Byline: JONATHAN COOPER
THERE were some very disturbing advertisements in the Racing Post last weekend. With just days to go to the Cheltenham Festival, the horseracing extravaganza that is the opening gambit on the annual corporate hospitality circuit, you could still hire glass-fronted boxes overlooking the course, reserve luncheon tables in the restaurants or even take over an entire chalet in the tented village for your company.
Two years ago, just before footand-mouth struck, you could not even buy a ticket to watch the racing at Cheltenham let a lone lay your hands on a prime vantage spot, and in the mid-1990s the demand was such they had to turn away, according to commercial business director Peter McNeile.
Chris Coley has been supplying corporate hospitality packages for 20 years through his company, Coley Racing.
He says: "Life is difficult and getting more difficult. Many of my clients not attending this year are City clients.
There has been a noticeable drop in numbers and the corporate market is down on last year.
That is how life is at the moment."
Jonathan Newell's Champion Events company is newer to the game. This year, for Cheltenham, it advertised in trade publications and even distributed fliers around the City.
That resulted in few bites and he says the business is only doing well because existing clients have returned. In the industry overall, he too notes a downturn: " Companies are not prepared to spend u500-u600 a head. There are constraints on the budget that never used to be there."
Cheltenham is the top end of the corporate hospitality business. Something about the competitiveness of the racing, the huge sums of money wagered and the 14,000 bottles of champagne the course estimates will be consumed attracts City folk like few other events. If Cheltenham is suffering, then the business as a whole is in trouble.
Talking to events organisers and ticket agencies, you hear of companies in trouble, who have bought boxes for the top events but cannot sell them on or have over-expanded on the back of extravagant City budgets only to find themselves frozen out in the economic downturn.
Talk to these companies and they tell you about restructuring and refocusing or, in the case of one of the bigger companies,
nothing at all as the phone just rings out.
As they are struggling, so too are the ancillary businesses, the ones that bought into Quad bikes, mini-hovercrafts or go-karts or spent thousands on clay pigeon shoots that no one wants to pay for any more.
David Bland, director of The Event Business, a healthy marketing company with u1.7 million that tailormakes days out for a wide range of clients, points out that the nature of the business has changed: "A lot of people have done all the jollies and frankly have had all the jollies up to their eyeballs. Once you have done Henley two or three times you don't want to go again, once you have done Wimbledon it's the same, so now it's 'let's try and find something else to do'.
"It does need to be more focused and companies want results from it. It is not good enough to have a great day out and a hangover at the end. There needs to be a reason behind it." And that seems to be the major change in the whole ethos of hospitality.
One City type, who asked not to be named in case he did not get his invitation for next year, was a guest of a major bank at the recent England-France rugby match at Twickenham and says: "Usually you go down and get a bit pissed and have a good fun day out. This year they were actually hard-selling us their bank and its products. Bloody hell."
Indeed, such is the serious nature of modern corporate hospitality that UBS Warburg is at the moment suing events organiser Sport Mondial in a dispute over "warm beer and cheap white wine" allegedly served in a u90,000 box at football's Champions League final in 2001. …