Today’s blog follows on from a three-part series I did after Newbury’s Hennessy Day denim débacle (regular readers know how much I like alliteration), when they managed to antagonise lots of customers – including my wife. Very much a PR fiasco. Whether or not it led to the sacking of the former joint MD Steve Higgins is not known, but they now have a new and much more experienced CEO in Julian Thick (former MD of Aintree). As I also flagged up in the last blog, Newbury, like most racecourses in the UK, is facing many financial challenges as well as declining attendances.
Indeed, as I put pen to paper (or more accurately, fingers to keyboard), I’ve just read that the Racecourse Association has gloomily reported that over the last ten years, the average raceday attendance has dropped by 1,000. While that doesn’t sound a lot, it certainly does when you put it into the context that on most race days there are 5,000 or fewer attendees, so it is a 20% decline in an increasingly competitive sport and leisure marketplace where customers have a range of opportunities to spend their hard-earned.
Since Hennessy Day, I’ve probably had more discussion with owners around this subject (all triggered by the denim disaster at Newbury) than any other. Obviously there are no magic bullets, and it is a very challenging area, but here is a summary of views.
- Offer an exciting product. Alas, it certainly looks as though there is far too much racing in the UK, with a lot of it complete dross. It may make money for certain courses, and put money into the bookies’ satchels, but at a risk of fundamentally eroding both the integrity of racing (most of the scandals occur in Class 6 races on the all-weather) and its aura of glamour, panache and excitement. What should change over the next ten years?
- Keep and foster your customers. No business can afford to lose customers. It is much harder to acquire new ones than retain the ones you already have. Irritating, antagonising or offending them through poor service, bad racing, ill thought-out initiatives or just simple neglect is inexcusable. Do racecourses have really effective customer retention strategies?
- Know who your customers are. In my consulting career, when I worked for fmcg companies as Diageo and Reckitt Benckiser, I was impressed by the quality of their marketing and the incredibly detailed analysis of what, in the jargon, is called “customer segments”. They weren’t just selling to “drinkers” or “householders”, but to literally hundreds of different types of people, backgrounds, ages and preferences. Huge investment was made in differentiated sales and marketing campaigns aimed at these well-defined segments. Do racecourses have such modern and professional campaigns mapped out? I’d love to see one. Indeed, a few years ago there was a woefully pathetic stereotyping of racegoers into a “Bill and Ben” type of categorisation, “Bill” being the old-fashioned racegoer vs. “Ben” as the trendy adherent of social media – a fatuous and totally inadequate segmentation.
- Invest in modern marketing. This naturally follows. I’m sure there are some brilliant marketing people in racing, but I haven’t come across many. The few I have met at racecourses have been distinctly ordinary. A few questionnaires and a bit of direct mail doesn’t cut the mustard. How do racecourses select and remunerate their sales and marketing staff? I fear, poorly.
- Invest in frontline staff training. Friendly, well-informed, professional and helpful staff hugely enhance the racecourse experience, while their opposites detract from it. The “best” racecourses in the UK seem to get this right, but alas they are definitely in the minority. I’ll do some more blogs on this subject. All too often the staff are boorish, ignorant and unhelpful. During the Newbury débacle I just about lost patience with staff who hid behind responses such as “It’s the new rule, and there’s nothing I can do about it”. How much investment is made in racecourse staff training? If staff behaviour and training is compared with, say, the leading leisure businesses such as Disney, what conclusions would you draw? I fear the answer would be that far too many of the people employed on racecourses are just not up to the job.
- Sort out the bars. This is a good example of frontline failure. Amateurish bar staff and completely inadequate routines for serving drinks very quickly is the norm at racecourses. How many times have you heard racegoers complaining while desperately trying to get served between races? Substantial income is lost and customers irritated.
- Sort out the stands and facilities. All too often, racecourses are a strange mish-mash of different stands and facilities that lack any consistent identity, where very different types of customer with different needs collide. If there are different segments, there are clearly different requirements in the various facilities. I have no problems with courses such as Newbury trying (with apologies for the jargon) to “premiumise” their product, but that needs to be done in a way that strongly reinforces both the product and the behaviour that you are trying to engender. At a personal level I love Newbury’s Wine Vault, but then why have second-rate, very loud live music immediately adjacent to it?
That’s it for the moment. I’m very aware that I’ve done no more than scratch the surface. Future blogs will pick up some of these issues in more detail. In the short term, though, I’m looking forward to discussing some of this with Julian Thick and his co-directors at Newbury on what I’m hoping will be a superb day’s racing, Betfair Super Saturday, 8th February.