The Jockey Club’s Group Operations Director has been made responsible for standardising, consolidating and positioning the racecourses to the UK and in-bound conference and events market. It is an estate made up of over 3,000 acres, 80 function rooms and 230 syndicate rooms spread over 14 sites and requires a straight talking and hands on approach from the man in charge.
Taking stock of a frenetic week, which has already seen him travel from his Warwickshire home in Balsall Common to Exeter on Monday, Wincanton on Tuesday to today’s board meeting in head office, Baker muses over his transient lifestyle and reliance on his Blackberry. “I am in my office a maximum of one day a week as my role requires me to be hands on in the business. This time of year is critical for us as we gear up for the start of the jump season at Cheltenham and its 220,000 guests, and for the first time ever, we are focusing our business efforts to incremental revenues through meetings and events”.
Raised in Stockport, near Manchester in a household of racing enthusiasts Baker was explaining horse racing terminology to his classmates as the rest of them battled with Pac-man and struggled to figure the Rubik’s Cube in the playground. From early days the Cheshire-man had set his sights on a career as a sports journalist, studying English and American Literature at Canterbury University in order to help him break into the field.
After some subbing shifts at The Racing Post and a number of early roles in the Racing Industry, he joined Worcester racecourse, from there moving to Bath racecourse before joining Jockey Club Racecourses in 2003. Now reporting directly to Group MD Paul Fisher, Baker’s focus for the first quarter is to launch Jockey Club Racecourse Venues as a stand-alone business brand; a task dominating his working week.
“I have been fortunate to see the group from many different roles including Managing Director of Carlisle Racecourse as well as having responsibility for the PR for the London racecourses. Over the years I have seen a huge growth in demand for using the courses on non-race days, hence why I am concentrating on the launch of Jockey Club Racecourse Venues,” he said.
With just over 30 days of racing held at each of the courses, the Jockey Club needs to maximise its assets; and drive events to the racecourses from corporate meetings and events, private milestone events like weddings and birthdays, teambuilding activities and larger scale events including festivals and concerts.
According to Baker balancing The Jockey Club’s core business with the demands of event planners has required tact and buy-in from every level of the organisation. “It has been critical to make sure that everyone is engaged with the launch of the venue division and understands the revenue potential. Many of our courses already have a department responsible for non-race day revenues so we have strived to create consistency of enquiry handling and proposals, as well as to make it easy for corporates or agencies to buy our offering. Some of the sites like Cheltenham, Aintree and Newmarket are well used by meeting planners so we have taken best practice from these and carried it through to our smaller regional courses to make sure that we have the best sporting offering in the UK,” he adds.
Back at his desk after the board meeting a glance of his emails draws a smile from a message he has been waiting for, a note from the General Manager at Kempton Park confirming it can host the launch event for Jockey Club Racecourse Venues on 29 February.
“My work is very clearly cut out for the next few weeks now as we are taking over the entire restaurant for the night and want to showcase exactly what we can do and the benefits of using a racecourse,” he said.
With his next meeting scheduled at 2pm, he has time to make the necessary telephone calls to start the ball rolling with the launch event. “I’m a big believer in empowerment; it’s the people at the grass roots of this business that have brought about the biggest innovations and best ideas,” he adds. “Invitation design, food choices, theming and guests lists are handed straight over to the launch team who are tasked with creating a timeline of activity and anticipated results.”
Lunch is at the desk before the first of the afternoon’s meetings; a budget review of sales across the estate with Group Director of C&E sales and PAJE, who along with Lime Venue Porfolio represents the venues.
“This is unlike no other year as we are seeing huge demand for displaced business from the capital during the summer. We need to ensure that we can convert the enquiries and drive revenues. We also need to look at the sectors where demand is coming from; for example we are seeing a distinct growth from the retail sector whose large scale events often require space to recreate one of their stores and often car-parking for over 1,000 delegates. This along with other sectors is key for all venues to focus upon,” he says.
Action plans drawn and review dates set, Baker makes his way back to his desk for a conference call on the large scale live event and festival market. “This is an existing revenue stream and we are working closely with the promoters to secure a programme of acts for later in the year. We are also looking at the emergence of smaller interest specific festivals along the lines of Greenbelt that we already host at Cheltenham Racecourse,” says Baker.
“Revenues we make are re-invested into the business to ensure the long-term success of our business and at present we are undertaking a seven-year £145m investment programme,” he adds.
The call lasts just over 40 minutes; again responsibilities and deadlines are set before five minutes solace is found making coffee. “No week is ever the same and certainly no day is ever the same. I’m a big believer in being hands on and being accessible to everyone in the business. Teamwork, leadership and giving an exceptional experience are core to our organisation’s values,” he adds.
Emails are checked and responded to personally before files for the next day’s meeting at Cheltenham Racecourse are put into his well-travelled briefcase. The desktop is put to hibernate at just after 6pm when he switches to Blackberry for the 90 minute train journey home to Warwickshire.
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