Invest to impress

Picture the great corporate hospitality scene this summer. Pick a venue. Any venue. Now listen for the great cheer that goes up and watch everyone heading home when the day’s play is over. Inside one of the hospitality tents a group of well-fed executives prepare to pack up and stagger wearily home. “Did England win?” asks one. “Who’s on Centre Court?” demands another. “Did Hollioake make his century?”

Confused? So, apparently, are many of the chief executives and directors who regularly enjoy invitations to some of the finest sporting action of the season, yet manage to remember little of what they have seen, and more importantly, little of the people who splashed out thousands of pounds ensuring a good time was had by all.

Small wonder, then, that when it comes to looking after the really important people in your business life, there’s a lot of sense in searching for something that goes beyond the usual endless summer round of entertaining.

“Impressing those who are traditionally hard to please involves a great deal more than simply picking up the telephone and booking half a dozen seats at a high-ticket summer venue,” says Eddie Hoare of corporate hospitality specialists Elegant Days.

“Find out a bit about your client, do some market research and see whether you can tie in something that spans their own area of interest,” he advises. “If you know they like tennis, then Wimbledon is definitely the right thing. If it’s hard to find out about a client’s likes and dislikes, then create your own quality event.”

The trick, according to Hoare, is to open doors that are otherwise closed, even to top executives. “A venue new into the market is always a good idea,” he says. “The Orangery at Kensington Palace has gone down very well with our clients, as did the first two events at Spencer House. Make use of private clubs, such as Mosimann’s or Stapleford Park, which are otherwise off limits, even to wealthy captains of industry.”

Corporate entertainment is now so long established that it is often hard to find something new and appropriate, according to Edwina Lonsdale, director of sales and marketing for Crystal Cruises, which has pioneered the idea of corporate events on luxury liners. “Doing something really special and different like taking over a luxury liner for 24 hours must be one of the most impressive options available for upmarket entertainment,” she says.

It’s possible to brand a liner and lay on whatever dining and entertainment a client requires on prestige vessels such as the Radisson Diamond. Even the names of ships can be changed to suit the client for the day.

“There are several advantages in using a cruise for entertainment,” continues Lonsdale. “Guests are captive. They have to arrive on time, they leave on time and they have no alternative but to listen to what ever message the host relays. This has to be beneficial in terms of the potential dividends such an exercise can bring. Equally, all guests on board get the same standard of accommodation.

“Another great advantage of us-ing a cruise for corporate entertainment is the range of opportunities afforded for themed invitations and gifts to guests,” concludes Lonsdale.

The message is becoming clear. For corporate hospitality to be really memorable, it’s vital to move away from simply buying tickets for an event – however much they cost – and to head towards creating some experience that a client would otherwise not be able to have.

“The key aspects of providing hospitality at top levels include the requirement for a seamless operation, no delays, and constant attention from professionals who know what they’re talking about,” says Colin Mitchell, managing director of Goodwood Travel, the world’s largest Concorde charter operation, which has been offering Special Flights on Concorde since 1983.

“We took a top level corporate hospitality group from a major furniture retailer on a Special Flight to Cairo, where they were actually among fare-paying passengers. We worked closely with the company to ensure that the tour itself was a success, at the same time as arranging an enjoyable private session for the group in the middle of the tour they were part of. They effectively had the best of both worlds – the benefits of being part of our tour with the important exclusive feel to their private gathering – the trip proved highly successful.”

Hoare’s advice to find out a bit about clients and their interests makes sound sense, with partici-pation events as well as spectator sports. “Golf has long been the corporate game,” says De Vere Hotels’ marketing manager Phil Cairns. “There is also the opportunity to make a golf event different for top level guests, if you have access to the right facilities and the right people.”

Director and management in-trays are stacked with invitations to high ticket social and cultural occasions such as Wimbledon and Henley, but give it six months and no one will remember the name of the host who paid for the strawberries and champagne. That’s the opinion of Page & Moy Marketing’s business development director Andrew Cakebread, and it’s shared by most in the industry.

“Traditional events do have a role to play on the corporate hospitality scene, but too often top event invitations are passed sideways and down within a company, and the people who turn up may not be those who were invited originally,” he says. That’s why when you’re dealing with chief executives and top financiers you need to put something together that’s sure to entice them out of the office rather than risk having to wine and dine someone from a lower and less influential level of the client organisation.

Total secrecy surrounded Sharp Electronics’ December corporate hospitality trip for top dealer principals. Only when the chartered aeroplane landed in France did the small group of 12 guests discover they were en route for lunch in Reims.

“We had asked them to keep that particular date free, to bring their passports and be prepared for an overnight stay,” says Alison Tweedy of Sharp Electronics.

“Curiosity and the element of surprise made this a particularly memorable event.”

The day’s programme, tailored for Sharp by Page & Moy Marketing, included torchlit tours of the cellars of champagne houses and wine-tasting before the return trip and an overnight stay in a UK hotel.

“Guests were pampered and made to feel very special, which is essential for successful corporate hospitality. They had the opportunity to talk to each other throughout the day, as well as meet new members of Sharp staff,” adds Tweedy.

Refreshingly original corporate entertainment has to be the answer when it’s vital to make an impact with top executives, and the Activity Superstore is offering waterfall abseiling, UFO watching, power boating and even flights in a Sukhoi Su-27, considered the finest combat aircraft ever built, and capable of speeds well in excess of Mach 2.

“Our clients demand truly original entertainment for their top level guests,” says director Angus Grahame. “Thirty minutes at the controls of the Su-27 costs a little over 6,000, but anyone who does it is likely to remember the experience far longer than a boozy day at Wimbledon. If money is no object and being exclusive is what matters, then it’s hard to think of anything more enticing than this for anyone who fancies himself or herself as an ace fighterpilot.”

Corporate hospitality organisers keep their event check-lists a closely guarded secret, but Goodwood Travel’s Colin Mitchell sums up the golden rules for making a success of hospitality at the upper end of the market. “You’ve got to know what you’re doing, as any cracks will soon be spotted. Guests at this level have high expectations, and you must make sure everything is right,” he says.

Sometimes, though, exclusivity just cannot be bought, as John Taylor of Surrey-based Premier Executive Cars found when asked to help Kent Police with a training demonstration for their motorbike escort team. “They were planning to show their escort riding skills to a visiting delegation of Finnish officers, and I was asked to bring one of my Jaguars to play the part of the VIP car.

“We agreed to invite the director of the Finnish Tourist Board to be our stand-in VIP for the day, and gave her an escorted tour of Kent where all the traffic was stopped for her, special access to historic properties was arranged, and she was made to feel like a visiting head of state,” he adds. “Not surprisingly, it’s impossible to put a price tag on an exclusive experience like this, as a police motorbike escort is simply not for sale. But it was certainly unforgettable.”

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