Saturday 1 December 2012

Cheltenham: Milking the Members

Really enjoyed the three-day Open meeting, watching Al Ferof win the Mackeson and the notably game performance of Captain Conan. Grands Crus’ defeat (subsequently ascribed to a wind problem) cost me dear, though. Such is racing.

But if I were looking at Cheltenham through the prism of customer service, there are two other memories. Firstly, there’s nothing better than driving to Cheltenham with the anticipation of a fabulous meeting; parking the car, walking into gloriously familiar surroundings; going into a bar full of racegoers avidly discussing the respective merits of their favourite horses; ordering a really flavoursome, imaginative and reasonably-priced lunch (for those who like the detail: smoked applewood cheese ciabatta and leek and mushroom tart), together with a well-kept pint of real Tetley’s ale, served with friendly graciousness; before settling down by a log fire in a cosy corner to contemplate the day ahead. But of course this is not the racecourse, but the Royal Oak in Prestbury, near where Fred Archer was born and once owned by the English batting legend, Tom Graveney. Maybe it was the log fire that gave it away.

Or, much more likely, the contrast with the dismal customer experience that is now Cheltenham Racecourse. Best jumps racing in the world, but a case study in everything that is dire, from a service perspective. Imagine that I had a video camera when I left the Royal Oak. Drive up the Winchcombe road and turn left through the housing estate into the back entrance to the course. No policemen at all or evidence of a traffic management system, so a shambles. Go down the narrow lane into the course, dodging wayward pedestrians and touts. More pointless traffic jams because the racecourse can’t be bothered to widen the road and rebuild a couple of bridges. Despite paying for a Members’ car park badge, find you are routed to a field of mud. Stagger across to the entrance gates. First impression, as always, is of temporary villages, tatty marquees and queues for the loos, which are dirty. Climb the rickety steps to the temporary Members’ stand. Fabulous view of the final fence for those who are athletic enough to get to the top level. Repair to the tented bar with several thousand members, only to find you have to queue so long that you miss the next race by the time you’ve finished your drink. If this tent had been put up for a wedding reception, it would doubtless trigger divorce en masse. Decide to meet friends in the Arkle Bar instead. Bad decision. Abandon refreshments during racing, and reconvene in the Mandarin Bar after the last for a reviving cup of tea (exciting life I lead). I’ve been in more attractive care homes. Despite being packed with customers, staff were trying to close it almost as soon as we sat down. But at least it gave me a good excuse to go back to the Royal Oak, or it would have done, if there hadn’t been a long queue to get off the racecourse back along the same narrow racecourse lane.

During the day, I spotted the new MD, Ian Renton. I really hope that, as well as tightly managing the massive construction project to rebuild the racecourse, he scrutinises everything from the perspective of transforming the customer experience. Coincidentally, my 2013 Grand National badges arrived that same weekend – reserved Members’ car parking and seats high in the Earl of Sefton stand, three days of fabulous racing, with a customer service level that puts Cheltenham to shame.

Where is The Curmudgeon when we need him?


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