Fontwell Park gears up for richest fixture of the year

ROUND and round, up and up: Fontwell Park is heading in the right direction on the back of a campaign to understand better its customers’ expectations and engage more with them.

The figure-of-eight Sussex jumping course was in the top three British tracks for increased attendances in 2016, logging an 18 per cent rise that included record crowds on Family Fun Day and Ladies’ Day, and is hoping for more of the same from its richest fixture of the season on Sunday 26 February, the Totepool National Spirit Hurdle meeting, which offers £127,700 in total prize-money.

Simon Williams, Fontwell’s executive director since March 2014, says there is no particular secret to the success, other than listening more closely to the track’s visitors, whether racegoers or owners.

“When I came here, I thought there was more we could do about our insight and understanding of customers and what they wanted,” he explains. “There wasn’t a lot of research on which to formulate strategy, so I set about putting marketing and the consumer at the forefront of everything we did.

“It’s easy to talk about music nights and ladies’ days, but it’s just as important for us to tell people why it’s important to come to the races and get involved in the racing, to explain how thrilling it is.

“After all, we’re a racecourse, we do racing, but I don’t think we always do enough to market our actual sport. We’re now making more effort to talk about the racing, the type of trainers who are supporting us, and the horses we attract for races such as the National Spirit Hurdle, which is a very relevant race in the calendar.

“And that’s underpinned our attendances. For example, we’ve not raced in January for a number of years because of bad weather, but this year we raced twice and our crowds have been pretty strong, because we’ve used social media to get our message out there.”

Creating the right message for Fontwell has involved assessing research details provided by the sports data company Two Circles, brought in by the RCA to conduct studies that have been further refined to suit individual racecourses’ needs.

“We have 24 fixtures and essentially put on 24 events a year,” Williams points out. “The Two Circles data tell you that people don’t come racing very often, maybe one or two times a year, so you are having to re-market your racecourse almost 24 times a year.

“We wholeheartedly support the Two Circles research, because it is absolutely fundamental to making strategic decisions, such as introducing a significant differential between our advanced and walk-up ticket prices, and also putting together what we call a complete raceday package.

“Two Circles told us that one of the major concerns of the general public was that people weren’t sure they understood how much it would cost once they were here. The ticket price wasn’t necessarily a barrier; it was more about what the full day would cost.

“We found that packages, which give racegoers a part of what’s involved early on, such as entry, a free bet, a drink, a hot-meal voucher and a racecard, are added value for money, and once we started going out with that as a headline, growth was incredible. We went from selling 30 to 600, which tells you that people are looking for a deal but they also want a better idea of what they are going to spend on a day at the races.”

Williams adds: “We’ve tried talking to people more, to understand their habits and to make things more personal. The more you learn, the more you can tailor your strategy.

“We act on any insight we can gather, with the result we’ve become a much more consumer-facing racecourse. For instance, our themed days are based on what people want, not what we think they want, and they have been better attended.”

Marketing manager Max Roberts, picks up the listening theme, explaining how a change of strategy was introduced for last year’s family day.

“We’d always done a big campaign centred on a familiar children’s character,” he says. “It has worked on other courses in the group, but our research told us that families wanted to come racing on a Sunday and occupy their children throughout with lots of attractions, rather than just one that they might miss anyway.

“So, we brought in a variety of activities, from an assault course to pony rides, which cost us about the same as having a central character, and we had a record attendance. It was all about understanding what customers wanted and providing it.”

Fontwell’s family day was selected for the finals of last year’s RCA Showcase event in the Best Campaign category, while the course also featured in judging for the Digital & Social Media and Owners’ Experience sections.

Roberts recalls: “Finding Miss Fontwell was a campaign we did for ladies’ day, where we started working with House of Fraser in Chichester to run a fashion show. Our budget wasn’t big enough to pay for models, so we asked the general public to enter themselves, and we put them to a public vote on Facebook. In effect, we had 20-30 women promoting the event for us through social media, which was much more effective than direct advertising.

“In fact, this was essentially zero-budget marketing. Our marketing spend would be dwarfed by a reasonably sized brand, but if you get digital right, it’s incredibly cost effective because you can reach an enormous audience.”

On the drive to improve the owners’ experience, Williams says: “I don’t mind admitting we had had some complaints, and I didn’t feel we communicated well enough or put enough emphasis on their them, from when they drove into the car park to what they had to eat and drink, to how they could view their horses, and we didn’t engage with them afterwards.

“We’ve addressed all those things, because we want them to feel like valued guests. After all, they are the product and we’d do very little without them. We’ve got a lovely facility in Fontwell House but we weren’t making enough of it, so now we try to make them feel special from the moment they arrive.

“In a year we’ve gone from getting complaints to getting praise from the majority, with about 20 per cent more people coming to owners’ and trainers’ than previously. And the more owners and trainers who are supporting us, the bigger the field sizes, which has a knock-on effect all the way down, because better field sizes and better horses provide a better product for the consumer.”