How to build in a wow factor: One rugby-mad VP at Marriott is serious about using fun to strengthen its brand

John Inverdale
Marriott is the official partner of the England team during the Rugby World Cup
Until the late 1990s, Osama Hirzalla had barely seen a game of rugby.  The vice-president of brand marketing and e-commerce at Marriott International was educated in the USA, and it wasn’t until he first experienced the Dubai 7s that he witnessed the sport, got the bug, and became so obsessed by it that he now loses his voice at virtually every match he watches.

And certainly each time he goes to Twickenham, he couldn’t have a better view of proceedings. The Marriott hotel that is attached to the stadium, or embedded within it, is now an integral part of the headquarters of the game, and the seats that Osama is able to offer to his clients offer “a truly unique window on a sporting landmark.”

The hotel has been one of the driving factors within the relationship that binds the group to the Rugby Football Union. “We saw a marvellous opportunity when Twickenham was being developed.  Not far from Heathrow, why not create a hotel that offers not just a great location, but also the chance for a ‘wow’ factor which let’s face it, you don’t get on a perimeter road near an airport.” It’s a four-year partnership, but you sense all concerned would like it to continue.

“It’s a high priority for us to keep developing that equity,” is how Hirzalla puts it.  A recent survey of England fans showed that 60 per cent of those questioned identified Marriott as the hotel they would most associate with the sport, an incremental rise year on year over the sponsorship term.  That link is further heightened with the sponsorship of the London leg of the international 7s circuit in the middle of May, when for the first time, the opening day was an 75,000 sell-out, and which he says, will help portray Marriott as a “fun brand” not just a major international company.

The organisation’s sponsorship portfolio includes the Madrid tennis, and this year the BMW golf open in Munich, but the rugby link is their biggest foray into the sporting market, and Hirzalla says he has learnt one lesson above all others about maximising its benefit. “Paying for the rights to something is never enough on its own. You have to get the best possible value out of it and you only do that by spending more money. You must never underestimate the activation budget. Never.”

Marriott are official partners of the England team during the Rugby World Cup, although not sponsors of the event itself, but the link with one of the tournament favourites is he says, further evidence to investors and clients of  “how serious we are about our business, our image and our future.” And in an oft-repeated mantra by so many within the corporate world, he highlights rugby’s team ethic as a major reason for their involvement with the sport.

“It’s why so many blue-chip companies want a piece of the action. It’s about respecting your competition, while wanting to beat them. It’s about admitting mistakes when you make them, and just getting on with it. It’s about strategic planning and leadership.  It’s about everyone being as important as everyone else in making things work. That’s rugby. That’s business.”

In his office, Hirzalla has a signed England shirt from the match in 2012 when the All Blacks were beaten at Twickenham.  “I lost my voice so badly I couldn’t speak for two days.” He’d love to see a repeat of that in the Rugby World Cup final, not just as a fan, but in a more pragmatic sense, because it would “elevate the value of our partnership for the next 2 or 3 years at least.”

There is one small issue that will have to be addressed before that can happen though. Hirzalla’s wife Sally-Anne is Welsh and a huge rugby supporter, and England against Wales in the group stages could well see the loser of that match exiting the competition before the serious stuff starts.

How does he view that scenario? He pauses. “Tricky,” he says. “Tricky.”

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