And they’re off!

According to annual research conducted by the British Horseracing
Authority, 5.7m people went to the races last year. Coupled with
millions of television viewers for races like the Grand National and
the Epsom Derby, you can see why bookmakers were rubbing their hands
over an impressive £1.2 billion profit over the past 12 months – and
probably some shirts off people’s backs to boot.
But, race days at individual tracks add up to fewer than 20 days per
year on average and racecourses aren’t a totally safe bet against the
harsh economic realities. There has been much investment in facilities,
so what value can these venues offer now for corporate hospitality and
events?
We’re under starter’s orders and out of the gates bursts Newbury
racecourse. It holds over 30 race meetings a year, of which some
attract up to 20,000 visitors. Newbury, therefore, is well equipped to
deal with large visitor numbers.
“We can accommodate events from 10 to 1,000 delegates and the views
across the course add to the overall experience. For added incentive,
the ability to offer behind the scenes tours and the chance to enjoy
racing after a business meeting or event prove popular too,” says the
event team’s head of sales, Nicola Butler.
With so many days left open with no racing taking place, the idea of
making Newbury a 365-a-day venue is paramount in Butler’s eyes: “A big
obstacle in the past has been the perception of racing venues as purely
leisure destinations. But, I feel the market is now used to the idea of
coming to unusual or sporting venues for their meetings and events.”
Running alongside Butler is the general manager of hospitality at York
racecourse, Nick Fazackerley. He agrees that racecourses, now more so
then ever, have to be versatile with their non-race day offerings:
“With 17 main race days here at York, and a few days either side for
build up and breakdown, it’s important the event and hospitality side
of the business can cater for many needs.”
There are two main stands at York and, within these, they can cater for
conferences, meetings, banqueting and even exhibitions. “We can
accommodate from 10 delegates break-out style up to around 600
theatre-style. We believe York sits comfortably within the top five
event-offering sites in the racing world,” adds Fazackerley.
And cracking the whip to further this idea that racecourses should be
taken seriously as event venues is marketing and public relations
manager of Aintree racecourse, Emma Owen. Aintree had a £35m
redevelopment two years ago. That provided two new grandstands, four
restaurant suites and 3,700 square metres of exhibition space. “We try
to involve the local community as much as we can and are affiliated
with the Mersey Partnership, which promotes the city as a place to
visit and work in,” says Owen.
Coming up on the outside, Cheltenham racecourse jostles for position.
Conference and events manager Susie Bradshaw says: “Racecourses can
offer something different from a standard hotel. The interesting
heritage and historic angles they can hold are also a further string to
the bow.
Cheltenham is fully equipped to host conferences, concerts, exhibitions
and banquets thanks to its Centaur grandstand. Meetings and
conferencing can be catered for between two and 2,500 delegates and we
are keen to become known as a one-stop shop for clients needing event
or corporate hospitality.
As we move into the straight, we find that many UK racecourses are
situated among rolling green fields and scenic countryside settings.
This can offer an alternative to the hustle and bustle of city life.
But, does that make these venues a little bit remote in terms of travel?
Most racecourses can offer complimentary car parking to visitors, so this is an attractive proposition.
Owen says Lime Street station is now just over two hours away from
London by train, and Aintree a 15 minute transfer from there. There is
a hotel next to the racecourse and more within a mile radius. “We are
set up to receive business from all over the UK” says Owen.
Local town economies are also benefitting from the events side of
racecourses. Both Newbury and York pride themselves on using local food
producers to supply their hospitality offerings.
Newbury took its catering in-house as of last year. “We recently
expanded our sourcing of local food to launch our ‘25 Mile Menu’. This
champions produce from a 25 mile radius of the racecourse,” says Butler.
York has a well-established family caterer in its kitchen. “We source
our milk and potatoes from a farm in Leeds and try, wherever possible,
to use local produce,” says Fazackerley.
Racecourses, like any ambitious venue, are looking at all forms of
events to further their credentials and Sandown is one of the many that
regularly hosts exhibitions and Christmas-themed party events for mixed
groups. Ascot is also in the hunt with its most recent £200m
refurbishment, which added new boxes, seven restaurants and room for
hospitality marquees incorporated into its new grandstand.
Cheltenham is also developing its conference and events business as a
key strategy moving forward. “We are well placed to host a wide range
of indoor and outdoor events. Our facilities can cope with product
launches, exhibitions or party situations,” says Bradshaw.

Owen says Aintree has attracted the likes of local universities and
been used for hosting examinations and school proms. “The racecourse
also recently hosted soap opera Hollyoaks, which wanted to take
advantage of the racing ambience,” adds Owen.
Newbury has also been used for exhibitions, weddings and large Asian
weddings, too. At one recent exhibition, it dealt with over 4,000
visitors looking for career opportunities in the construction industry.
“They arrived on 80 coaches, and Newbury was chosen because we were
used to coping with such logistical demands,” says Butler.
And as we approach the final furlong, racecourses in the UK are
galloping hard to be ahead of the event pack. Fazackerley jokes: “If
anything, the racing days get in our way, how dare 30,000 people come
along and take over for days at a time!”
With competition to win non-racing business fierce, we may need another stewards’ enquiry at some stage.

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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