In six weeks time, the Principality will host its most anticipated, most extravagant event of the year, the Monaco Grand Prix – a weekend that is as famous for luscious parties as it is the challenging race itself.
But this will be far from a normal grand prix.
With travel restrictions, strict health guidelines, weary suppliers and a pandemic that continues to rage throughout Europe, how on earth is everybody planning to pull this thing off?
To gain some insider insight, Monaco Life spoke to one of the Principality’s most successful F1 events organisers, Sonia Irvine, who for almost 20 years has entertained race fans, royalty, celebrities and the F1 fraternity at her events including the star-studded Amber Lounge and the Charity Fashion Show.
But to understand where Sonia Irvine and her colleagues are today, we must first journey back to that terrifying moment in time when the world stopped.
Monaco Life: When did you first get a sense of the impact that Covid would have on you and your business?
Sonia Irvine: I think we were in a little bubble in Monaco and we didn’t actually realise what was about to happen to the world. I flew to Australia for the Melbourne Grand Prix as I always do, to see the race, meet everyone and get the drivers ready for the fashion show in Monaco. I arrived at 1am Thursday, went into the paddock, then at 10pm that night a team member tested positive for Covid. I rearranged my flight home immediately and flew out the next day along with a few of the drivers and team members. I spent the whole journey working out a survival strategy, because I thought this pandemic is going to be big; there’s no getting away from it.
What happened when you returned to the Principality?
I returned home and the next day I met with various team members, advising them that I had to let them go. It was around eight consultants. As part of the strategy, I kept a core team of people who could multi-task, reducing our costs but still maintaining our capabilities to run events and concierge services.
We waited for an announcement about the Monaco Grand Prix, hoping and praying that things may improve. But eventually it was confirmed that the race was cancelled.
By that stage, mostly everything had been organised – the Fashion Show, Amber Lounge, race viewing yachts, the after parties… in reality we were ready to go. Then our job was to un-organise all of our production, but the priority was to advise our clients immediately as to how we were going to deal with their bookings. It was an extremely stressful time for us all, but I don’t believe we had one single complaint which rests with my team for their handling of things and our clients for being very supportive and understanding.
Next in line to be cancelled was the Singapore Grand Prix, and then Abu Dhabi – again un-organising things and looking after client bookings was the order of the day.
We then used our free time to develop the brand, rethink our business strategy and rebrand as the Amber Group to include all of the activities we do. We brought some policies more up to date and looked to the future, always trying to remain positive with all the negativity around. It was not easy, but necessary.
How many events would you normally organise during the Monaco Grand Prix?
We have a ‘Tour with Legends’ involving ex-F1 drivers which starts in Italy and finishes at the Monaco Grand Prix. We have Thursday race viewing, Friday night Fashion Show, Friday yacht party, Saturday and Sunday yacht race viewing, Saturday night yacht cocktail, and then our renowned Amber Lounge dining and after parties on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
The cancellation of those events must have defined a gut-wrenching 2020 for you. Did you expect things to be different in 2021?
Funnily enough, I did think that when we finally moved into 2021, everything would be okay. We didn’t think the impact of the pandemic would continue as long as it has, and I think most people felt the same. Maybe its self-preservation, the need to have something to look forward to, something to hope for.
2021 is here and it’s a little bit better, but it’s still not what we thought it was going to be.
We have amended our marketing material for the 2021 events so many times, our designer must be pulling his hair out. But we’ve no alternative other than to keep trying and be flexible, to push ahead with what we can do at that moment in time.
The Bahrain Grand Prix only sold tickets to vaccinated or fully recovered fans. Imola in Italy will not be open to members of the public, and the Portuguese and Spanish Grand Prix look poised to welcome fans amid rapid testing arrangements. So, what are you preparing for in Monaco?
With regards to Monaco, no one is sure. We have heard the grandstands will run at between 25% and 50% capacity, but no one is really sure at this stage.
What we do know is that the Principality is determined for the event to go ahead in some form with strong health measures in place. Our job is to plan and prepare for every possible scenario… yacht race viewing, yacht cocktails for on board guests, terraces, dining, cruises, drinks packages, etc.
One thing is for sure – we will not be earning any money this year. But we need to deliver products to our clients who booked in 2020 and who want to come in 2021, and also new bookings for those who want to experience the Monaco Grand Prix.
Has the Prince’s Government given you any indication as to when you might be told the final conditions?
We were told we were going to hear something in early March, but this date was pushed back. It makes it hard for event companies, but to be honest I don’t blame them. Covid changes daily and if they make a decision too early, the situation could be better than expected when it comes to the event date. It is the nature of the beast.
Amber Lounge is your flagship event, arguably the biggest party of the Monaco Grand Prix. Is it impossible for that event to go ahead this year?
We have always known that it would be impossible to run a full-blown Amber Lounge. If you look at it logically, music or bar set-ups are not even allowed in restaurants. Currently, we do not even know if we can have music on our terraces or yachts this year. So, to answer your question, I would like to say ‘yes’, but it’s probably a ‘no’.
What we can run, however, is dining with our drinks packages and we plan to do this on Friday alongside our fashion show and on the Sunday night straight after the Grand Prix.
How are you planning to pull the Fashion Show together?
We are clinging on to the hope that the Fashion Show will go ahead, and we will combine this with dining and our drinks packages.
We have had sign-off from the Grimaldi Forum to run the show, according to very strict health measures. For example, our models must be at a certain distance from the first row, and we have spaced out the seating so there is one free seat between guests. We actually have floor plans for every eventuality.
The fact that the Grimaldi Forum has been at the forefront of hosting safe events must play in your favour in these uncertain times?
Yes, it was a big incentive in moving the fashion show (from Le Meridien), because we needed to have the reassurance that if we say we are going to run something, then we do. The staff at the Grimaldi Forum have been super-efficient to work with; they’ve also been very specific about how to run a safe event and we have collected data from other events on their working practices and amalgamated this into our own Covid health and safety manual.
How many people would you normally have at a fashion show?
We normally have between 250 to 300 media and 300 to 350 guests. We obviously will not be anywhere near that this year. We have been told currently we can run with 165 seated guests and there will probably be around 80 media, however we have to wait and see for the final numbers closer to the event.
So, what can we expect from this year’s Fashion Show?
We have confirmed our charity as the Caudwell Children and funds raised will help the charity provide services, equipment, therapies and treatments for disabled children. For the first time ever, we have an online pre-auction this year where guests are welcome to pre-bid on all items which will go under the hammer on Friday 21st May at Amber Lounge Monaco in the Grimaldi Forum.
We have also just signed a contract with Monaco Fashion Week to work in collaboration with them to bring some great brands and elements to the show. Inessa creations, a Monegasque designer, will showcase her swimwear collection. The theme is ‘Made in Monaco’, I planned it for last year, but it was obviously made for this year.
Gulf Oil International and Oribe hair care are also partners and its fantastic to have their support.
It’s been an incredibly difficult year, but everyone I speak to has their silver lining. What is yours?
On a personal level, it was incredible to be able to spend so much time with my family, something I have never been able to do. It had its own stresses, as we had to home school as well as work, but it was amazing.
I was also lucky enough to have my father stay with me for three months and he celebrated his 80th birthday with us. I would never have dreamed I would have been able to spend that time with him and I am eternally grateful for that precious time.
The work silver lining? Well, it gave us time to stop and think about things in a different way, to change direction a little. The team became stronger and more supportive of each other. As for the future, we have lots of positive things to look forward too: a beach party around the Dutch GP, the Singapore GP, the Abu Dhabi GP with a new venue, private parties and a wedding. So, let’s see where this year takes us…
Photos by Amber Group