Marketing in the marquee

Many chief executives can no longer spare the time and energy to be entertained by suppliers. Hospitality companies are trying therefore to make packages more attractive. There is still a place for old-fashioned sit-down dinners, though, says

A tired-looking piece of salmon, an over-cooked rack of lamb or a bizarre vegetarian concoction, all washed down with a bottle of mediocre wine, are no longer enough to tempt top executives away from their families to attend corporate hospitality events. As more suppliers are persuaded of the benefits of corporate entertaining, senior managers at client companies are being swamped with invitations to enjoy hospitality and (hopefully) build on relationships established during the working day. And who in their right mind would turn down a free ticket to the Wimbledon finals or a grandstand seat for a Formula One race?

But like any tried and tested marketing formula, the established ideas quickly become tired and lose their lustre. An invitation sent to a chief executive may be passed down the line to a junior manager unless it is highly attractive, making the hospitality event a waste of time and effort (for everyone except the junior manager). Targeting the right executives is essential to getting maximum value for money from such events.

A better mouth-trap

There is a never-ending search for innovation in corporate hospitality, ranging from subtle improvements in the provision of existing events to new and ingenious ways of persuading top clients to clear a space in their diaries.

Paul McManus, a director of corporate communications consultancy Bluegoose, says: “Corporate hospitality, particularly in the football and rugby sectors, has without doubt grown in quantity over the past 20 years. But what about the quality? Essentially, no.

“Businesses that wish to entertain clients and staff are faced with a vast array of options, but content has generally been more follow-my-leader than ‘let’s come up with something really different’. This attitude is perhaps finally beginning to move on, driven by the competitive spirit in a fluctuating market. Marketing-led organisations are tired of warm chardonnay and prawn marie-rose.” McManus believes the future for corporate hospitality lies in making events more interactive, so that people remember the hospitality rather than the event itself.

This year, for instance, the Rugby Football Union has launched the Twickenham Experience, offering the usual hospitality for top international rugby matches, but with extras. The RFU has formed a joint venture with catering giant Compass and corporate entertainment specialist Peter Parfitt Sport to turn a trip to the home of English rugby into something more memorable.

At the entrance to the entertainment marquee is a reconstruction of the players’ dressing room and tunnel, which guests walk through on their way to their tables. The replica even has copies of the signs hung up in the dressing room by England coach Clive Woodward with messages such as: “Remember those who have stood here before you”.

As visitors walk down the players’ tunnel, a rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” blares out. The inside of the tent has the ambience of a Conran restaurant and top names such as former England captain Will Carling are booked to give speeches.

Twickenham Experience managing director Mike Potter says: “We compete with every other event and so we wanted to differentiate ourselves from, for instance, the marquee at the Open Golf Championships.”

Twickers’ sticky wicket

Research three years ago suggested Twickenham was the number one corporate entertainment venue in the country. It is too early to tell whether the newly themed marquee has succeeded in drawing in more guests and this has been a bad year to gauge its popularity, with Twickenham’s bookings down 15 to 20 per cent following the September 11 attacks. Last year, the ground served up 66,000 meals at five or six top international matches and a similar number of smaller games.

Watford Football Club director of marketing Ed Coan says: “Corporate hospitality is in need of a shake-up. It used to be an exclusive preserve, but a lot of people have now experienced it. It needs more added value.”

Coan has visited the US to see how sports grounds provide corporate hospitality. Watford has planning permission to build a new stand, which will incorporate some of the ideas gleaned from the trip. Corporate seats will have access to waiter service, for instance. Another idea is to have executive boxes open to the elements, rather than behind glass as is the case at many clubs. Coan says: “There is a traditional model, with everybody in glass-fronted executive boxes, but people now want to be out in the open. We have 30 boxes, which were built in 1986, and we were the first to put them out in the open.”

Find out about your guests

But finding out how particular clients want to be entertained can be a hit-and-miss affair. According to Paul Shirrell, sales and marketing director of corporate hospitality agent Rodber Thorneycroft, carrying out research on clients’ likes and dislikes is essential to finding out the best events for the individuals concerned.

He says: “One client may have taken 40 people to Wimbledon or to the rugby, because that is what it has always done, but it may never have evaluated it.” Rodber Thorneycroft asks companies to hand over database and contact details for their target clients, then sends off questionnaires asking the clients what sort of events interest them. One survey discovered that the most popular event was a weekend in Monte Carlo, with a Christmas shopping trip second, visiting a rugby match third, cookery lessons from a celebrity chef fourth and a day at Wimbledon fifth.

A chance to mix

The research has led the company to develop several slightly unusual events for chief executives, which enable them to bring their families along too.

One event, an evening with celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson, was developed for a distributor of designer products. Research identified food and wine as highly important to 90 per cent of respondents, and a majority cited intrusion into work and family time as a key reason for declining invitations.

The client’s guests were invited to a five-star hotel in Surrey, together with their partners and children. Entertainment or babysitting was organised for the children, and the guests’ evening began with a champagne welcome reception, hosted by Worrall Thompson.

Guests were handed a pinafore and sent to the hotel kitchens to prepare their own first course under the chef’s guidance. Once this was completed, they moved through to the dining room to eat the fruits of their labours and the remainder of the four-course dinner, cooked by Worrall Thompson and his team.

Joining the guests for dinner, Worrall Thompson presented each couple with a signed copy of his recipe book, The ABC of AWT. Feedback indicated that the guests thought that the event was “unique”, and enjoyed their opportunity to learn from and meet a celebrity chef. They also appreciated the thought given to creating a chance to network with peers and colleagues without intruding on the working day or excluding their families.

Rodber Thorneycroft says the client cited this as one of its most successful events, and has highlighted the importance of including partners and families in customer relationship-building.

There have been plenty of other attempts at innovation in corporate hospitality, and the market is awash with offers ranging from the extraordinary to the bizarre.

Themed party nights, cabaret and reconstructions are all available. For instance, Murder on the Menu advertises “a choice of themed cabaret whodunnits, small-scale murder mysteries, entertaining and theme-building events and murders on the Orient Express”. And Taste of the Vine offers guests “a blend of wine tasting, theatre and comedy”.

Don’t over-egg the pudding

But sometimes it pays not to try too hard. If the aim of the hospitality is to strengthen working relationships, perhaps a standard wining-and-dining event is preferable to one of the more exotic events, as it allows time for people to get to know each other better and actually discuss business matters.

Too many strenuous activities may detract from any actual relationship-building, and make hard-pressed business leaders even less likely to take part, as they may prefer to make their own entertainment in their own time.

Clearly, finding the right event to suit the client is the key. With corporate entertainment budgets under ever greater pressure as marketing expenditure in general is cut back, hospitality in these straitened times means that extracting the maximum value from corporate events has moved to the top of the agenda.

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