Scott Ault reports from The City of Sails
The proximity of “The City of Sails” to the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean makes it a popular boating location and an ideal site for the America’s Cup race, which took place there March 12-21. Scott Ault of Railton Entertainment Design has been exploring the area’s unique visitor attractions and culture. He previously reported on the All Blacks [rugby] Experience and Weta Workshop Unleashed. Scott is a member of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, the home club of Emirates Team New Zealand.
The America’s Cup dates back to 1851, decades before the first Olympic Games. This yachting competition – eponymously named in tribute to the schooner America that took the trophy that first year – has the additional distinction of being one of the only worldwide sporting events that still happened as scheduled during the past 12 months.
The race occurs at irregular intervals of one to five years based on a system of challenges and negotiations. Three years ago, at the prior competition in Bermuda and long before anyone had heard of COVID-19, Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) won the race and took the America’s Cup back to Auckland. Along with Challenger of Record – Luna Rossa from Italy – the Kiwi’s began preparations for the 36th America’s Cup in their home waters. And for a fourth, historic time, ETNZ again won the Cup.
The Auckland event took place not only on the water but on land as well. The Wynyard Quarter’s Viaduct in downtown Auckland was home base to Emirates Team New Zealand, the defender of Auld Mug and the three challengers that were able to come to New Zealand to try to claim the trophy for themselves. Not only was the Viaduct home base for the teams but it was also the Visitor Village for fans and spectators.
Revising the original plan
The pandemic necessitated a number of changes in the scale and structure of the event.
With a staff of 30, America’s Cup Events, Ltd., a sister organization of ETNZ, became responsible for all logistics on and off the water for everything except the race itself. This included recruiting, training and managing the 700 volunteers it took to ensure a smooth operation.
The Viaduct is a vibrant marina and waterfront pedestrian zone in the Central Business District of Auckland. Anchored on one end by the New Zealand Maritime Museum and by Silo Park on the other, this 750-meter (one-half-mile) pedestrian walkway is lined with dozens of restaurants, coffee shops and cafes and surrounded with boutique and large chain hotels. With 150 berths in the Marina, the location was well suited to support the fans and spectators expected to attend to watch on race days but also offer services on slower days, and the Visitor Village took full advantage of the area.
Originally expecting close to as many as 5 million visitors to attend, large world-wide plans were made to support the race with remote Visitor Villages and a worldwide series of events and activations. But the pandemic changed all that, and a year ago New Zealand entered lockdown like much of the rest of the world and shut down its borders. Challengers, both teams and crew, were unable to leave their home countries or were not able to enter New Zealand. Spectators were not able to enter the country by either land or sea. The planning team saw Challengers withdraw and the race field dropped from six Challengers to three.
It wasn’t until about seven months prior to the event itself that the America’s Cup Events Ltd. Team was really able to ramp up their planning efforts, as New Zealand was in lockdown from March until July 2020. Everything had to be reexamined and 38 different management plans drawn up, with all of the new regulations in mind, in order to obtain the governmental licenses to occupy the space for public activity.
Visitor Village walk through
The Visitor Village was divided into eight management zones with the ability to manage capacity within each zone. Each zone could be shut down and evacuated within seven minutes. People were closely counted in and out of the area. Operating hours were set at 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on non-race days and 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. on race days. From the time the Visitor Village opened in mid-December 2020 to the final week when the last race was held, it had accommodated some 1,500,000 visits. On each of the final days of the race, over 50,000 spectators came to the waterfront to watch the live feed of the races on the giant screens placed throughout. In addition, about 2,000 boats created a spectator flotilla on Auckland’s Waitemata Harbor and the Hauraki Gulf where the race played out.
The Visitor Village had multiple entry points along the 750-meter path. I entered Silo Park, where all the food trucks were set up. Silo Park is a public park that is part of a former industrial site that hosts outdoor concerts, films and markets when not part of the America’s Cup Visitor Village. It takes its name from the standing silos that used to store cement. Today the cluster of six silos house art exhibitions, and the standalone silo across the walkway becomes a projection surface for outdoor film screenings and festivals.
Inside the silos were Māori inspired art and crafts for kids. There was also a short film festival running inside one silo and a tattoo artist giving beautiful tribal tattoos. Outside was a large grassy area in front of a large screen. This was the first of many fan viewing areas scattered through the Village.
In this area there were also Māori carving and weaving exhibitions. A tohunga whakairo (master carver) was making a small traditional canoe or waka. Next to it were women plaiting the traditional sails used on the waka. The Māori are recapturing the traditional sail making technique as the only remaining example of customary Māori sail (named Te Rā) has been in the British Museum for more than 200 years and only recently have master weavers been allowed to study this sail and they are attempting to reverse engineer how this sail was made.
Walking toward the rest of the Village, a few popup-stands with arts and crafts dotted the walkway. Space was given to local conservation groups focusing on the Hauraki Gulf and islands, such as BLAKE (the Sir Peter Blake Trust), named after the celebrated New Zealand yachtsman, a previous winner of the America’s Cup and a champion of the environment. The BLAKE booth was dedicated to the NZ-VR project which allowed visitors to don headsets and go on a simulated dive in the Gulf using real footage instead of digital. It certainly captured the attention of the young kids wearing the headsets – “Did you see that ray?” or “what kind of fish was that?” was the ongoing chatter.
ETNZ home base
The Emirates Team New Zealand home base is right in the center of the Village. While many of the buildings in the village were temporary, the offices for the team are housed in the Viaduct Events Centre which became the first “live” venue of the 36th America’s Cup when the team moved into the building in 2018. This building anchors the entire Village and houses the official team store as well as the Spark 5G Race Zone.
The ETNZ store enjoyed what one official described as “very strong merchandise sales,” and is one of the few facilities that remained open after the finish of the race With the America’s Cup fever that took hold of Auckland in the three months leading up to the race, making ETNZ-logoed clothing a local fashion statement. The prices of the clothing were on par with high-end merchandise that you would find in top end theme parks – T-shirts started at $60. Some of the sailing kit ran into the thousands of dollars. People were buying; I saw shopping bags throughout the crowd on the three days that I visited.
Spark is the largest mobile phone provider in New Zealand. In addition to being a major sponsor of the cup, they also partnered with ETNZ to put the team at the leading edge of technology and sailing. All of the weather telemetry for forecasting the wind was provided by thousands of monitors provided and operated by Spark 5G technology. The Spark 5G Race Zone took guests through seven interactive zones that highlighted the various decision points and technology factors – in everything from which course the teams would race, to the designs of the boats. This exhibit, while free, was relatively low capacity and required pre-booking.
A small theater with a nearly 360-degree view put guests on the AC75 boat of ETNZ. This is a unique, new class of yacht: a foiling monohull. When the foil is in the water and the wind is in the sail, these boats literally fly, lifting the hull out of the water. This theater provided a small taste of what it is like to be on this boat moving at 91 km/h (56.5 mph) across the water surface.
To learn about the design of these boats, guests worked at mini-touchscreen pads and chose multiple variables – main sail, jib size, hull shape, foil size and shape, etc. – to optimize their ideal vessel. You could even decorate your yacht with patterns and colors of choice. (As an experienced attraction designer, I thought there was a big, missed opportunity here – once I designed my boat, I wanted to buy it like a Ridemakerz type experience or similar to building your own lightsaber.)
One of the most popular activities was to take a selfie with members of the team. On screen you had the option to choose which ETNZ members you wanted to appear with – the Helmsman, Pete Burling, the Flight Controller, Blair Tuke, or any one of the team. The selected crew came on screen “live” to pose as a group with you. There were lines in the pavilion for this, during race days.
Outside the pavilion in this same area, live bands performed throughout the day, and more large screens for race viewing were set along the wharf surrounding the ETNZ home base building. The operations team didn’t forget that it is summer here and the sun is extremely intense. Shade structures and umbrellas, as well as bean bags, were scattered all over the grounds for spectators.
More attractions and entertainment
The focal point for most of the events was the main stage and its large lawn area. Programmed throughout the day with bands and discussions, the stage was central to all activity and by far the most popular was the “pre-race show” event before each race where there was an opportunity to meet the crews and hear the teams and crews on stage. It also had the largest screen to view the races. Thousands of people picnicked and staked out their spaces early on each day of the races.
G.H. Mumm was the official Champagne partner and their “Mumm Yacht Club” (open to the public) directly adjacent to the main stage allowed them to be present for all the celebratory moments. This two-story, custom-built lounge featured a harbor front terrace with full-service, wrap-around Mumm Champagne bar. Next to this was “Te Pou,” a New Zealand themed bar and restaurant. This café offered public and private bar and dining options throughout the day and into the evening.
At the eastern end of the viaduct were the AC75 Simulator and Official AC 36 Store. The simulator was a gift from the Luna Rosa team; this four-seat, motion simulator was actually used by the team to train as if they were on the Hauraki Gulf before they were able to get on the water for real. This training simulator was a full-on, interactive simulator with a helmsman position that drives the boat around the courses for the races. The motion base intensity was turned way back for the regular guest coming through, but with the VR headset on you still could get a vivid sense of the speed and maneuverability of the boats with the motion base, heeling as the helmsman tacks and gybes their way through the course. This is the only other activity that required advance reservations. With only four seats and one motion base, capacity was severely limited. Rounding out the public space of the Village was The Official AC36 Store with a large selection of branded merchandise on offer, representing each of four teams that started out the race.
Now, with the race over and the Village being dismantled, the only thing left to do is the accounting. The cost of putting on the race isn’t published and nailing down a total cost is elusive. On top of the numerous sponsorships such as Spark, Mumm, Prada, and many others, team entry fees of $2,000,000 each and backing of billionaires such as Jim Ratcliffe, owner of Ineos Team UK, the New Zealand government and Auckland Council injected NZ$249,000,000 into this year’s campaign, helping cover the cost of the event and infrastructure. International visits topping 26,000 international visitors had originally been expected, but due to COVID-19 that number was dramatically scaled down, leaving the fan and spectator base to locals and nationals. Those international visitors would have pumped up to NZ$1 billion into the economy.
The 15 days of racing saw 370,000 people visit the AC Village, but domestic tourists couldn’t ever fully replace international ones. Auckland Council’s economic and cultural agency, Auckland Unlimited, will be carrying out a full review of the America’s Cup in the coming weeks. General Manager Steve Armitage said, “it’s not going to meet the heights we were expecting, but certainly there are enough positives for us to feel a level of confidence that we’ve delivered a world-class event to probably an increased audience.” The Minister of Regional development and Tourism Stuart Nash told one reporter it was “money well spent. What is really difficult to quantify is there would have been a whole lot of people sitting in lockdown in their COVID winter watching New Zealanders out on the Hauraki Gulf having a fantastic time and saying, ‘You know what? When the borders open that’s where I want to be.’”