Aintree improve accessibility ahead of Grand National

AFTER the Cheltenham Festival in Gloucestershire, all roads lead to the North West this week for the next prestige fixture in the jumps calendar, the Randox Health Grand National meeting at Aintree where the eyes of the racing world will be trained not just on the horses and jockeys but also on customer facilities.

Jockey Club Racecourses, which operates the event that attracts the biggest worldwide television audience in British sport outside the Olympics and the Football World Cup, has paid extra attention to the needs of disabled racegoers in their preparations, as demonstrated by its evidence in a survey carried out by the Racecourse Association.

All racecourses were asked detailed questions about individual accessibility for racegoers with physical, sensory and mental disabilities, and the RCA is in the final stages of collating the responses.

The survey sought to focus on five key areas: ensuring that each racecourse has conducted audits, is working with partners, is guaranteeing best practice, conducts adequate staff training, and makes clear on its website what facilities are on offer.

RCA communications executive Will Aitkenhead explains: “We think these five areas are comprehensive and the responses will enable us to see which courses are doing things well and which may need our help, using the best practice that others have implemented. It’s a strategy we’ve used in other areas of general customer service, and all the racecourses are on board.”

The survey was compiled with Level Playing Field, the national charity dedicated to breaking down barriers for disabled people attending sports stadia and venues by ensuring that sites are fully accessible and inclusive.

Aitkenhead adds: “Level Playing Field worked with us previously on updating guidance for racecourses. They have experience not just of sports stadia but leisure venues in general, which is important because we want racecourses to be comparable with what people expect on the high street, if not better.”

Management at Aintree has taken guidance from Level Playing Field and worked with similar agencies, alongside benchmarking their accessibility against other sporting and leisure venues. John Baker, North West Regional Director for Jockey Club Racecourses tells us more.

Racegoers during Ladies Day, day two of the Randox Health Grand National festival held at Aintree, Liverpool on 7th April, 2017

John Baker, North West Regional Director for Jockey Club Racecourses

All racecourses are conscious of improving accessibility for disabled people, and they have done what they can. For us, the Stewart family – Andy and particularly his son Paul – were the ones who said we had to step up our game.

You can make assumptions – we’ve done this bar or this betting area, we’ve provided a shuttle service, for example – but until you actually hear from someone with first-hand experience, you realise you’ve probably missed things.

Paul was brilliant, giving up his time and providing realistic feedback. By listening to him, we realised we had ticked some boxes but needed to live and breathe exactly what it is like, and had to look at it from every customer touchpoint.

To improve the overall experience for disabled people we have worked with a local council group, the Sefton Access Forum, which recently joined forces with Ability Network to form a new scheme, Ability Plus, and we regularly benchmark our facilities against Liverpool FC, St Helens Rugby and the Liverpool One shopping centre.

It’s also important to have an independent audit, so we engaged the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA), which cover lots of different venues and are incredibly helpful. We also encourage feedback, from which we can listen and learn. Positive feedback, which recognises what you’ve tried to do, is a bonus, because we don’t want to provide just an average experience but a really good one.

All customer expectations have changed. The world moves on and you have to keep pace, and it’s the same for disabled customers, so having the right facilities for them is just as important as it for our other customers. It’s a feature in which our team take great pride.

We get 150,000 attending over the three days of the Grand National meeting, when the massive temporary facilities provide the biggest accessibility challenge, and race on only five other days, but catering for disabled visitors is not just about racedays.

It’s about all the days that Aintree is open, for conferences and other non-raceday activities. It’s also about our community programme, working with the likes of Riding for the Disabled and organisations involved with dementia and the blind. That’s hugely important to us, and occupies our thinking throughout the year, not just on racedays.

We could concentrate just on the Grand National meeting, but if we don’t have similar facilities on an everyday basis, it won’t work. Improving accessibility doesn’t affect massive volumes of people, but that’s not the point. We’re trying to improve the experience for everybody, so everything we do around the community programme, conferences and events is done because we are custodians of the Grand National and need to make sure the race is still here in a hundred years’ time.

Therefore, it’s important that at every touchpoint, every customer who comes to Aintree has a great experience and goes away talking about it to other people. Disabled people tend to travel quite long distances, and they are the ones likely to give you feedback.

There’s more we can do, but here’s an opportunity for racecourses, who can be pro-active and get the message across to all customers that their facilities are up to scratch and they can have a good experience.