Alessandro Pallini is a sports enthusiast with a great background on managing one of the biggest corporates, McDonalds. Alessandro came to Albania to achieve his idea of a great Padel center and raise awareness on this sport that has no age. This is his story!
How did the idea come for Padel?
8 months ago I traveled from London to Albania and when I first came to Tirana I decided to play sports in different sports centers, what I noticed is that a lot of them weren't offering the services that I believe are necessary for the growth and understanding of a sport, changing rooms weren't very neat and tidy, the bar was closed, the quality of the courts wasn't very optimized, etc.
I decided to create a center that unified padel on one side, which is the fastest growing sport of the last five years worldwide, with a lot of different services that sometimes have been underestimated but I believe are important for someone who wants to learn a sport, physiotherapists, nutritionists, professionals, company teams, etc.
What is your background, have you been playing sports just for fun or is it your profession?
I have always been into sports because I have been a professional football player, but then I started working in hospitality for 10-12 years, I have worked as a managing director for Mc Donalds Uk, TWG UK, and I have also been part of Blue Magic Group International and basically what I learned is the importance of creating a community.
In McDonalds, I interviewed people from over 50 countries, and this unification of culture, different genders, and different backgrounds I think is the biggest weapon that McDonalds has, that's why I want to replicate the same concept here in Albania through sport, to gain attention from different ages, different backgrounds, different cultures.
McDonalds also uses the model of the franchise, have you thought of doing the same for other countries?
Correct, I want to expand throughout Albania first and then definitely on the Balkans and Kosovo, and Montenegro. We are aiming to open 250 courts in the next five years but definitely, our first objective is to expand in Tirana, and then continue to the south, north of Albania. To replicate the franchise is one part of my business plan but also opening courts located in strategic areas is another.
So you worked for a few years, and you gained the experience of managing big corporates then you decided to come to Albania to open your own business, why Albania?
I want to be very honest, I know a lot of Albanians since I was very young, because Italy is very close to Albania and have always had very good relations with them but I never discovered Albania. The funny thing is that a very close friend of mine that I haven’t been meeting for 15 years was living in Albania and he is the one who attracted me to this city.
When I came I was very relaxed, very open-minded to visit it, I saw a lot of growth in a lot of sectors, a city that is moving at a very fast pace. On the other end, I saw that there was nothing regarding sports, so I decided to support it.
Where do you think there is a lack in the sports industry here in Albania?
I have been living worldwide, in Asia, Europe, London, etc. traveling pretty much the world, and whenever I travel to one place I try to analyze it and create my personal opinion to grow myself. Compared to any country I have been to in terms of sport I believe there is still a lot to do.
What about regarding other aspects, because you're also coming from the tourist perspective?
What I like about Albania is the welcoming part, I believe it is because I am Italian and maybe sometimes the Italian perspective can be helpful in relations with strangers. I have found Albanians very welcoming, and have found professionalism in a lot of people I have met, of any age.
When talking with my employees, a lot of them were more skilled than me in a lot of different sectors. Also regarding languages, you are very forward compared to other countries I visited. Then of course views, landscape, etc., you have a lot to offer, and also the climate, this mixture of cultures that is coming up in the last years I think it will be beneficial for Albania.
Regarding the business aspect, is it hard doing business in Albania?
It depends on which point of view you are talking from, regarding the expenses compared to Italy or London there are more advantages, of course collaborating with the government and with private entities is a bit more complicated, administratively Albania is a bit work in progress.
So you haven’t found a lot of support from the government and private sector you say?
Yes, in general from anybody. The thing is my business is sport-related, sport is a big part of the country, unfortunately, I have been seen as a businessman that wants to profit from a business in Albania when I think there is always a part of a sports business that is very related to the growth and wellbeing of a country.
I expected a little bit more open-mindedness toward this initiative, I wasn't expecting financial support from the government but just a bit more understanding of this new movement that we are taking part in. Besides that in terms of digital-development, I am jumping from London which is a city of high development to a small city that is developing rapidly but is a challenge and manageable.
In the first six months of Padel, do people have the approach of coming to try Padel as a new thing, a new experience, or has the interest been for a more long-term activity by registering for a membership?
I think they come curious about trying this new sport, mostly they come from word of mouth, knowing that their friends are trying this new thing and they are curious. The average people come 3-4 times per week.
We closed over 600 memberships so far and 80% are Albanians, and that is also my target because foreigners have their courts in their country, meanwhile for Albanians is a new thing. The most impressive part is that 70% of them never played sports before so this is another big indicator, meaning that Padel can attract any type of people, any gender, any skill, any age without this big differentiation. That is why we have seen a very big growth in the last couple of months.
We are pushing a lot in understanding the need of the client and trying to improve daily in our center, certain services, certain improvements in the perks delivered, and different promotions. Besides that, I believe Padel is here to stay and is here to be part of the future.
You mentioned that rich people are mostly the ones that come to play but what was your target audience at the beginning?
I believed the age would be 22-35. Now I notice that the average age of my clients is around 40 years old, there are even people over 50 who come to play with a lot of pleasure and even more than once per week. Padel needs to be considered the sport that makes people jump from the sofa, it’s that sport that drives adrenaline and raises interest in people.
You’re right but why not tennis, why not ping pong, volleyball, why Padel?
First of all, let’s start with how new is this sport, this sport was discovered in 1969, but in the last 3 years the practicants have risen by 2 or 3 thousand percent. Just in Italy, we had 2000 practicants in 2018 to 450 000 in 2022, so it is very huge growth, it is very trendy now. Besides that, tennis needs at least six months of practice before participating in a match, and a lot of people just stop, they try once, twice, and say please is not my job.
Padel starts vice versa, since the first moment you feel the excitement, what you want keeps growing, as if you are already feeling like a pro. It is like playing volleyball on the beach with your friends, you need to take it like that, not like a commitment. You come to the center for one hour to cut all the chaos, city noise, and traffic, relax and play for fun.
Are you planning on doing different courses for children to practice and play?
We have different kinds of events planned throughout the year, the focus is on the kids because we always start from that, from that you can understand if it has potential to grow. Secondly, we want to raise awareness through schools, we can't focus on adults that can travel and try this elsewhere.
In terms of courses, we are offering different courses based on age, based on preparation, level, etc.
Are there international or local competitions for Padel?
It is not in the Olympics yet, it is missing a couple of countries, but we have a lot of national competitions in agreement with different federations.
Worldwide there is World Padel Tour the most important tournament and is being played in a lot of different cities in the world. The best players are over 35 years old. Everyone can play, that is the beauty of this sport.
We have organized 9 tournaments locally until now. There were six tournaments where everyone from Albania could join and then 3 tournaments for specific companies. It is also good that having a lot of space can attract companies to organizing team-building activities in organizing events, presentation of products, etc., instead of doing it from a boring big room they can have it in a more open and interactive environment.
Regarding promoting the sport, what has been your approach?
We picked different channels of marketing, we started everything from social media, Instagram, TikTok, etc., another way was prompting on Youtube, word of mouth is also very important for us so we are making sure that we have different communities who are spreading the concept.
A big part is meeting companies, what we understood was strategically interesting. I decided to offer the opportunity of visiting the Padel Center to some companies, based on their interest. The idea was: "You don’t know the sport is very new in your country, let’s meet, come visit my center, I can come to visit your office and understand what you are doing and let’s understand if we can unify the forces."
Were the companies mostly open to that?
Yes, absolutely, nobody refused except for a couple of companies who only heard the idea through the phone and they refused to take the meet up and I believe that is because I was offering something for free. Nowadays is very difficult to accept gifts. In six months we have closed 20 different companies' team-building activities with over 500 people.
What is your goal for two years from now?
We have different plans, but first the expansion, I want to be located in different strategic areas that can be helpful for the business, then I want for people to take the right approach on Padel rather than just as another sport. This is finally an opportunity to get back on track, to learn something new.
What would be your call for people to come and play, what would be the benefits that you would emphasize for them?
Well first of all is a sport that you can play from 4 years old to 70 years old. What is that other sport that you can play until that age? Professional players of different sports retire when they get to 35 years old and they switch to Padel, they might not play other sports because their back hurts, their knee hurts, or they may have injuries, meanwhile, Padel is injury friendly, age-friendly, it doesn’t require physical abilities, it doesn’t matter if you’re short if you’re tall. It is a great opportunity for those who go to the gym to lose weight because instead of doing gym which might be boring sometimes, you can go play Padel, have fun and lose weight.
This sport is really for everyone and is very cool when something new is coming up, it is a new opportunity, you visit it. You like it? Great! You understand it? Even better. If you can’t understand it that is okay, look for the next opportunity.
Interviewer: Prishila Gjoka