Wednesday 1 January 2014

Nonsense at Newbury, Part 2 – While The New Management Relents on the Dress Code, They Now Need to Take Stock of Broader Initiatives to Improve Racegoer Behaviour

Firstly, Happy New Year to all our owners, regular readers and anyone else who finds the time to read our blog. As always the resolutions remain the same – eat and drink less, exercise more, blah, blah, blah. The key one though is to go racing as often as possible and enjoy everything that’s fantastic about our sport.

In the last blog of 2013, I discussed the nonsense of Newbury’s dress code and the PR disaster that it turned out to be at the Hennessy meeting. My wife and I were personally involved in this, with a highly embarrassing incident to do with a brand new and ultra-modern blue cotton coat with leather flashings that was deemed to be flouting the rule against denim, despite Newbury having declared in their advance marketing publicity that “Racegoers are invited to prove that Britain knows best when it comes to Autumnal fashion, with fabulous hats and coats”. Nonsensically that came to be translated as “Newbury’s stewards know best when it comes to applying inflexible and arbitrary rules on dress”.

The following week I had a lengthy discussion with the then joint managing director Stephen Higgins, who did everything possible to deal with our criticism and actually impressed with his commitment to “rebuild trust with the racecourse”. I am going to have a face-to-face meeting with the Newbury management fairly soon, and they have also invited my wife and me to lunch in the Royal Box – that should definitely see a couple of the New Year resolutions kicked into touch.

Encouragingly, on Tuesday, 17th December (a couple of days after I posted the last blog), the new Chief Executive, Julian Thick, announced that the controversial dress code, designed to encourage racegoers to “embrace a stylish but relaxed approach”, was being reviewed. The rules that caused the controversy on Hennessy day decreed that in the Premier Enclosure “smart trousers (no denim) are the order of the day for gentlemen, with a jacket preferred”, while women were required to wear “dresses or skirts of modest length, or smart trousers”. Jeans were banned. They now intend temporarily to relax the strictly enforced criteria and “smart jeans” will be tolerated while the overall policy is reviewed. As I said in the last blog, it is barely credible that a mature woman wearing a new blue trilby (bought at Haydock Park), a similarly new, ultra-modern blue cotton and leather coat (bought at Cheltenham Racecourse) and equally brand-new black trousers, could be deemed by the Newbury style police to be in breach of the rules. My wife was most definitely not alone in all of this, and the adverse publicity in both national and trade press must have seriously damaged the new branding that “The Racecourse, Newbury” appears to be trying to develop.

Let’s look at some of the broader implications. Everyone wants to ensure that more people come racing, and that they thoroughly enjoy the experience, so that our sport can build increasingly self-sustaining revenues while broadening the overall customer base, particularly so that it appeals to the next generation of racegoers. Alas, there have been a number of unpleasant incidents involving drunken oafs fighting on racecourses over the last year or two, and a particularly unpleasant episode occurred at Newbury between two competing groups of football supporters. Therefore initiatives designed to improve, modify or change behaviour in some defined way are all to the good. But this is obviously extremely challenging, whereas framing and applying inflexibly a dress code is relatively easy to enforce, even if it does nothing at all to change the offensive behaviour. As one of the TV commentators stated, “a drunken oaf in a shiny black suit is still an oaf”.

Very few, if any, racecourses in the winter apply such rules as Newbury was trying to introduce. Clearly a number of Flat meetings, notably Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood, apply very strict dress codes in designated enclosures. According to Steve Higgins, Newbury had taken soundings from racegoers before introducing the rules and there appeared to be enthusiasm for “raising standards”. I suspect the question should have been framed much more tightly, such as: “Do you feel that it is more important for Newbury to reduce the incidence of unpleasant and intrusive drunken behaviour, or that we should impose a dress code and ban denim?” While this may be an artificial forced choice, I think we all know what people’s preferences would be. It is reducing boorish, drunken behaviour on racetracks that really matters, rather than antagonising denim-wearers, many of whom have spent a considerable amount of money on designer clothes.

Equally, there is nothing wrong with trying to encourage people to wear smarter clothes, but the challenge for Newbury is how best to do that if, indeed, it is deemed to be a critical branding and customer relationship initiative.

So what should Newbury, and other racecourses, do next – if anything? Do let me hear your views and I’ll continue with this theme in the next blog.


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