Heroes of VIP Hospitality: Roger Duthie

Canadian Roger Duthie reached Dubai almost twenty years ago, via five years in Freeport, a city in the Grand Bahamas. Since November last year he has been running his own sports marketing and event management consultancy. But before that he worked his way up through Emirates over nearly 19 years, until he was managing and leading the airline’s global sponsorship portfolio. His direct responsibilities included Emirates Airline’s relationships with the ATP, NFL, Formula 1; PGA European Tour; International Cricket Council; FIFA and clubs like Arsenal, Real Madrid, Paris St Germain, AC Milan and Benfica as well as the Breeder’s Cup, Rogers Cup, the whole Emirates-sponsored US Open Series with the USTA and partnerships with the Houston Texans, LA Dodgers and Seattle Mariners.

What was the first Live Event Hospitality programme that you attended, and what particular impressions did it make on you?

My first live sporting event was an ice hockey game in Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens when I was a kid. My father managed to get suite tickets from his work and I just thought that was how people attended games normally. I was in awe of the bright lights, the sounds and the sensational food. As a wide-eyed boy to be told you can have as much popcorn and pizza as you wanted was a life-time takeaway. It took me about 25 years to get to another hospitality suite. I soon discovered that was a special day and that's not normally how people attend games.

[As familiar as the name Maple Leaf Gardens may sound to readers, the venue was closed in February 1999. On the 20th anniversary of the Gardens closing The Star newspaper looked back at an extraordinary history going back to 1931, including hosting the first ever basketball game in the league that would became the NBA.]

And what is your favourite Live Event that you would encourage everyone to book when it goes on sale, and what makes it so special?

Too many to pick just one. Locally in Dubai, The Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby 7s as well as the Dubai World Cup. Internationally I think the tennis Grand Slams are incredible events to attend as each one is different and unique. It's tough to beat New York in late August during an evening session at the US Open though. Watching Federer and Novak or anyone at night is something special.

The other event if one get can tickets is The Masters in Augusta, Georgia. From Berckmans’ Place to sitting on the 16th Green with your own chair, the Masters truly sets itself apart from many other events.

ESPN looking forward to the rescheduled Augusta Masters in November and discussing what will be different and what will be the same versus playing in the Masters’ traditional calendar slot in April.

Any event at Twickenham and Eden Park is an incredible experience as well. To see the All Blacks perform the Haka at home or England fans singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot will bring out the goosebumps for any fan, regardless of nationality. Being Canadian and a huge Formula 1 fan, the Montreal GP is one of the best races in an incredible city. The F1 Paddock Club in something everyone should book at least once in their lifetime.

This was one of the last times the Formula 1 roadshow was all together. Official VIP Hospitality with the Mercedes team as they test their 2020 cars at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in February.

Any event Emirates Airline is involved with. The company does things properly and professionally from Day One.

Dodgers’ fans are wowed by Emirates’ baseball-related safety demonstration, and then pitching skills:

Who do you consider to be your business mentor or mentors, and what particular examples did they imprint on your business values?

I have been fortunate to come into contact with so many brilliant people over my 19 years at Emirates and I have learned so much from them. Especially my own sponsorship team who were an inspiring group to work with over that last ten years.

I would say Sir Maurice Flanagan at Emirates was an inspirational leader. He was dedicated to the very end and so supportive of all our brand aspirations.

Queen Elizabeth knighted Sir Maurice Flanagan at a special investiture in November 2010 in Abu Dhabi while on a State visit to the Middle East. On Flanagan’s retirement from Emirates, the airline’s current CEO Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum said, ‘when you see some good in me, you see what Maurice taught me’.

Outside of Emirates, it is probably George Mackin, who is currently the Chairman of Playsight (the leading SmartCourt sports technology platform) and who I signed a few deals with while he was CMO for the Indian Wells Tennis ATP 1000 event. George's passion and business savy is second to none. Apart from his expertise in marketing communications, amongst other areas, he is approachable and an all-around solid person. That's important. If you are successful and an asshole people may respect you but not like you. It takes a special person to be successful, respected and likeable. Rare qualities in today's world.

What was the most significant ‘Sliding Doors’ moment in your career, and how did this impact you?

After graduate school in Texas, I was deciding between a job in the Bahamas or Vancouver where I had attended the University of British Columbia. As a young man I couldn't pass up the opportunity to move to the Bahamas and live the island life for a year. Little did I know it would be five years and I would meet my wife there.

If you had the option to experience/live in one movie which would it be and why?

Moneyball. From a business point of view, what the Oakland A's accomplished during that time period was unprecendented. They basically started the whole analytical approach to sport and baseball in particular. The real life GM, Billy Beane, proved that by using analytics it was possible to build a competive team on a budget. Great story and wonderful movie. I would have loved to have been a Billy Beane player during that era..

[The 2011 film Moneyball follows the Oakland Athletics and their general manager Billy Beane as he tries to reinvent his small-payroll team using statistical modelling, called sabermetrics, that had never been used before. In this clip, Beane, played by Brad Pitt, is listening to his old-school scouts discuss their old-school selection methods, including the famous ‘ugly girlfriend’ no-no.]

Impressionable moments

What was your favourite televised live sport event or moment that you remember from childhood, why did it make such a lasting impression on you?

I remember watching on TV the first Toronto Blue Jays baseball game which was played in the snow in April! I was a huge baseball fan and couldn't believe Toronto was getting our own team. I didn't realize they actually could play baseball in the snow but they did and I was worried that that was going to happen a lot in Canada. Luckily Toronto eventually managed to get a retractable roof domed stadium in 1989. I think it was the first one in all of sports at that time.

[Slightly grainy footage, but this was that snowy Opening Day for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1977 with commentary from the immortal legend that is Don Chevrier.

Who was playing at the first concert you attended, where and when, and what do you remember of the experience?

The Who at the CNE Exhibition in Toronto. I remember how loud it was even in a large outdoor venue. I loved watching Roger Daltrey slinging his micophone through the sky while Keith Moon hammered his drum set, literally. .

[The first time The Who played the CNE Exhibition was all the way back in 1968 [DAIMANI Journal: for fans of poster art, the CNE Exhibition has an online collection of many of the events staged at the facility including a grand firework display in 1900 to celebrate the Relief of Mafeking in the then British colony of South Africa.]

What do you remember — across all genres — as the most emotional moment in television or film or a sporting event that has brought tears to your eyes?

Bad Tears: I still cry at the end of every Toronto Maple Leafs’ season. They haven't won a Cup since 1967.

Good Tears: Toronto Blue Jays winning the World Series in 1993 on Joe Carter's epic Home Run in the bottom of the 9th against the Phillies.

The Blue Jays’ Joe Carter has two balls and two strikes as we join the final play of the 1993 World Series.

What was your childhood or earliest ambition?

To be a professional hockey player or baseball player or golfer. When I soon realized that every kid's dream in Toronto was to be a professional hockey player and that there was no chance in hell that I was going to play professional baseball or golf I focused more on education to ensure I worked in Sports. I have been very fortunate over the years to see what athletes go through to get to where they are in their chosen professional. The hard work and dedication behind the scenes is inspiring.

Which experience had the biggest impact on your life and how you see the world?

Losing someone close to me from cancer at a young age made me realize in my early 20s the importance of enjoying life. It is important to work hard but equally important to ensure you have fun with everything you do. It’s also important to tell the people you love how much they mean to you. My philosophy is: Have fun. Live life. While living in the Bahamas I named a boat I had Carpe Diem (the boat eventually sank during a tropical storm, an amusing story for another time) but that’s a big life lesson for me.

I was stuck in an uprising in Abidjan, Ivory Coast with some Emirates colleagues for four days. I have never been frightened in my life before those four days. The UN came in and tried to sort the situation out but it seemed to make it worse. We were all pretty terrified. I literally paid off some guards and police to sneak us out. Carpe Diem!

Sky News reporting in 2011 on the bloody conclusion to the Ivorian crisis, triggered by disputed presidential elections in November 2010.

If your 15-year-old self could see you now, what would he think and what advice would you pass back to your younger self?

Still focus on education but go into sports marketing specifically or find a way to get a sports business degree.

Work more on your putting!

What is an indulgence you could never forgo?

A good bowl of fancy nuts at a golf course post round...weird but it's partly how I judge a golf club by the quality of their free bar snacks.

Tell us something even your colleagues might not know about you...

I am a Karaoke King but I am so bad at it.

What’s the best, most useful word from another language that you aren’t fluent in?

Arigato. It's just fun to say and most people know what it means. I am not fluent in other languages but I can say thank you in about 15-20 different languages which is very important when travelling.

What is the first sentence from the best novel yet to be written about the coronavirus?

We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.

What is/was the new technology or device that you immediately understood was going to be life-changing?

The IPAD mini. I actually don't use other Apple devices but when the IPAD first came out I was amazed at what it could do. I use it for building presentations and whilst presenting as well. I stopped travelling with my laptop once I become proficent with my IPAD. I take into meetings and take notes on it too. It's such an diverse, compact device.

What did someone do or say in a job interview that made you know you absolutely had to hire them?

Once we were interviewing a lot of candidates for a key sponsorship role. One question I always asked was, Why do you want to work for Emirates’ sponsorship department? I can’t tell you how many candidates replied, Because I love sports or because I am a big Arsenal or Real Madrid fan. That sort of response. I was so tired of hearing this. But one young man replied to my question that sports is a wonderful communications platform: we can not only reach millions of people but we can engage with them as well, and on a daily basis. This was at the time we were launching our social media channels. Clearly this young candidate understood what we were trying to achieve with our sports marketing campaigns and what sponsorship entailed. Needless to say, he got the job. Sponsorship is not about loving sport. It's about knowing sport and knowing how and what sports sponsorships can do for your brand.


What are the best books you’ve read in the past year?

I have just finished Commander in Cheat by Rick Riley. It's an account of Donald Trump’s golf exploits. The premise is that in golf you can really tell what a person's character by spending time on the golf course with that individual. It's the only sport that is self-governing and the book looks at the rumour that the Commander in Chief is also a huge Commander in CHEAT. Without getting political, it's an incredible account of abuse of power and a sad tale of the unscrupulous business side of golf too.

A great, fun read is This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay.

I also recently read Killer:My Life in Hockey. Doug Gilmour was a former captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs; I really wish I hadn't read that book.

Which TV shows’ intro/theme songs do you never skip because it is so good?

I'm a sucker for Friends.

The Rembrandts recently retooled their Friends theme tune in honour of Netflix’s licensing all ten seasons for their on-demand service.

What are the three most rewarding accounts you follow and why?

I keep abreast of international events and sports so take in a wide range of media, plus I have family in Canada, Australia and the USA. With my time spent in the Bahamas I also have friends there, so I am also hooked into that market as well. Of all of these though I do indulge slightly more in my North American sports podcasts for entertainment and knowledge.

Sportsnet's Tim and Sid gives me my Canadian Sports updates.

ESPN Radio

Sky Sports Football Podcast. I still keep up todate with all of the football clubs that Emirates was involved with.

For news coverage, I am regular visitor to NY Times online, the BBC and The Freeport News

During this lock-down what are the things you’ve come to value most by their absence from your life and how will you put that right when this over?

Outdoor life in general. We are in a pretty strict lockdown period in Dubai. The weather is still nice to be outside and now I miss long walks with my family. I also miss the driving range and will get back to doing more of both when we are able to.

What is something your generation did that you regret most your children’s generation will never get to experience or understand?

Talking to people in person or on the phone. All kids do today is send messages and snap chat sound like an old person when I said that.

[CNBC looks at why kids spend so much time on their phones and finds they’re absorbed by phone applications and fear ‘missing out’ when they’re not online.]

What is the darkest, most unsatisfactory thing you have seen or experienced in our business?

Two things:

Hiring a company during a major event to look after our hospitality inventory. The company was reputable and very good. However one bad apple ruined it for everyone when an employee decided to steal some of our tickets and sell them on the black market. It made me angry and very sad that this gentleman ruined his life over a few quid.

Having someone request a ticket to the finals for a major event on behalf of a celebrity. After doing due diligence, we agreed to provide two tickets for the celebrity. However we then discovered that the agent for the celebrity had sold the tickets on to two unsuspecting guests - as though we were not going to find out. It made me very angry and sad again at what people are capable of.

What is the most oddly specific fear that you have?

At the moment, it's that no fans will return to sports for a long time. It worries me at night. But then I remember how important sport is and that this will surely pass. One day soon, we will all be sitting at a wonderful event with colleagues, clients and fans soaking it all up. Part of what I am doing now is helping brands engage with fans and determining where to spend marketing budgets in the sports world. I want us to get back to doing that as soon as it's safe to do so. That’s why it's so important to spent time now planning for when sports does resume.

Sports Illustrated’s legal analyst Michael McCann talks through the difficulties that different North American leagues face in starting or re-starting their seasons but predicts that, in spite of this, baseball could be the first to return.

Author image
Charlie Charters is a former rugby union official and sports marketing executive turned thriller writer whose debut book Bolt Action was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2010.
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