When Philippe Boets moved to Amelia Island in 2009, he brought with him the game of pétanque, and Amelia Island has never been the same. A global sport, similar to bocce, that began in France, pétanque is a game that everyone can play, and that’s what Boets loves about it.
“I began playing pétanque when I was a boy growing up in Belgium,” says Boets. “We didn’t have a television. We would play pétanque on the beach with our families and friends.” Boets moved his business, Pétanque America, to Amelia Island as well; it is the only store in America that is dedicated to the game.
Boets realized that Amelia Island was the perfect spot to hold an international tournament, and he received support from the City of Fernandina Beach. “Angie Lester, Susan Hurley, and Susan Steger helped us launch the first tournament in 2009, and the rest is history,” says Boets, who eventually handed over the event to the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council. Now in its 10th year, the Pétanque Amelia Island Open draws a diverse and affluent audience: champions, Francophiles, and influential community stakeholders who look forward to the international arrivals and to their positive economic impact during a slow weekend with less-than-ideal beach weather.
Amelia Island was formerly French (the first of its eight flags,) and the Fernandina Beach harbor and historic downtown are not unlike the villages where pétanque began. “Our approach began with a classic French film from the 1930’s,” says Gil Langley, AICVB President and CEO. “Fanny, as iconic in France as Gone With the Wind is in the U.S., has a signature scene where a tram must yield for a heated pétanque match. Using a cast of volunteers, Amelia Island recreated the scene in downtown Fernandina Beach.”
One of the sport’s top ambassadors shared the video on social media with Pernod Ricard, who extended an invitation to show the video and promote the tournament at three Bastille Week events held on the rooftop of the Novotel in Times Square. It also caught the attention of Véronique de Villèle, a well-known sports personality and president of the French Boules Sports Federation (the primary group behind the Olympic inclusion bid), along with chef Jacques Pépin, who originally came to Amelia Island for the tournament and returns to visit every year.
At the tournament last year, the experience spoke to all the senses. Alliance Francaise Jacksonville was on site with pop-up French lessons and a baker specializing in macarons. Vendors sold crepes and baguette sandwiches. The bar, set in a circus tent, featured craft cocktails of locally distilled Marlin and Barrel spirits along with Ricard. Live music from local musicians as well as from Ukrainian guitarist Vitaly Makukin, rang out over the tournament grounds.
In a post-tournament interview with WJCT, Langley noted, “It’s a lot to manage, but these numbers confirm it is well worth the time and effort. Without a doubt, events such as these play an integral role in our marketing strategy and are a key factor in our tourism community’s continued growth and success.”
This validated the approach of expanding the event›s appeal by bringing in more elements of European culture. The new visual identity incorporated the colors of the French flag. The tournament›s story became part of a travel trade activation in Germany, the top international market for Amelia Island, with a pop-up pétanque court at the European Elvis Festival.
At the 2017 tournament, 390 players from 29 countries and 25 states participated. This year’s Pétanque Amelia Island Open will be held November 9-11. For more information, visit www.ameliaisland.com/petanque.