Corporate Hospitality is making a comebac in Northern Ireland. Eugene McCusker finds out just what it takes to earn a slice of the corporate pie.
The corporate hospitality industry is holding its own in Northern Ireland, and despite the recession, no one is giving up the fight for a part of our business that can prove the lifeblood of many a hotel. But who still spends big in corporate terms? What are they looking for? And, more importantly, what are they getting?Ben Walker, communications manager at the Institute of Hospitality in Belfast, admits that the economic downturn has had a mixed effect on the corporate hospitality market, as companies either decided to slash their marketing budgets or diverted their money into other marketing channels that could offer a more visible return on investment. “In contrast,” Walker explains, “some companies continue to spend money to entertain clients, as they remain convinced that strengthening a business relationship during a recession is even more necessary than in times of financial stability.”So just how much is this industry worth? Walker says, “Between 2007 and 2011, the UK market for corporate hospitality [England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland] shrank by an estimated 2.5 per cent to £1.2 billion. During this period, the sector saw a strong focus on budgets and value-for-money packages, as well as a good return on investment. Sporting events remained the most popular choice for corporate entertainment, with participatory events more often used as corporate team-building occasions.”This runs true to form with the venues that we visited. The Eddie Irvine Sports go-karting arena, Drumbo greyhound park and the Down Royal horse-racing venue have all proved a popular pull for corporate events, with the spillover to local business a key treasure chest for those wishing to attract these customers.“For key events, corporate clients are willing to spend substantial amounts. Olympic corporate events, for example, provided a 173.7 per cent increase in conference and banqueting room hire at London hotels,” explains Walker.Likewise, from January to March 2012 there was a 2.2 per cent increase in tourism and leisure jobs in Northern Ireland. People 1st, the sector skills council for hospitality, found that sector businesses in Northern Ireland face increasing pressure to fill 27,200 jobs, including 720 chefs between now and 2017. In a world of bad news and job cuts, that’s quite the eye-watering figure.Corporate hospitality can still work successfully, then! Each of the three venues we visited have upped their game this year to attract corporates. Eddie Irvine Sports introduced a corporate cup, Drumbo greyhound park introduced a punter’s pack and Down Royal added a new £40,000 balcony.Our first ‘pit stop’ was Eddie Irvine Sports, a centre owned by the former Formula One star. This centre, on the edge of Bangor, Co. Down, is a mecca for companies and devoted Irvine fans. Here it’s possible to view Eddie’s trophies from his Formula One days and gaze at photos of his life. This museum-esque aspect is clearly a draw that can get customers through the front door. But it needs more than that to succeed – and it has gone down the adrenaline route to do just that. Customers can expect go-karting, paintball, laser combat, six soccer pitches, snooker and ‘room to race’ car simulators. Centre director Thomas Fegan is at the helm on a day-to-day basis, and is looking forward to the centre’s tenth birthday in 2013. He recalls Eddie’s own enthusiasm for the centre to work, saying, “There’s a story with the F1 simulator. As happened occasionally, Eddie had sent the F1 simulator home on a ship, and it arrived at the front door. Basically, we were told that he’d found this great machine in New York and it was very close to practising for F1. Every day I come in I wonder what’s going to be sitting there.”Eddie Irvine has owned the 100,000-square-foot building since 1999. He wanted to “put Eddie Irvine Sports into his local community. He had options to put this centre anywhere,” says Fegan. He concedes that a lot of the success of the centre is down to Irvine’s fame, and understands that having such a well-known brand name does help. “It’s used by people from all over Ireland and the UK. There’s a great enigma with the name. Everyone has heard of Eddie Irvine, and everyone wants to know what he’s like. We get so many tourists from America, Canada, Asia – the only reason they come is to see if he’s here.”The centre does particularly well with corporate clients. “We have as many corporates now as we ever have had. We have to work a bit harder to get them to come, but they’re definitely coming. Some of the companies we’ve had with us in the last 12 months have been companies like the New York Stock Exchange, Diageo, Cadbury’s, Yell, really big names. We also have companies that are five-men strong.”What attracts the corporate world is the participatory adrenalin, like Ben Walker pointed out to us earlier. Clients can come in and recreate an F1 race, qualifying, securing a pole position, a 69-lap race, interactive pit stops, safety cars, neon lights and, of course, champagne at the end of the race. Thomas Fegan says, “With our F1 background, we try to relate that to F1 service. We’ve got a Formula One paddock area. We quizzed Eddie onwhat people could expect to see at a Formula One Grand Prix. While he was talking, we were scribbling down ideas. He was saying you would see marquees in the paddock area, cars on display, an F1 podium, lots of displays and memorabilia, so we took that on board and tried to create a little trackside scenario for our own purposes that we can use within our Grand Prix packages.”The brand-new Eddie Irvine Sports Corporate Cup 2012 is currently attracting the corporate clients. Running until the end of the year, companies have the opportunity to go head to head with their direct competitors in a two-hour Le Mans-style endurance race. Fegan says, “We’ve decided to run one race a month, and every month we’ll concentrate on retailers going head to head. All Northern Ireland companies will have the chance to race against their direct competitors and have the bragging rights of saying they are the best bank in Northern Ireland, they are the best car dealership in Northern Ireland. It has received phenomenal support.”The cute challenge presented by such an event is a fine idea, and one that clearly works. Meanwhile, Drumbo Park Greyhound Stadium racing manager John Connor says that his venue is hugely popular amongst corporate guests. He says, “A lot of insurance companies would come, work nights out, especially at Christmas time. You’d get the guys in parties, anywhere between five and 50. We started a punter’s pack this year. For £10 you get your entrance, your racecard, a bottle of beer, a free £2 bet, and a burger as well.” The racetrack boasts an impressive 306-seater restaurant overlooking the track, which can go a long way to attracting different types of clientele. Connor says that initially they had trouble getting away from the old image associated with racetracks. “We had a big problem. Stereotypically, people come to the greyhounds thinking theyare standing in the stands, people with cloth caps. That has changed, and it’s only when people come and see how the night goes that it changes their perception.”The image change has come in part from holding different events. “We have a lot of charity events on Friday night – GAA clubs, rugby clubs. Thursday night we had to do a lot of work on, it’s half-price admission. If you get a taxi up from Lisburn and have your taxi receipt, you get in free.” Every minute detail is looked at, from staff wearing Drumbo shirts, to how many bottles of beer are in the mix-and-match deal. Of course, if we mention racing, we can’t ignore its more famous rival. Located ten miles from Belfast, Down Royal Racecourse has 12 meetings per year, including the NI Festival of Racing in November, with the Grade 1 JN Wine.com Champion Chase, previously won by the legendary Kauto Star.Down Royal hospitality and events manager Vicki Moody points out, “We have created a range of packages to suit all
budgets, from the punters’ packages, which attract racegoers with combined admission, racecard, pint of beer, hot beef roll and £5 bet from £16, through to top-end hospitality, including a four-course meal and fine wines in a premium-located suite.”The opening of its hospitality pavilion, which incorporates the main Beef or Salmon Suite (with a maximum capacity of 500 people), the Rainbow Communications Suite (maximum capacity of 200 people) and the private boxes, means that the racecourse can cater for individuals and small parties right through to large corporate-style events of 500 guests and more.Moody continues. “We also have the Dark Horse Wine Bar and Cafe, which bridges the gap between hospitality and general admission, offering champagne, wine, tea and coffee, and light deli snacks.”The new £40,000 balcony addition to the Rainbow Communications Suite has views over the parade ring. This balcony was unveiled in June at the Magners Derby Race Day. Moody adds, “The Rainbow Communications package is highly cost-effective, at £60 per head.”Clearly these venues have their sporting appeal to corporate projects, be it schmoozing clients or building up staff morale, but there is so much more to that. Neighbouring businesses can capitalise on the added footfall, brand themselves in a similar vein or use establishments like these as part of their packages.On 15 August, just this summer, the Tyrone-based outdoor team-building centre Todds Leap announced plans to employ an additional ten staff with support from the government agency Invest NI’s jobs fund. Three months earlier, in May, the First Trust Bank launched a £50 million business support fund designed to support Northern Ireland’s small and medium-sized enterprises. Northern Ireland venues are reaping the awards of solid investment, quirky promotions and exhilarating entertainment.