While it may best be known for its association with William Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon is home to a sports venue with more than a little drama at its heart.
Looking to add a bit of theatre to its F&B offer, the catering arm of the NEC Group, Amadeus, secured a five-year contract with Stratford Racecourse in early 2018 to provide exclusive catering services on both race days and non-race days.
Taking on all retail and hospitality catering at fixtured race events as well as with providing conference and banqueting catering for non-race events, Amadeus was tasked to mobilise in the space of four weeks to transform the outdated and tired catering facilities available and improve return to the client.
Amadeus gave Stratford Racecourse’s catering facilities a distinct identity through branding. A combination of Amadeus’ own retail catering concepts, such as the MADE handmade deli, and product-sponsored concepts was rolled out at the venue.
“After being awarded the contract at Stratford Racecourse, the team set about enhancing the F&B offer through sponsorship partnerships, introducing well-known high street brands and developing the premium product offering,” says Samantha Bates, general manager, events, for Amadeus.
“Today visitors to the racecourse will find bespoke bars delivered through sponsorship partnerships with trusted, high-quality brands such as Sadler’s Ales, Stowford Press and Laurent Perrier.
The food offering ranges from grab-and-go street-food vendors to plated restaurants – serving either pre-booked or walk-up customers. The premium offering is delivered at the Gallery Restaurant, overlooking the racecourse, with menu concepts created by executive chef for events Darren Proud.
“Across the venue we have seven bars – including the Laurent Perrier champagne bar for VIP customers – to service visitors to the racecourse,” explains Simon Doyle, senior event manager for Amadeus. “For visitors wanting a grab-and-go option, we have the MADE café, selling freshly-made, handcrafted food, as well as a range of street-food vendors at every race. We also use mobile beer bugs and hawker trays at particularly busy events in order to help reduce queuing at the fixed bar units.
“In the Chaser Room guests can enjoy a plated carvery offering which they can either pre-book or walk up to on the day – in any given race day we usually turn over 100 covers. The Paddock Pavilion is a seated marquee which we either sell as a restaurant concept or hospitality and can seat around 200 guests.
“Our VIP offering is delivered at the Gallery Restaurant, with a seated capacity of 72 covers. Guests will experience a delicious three-course menu. In addition, the racecourse has 10 hospitality boxes, which are always popular with punters.”
The racecourse has a season of 18 races a year, with the venue employing anywhere between 50 and 130 staff, and up to 15 chefs, on any given race day depending on the expected visitor numbers.
At the height of the jumps season, up to 5,000 visitors can make their way to the racecourse for a race meeting.
So, has Amadeus had to update kitchen equipment since taking over the catering?
“We operate the racecourse as part of our events business,” says Doyle. “This means rather than spending lots of capital to update the back-of-house facilities at the racecourse, it makes more sense to bring all of Amadeus’ mobile kitchen equipment on race days to complement the facilities the venue already has.
“This is a great solution for us as we are constantly moving our mobile catering equipment all around the UK to service the many stand-alone events we cater for.
“Despite this, following a successful first year working with the Stratford Racecourse team we are looking to update the back-of-house facilities in the Gallery Restaurant so that we can extend our VIP offering. The current facilities do not allow us to serve hot food, so installing new kitchen facilities will completely transform the experience we can give to VIP guests.”
While updating the branding will entice customers to use the F&B more and improving the back-of-house facilities will help to deliver it, improving the customer experience includes many more factors.
For example, technology has also played a huge part in increasing profitability.
“Stratford Racecourse did not previously have a technology infrastructure in place to allow for electronic payments, so we installed this as a priority when we took on the contract,” says Doyle. “Integrated chip-and-pin devices and tills were introduced to improve speed of service and limit queues at the bars.
“As the racecourse previously operated all sales in cash, we needed to let new and existing visitors to the site know about the change, so we launched a marketing campaign promoting cashless payments – again with the aim of helping to improve speed of service, reduce queuing and process more transactions through the tills.”
Card has now overtaken cash, with payments at 70% and 30% respectively, improving speed of service.
But while the physical changes have helped to increase the efficiency of the venue, simplifying the customer journey has also made a notable difference.
“When we took on the contract we implemented a number of simple changes to help aid the flow of customers round the site, for example we assisted Stratford Racecourse with wayfinding and signage to improve customer touchpoints and the in-venue customer experience,” says Bates. “The team also remodelled the catering units to improve the flow of customers by moving the bar units back, allowing for more space for customers to queue and helping with queue management.”
The retail principles were remodelled on the arena venues that Amadeus currently caters for – Resorts World Arena and Arena Birmingham – where staff have to deal with high visitor volumes and peaks in footfall.
“T bars were introduced for multi tap dispensing and 50% more tills were installed to minimise queuing and increase speed of service,” says Bates.
“A combination of rebranding the catering facilities, enhancing the in-venue customer experience through wayfinding and signage, improving the F&B offer and driving efficiencies in labour has contributed to an increase in profits. Since we’ve been working with the venue, we’re proud to say the changes we’ve implemented have seen takings double (+49%) year on year.”
At illustrious venues such as Epsom, Ascot and Cheltenham, we have seen the worlds of horse racing and Michelin-starred chefs collide, with more culinary creatives taking up temporary residencies on-site during the biggest racing festivals than ever before.
The whole view of horse racing as a day out is changing, and the quality of F&B on show has played a big part in that, as Doyle argues.
“Over the years, the food and drink offering at racecourses, in general, has improved hugely,” he says. “While the sporting element will always remain the main pull for visitors, there is a growing trend for high-quality, bespoke catering to help pull in a more varied type of clientele.
“For example, Ladies Day is as much about the sport as it is about the whole experience of getting dressed up and enjoying great food and drink in a fantastic setting. This – and things such as the (Peaky Blinders-themed) Gents’ Day we have planned – help to broaden the appeal of the sport by adding to the overall social occasion and visitor experience.”
Competition on the high streets among F&B retailers is higher than ever, with customer needs driving change at a phenomenal speed, so just how important is it for leisure attractions to offer a high-quality F&B service to customers at all levels of price point?
“Customers have become accustomed to high-quality food that caters for every allergen and dietary requirement imaginable and leisure/sporting attractions need to be able to match this level of customer service,” says Chris Reynolds, sales director for Amadeus.
“When it comes to hospitality or VIP offerings at attractions, customers will expect the food and drink to enhance their experience as they are paying for a bespoke service. In this way, the quality of the food offer can ‘make or break’ whether or not a corporate client or customer chooses to purchase hospitality packages for the racecourse.”
As with the entire hospitality industry, the biggest challenges facing sports and leisure caterers continue to revolve around staff skill levels.
“It’s no secret that hospitality leaders have struggled to recruit the talent the sector needs in the past – that’s why figures indicate more than 900,000 workers need to be recruited in the next five years to sustain the growing industry,” says Reynolds. “Amadeus – like all other large-scale caterers – is in constant need of new blood, with the correct work-ready skills, in order to help the company thrive.
“Rising food costs also mean our purchasing team must work harder than ever to source quality products which also provide value for money for the customer.”
The streamlining of the customer journey, improvement of concepts and investment into back-of-house facilities and processes has meant that it’s not just the horses that have succeeded in making a significant jump.