Action Ventures

The red carpet treatment is not always what clients look for in a corporate hospitality event. James Luckhurst discovers that hands-on,

If there’s one thing Anthea Hartley and Anne Voss-Bark are agreed on, it’s that they want you in a pair of boots for the day. Hartley runs the Chiltern Polo Centre near Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, where complete equestrian beginners don all the right gear and after a few minutes’ wild swinging atop a milk crate can mount a pony for their first chukka.

Voss-Bark, proprietor of the Arundell Arms Hotel in Lifton, Devon prefers her guests in waders, as they are then better equipped to make the most of the hotel’s 20 miles of prime salmon and trout water. Beginners are welcome at the hotel too: it’s possible to arrive as a novice and have a fair chance of leaving with at least one fish to your name.

The Chiltern Polo Centre and the Arundell Arms both appear to understand guests’ expectations and do their best to ensure that any corporate event lives up to them. “We cannot guarantee top levels of polo playing after just a few hours,” warns Hartley. “But what is on offer is a genuine challenge that appeals to sport enthusiasts and a taste of the whole polo experience.”

It would seem that the centre is not concerned with the well-documented intimate assignations which popular fiction suggests are supposed to take place off the polo field. “But we do guarantee a great deal of on-the-field action throughout a corporate day. The full-day 135 price tag includes pony hire, the services of a groom, morning coffee, lunch with wine, cream tea, and the hire of the necessary polo equipment,” says Hartley.

Strategy and tactics are discussed carefully on a tack-room table, while the subtleties of “the Blue Book”, the polo player’s bible, are absorbed via a quick video presentation. Once you’re on the field it’s all action, and if you’re lucky you may even make contact with the ball. Speed is a great temptation, especially © if you’ve ridden before and you’re comfortable with the Ferrari-like qualities of a polo pony, although your chances of hitting the ball increase dramatically if you slow down slightly and get yourself in the right position.

“Polo is much more of a contact sport than many realise,” says Hartley. “It’s about as far removed from croquet on horseback as you can get, and even when you’re not right up with the ball, you may be heading off your opposite number on the other team, or even thrusting your stick forward to prevent someone from hitting the ball.”

Swapping your stick for a fishing rod, you also swap the loud and lively world of international polo for the more personal, intimate sounds of the riverbank. “A corporate day works very well in two ways,” says Voss-Bark. “First of all, if you’re a beginner there’s the chance to try something new or to improve on skills you already have, and second, there’s the congenial hotel atmosphere you come into when the day’s fishing is done and there’s a good dinner to be had with plenty of talk of the one that got away.

“A 24-hour event for beginners is likely to start with a session on our well-stocked private lake. Here it’s possible to get the feel for fly-casting, how to present a fly and how to begin to understand what a trout might like for its tea. Usually there are a few lucky beginners who are into their first fish within a short period of time,” she adds.

According to Voss-Bark, guests that are better qualified can have their own beat on one of the hotel’s rivers, and have a good chance of doing some excellent salmon and trout fishing. She believes the hotel offers corporate visitors a challenge at all levels, and that for many guests it’s a refreshing change from the enforced team spirit which sometimes gets in the way of corporate events.

If the unpredictability of sporting participation with the animal kingdom is too much for clients, there are two other avenues to explore. First, events organisers could throw caution to the winds, take their chance with the British climate and book a day’s flying at the West London Aero Club, located at White Waltham near Maidenhead. “Both large and small companies have used the Aero Club for corporate hospitality, either for standalone events or to tie in with product launches,” says the Aero Club’s chief flying instructor Tony Cooper.

“A full day at 200 a head can include a flight in a light aircraft, a hands-on experience with a helicopter and for the ultimate thrill, a ride in an aerobatics aeroplane. A sit-down lunch, hanger tours, and peripheral events on the ground combine to make a spectacular day out. Even budgeting around the © 60-a-head mark, you can still enjoy three flights (two as a rear-seat passenger), play croquet when you’re not airborne, and have a buffet lunch,” comments Cooper.

The Aero Club offers other land-based activities, including quad bikes and 4×4 rough-terrain vehicle driving. Aerobatics displays can also be co-ordinated to take place at some point during the day. But timing is all important – the aerobatics flight, for example, would not go down well with guests immediately after the buffet lunch.

Similarly, Biggin Hill Helicopters arranges trial lessons, pleasure flights, treasure hunts and trips to major sporting events, such as the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. “We operate shuttle flights between Silverstone and nearby Turweston airfield, so guests miss the queues heading into the circuit and have the thrill of a helicopter ride in and out of the action, as well as a champagne breakfast to kick-start the day’s proceedings,” says BHH operations manager Lynne Tucker.

The second alternative to clients participating in sporting events is for them to join in as vociferous bystanders – who knows, there may be a chance for clients to experience some of the renowned monkey business that goes on off the polo field – but only if you’ve tried hard to make them take part first.

Big events in the summer season, such as the JAL Polo at the Guards Polo Club, make for exciting entertainment and world-class sporting action. If you’re lucky enough to have an invitation, you’ll witness the highest standard of sport on the European polo calendar, and even if you’re not personally invited, there’s plenty of opportunity to go along, either to a hospitality suite or with a picnic in the car boot and a couple of clients on board.

Likewise at Silverstone, it’s possible to get involved in the action, though chances are that your shouts will be drowned by the roar of the cars. “Some guests come to our marquees and watch everything on closed-circuit television,” says Christopher Linton-Willoughby of Savoir Fare, which specialises in organising either participatory or spectator corporate events. “They emerge for a big barbecue at the end of the day when the racing is over and the traffic at its worst. Guests only need go home when things have calmed down.”

But if you’re at a racing circuit, the place you should really be is in the driver’s seat, and as most of us can’t afford to finance our own Formula 1 team, why not consider pole position on the Daytona Raceway at Shepherd’s Bush. “Our circuit boasts a 40-second lap time, up to 20 karts on the circuit at once, and facilities for groups of 40 to 250 people,” says corporate sales manager Steve Jeffrey. “What’s more, Daytona is the only indoor circuit in the south of England to guarantee a temperature-controlled environment.” Daytona offers a variety of circuit events, which can combine with meetings and conferences in the exclusive drivers’ enclosure.

If there’s a perfect compromise between hands-on involvement and simply being a spectator, it has to be hot-air ballooning. “Passengers grab the basket, help to unfurl the canopy and generally participate in the team effort of getting a balloon off the ground,” says Tessa Tennant of Flying Pictures, which operates corporate balloon flights across the country. “It’s a perfect form of escapism from the humdrum of modern life as you lift away into the sky without quite knowing where you’re going to land.”

Linton-Willoughby of Savoir Fare agrees: “We’ve had clients booked for balloon flights that have been postponed because of bad weather, but in our experience the prospect of poor weather conditions seems to enhance passenger expectations rather than cause annoyance. It adds to the anticipation of the flight’s build-up.”

The West London Shooting School offers tuition to corporate groups in attractive surroundings (incidentally, the West London Shooting School is located nowhere near the West London Aero Club). “Our shoots differ according to organisers’ requirements and client capabilities,” says Edward Watson, manager of the shooting school. “In general, what the club has to offer falls into two categories: instruction for novices which concludes with a competition, or a competition shoot for experienced guns with instructional assistance.” The school has a pavilion and marquee to host larger events, and neatly constructed half and full-day programmes that can include lunch, tea and dinner.

So the choice available to events organisers is quite wide, but within the strict parameters of the “hands-on” theme, it’s vital to home in on what you want to achieve, and indeed on what your clients want to do. The most popular advice to companies organising hospitality events appears to be not to arrange anything too competitive if your guests won’t suit that style of day – match the event to the guest.

Experience shows that it’s often better to aim small if organisers are keen to get clients stuck into an action event. A red carpet day on a luxury yacht may be a splendid thing to do, but if the aim of the exercise is hands on, then why not look for a sailing school with a number of small dinghies and organise your own regatta.

There may not be unlimited glasses of Bollinger on hand as participants get sopping wet rounding a buoy, but if there’s a good wind and a full sail, and they are in the lead with only a few hundred yards to go, then a hot cup of instant coffee at the end of the race will probably taste just as good.


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