Insights from the catering operation at Ascot Race Course - what can we learn from them? - By John Giles, Promar International
A few days ago, I was lucky enough to join a visit to the famous Ascot race course. This was hosted by the Thames Valley branch of the Institute of Agricultural Management, where we met some of the senior managers of the racecourse facility and from Sodexo who provide the catering and hospitality services on site.
This is one of a series of visits the branch has made over the years to “non farming” operations to learn more about how they are “managed” and what might be the transferable lessons for the farm management sector.
What an eye opener this was!
Some of the things we were told about where as follows:
1. The new building(s) at the race course cost £200 million to construct. The management team have focused majorly on paying back the debt required to do this as quickly as possible. This will have been achieved in another 5 years, if all goes according to plan
2. The way the food/drink and hospitality services are provided has been re organised after a standard concession based contract was in place for some 16 years. This is now a joint venture business between the racecourse owners and Sodexo where risks, rewards and opportunities are shared
3. The turnover on catering each year is c. £20 million, but over 50% of this comes from just 4/5 days during the week of Royal Ascot
4. The overall revenue total is earnt from just 26 racing days during a 12 month period
5. The catering is huge: 25 restaurants, 250 private boxes, 105 bars and retail outlets and 300 evening dinners. 450 private helicopters also land there during the week of Royal Ascot alone!
6. Planning for key events, such as Royal Ascot week, is carried out on a 12 month basis, with regular management reviews carried out with regards to progress. On race days, there are daily team de briefs before the next day begins
7. The facility employs up to 4,000 casual staff, but there is huge attention given to training across food safety, customer service and the intention is to make Ascot a place where people “want to come to work on a regular basis”, even though the work is often part time in its nature
8. Staff comes from as far afield as Newcastle, Leeds, Brighton and London to work there. As many as 60% are from other parts of the EU
9. The quality of staff they employ is critical - Ascot wants “the best” to come and work there and are in effect “competing” for the best staff against other big events/venues such as Wembley, Wimbledon, Twickenham etc
10. Ascot itself sees itself as a “global racecourse” with lots of competition from other race tracks around the world in the US, Australia, Japan, South Africa etc
11. There is an ongoing programme of internal learning from other Sodexo operations at high profile leisure and sporting events around the UK and the rest of the world about what constitutes “best practise”
12. In the middle of the venue, there is a cricket pitch, golf course and a park. They hold weekly “boot camp” sessions there and the public can walk around the middle of the venue on week days and at the week end
13. A reservoir collects rain water and this is used to water the course and garden areas
14. The food “offer” includes locally sourced food, but finding suppliers with sufficient capacity is often a challenge. Vegan, dairy free and organic options are all available. Smoke and alcohol free areas in the venue have been introduced
15. Security, not least with lots of VIP international customers attending and of course members of the Royal Family on occasions is a big issue – there are cameras everywhere and the are 4 contracted security firms who operate on site along with the police
Being a “management” organisation, as mentioned above, I was particularly keen to identify what might be the transferable lessons for how we manage our own businesses and the agri food supply chains we operate and work in. These seemed to be plentiful, but the really key ones to me seemed to be:
• Be prepared to change the terms of engagement with customers and look for genuine new partnerships rather than just accept the status quo
• Pay back debt as quickly as possible
• The importance of the casual staff - they receive lots of training, they are paid well, allowed to keep tips from customers, have travel expenses paid, can come on student placements, they can attend the Sodexo Academy, are paid a bonus and have a chance for progression in what role they fulfil on race days etc
• Follow market trends in what consumers want in terms of the food/drink they consume
• Make the most of the venue’s assets and its huge heritage
• Be accessible to the public as and when this allows – in the case of Ascot, this is a lot
• Think of environmental issues & benefits and how these can be solved
• Health and safety is critical - not least with 450 helicopters landing and taking off from a special helicopter pad in just one week
• Be prepared to learn from others either in the UK or from the other side of the world
• Accept Ascot is operating in a global market for sport and leisure and act accordingly
• Focus on the really key times of the year – plan well ahead and then have regular communication within this period
• An unashamed desire to be a “world class” venue and customer experience
This was a really interesting and enjoyable visit. One cannot have been failed to be impressed by the sheer scale of the operation and the attention to detail it requires to manage it. And the all important “transferable lessons” were great too. The venue is hugely impressive. The genuine enthusiasm and attention to detail of the management team was clear to see. That might be amongst one of the most important transferable lessons of all.
In the week of Royal Ascot alone, there are 300 chefs working on site and 350 Sodexo managers there too. Without this, a £200 million investment in a modern world class facility and a £20 million turnover in food and hospitality might not mean much at all. It’s the people who work there and how they are managed that seems to really count.