Pricing, Packages and the Power of TripAdvisor with Pontefract

Racegoer reaction used to come through the post. Now, the internet has unleased a myriad of means for customers to make their voices heard more quickly than the Royal Mail could ever deliver through the racecourse letter box. Take Pontefract’s attention to reviews on TripAdvisor as an example.

Assistant manager Richard Hammill admits he used to turn to the site for hotel and holiday destination advice. Not any more.

“The assessors from VisitEngland pointed out that racecourses needed to do more with regard to TripAdvisor,” he explains, “because for every town and city in every part of the world it lists the popularity of local attractions. We hadn’t really taken on board its importance, and were languishing middle to bottom of the list, so last year we made a concerted effort through emails to people on our booking data, saying it would be great if they would leave a review of their visit on TripAdvisor.

“We were a little nervous at first, because with the best will in the world there are always people who will send in a complaint, whether it’s your fault or not, but the great benefit of TripAdvisor is that the attraction has the final word of reply, and we make sure we respond to every review, good or bad.

“Last year we had three single-star reviews for a meeting, from people who’d had an awful time for one reason or another. I contacted each of them and asked them to give us a chance. All three came back and afterwards they wrote five-star reviews.”

At the last count, from 213 reviews posted, 87 per cent of respondents rated Pontefract races very good or excellent, and the racecourse has shot up the league table in the WF postcode area, alternating in TripAdvisor’s top two places with the year-round attraction of a nearby farm shop.

VisitEngland’s advice has paid off, just as collaboration with Two Circles, the data-driven sports marketing agency, has significantly benefited Pontefract’s approach to advanced booking.

“You listen to anyone who’s prepared to give you advice,” Hammill says. “You should never think you know more than anyone else, because there are always people who can give advice that you’ve never thought of, and the impetus for looking at our pricing and packaging has come from the Two Circles’ workshops.

“Up to three years ago we had a whole host of packages on different days, but after talking to Two Circles we decided it was confusing people, because there was too much choice. So, we have streamlined our offers to tailor them to what a racegoer wants. If they just want admission, these are the prices; if they want admission and food, these are the options; if they want to include a bet and/or a drink, this is what we offer.

“On pricing, one of the messages Two Circles always drill down is that the best price has to be the first price, to encourage early sales, so that people who book tell their friends and the message is passed on through by word of mouth.

“In December last year, when tickets for all our 2017 race meetings went on sale, we had half price across the board, which went on until the middle of January. Then we knocked 25 per cent off until the end of February, before reverting to our standard pre-booking, which offers a small discount up to midnight on the day before racing.

“This approach has definitely worked. Premier enclosure badges, which are £24 on the day, were £12 up to 16 January, and whereas in January 2016 we took £6,187 of sales, this year we took £39,000.

“It’s a time of year when Flat racecourses are quiet and there’s very little income, so it worked well for our cash flow. We’ve also found that by offering early-bird prices, advanced booking for every race meeting this season has been up, some considerably but without fail it’s across the year.”

Great strides have been made in the area of advanced booking in the 17 years since Hammill joined Pontefract.

“We had no proper system until about eight years ago,” he says. “Then, you could book in advance but it was done by email or telephone or people coming into the office for the standard discount, so we collected limited data.

“Now we have various databases, working on the basis that we have four different types of race meeting at Pontefract that attract four different types of people. Friday night meetings attract social groups, friends, people having works’ nights out, stag and hen dos; our Sundays are mainly family orientated; Ladies’ Day is a crowd on its own, many of whom come only on that day, and our midweek afternoons attract the hard-core racing fans, who will turn up come rain or come shine but aren’t necessarily interested in having a band or a best-dressed lady competition.

“Pre-booking is all about collecting data – email addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth and postal addresses – which is Two Circles’ driven, and taking these databases together we’ve probably got around 50,000 unique addresses, so that we can market to the four groups individually.

“If I sent details of a Friday night meeting with a band to our Tuesday afternoon regulars, they wouldn’t thank me, and you don’t want to aggravate those who come day in and day out, because they are our bread and butter.”

Pontefract and its marketing team won a Racecourse Association Showcase award in 2016 for its Art of Racing raceday theme, which has been repeated twice this year, and operates a meeting-by-meeting postcode lottery, giving away free tickets to different postcodes depending on the particular raceday.

Hammill’s approach has helped to dispel the perception that racecourses, particularly in the crowded Yorkshire area, are competing against each other. “Two Circles’ research has proved that that’s not the case,” he says.

“Every racecourse is unique and you need to know the people to whom you’re marketing and selling. What works at Pontefract won’t necessarily work at York or Ripon or Beverley, because they attract different racegoers, even though we’re all in fairly close proximity. The amount of overlap among the Yorkshire racecourses is quite small, and it helps us to work together more as a team.

“People are creatures of habit. They’ll come to Pontefract on, say, 21 September every year. They won’t think to themselves, ‘Oh we’ve been to Pontefract on 21 September for the last few years, let’s go to Beverley on 20 September’. It doesn’t work like that. You need to know your customers.”

Last word on Pontefract’s success in this area goes, as with most things connected with the West Yorkshire course, to general manager Norman Gundill, who admits: “I’m not a marketing man, never have been and never will be, so as I said at the Showcase awards last year, this is nothing whatsoever to do with me. I look at it from a practical and financial point of view; Richard’s biggest job is persuading me that something is the right thing to do. And he’s usually right.”