Fakenham Racecourse – The Showcase converts

Showcase nominations are in, and the panel of judges will have a new name to consider as the event that promotes best practice among racecourses works towards the climax of a fullday seminar and awards evening at Doncaster on 17 November.

The appearance of Norfolk’s sole jumps track Fakenham among the submissions represents vindication for the concept itself but also a change of heart by chief executive and clerk of the course David Hunter, who admits: “I was sceptical of Showcase at first in as much as I thought it was just another self-congratulatory gathering of RCA members, another awards evening to go with all the other industry awards evenings.”

However, seeing was believing, and now he says: “After attending the last two events, at Haydock and Ascot, I’ve changed my mind. Showcase sets an example, not just to other racecourses but to the industry, of what everyone is getting on and doing, being innovative and thinking how we can promote ourselves and keep abreast of changes and developments of all kinds.

“Of course, you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water, and must keep things that are quirky and historical, which work for one racecourse but might not for another. It’s often down to local areas, but you can take ideas and experiences from other racecourses and adapt them for your own benefit.”

Hunter’s thinking has been crystalised with the help of new marketing executive Dalia Courridge, for whom a major brief is to develop a digital strategy for Fakenham, which opens its new season on 14 October.

“Showcase has helped us to concentrate on our commitment to being as integrated as we can to the digital age, by way of communications, social media and all that they entail,” Hunter explains, “and Dalia has been engaged specifically for that purpose. I’m not a Twitter or Facebook person; it’s just not my thing, but I know its importance in promoting one’s business, and that’s where Dalia comes in.

“It can be difficult to put a handle on its effect, but it’s all about capturing data. Until Dalia came here, we didn’t do any of that. So that, and working with Two Circles on the information side, is very important.”

Bringing Fakenham bang up to date will involve laying a fibre optic cable – “at considerable expense,” Hunter says – to enable better email and internet connection, and full wireless connectivity throughout the course.

“We will be able to e-ticket for advance sales and start taking payment by credit card,” he adds. “We’re unusual in that the majority of our guests pay their entrance fee from their cars, rather than parking and walking to an entrance, almost like a point-to-point, and we’re not going to change that, but it will make a big difference to be able to check tickets, or instead of handing over cash they will be able to pay by credit card, from their cars.

“Having this connectivity also means the bars will be able to take credit cards, which will make another big di!erence.”

“Of course, you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water, and must keep things that are quirky and historical”

Adding a tech-savvy element to Fakenham’s customer service is one of the ways the course can compete alongside some of its bigger brethren, Hunter believes, and there could be further benefits in the future.

“Once the system is in place, we’ll make sure we’ve got the right integration so that we glean guests’ data, which is part of building up a database that is of huge commercial value in going for sponsorship,” he says.

“The race name might be the outward sign to the industry for a sponsor but they really want to work more closely with our customers, to whom we can aim our communications more specifically.

“In addition, once we’ve got a huge tube in the ground, three quarters of a mile long, we’ll have far greater capacity than we need at the moment, but in planning for the future, we’ll be able to feed in a new cable if necessary.

“Looking ahead to new media rights’ deals, we’ve just signed up with The Racing Partnership, which will take over from our SIS agreement next year. There will come a time when being able get data and pictures through a fibre optic cable will come to all racecourses, so we’re already halfway there.”

Providing services that professionals and public alike have come to expect from a modern sports operator is all the more important given Fakenham’s location, Hunter says.

“We’re at the end of the line, and that’s not going to change. Yet while we’re not the only people doing everything we can to increase our numbers of runners, it’s foremost in our minds, and it’s incumbent on us to keep addressing the issue.

“We have invested a lot recently, especially in the new owners’ and trainers’ bar, and for jockeys with a new weighing room, providing better facilities for these important customers, but we need to do more to ensure we get increased field sizes.

“The biggest problem is the perception that we’re too far away. Yet we haven’t moved!

“These days, though, people assume there will be a motorway that gets them within a few hundred yards of a racecourse, and it’s sometimes forgotten that you have to add the extra time to get to certain places. it was never an issue when I first came here, but perceptions have changed.“

“That’s why it’s important that when owners, trainers and racegoers do get here, we give them nice, comfortable facilities, with good service and decent food. For the jockeys they have top quality facilities to change in and relax, and be dealt with efficiently by the medical staff if necessary.”