The F1 party queen

Sonia Irvine, founder of Amber Lounge, takes Raini Hamdi backstage into a testosterone-charged world and gives insights into what it takes to throw the original F1 party


What to you is Amber Lounge’s biggest contribution to F1 and the four F1 destinations each year where you throw the party?
F1 is the most amazing brand and sport which Bernie Ecclestone built. Amber Lounge adds to the experience after the track and the two go together.

In Monaco, people never used to stay the Sunday night. Amber Lounge plays a small role in encouraging them to stay.Here (in Singapore last month, where the interview was done a day before F1 started) definitely people change their meetings on Monday morning (after the party on Sunday) and I know driver commitments are changed from Monday morning to Monday afternoon or to Tuesday. And there are some people who fly in for Amber Lounge, then fly out.

It’s the PR we create. We give a lifestyle element to F1. That then hopefully facilitates people wanting to come and participate in the whole F1 experience. But I’m just a small part.

Was it what you dreamt to do as a kid?
I never felt I had a path in my life. I was not one of these kids who knew what they wanted to be when they grew up.

One day, a friend said, I want to be a physiotherapist, and I said, what’s that? I looked it up and thought it was exciting. At 15, I ended up in one of those talks with a career teacher and told him I wanted to be a physio. He said I was not intelligent enough! I thought, how dare he said that and so I went home to my mom and dad and said, right, I’m going to be a physio.

I went to Newcastle, England, to study physio and as it turned out, I had a distinction in it, so obviously I was intelligent enough! People also said I had the right personality for it. A good physio is someone who listens, observes and analyses problems. It’s a fantastic career. There’s something really satisfying about being able to make someone walk again. Money or nothing can do that.

So why and how did you end up launching the F1 party, the first in Monaco in 2003?
As a physio (initially to her brother former F1 driver Eddie Irvine, then the whole Ferrari team), there was a lot of hanging around and I was getting bored. I ended up doing not just physio, but his PR and looking after sponsors’ commitments for the team.

There are just things you learn working in F1, the do’s and don’ts. For example, just understanding that they have a watch sponsor or a clothing brand and you need to respect their commitments. All these elements came together when I went into Amber.

In those days, there wasn’t any one place where everybody came together. F1 people hate queues, hate to be told they can’t get into places, so I thought, wouldn’t it be lovely to bring everybody together at the end of the season? I never thought how am I going to bring 22 drivers from 12 different teams to party in one place, and all their competing brands and affiliations under one catwalk? I just thought, let’s do it.

I never in my life think I can’t do something, otherwise I will never do anything.

How were you able to get competing people to come together – did your brother play a part?
No, Eddie never got involved that way. When I started Amber Lounge, I was independent of him. He supports me, but he does not get involved.

In the end, people just want to have fun and it’s about having the right people, right atmosphere, high-end sponsors, etc.

So you’re a good listener and are observant. Are those skills useful for this?
Yes, and those were the skills I brought into Amber. It’s all about the little details, so you need to listen and you need to observe. For example, when I walk into a venue, I would notice right away if a platform was not high enough, if the branding boards were not where they should be, if the lighting was dead. We also listen and cater to clients of all age groups. That’s why we give clients a choice of tables. Are you coming for business or party? If business, we put you in a quieter part. I’ve a client who comes regularly and said, Sonia, can you put me away from the dance floor this year because my wife is pregnant? So when I did the tables, I looked after them a bit more. A lot of thought goes into our setup.

What’s your budget in organising Amber Lounge?
A lot – most people won’t sleep at night (when pressed, she said well over half a million euros, i.e. over US$558,570). My Singapore budget is virtually my Monaco budget and I run only two nights here, whereas it’s three in Monaco. In Singapore, the tent takes three weeks to build, as there’s water where we build. The water has to be drained. The tiles have to be lifted. Then the tent structure starts. It’s a big, big operation.

Is it hugely profitable?
If you don’t bring in the sponsorships and sell the tables, it does not work. Definitely you need to do a minimum of two nights. Sales and sponsorship have to go together.

How has the party evolved over the years?
A lot of the elements when I first did it remain. There’s no queuing, our system allows you to go straight to your table where all drinks are waiting and you drink as much you want. The white sofas remain, because there’s something naughty about standing and dancing on a white sofa and making it dirty, even if that costs me a lot, as many are ruined and we have to clean or redo.

There’s always the outdoor terrace, so people can go out and network or talk business there instead of in the lounge. There’s a lot of business that goes on in Amber because there are a lot of decision-makers who can make decisions. A lot of production companies don’t understand why I push so hard to have an outside space. It’s because we want business to happen as well.

Along the way, we brought in more DJs, acts, a fashion show at first with just female models then the F1 drivers in support of charity. And now, the Extravaganza concept where the party just does not stop – dancers, saxaphone players, seven DJs, etc – all happening at the same time. Often, places have acts but it’s one act, then the party stops, then another it stops again. Here it’s all happening and it should never deflect from the party but add to it.

Do you feel travel planners understand Amber Lounge is open to all, not just for F1 goers, and that they can package it as part of a, say, party trip?
It is an event and experience people can have. Our objective is to have people walk away saying that was just incredible, the best party they ever had and they want to come back again next year. We do have people using it for special occasions, such as anniversaries and for charities, outside of our own charity efforts.

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