The thrill seekers

These days corporate hospitality is a lot more than an alcohol-fuelled day at the races. Clients are increasingly looking for something a bit more exciting and adventurous, such as driving a 4×4 across a muddy field or parachuting out of a pla

If you like your creature comforts and enjoy a drink or two, you may find arranging a traditional corporate hospitality event such as a day at the races – where you don’t have to do anything more strenuous than reach for a canapé – is ideal for both you and your clients. But entertaining today can actually be a scary experience, and not just for the company accountant.

You could find yourself riding waves on a jet ski, skidding through mud in a stock car, or falling at the speed of gravity waiting for your parachute to open (you hope). Increasing numbers of marketers and their clients are getting out of their offices for the chance of an adrenaline rush that corporate hospitality never used to offer. But can moving at dangerous speeds really interest your clients more than having a day at a sporting event – whose only life-threatening tendency is towards their livers?

David Bray, director of activity-organising business Active, says that the problem with spectator events is that they can be perceived as boring. People who have “done” Ascot, Wimbledon and Lords, want to boast about something different when they get back to the office. Spectator events are often just an excuse to drink copious amounts of alcohol, as people pay little attention to the sporting event itself. Bray quotes a client at Henley Regatta who said: “They are missing a trick here, if they boarded up the river they would have even more space for more hospitality tents.”

Do the maths

If you are not convinced that your clients would enjoy trying out any sort of activity, maybe financial arguments can persuade you. If you compare the cost say, of getting your clients seats for the men’s final at Wimbledon at around &£2,000 each, against allowing them the chance to drive a Ferrari for the day at around &£200, the attractions of activity events might become stronger. In fact, for a group of clients, you can expect to pay as little as &£35 a head for a full day’s activity. However, as Storm Aviation managing director Neil Clover, who has taken clients to the Lotus test racing track to drive the Lotus Elise, points out that typically such an event costs &£500 to &£600 a head, once flights and hotel accommodation have been included.

Yet he believes this is still good value for money as the events are always popular. Commenting on the last Lotus day he arranged for 20 clients in the aviation industry he says: “Without exception, everyone who came, wrote to thank us afterwards. Quite a few said it was the best client day they had ever had. Even now, a year later they are still talking about it.” And as far as a tool for improving business? “Clients feel morally bound to give you business. It works.”

He admits that most of his clients are men, which suggests that such “toys for the boys” events are bound to appeal more to male clients.

Active’s David Bray disagrees: “These experiences are enjoyed by both men and women, and bring out intense rivalry between the sexes. Mainly, it is the women who win the day. Men feel they are better drivers than women and try to outrace women. But the faster you go round a muddy track, the more you skid. Women tend to drive more calmly.” And you don’t just have to take his word for it that women are better drivers. Lotus Cars track manager Jonathan Stretton says that on average about one-third of clients on corporate hospitality events are women, and generally they are the better drivers. “We find that women listen more to the instructors and concentrate harder. Men usually just want to get in the cars and go as fast as possible. We find women make much better progress in their driving over the day.”

Tailored to suit

If you do decide you want to give your clients a cheap, or even a quite expensive, thrill you have to decide how to tailor an event to suit your client and what to do with anyone who would rather watch than take part. Plus, you also have to be aware – according to Ardi Kolah, author of Sport Business Group’s publication How to Develop Effective Hospitality Programmes – that “most people are creatures of habit and do not like change. So, for example, if brand owners regularly invite someone to Wimbledon, they need to take care if they are thinking of doing something different.” This means that by changing your hospitality programme and withdrawing a much-looked-forward-to ticket to a sporting event, you could actually disappoint and even offend your client, no matter what you offer in its place.

As part of his advice for organising a successful experiential event, Kolah suggests: “The brand owner should align itself with an ‘experience’ with strong brand relevance.” He says that it is vital to explain the reason for the event to all guests and to be present at the event, rather than just send your guest a ticket for an event of their choice to attend with whom they like. All in all, you cannot afford to take a chance. Planning is key.

Virgin Incentives sales and marketing director Andrew Johnson agrees on the importance of ensuring that the event you are organising will appeal to clients, including finding out their ages and how adventurous they are. He also warns of organising an event just because it is fashionable. A present fashion is for survivor-type events, and Johnson is himself involved with organising just such a potential event for a business that is considering taking ten of its “lucky” clients to Wales.

Business in the sun

A more appealing trip was organised by Virgin Incentives itself for its own clients. Instead of following his own advice about carefully tailoring the event to individual clients, the people Johnson took on the trip were competition winners, who came up with the best incentive ideas. They were taken on a four-day survivor-type experience, albeit a rather luxurious one, on Sir Richard Branson’s private Caribbean island of Necker.

Johnson describes how business was still on the agenda throughout the trip: “While there, we ran focus groups covering the experience market, marketing materials, what our clients were already using for experience marketing, and what would inspire them in the future.” So after being pumped for this information, did the clients get time to enjoy themselves? Johnson claims their feedback was “fantastic”. Mind you, for the price it cost, it should have been. Johnson refuses to name a figure, but if you were planning to take a group of your own to Necker Island, staying in Branson’s luxury home, it would cost in the region of &£275,000 for a week for up to 26 people.

As the point of corporate entertaining isn’t just to entertain, but to actually build relationships and generate business, a consideration is how the event will strengthen the image of your own company. Tania Pamplin, senior account director of the Russell Organisation, which arranges corporate events for Honda, says: “Our main objective with any hospitality event is to communicate the brand, as well as deliver an enjoyable event. For this reason, the majority of corporate hospitality events we manage for Honda are not off-the-shelf packages, as it is almost impossible to control the environment or guarantee delivery, or importantly, achieve a point of difference.”

Pamplin also believes in the value of spectator events, although she points out that: “You have limitations at Ascot or Twickenham. You could go to the rugby with anyone.” For this reason she chooses events that tie in with Honda, such as the British Grand Prix, and ensures there is strong brand identity on the invitations and enrolment instructions.

Thrills, spills and automobiles

Bowing to the growing trend towards offering clients something exciting to do, Pamplin says that the majority of programmes she devises for Honda are participative and include some kind of product demonstration. For example, Honda experience days offer clients the chance to try out Honda cars, rigid inflatable boats with outboard engines, lawn mowers, power equipment, quad bikes and Honda pilots.

The problem is that once clients have caught the bug for getting active on corporate hospitality days, they want to experience more and more extreme sports. Active’s Bray says: “Clients want days out that offer more of a thrill. People like thrashing across muddy fields on quad bikes, go-karts, 4×4 vehicles and doing blindfold driving [where you are directed by a passenger]; or crashing through the waves on jet bikes, jet skis, or white water rafting.” He goes on to say how latest high-thrill events have evolved to include bungee jumps, tandem sky dives and aerobatic experience flights.

Dangerous liaisons

As such pursuits become more hair-raising, don’t they become more dangerous? “People always reach their own limitations before they reach the limitations of any vehicle they are driving,” says Bray. “They may feel they are driving on the edge or at breakneck speed, but this is an illusion.”

However, event companies do make sure they are well insured, just in case. And for large group events, Active makes sure there is a paramedic team on standby. And so far, fingers crossed, there have been no serious injuries. Bray adds: “The worst thing that’s ever happened in nearly ten years of running these events, is when someone cut their thumb on a throttle cable. We supplied a Band-Aid.”

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