designed to provide ample space for shmoozing and relaxing. Budweiser decked out the first-floor bar in red. Citigroup styled a rooftop lounge in its trademark blue. BMW’s Paralympic wheelchair sits in the entrance hall.
Companies covet these off-campus opportunities to showcase their brands, because the International Olympic Committee has strict limits on marketing in official venues. Nissan, which used the Games to launch its new compact sport utility vehicle, turned an entire beachfront hotel into a billboard.
“It’s an opportunity for companies and brands to come showcase the best of themselves just like athletes are coming to showcase the best of themselves,” said Chris Curtin, chief of brand and innovation at Visa.