In lean times, entertaining clients at Ascot may seem like frittering away hard-earned profits. But a well-selected outing is an effective way to build client relationships. Emma De Vita advises on getting your corporate hospitality right on the day.
It may look like fun, but in reality the fine art of schmoozing is a serious business. Especially now the economic slowdown has put value-for-money and business objectives right back at the top of the corporate hospitality agenda.
Companies can no longer afford to be frivolous with their money, throwing away cash on indiscriminate client booze-ups when budgets are down. Nowadays, an event's success is more likely to be judged by the business returns it delivers, rather than the magnitude of your hangover. With less money in the hospitality pot, you need to be more creative with the budget you do have.
But cutting costs shouldn't mean cutting corners. Earlier this year, UBS Warburg took events organiser Sport Mondial to the High Court. The charge? Serving 'warm beer and cheap white wine' in a luxury pounds 90,000 box at the 2001 Champions' League final in Milan. UBS alleges that the event organiser damaged its reputation and 'diminished' its ability to win business from clients because of the alleged poor quality of food and service.
It's clear that as bosses scrutinise any non-essential spending, every penny has to work harder than ever before to create a memorable experience. A lavish day out on the firm is still to be encouraged, but it has to have a real purpose, and it has to deliver.
In fact, many would argue that hospitality becomes even more important during the lean times. Says Neil Cunningham, MD of Match Point, a hospitality agency that has been organising entertainment packages for companies such as Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Merrill Lynch and Compaq since 1992: 'It's true that the market is down and fewer people are invited to events, but companies are making them more effective. They're making sure they retain the 20% of clients who give them 80% of their business.'
The Mintel research backs this up, and points to the increasing emphasis on corporate hospitality to build relationships, not just to say thankyou or to increase business sales. You could say that the importance of cork-popping directly correlates to how badly you want to hang on to your clients. Even Gordon Brown wants to keep the champagne flowing. In this year's budget he announced a 100% rise in annual company events and hospitality allowance, effectively doubling spending on each employee from pounds 75 to pounds 150.
So, armed with this extra cash, how should you go about organising some serious fun at the company's expense?
Chances are that your hospitality is more likely to be enjoyed and labelled a success if you organise something memorable. Offering any old plonk and some microwaved food no longer cuts it (as UBS's lawsuit reminds us). It has to be the right drink, the right food, the right venue and the right people. Your offer should be so enticing that guests will wriggle out of anything to make the date.
But where to go and what to do?
The Mintel statistics show that spectator sports continue to provide the lion's share of the corporate hospitality market, followed by participatory activities and then cultural events.
Match Point's Cunningham says the big attractions remain the key events of the summer season: the Chelsea Flower Show, Wimbledon, the Henley Royal Regatta, Royal Ascot and football, rugby and cricketing finals. It's their exclusivity that ensures that you ink them rather than pencil them in. No-one wants to miss an opportunity to rub shoulders with the good and the great.
'Henley is unique, it's a totally idyllic setting and typical of English garden parties,' says Victoria Hicks, hospitality sales manager at Sodexho Prestige, the agency that handles the Royal Regatta's corporate hospitality. She adds that unlike Wimbledon, Henley appeals to non-fans. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you can't distinguish a scull from a sweep, because you're still going to enjoy the riverside, the champagne, the Pimms, the jazz band.
It's important too, that you consider your guest demographic - Henley appeals to both sexes, Wimbledon is more of a partner event, and horseracing is one for the ladies. It comes as no surprise that football and rugby reel in the men.
William Broom, managing director of hospitality consultancy Londonlaunch.com, says top football matches are hard to resist. 'Manchester United are invincible and Chelsea boxes are nearly always sold out.' And the completion of the new 90,000-seat, pounds 757 million Wembley Stadium in 2006 will stimulate the British appetite for football even more.
Wembley has already allocated 1,900 seats in 160 boxes for corporate hospitality, as well as 15,000 Club Wembley 10-year licence seats. Keeping an eight-seater box will set you back pounds 60,000 a year; a 20-seater, pounds 210,000. According to Nick Barron, communications manager at Wembley National Stadium, some sections of the stadium have already reached 50% capacity after just one week of selling.
While first-tier events like the FA Cup final and Wimbledon will always prove popular, it's the second-tier events - the smaller, more low-key ones - that, if not well matched, might result in your invite sliding down the ladder into the hands of a junior manager.
What's important, says Match Point's Cunningham, is that people feel privileged to be invited and get excited about going. Researching your guests' interests is critical to making sure the entertainment is a success. With the current trend for running small participatory activities, it's no longer enough to indulge the chairman's wish for a boozy day at Gleneagles. You must be sure everyone enjoys swinging a club - or at least is willing to tolerate it for the networking and deal-signing opportunities it raises.
Check, too, that what you lay on allows you to achieve your objectives. Says Cunningham: 'Ensure that whatever you organise is conducive to spending the time you need with your client. A day sailing on the Solent is very different to watching a rugby game. The excitement levels are different and so is the bonding.'
Sponsoring one-off cultural events or entertaining in artistic surroundings can give your company a rarefied edge, while giving you plenty of time in an elegant setting to get new business partners onside. Says Catherine Vickers, special events manager at Tate: 'It looks good for a company to be associated with the arts, especially City firms, as they can be seen to be quite dry. Sponsoring an exhibition shows a different side to them. It's a good way to deliver messages while taking advantage of people's interests.'
Vickers argues that attendance is virtually guaranteed if you hold a private view of a new exhibition that's the talk of the town. She has also found that people don't have the money to theme a venue - using a gallery automatically provides you with a stunning backdrop. Clients will sometimes submit their own art-inspired themes. 'I had one request to showcase an enormous sandwich inspired by Tracy Emin. We said no to that one,' she admits.
If you think your guests will be taken with a panoramic view of London, why not tempt them with a ride on the capital's giant ferris wheel: the BA London Eye? General manager David Sharpe says 10% of the four million passengers the Eye carried last year were on corporate treats. It's not hard to see why. 'It's the uniqueness of the Eye that attracts so many people,' he explains. 'There isn't anywhere else in London like it.' Get your clients in the mood for some serious business by buttering them up with a flight on the Eye, and plying them with champagne. A recipe for success? 'A lot of deals have been signed there,' claims Sharpe.
Any final words of advice? 'Catering is really important,' says Tate's Vickers. 'It should reflect the style and the theme of the entertainment. Even if your budget is low, listen to your caterers, stick to quality. People always know if you're being stingy.'
And Cunningham stresses that you must be clear in your aims. 'Make sure your staff are well briefed about your guests and what you hope to gain from the day - that will make it memorable. It's not necessarily about pouring champagne down their throats.'
Tempting though this may be, reducing your clients to gibbering wrecks in the name of hospitality can lead to embarrassment. Tales of nudity and big money being lost on bad bets are rife within the industry. Just make sure it's you who has the last laugh.
WHAT'S IN WHAT'S OUT IN '03
IN: Mezze, Mediterranean skewers, Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisine, dried fruits, 'honest' and high-quality fare
OUT: Mini hamburgers, English 'cuisine' (fish 'n' chips), fussy food (quails' eggs filled with caviar), kitsch or ornate food, miniatures
IN: Cocktails, especially Cosmopolitans and vodka-based drinks, passionfruit juice, grapefruit juice, smoothies
OUT: Bucks Fizz, orange juice, beer
IN: Serving food on glass platters, decoration with fresh flowers (eg, gerberas) foliage (eg, aspidistra)
OUT: Serving food on plain silver trays
THEMES IN: 'Urban chic' (elegance, sophistication)
OUT: James Bond, magic/Harry Potter
IN: Modern Middle Eastern/French
OUT: Jazz, 1970s disco
IN: Henley Royal Regatta, Wimbledon, Ascot
OUT: Formula One - too noisy, too busy, too naff
DO'S & DON'TS
DO focus on what you want from the event. Establish goals and make sure you achieve them.
DON'T assume every guest shares your passion for football. Do your research and choose an activity that everyone will want to participate in.
DO work with quality suppliers who will give you expert advice and valuable suggestions for appropriate themes and venues.
DON'T skimp on catering. Poor-quality food and drink is the first thing that guests notice.
DO evaluate the event by asking for feedback. Did your
guests enjoy themselves? Did you achieve your business objectives?
DON'T forget to look as if you're enjoying yourself - people are supposed to be having fun.