I am a freeloader

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By Paul Zanettos

The party started inside the Sheraton Four Points Hotel in Toronto, a short drive away from the airport.  Winners of the Molson Canadians Rocks Embassy Event lined up behind the registration desk by 3:30 p.m., Wednesday Oct. 28.

Contest winners from Eastern and Central Canada were meeting here before taking the 9 p.m. flights to London, England.  The Western Canadian winners were already on their way.

Across Canada, excluding Quebec, 200 lucky bastards won this trip through radio stations, bar promotions, MuchMusic, or specially market, black bottles of Molson Canadian.

I got on board because I had worked as an intern writing the Molson Breweries newsletter.  That couples with my studies at Ryerson let me wrangle the Windsor Star into letting me cover the concert for them, thus justifying my presence at a wicket free party.

By 5 p.m., empty beer bottles were scattered on the dinner tables inside a conference room.  With cigarette smoke billowing in and out of the room, I managed to find a table with a group that seemed semi-sane.

I introduced myself as one of the journalists following the event and they seemed eager to have me around.  The group had travelled together from Windsor on a plane that arrived earlier in the afternoon.  The winners and their guests were all from southwest Ontario and were looking forward to the trip.

Brian Secord and Kevin Ritchie, firefighters from Sarnia, won through a bar contest after a retirement party.

Melissa Marten and Danielle Dumay, both from Chatham, were underage (but legal in the UK, since 18 is the legal drinking age) and hungover.  Both girls worked in a bar and explained their access to alcohol comes from doormen and bartenders they’ve become friends with in Chatham’s closeknit club scene.  They won while partying at a watering hole within this network.

Lilian Rizkallah and Charlotte Loaring are both university students from Windsor who scored the tickets from Charlotte’s brother who couldn’t make it.

The anomaly in this group was Cas and Mary Panek, a couple in their sixties who found a winning bottle in a Father’s day case of Canadian.  “We had one of the two bottles in Ontario.  Can you believe that?” said Mary Panek.  I was as amazed as she was, but I was wondering if they were going to attend the main attraction of the event:  a private concert with rock legends, Page and Plant.

“Of course we are,” answered Mary.  “We’re not going to let this opportunity go to waste.”  I was impressed, of course Led Zeppelin was just becoming popular when they were in their early 30s.  They wanted to attend a concert featuring musicians only slightly younger than themselves, as well as a visit to Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and Westminster Abbey.

After our complimentary meals — and a few beers — I was beginning to forget why I was following the event.  But as we left the hotel and headed for the airport, it all became clear to me.

On the bus, we passed the Molson Brewery off the 427 going north.  One of the hired security guards named Neil, this huge Filipino guy with no neck who I was sitting next to, turned to me and said, “If I won this contest, I’d drink Molson Canadian for the rest of my life.”  I reached for my backpack, pulled out my notebook and started writing; my brain started working overtime from that point on.  Thanks to Neil I had my store: this entire trip was about brand loyalty on a grandiose scale.  And from the cheers on the bus as we passed the brewery, I knew Neil was the only one saying what everyone else felt.

The Molson Canadian Rocks promotion has been part of the brewer’s mandate for almost 10 years.  Hundreds of winners through bottle or bar promotions have seen a number of big-name bands throughout the years.  In 1996 and 1997 Molson Canadian Rocks introduced the Blind Date series, which featured private concerts at small venues with artists such as Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temples Pilots.  The Canadian Embassy event in London, England, was the latest in a long lien of over-the-top productions.

Even after landing at Heathrow and driving through London the reality of the situation still had the ability to shock the intrepid partiers.  When the winners check into the hotel, many people were amazed by the beauty and magnitude of their accommodations.  The Royal Horseguards Hotel is a stone’s throw away from Trafalgar Square and many central London landmarks.  The cost: 240£ to 300£ a night (approximately $600 to $760).  We were staying from Thursday, Oct. 28, to Sunday, Nov. 1 — four days and three nights of pure luxury.

“This is incredible,” says Brian, one of the firefighters from Sarnia.  “Can you believe how much they’re paying?  I wonder what Molson is paying.”  After a little barstool number crunching we decided that 200 people flying for about $500-800 each (depending on the region) and spending around $2,000 on accommodation alone added up to almost $600,000.  That’s before you add in money spent running the contest, promoting the vent, renting the venue, buying food and the thousands of sundry expenses involved in such a massive party.

Once I curled in my extra fluffy bathrobe on Thursday afternoon, flipping through my press kit and listening to BBC Radio One, I pictured these unofficial Canadian ambassadors running through the hotel, getting lost outside and drinking in the pub downstairs.  It was heaven on earth, and I was a fly on the wall, or I guess the cloud.

On Friday night, the day before Halloween, everyone was bused form the hotel to the unofficial Molson Canadian Embassy — the Student’s Union building at the University of London.  The Ulu, the venue selection by the organizing committee, was also used for private concerts for artists such as REM, The Bluenotes and Suede.  According to the building manager, Junior Joseph, the site has been used by many up-and-coming bands, but was surprised by Page and Plant’s appearance.  “If a Canadian intern I had working here knew about this event, he’d be going crazy,” said Junior, standing with the mixed British and Canadian security guards.  It almost felt like a real embassy.

While inside the club I had a chance to chat with Jossie McGuire, assistant brand manager at Molson Breweries, Ontario Division.  We decided to find some place quiet to talk because by this point, the free Molson beer (a watered-down Canadian-like lager brewed in the UK) was being served faster than it was being stocked.

I asked a few questions about the event itself and McGuire spouted the party line in the press kit.  We talked about how it was obvious it was that the whole she-bang was about brand loyalty and connecting Molson Canadian to the consumer.  But does it mean anything else?

“By virtue of [Molson] Canadian sales, we appeal to a wide variety of consumer.  Since Canadian sells the most beer in Canada, we reflect on different aspects of different lives.  Look at the older couple,” she said referring to Cas and Mary Panek.

“They don’t reflect what we’re exactly going for,” said McGuire.  “But they still want to be a part of it and they don’t want to miss anything.  That’s the amazing part.”

The answer is a bit evasive, but convincing enough.  All of Molson’s winners, including those two hicks from Owen Sound, are treated with respect.  In my mind, this entire event is an example of king-hell customer service, as opposed to a sleazy public relations coup.  That may sound biased but then I wasn’t the one drinking or hitting on every woman in the bar like two colleagues of mine.  One writer from the Edmonton Sun only seemed interested in scoring more free stuff form the junket than any other reporters.

After watching what one party guest called the “retired-lion-looking Jimmy Page” rock the house I spent six hours waiting for a laptop and writing my story for the Star.  I finally passed out at 6 a.m., after having one drink with a program coordinator.

Saturday morning, I was all set to watch a soccer game live (Chelsea vs. Aston Villa) and do a little shopping.  But since Britain’s volatile climate sensed that I was no longer working, it decided to rain.  Enough to cancel the game — and ignite a couple street fights in the process.

Saturday night, I wen tot a club with my fire fighter buddies and danced the night away.  They were buying and I was, finally, drinking.  The choice at the bar was incredible, but their choice was clear from the get-go.  We drank that made-in-the-UK Molson lager the entire night.  One girl wore the bottle label—featuring a big red maple leaf—on her shoulder for the entire night.  Brian and Kevin, and the rest of the Canadian group, won the contest of a lifetime.  Molson may have been the host, but they also won something: loyalty.

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