Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

The Day of Atonement and Tomorrow

(CHICAGO, IL – September 28, 2009) Marketing summits are being held this week in two of the three industries in which I’ve worked. Neither industry has asked me to contribute my experience, opinions or advice. But that’s no surprise or concern. Time moves on and the minute I saw better things to do with my life than beat my head against a wall, I accepted an alternate existence, instead of a life of compromise, and I’m glad for it.

You’ve got to be a part of the problem before you are asked to help solve it and that’s a coincidence I’ve been able to avoid for nearly a half dozen years now. Complicity is normally a requirement when failing businesses invite criticism. By asking people co-opted in whatever you’re analyzing to engage in the process of improving it, you automatically reduce the possibility of change and increase the continuance of policy.

New courses are hard to identify by people who’ve set the established path. On the other hand, sooner or later something other than what’s been done seems imperative. Yet, two industries caught in similar dilemmas are approaching their plight differently.

Tomorrow in New York, the Fragrance Foundation, a loosely-held body of leading companies in the scent-selling business, will gather board members to hear experts from the burgeoning wine industry explain how they managed to fend off ideological enemies, fit in with a changing trend that wasn’t especially friendly to their interests and raise prices and sales despite a faltering economy.

It’s been several decades since business has grown more than the cost of living, but basically the beauty business was believed to be recession-proof. Sound familiar? Gambling, too, has usually picked up when times are tough and risk-takers have nothing to lose when pursuing a jackpot, but this hasn’t been the case since last fall.

Sales in the fragrance industry are down 22 percent this year. According to one source, Estee Lauder - one of the industry’s leaders - is off 29 percent. The fragrance industry’s numbers are disconcerting, but they are not the major concern.

There’s a prevailing opinion that something’s drastically amiss in the Pink Jungle with how consumers are thinking about the product. Young consumers no longer view perfume and cologne in terms of a mandatory personal statement that completes a wardrobe or defines personality. The concept of scent as aphrodisiac is as silly and dated as a middle-aged man with a pony tail.

After Calvin Klein took the first step to de-mystify the category with a unisex fragrance presented in a plain cardboard box and simple glass flask, prices plummeted and distribution expanded to areas previously considered unsuitable. In the wake of the brand’s consequences, retailers replaced manufacturers in the driver’s seat, advertising money was used to promote pricing instead of image and, in effect, the dream was destroyed.

In a parallel universe, thoroughbred racing expanded its season, made betting on horses a pastime the customer could engage everywhere and thumbed its nose at the $2 bettor. It was déjà vu all over – two products, that nobody needed but people found desirable, falling on hard times simultaneously. Regardless, a day at the track seems no longer of interest to thrill seekers while a spray of eau de toilette appeals somewhat to style-conscious shoppers. Moreover, the market for fragrances still seems susceptible to marketing; the market for horse racing doesn’t.

Nevertheless, today (on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement) and tomorrow, the NTRA will pretend there are ways short of starting all over that can urge people back to the grandstands. With a nod to its first purpose for existing, horse racing’s coalition of racecourses, owners, breeders, trainers and affiliated associations will invite five prominent participants from the sport to join six NTRA officials to present formal presentations.

Unlike last year, when the NTRA compromised the reputation of popular bloggers’ objectivity by luring them into the act, there’ll be no input from anyone remotely interested in joining the insiders or by anyone skilled in the marketing profession. Already, the members of HANA have their dander up. Who on the Red Rocks Resort podium, where the speakers will sit, has been formally educated in the discipline, created a brand from scratch, built an audience or left a lasting impression?

Although Peter Land, the Breeders’ Cup’s heralded chief marketing officer, will not participate owing to his resignation in late August, John Della Volpe, a Harvard Web guru, will be the Summit’s moderator. For those unfamiliar with Della Volpe, here’s what he wrote on his own Web site about himself: “SocialSphere (Della Volpe’s company) has helped to change the face of the ‘Sport of Kings” and lay a foundation for a brand new fan base.” He sounds just like the guy the sport needed – not.

Granted, the sport has become amazingly interactive in recent years. In particular, the New York Racing Association has close to a dozen sites that computer users can access for information and respond to. Nevertheless, there are drawbacks to this progress, the least of which being that some people mistake the Internet for advertising. It isn’t. As a matter of fact, to date, it hasn’t increased attendance one iota.

By the way, speaking of Land, I’d like to take a peek at the resume that he wrote to earn his new post at PepsiCo – 1. Oversaw the marketing activities of North America’s fastest declining sport; 2. Managed to survive the frustrations of interference, second-guessing and procrastination of bosses and colleagues; 3. Was a key member of the team that gave us two days of Breeders’ Cup races and back-to-back years of synthetic track Santa Anita.

Cheap shots aside, Land’s exit interview would provide deeper insight than the NTRA's Marketing Summit into how horse racing should market itself. But from one man who owes all that he has to the profession, the sport shouldn’t spend one penny more in trying to bring people back until it develops features and benefits that some stranger wants. Real growth will only result from the recruitment of new customers and, for myriad reasons, despite all the Internet flak, that hasn’t happened.

No amount of advertising, sales promotion or public relations will convince disinterested people to like horse racing. The NTRA is hosting a confab where some of its own will analyze the problems that exist and offer ways on how to correct them. This is like people with poor manners playing host to a hobo in the hope that they'll change him.

Written by Vic Zast

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