Attempts to drum up business by showering potential customers with free gifts, days out or other types of corporate hospitality can easily backfire if the presents and trips on offer don’t appeal to the group of people targeted. A well-researched freebie, on the other hand, tailored to the prospect’s wishes, can make the difference between winning a piece of business and losing out to a rival. If done properly, it will pay back the money spent on it many times over, argue the corporate hospitality agents.
But tailoring events too clumsily can backfire, as clients may feel patronised if they are treated as a stereotype. Driving a decommissioned tank across rough terrain may seem an ideal “rugged” activity, appealing to men, while women might prefer a day of beauty treatments at a spa – or at least, that’s what some might think. Such presumptions are often wildly wrong, however.
As the range of leisure pursuits expands apace, the task of finding an appropriate event to tempt a group of customers becomes more difficult. A day at the races may not be to everyone’s taste and an afternoon’s rugby – even at World Cup level – will leave a lot of people cold.
Corporate hospitality group Rodber Thorneycroft has launched a series of ladies-only days for clients, including designer watch brand Fossil, which invites female buyers and account managers from its retail clients on ladies-only events. The days out feature such activities as off-road driving and pampering in spas. The company says it researches the offer with the potential guests to gauge their preferences.
UK events director David Spicer says research that leads to specific events such as ladies’ days is a cost-effective exercise: “We’ve seen a change in the past five years as budgets have been cut. The focus is on justifying every penny spent on hospitality. If you have done a lot of planning and can take clients to events from which you know they can benefit, you can justify that spending.”
Leave it to the birds
Some may perceive the idea of splitting hospitality by gender as more than a little old-fashioned. After all, sex discrimination in the workplace is no longer officially tolerated. Some women may feel they are being condescended to by being offered ladies’ days, trips to spas and shopping trips. But do most women really want to go to rally-driving events or a Formula One Grand Prix? It is hard to tell, but the potential for alienating clients is great, so researching their wishes as deeply as possible beforehand is certainly worth the effort.
Janet Walkden, managing director of events marketing company The Event Business, disagrees with the idea that men and women want different things when it comes to corporate hospitality. She says: “People tend to have stereotypical ideas of men’s and women’s interests, and this can be wrong. Many women are delighted to be invited to a game of rugby, and really enjoy themselves.”
The Event Business runs an event for Land Rover, giving prospective customers an opportunity to drive the latest Range Rover model and participate in a day of luxury “country pursuits”, such as clay-pigeon shooting, professional golf tuition, archery, croquet, and acupressure massage. Walkden says: “We don’t patronise the women who attend by organising flower-arranging. And it’s fair to say that as many women as men enjoy the clay-pigeon shooting and the off-road driving.
“And it works both ways. This year, we had two masseurs from the Mobile Feel Good company at the event, and there were as many men as women queueing for a massage. We also run cookery demonstrations with famous cooks and chefs, including Rosemary Schrager, Sophie Grigson and Tony Tobin. Again, these were very well-attended by men as well as women,” she continues.
Walkden says she sees no advantage to arranging single-sex corporate hospitality events. “The atmosphere with a mixed group is much friendlier: there’s less competition and more enjoyment. Different people enjoy different things – it’s wrong to say that ‘men love this, but women hate it’,” she says.
The issue of entertaining clients’ partners is a tricky one for many companies. Inviting partners may ensure greater attendance if the event is held at the weekend or over a few days, although for entertaining in the evenings or on weekdays, companies tend not to ask partners.
But inviting partners can lead to its own problems, particularly if a guest has recently split up with a partner, doesn’t have one or is reluctant to reveal they have a same-sex partner. “The easiest way to avoid any embarrassment is not to involve partners,” says Nigel Woods, managing director of marketing consultancy Abel Business.
Whether partners are involved or not, Woods says the important thing to remember is that the hospitality has to make a big impression and leave the client with a clear memory of the sponsoring company. Corporate hospitality is often organised by salespeople, rather than marketers, and Woods believes this can lead to the loss of branding opportunities.
While spectator events, such as horseracing, football matches or opera and theatre, are highly popular with companies, clients often remember the event but not who took them. A managing director might be invited to attend a top racing event by a different company every year, and will struggle to remember who took them from one year to the next. But, says Woods, “if you organise a trip to a high-adrenalin participatory experience, people tend to remember the experience and the company that took them there.”
Spending a day learning to drive a tank is the sort of activity you would expect to appeal to men, but this kind of corporate hospitality can be just as suitable for women. Wayne Moss, managing director of event management group Jarvis Woodhouse, says: “Organisers often think participation events such as driving tanks and flying light aircraft would not suit women, but you would be surprised. Women often do very well at activities such as these, because they are more prepared to listen to what the instructors tell them than men, who can be over-confident.”
A misplaced hospitality event can do great damage. One German brewery took a group of British journalists to Hamburg to meet its chief executive, sample its beer and get to know more about the company. In the evening, after a trip to the nightclub where the Beatles used to perform and an expensive meal, the journalists were taken for a trip to the notorious Reeperbahn red light district. To their surprise, they were led into a porn theatre to view a live sex show.
While some of the male guests did not appear disappointed by the visit, a number of the female journalists were outraged and complained. It seemed that the brewery bosses had wiped out the goodwill they had built up through the day, and even after being bombarded with complaints they maintained they were showing people the local culture.
There is huge scope for corporate hospitality to do more damage than good, which is one reason why so many companies use agents to organise it. Striking the balance between male and female-oriented activities requires research, sensitivity and a healthy dose of common sense.