Some need little convincing of the importance of corporate entertainment. Tech behemoth IBM, for example, clearly puts a high PR value on being seen at one of the most prestigious events of the year, reportedly snapping up World Cup packages in bulk.
But not everyone has IBM's financial leverage. As budgets for corporate hospitality events can run into thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of pounds, agency heads and in-house PROs need to understand how their resources can be used most effectively.
While traditional events such as The Chelsea Flower Show and Henley Royal Regatta remain magnets for corporate cash, the channels for events and entertainment are becoming more and more diverse. To reflect this, London's Olympia this month hosts the fifth annual corporate hospitality exhibition RSVP (see box, p27). Billed as the biggest gathering for the industry, the show is expected to attract around 300 exhibitors and more than 6,000 delegates.
'It's a trade show, so buyers, marketers, PR people and charities will be there to source ideas and suppliers for their next event, whether this is a corporate hospitality event, fashion show, awards ceremony, film premiere or fundraising ball,' explains RSVP marketing manager Judi Knaggs.
RSVP says it wants to help PROs and events co-ordinators understand how to make hospitality more cost-effective, so ahead of the conference it announced trends for 2006 based on the latest National Corporate Hospitality Survey, conducted by NOP
Business for one of the UK's biggest corporate hospitality and catering providers, Sodexho Prestige.
The survey, which questioned more than 2,000 companies, showed a broadly even split in hosts' criteria for investing in hospitality. Thirty per cent said above all they wanted to keep their clients happy, 25 per cent cited 'building relationships' and a further 25 per cent were looking to increase business. In the absence of any real divergence here it seems events must be tailored to fit the individual desires of the client.
Questions on the style of event, however, provide a clearer trend. As much as 85 per cent of all hospitality was found to be sport-related, with golf, football and rugby events being the most popular. And as a guide to individual spend, the average per head across the UK came out at £490. Not on the scale of the World Cup, but still no small beer.
'We invest in corporate hospitality because we believe that good relationships are the basis for strong business partnerships,' says Paula Bell, events manager at workforce management company Manpower.
'By chatting with clients in a more relaxed, social environment you can sometimes uncover issues of which you might not otherwise be aware – giving you the opportunity to act before problems arise.'
While corporate hospitality is widely acknowledged as enhancing existing business relationships, its power to attract new clients is less certain. Should money really be spent on those who are just prospects?
Sodexho surveys since 1998 show that those who entertain potential as well as existing clients will get a much better return for their money. In 1998 only 57 per cent of respondents said they invited potential clients. By 2004 this figure had risen to 78 per cent.
However, not everyone agrees. PR and marketing specialist The Saltmarsh Partnership organises several functions each year for its travel and tourism clients. Last month, this included a party to celebrate the Chinese New Year for the Hong Kong Tourism Board, at the Just Oriental restaurant in London's swanky St James's district. This was aimed only at existing clients.
'We selected the venue carefully – to maintain a Chinese theme – and then worked with the restaurant management on an appropriate menu and branding,' says agency managing director Geoff Saltmarsh. 'It was extremely valuable for the client to cement partnerships and meet contacts and certain media to discuss new products and potential story angles.
But he adds: 'This was purely a networking opportunity as potential new clients are targeted separately one-on-one; where they feel cared about as individuals.'
Choice of activity is, of course, critical to the self-image a firm is trying to portray. This summer, aside from football, Henley and the Wimbledon tennis championships will top many people's lists.
However, it is the responsibility of PROs not to be complacent and use 'old favourites' because they have seemed to work in the past.
Those being wined and dined expect much more.
Andrew Cook, director of sales at promotion and incentive specialist
Unmissable, says: 'Traditionally, corporate hospitality is dry with a capital D, usually involving poor food, dull company and a complete lack of imagination. The problem for PR people is ensuring people attend their event. The solution is to be original and aspirational while remaining relevant to the brand or theme of the activity.'
For some venues, the key to success is reinvention. For years, Ascot Racecourse offered a mix of high-end glamour and sporting interest perfectly suited to the corporate jolly. But some criticised the venue for creating an intimidating crush. Now that its £200m facelift is close to completion, corporate hospitality – both around and beyond the Royal Meeting – should be a more relaxed experience for visitors, according to Ascot Hospitality director of sales and marketing Gary England. 'The new half-kilometre-long grandstand has been designed for comfort and to facilitate the easy flow of punters,' he adds.
In addition, and in what England claims is a new concept in racecourse design, Ascot has introduced boxes within the grandstand steppings – providing private viewing facilities for up to ten people, with space for hats, handbags and a drinks chiller. 'This means people can experience the thrill of being among the crowd, but in their own contained space, sipping champagne,' he adds.
While hospitality around sports such as rugby remains predominantly male-oriented, horse-racing has always strived to attract women at a senior corporate level. Last summer, Sandown Park Racecourse's sports PR agency Johnno Spence Consulting enlisted hat designer Louis Mariette and model Jodie Kidd to raise the profile of the course's first Coral Eclipse Ladies' Day.
And in June it also worked with jockey and model Francesca Cumani and milliner Cosmo Jenks to publicise the first Ladies' Day during the Vodafone Derby Festival at Epsom Downs. This activity involved a competition to find the best-dressed woman on the day. The winner, judged by TV presenter Annabel Croft, won a Cherokee Jeep.
The Daily Telegraph fashion director Hilary Alexander says: 'Everyone loves to dress up and if you get the ladies there, the guys will follow.'
Press the flesh
Johnno Spence reports that it is increasingly providing blue-chip clients – such as construction and agricultural equipment manufacturer JCB – with 'touching the stars' hospitality experiences. Here, hosts can impress their guests by allowing them to meet top trainers and jockeys such as Ruby Walsh and Frankie Dettori, who advise on the day's race card.
The firm is also putting the finishing touches to a partnership with promoter Global Sports, offering hospitality packages around high-profile events. These include the Monaco Grand Prix, where petrolheads can enjoy fine dining at the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel, meet the drivers, walk the track with driver-turned-pundit Allan McNish, and finally watch the race from former driver Eddie Irvine's yacht.
This emphasis on 'money can't buy' experiences is vital if you want to impress your client. 'Hospitality is all about lifestyle and what you can't get access to yourself,' says Rob Morrison, hospitality manager at event management, hospitality and logistics firm Circa Group. His company receives regular requests from PROs for old favourites such as the Six Nations rugby. And he reports that buyers are increasingly looking at what they can do to keep regular guests interested.
'Rather than going to a big rugby match at Twickenham, PROs should look at, say, a trip to the Stade de France in Paris or a day in Rome. Similarly, if they plan to take guests to a Robbie Williams concert, they should aim for dinner or lunch beforehand and a VIP backstage pass to meet Robbie,' he says.
Companies that run their own hospitality events often look to make the client experience more bespoke and are taking guests to more quirky venues. Last December for example, Renault entertained 1,000 guests at Blenheim Palace to celebrate its Formula 1 World Championship success. The evening included speeches from team owner Flavio Briatore and championship-winning driver Fernando Alonso. And to make the event a uniquely Renault affair, the manufacturer even laid down temporary track so its F1 car could be driven to the steps of the palace.
So maybe now is the time to consider extending your hospitality repertoire. Whether it is to secure an expensive jaunt to Germany, or tickets to a cultural event closer to home, RSVP could provide some important pointers to help PROs make their budgets work as hard as possible.
2006 FIFA WORLD CUP
For sports fans, the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany will be the most prestigious event of the year. And as FIFA has indicated this will be last World Cup on European soil for at least 12 years, it should prove especially popular with English fans.
However, concerns surrounding tickets and hospitality have made the headlines during previous tournaments. In France 1998, for example, many blue-chip companies forked out for tickets that failed to materialise when a string of hospitality firms went bankrupt, blaming unreliable supplies.
To address this issue, FIFA has granted exclusive worldwide commercial hospitality for this year's tournament to iSe-Hospitality AG, which in turn has certified affiliate providers in individual countries, which in the UK include Circa Group.
According to iSe, the UK is the second-biggest market for corporate hospitality after Germany. 'It looks like England will have the biggest travelling support,' says CEO George Taylor. 'We're seeing huge demand in the UK, not just for England matches, but also for the USA, Australia and Japan games.' The hospitality provider has three packages on offer, promising good seats, high-quality food, gifts and entertainment. It has also created 'Follow England' packages, which guarantee tickets and hospitality services for England games.
But all this comes at a price – €5,200 excluding VAT for the first three games, or €15,000 for all seven games, including the final (assuming England get that far). And those buying should be warned that if England get knocked out, they will be stuck with hospitality tickets for another team's games.
For information and bookings, click the official hospitality banner on www.fifaworldcup.com or call iSe's UK sales team on 020 8762 9104.
For those on a tight budget, there are also packages for screenings of games around London. Prices start at £149 plus VAT per person (minimum booking, ten people).Call 020 7940 6060 or visit www.the-ultimate.co.uk.
For those seeking inspiration for their next special event or simply wishing to keep up with the latest trends, RSVP 2006 – the exhibition for corporate party and special event organisers – is taking place later this month (29-30 March) at London's Olympia.
Held in conjunction with online events network Londonlaunch.com, the exhibition promises ideas for every type of event, from high-profile days out, summer parties and awards ceremonies to fashion shows, fundraisers and press conferences. Over 300 exhibitors are expected, showcasing areas such as catering, venues, event management, entertainment, production, theming, staging, lighting and gifts.
This year's theme is 'Eventspiration' and new exhibitors include the venues Number One Piccadilly – which opens in London in September – and Camden's KOKO club. Other newcomers are The Breakfast Group, owner of hip venues The Social, Opium, Jerusalem and Salvador & Amanda. Further exhibitors to look for include Arcstream, which provides LCD dance flooring, The Last Samurai – which offers bars with integrated conveyor belts for serving sushi, canapes and cocktails – and Water Sculpture, which makes aquatic features, from fountains and jets to waterfalls.
The exhibition also features a screening lounge, a networking room and a theatre, with dedicated areas to showcase ideas for big days out. It is also supported by an educational seminar programme, comprising talks hosted by industry experts and sponsored by event management company The Mask. They plan to cover topics such as: making the most of London 2012; taking inspiration from lifestyle and fashion; creating the best charity events; and staging memorable awards ceremonies.
For further details about exhibitors, the floor plan, seminar timetable and registering for free entry, log on to www.rsvpevent.co.uk.
Craig and Jane Hamilton-Parker offer corporate entertainment services themed around their 'psychic medium' skills. Through their tongue-in-cheek exploration of areas such as dreams, telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psycho-kinesis, the couple help to endorse promotional activity, engaging media audiences by making the hospitality events 'part of the story'.
Craig has been booked for the past four years to give 'psychic aura readings' at Superdrug's Kolor Cosmetics product launches. A big hit with attending journalists, and driving coverage in publications such as the Daily Mail, Craig demonstrates by means of 'clairvoyance' how make-up shades are reflected in 'the colours of a person's aura'.
He stresses that all activities for corporate events are designed to incorporate a mixture of intrigue and fun. 'It's enjoyable for the journalists, who are often more interested in receiving a spiritual makeover than a cosmetic makeover,' he says.
Craig has also worked with Top Shop on a similar theme – linking auras to the colour of people's outfits – for a fashion show at the high-street chain's flagship store on London's Oxford Street.
Elsewhere, the Hamilton-Parkers organise workshops, showing how dreams can be used to gain greater self-confidence, address work worries and achieve emotional balance.
'We use the huge fascination in all things mystical to help individuals identify their place in the universe and to help organisations hook into the modern-day hidden persuaders,' Craig explains.
Interestingly, having previously run his own advertising agency – Corporate Communications of Winchester – the irony for Craig is that those business colleagues who 15 years ago raised an eyebrow at his new career now seek him for their own corporate ends.
Try something different...
www.hospitalitybox.com; 0870 850 0070
Eric Clapton is extending his run at the Royal Albert Hall with seven shows in May. Having sold out solo appearances in 2004 and reunion concerts with his former band Cream in 2005, the guitarist is in hot demand. However, tickets are still available with prices ranging from £200 per head to £3,000 plus VAT for a box. Catering can also be provided at an additional cost. There are also limited packages to see Clapton at the Manchester Evening News Arena on
9 May. Hospitalityweb.com is offering private suites with balcony for up to 16 guests in armchair-style seating, starting from £280 per person.
Las Vegas Party
www.londonlaunch.com; 0870 850 0070
Running from mid-May to the end of September at
London's V at The Brewery, this event promises a mix of entertainment, gambling and urban chic. Guests are invited to sip classic cocktails and American beers, before trying
their luck at the tables. The party will also include a 'gourmet grill', serving hand-made burgers, foot-long hot dogs and baby-back ribs with chefs' salads, sauces, relishes and dips. Scheduled entertainment includes 'Show Time!', a cabaret with comedy hypnotist, escapologist, mind reader and acrobats, followed by a disco. Catering for groups of up to 400, prices start at £55 plus VAT per head.
Learn to Fence
www.cavendish-hospitality.co.uk; 020 8567 3530
For a corporate event with a difference, you could test
your guests' nerve and reflexes with a few hours' swordplay. Cavendish Hospitality offers half-day fencing courses at
the Salle Gadaski School of Fencing in London. A hospitality package includes a brief history of the sport with demonstration, and instruction in the rules, courtesy, footwork and bladework – including thrusts, cuts, parries and deceives. It culminates in an individual or team tournament, followed by lunch or dinner. Packages start at £140 plus VAT per person.
Summer swing at Kew
www.ambro-events.com; 01923 710970
This outdoor music festival held in the surroundings of The Royal Botanical Gardens has been a favourite for several years. Taking place between 11 and 15 July, this year's event features entertainment from Jools Holland and his band, including singers Sam Brown and Ruby Turner, plus tribute acts The Counterfeit Stones and Killer Queen. There is also an evening celebrating Motown, while the Friday night is dedicated to Cuban music. Packages start at £189 plus VAT per person and include a champagne and canapé reception,
followed by dinner in The Kew Club or The Kew Pavilions.
Or the old favourite...
www.ascot-hospitality.com; 0870 727 4321
Royal Ascot (20-24 June) returns to its Berkshire home
this year, after a £200m revamp of its facilities. Highlights
include the Parade Ring Restaurant, which overlooks the
Parade Ring and Winners' Enclosure. Packages with reserved seated viewing next to the Royal Box will cost up to £1,200 plus VAT per person on Ladies' Day. The racecourse is also offering hospitality based in its Panoramic Restaurant, where two walls of glass and a private roof terrace afford fine views of the sporting action and high fashions on show. Prices start at £600 plus VAT per person.