York defending Showcase title

While Chief Executive William Derby and his team surveyed the soggy scene at York racecourse over the last few weeks, thoughts had already turned to sunny summer days and defence of the title of Showcase Champion 2015, not to mention a White Rose award for the Yorkshire tourism event of the year.

Already named top track in the separate Racecourse Groundstaff Champion category, York went on to scoop the sections for Food & Beverage and Owners’ Experience in the Racecourse Association’s sixth annual Showcase Awards, leaving the judging panel with a relatively simple task of declaring the overall champion.

Reflecting on the achievement, Derby says: “It’s great for the team, because so many people contribute to the events, the racedays and the whole venue, so it’s rewarding to get recognition for that hard work.

“We are the first to acknowledge that all racecourses have fantastic elements and experiences to them, and to be noted by a peer group where quality and experience keeps rising is a great accolade.”

As well as completing a new development at the northern end of the course, York has invested heavily in turf management, and to win the Groundstaff Award again gave Derby special pleasure.

“No grounds team lives in a perfect world, because every track is connected to its climate and soil and local conditions,” he says, “and it’s no secret that York, amongst a number of other racecourses, is a difficult piece of land to manage.

“Our team have now won the award three times in the last five years, which is a great tribute to them and the leadership of head groundsman Adrian Kay. It also demonstrates the importance placed on the racing surface by the York Race Committee, which puts the focus of everything we do on the horse and the racing action, whether it’s prize-money or facilities.

“The fact that the groundstaff team are so willing to discuss what they do with others in the industry, as well as mentor other head groundsmen, is an illustration of how we try to share best practice.

“Adrian is a director of the Institute of Groundsmanship and involved at an industry level across all sports, which is a great ambassadorial role for racing itself. He regularly talks to groundsmen at Premier League football grounds, Wimbledon and rugby league and cricket grounds, and that cross-sharing and fertilisation of ideas is as important in their world as it is in racecourse management.”

Sharing ideas and best practice has been an evolving feature of the Showcase concept, and Derby believes it comes through in York’s results.

“That’s what’s so pleasing about the whole momentum of the Showcase process success over the last six years,” he says.

“In general we’re not competing against each other but against the High Street and experiences elsewhere, and one of the reasons we’re so positive about the Showcase process, especially the day’s seminar and workshop experience, is the culture of learning from other racing and sporting venues.

“For example, it shows itself in the way we look at other food and beverage businesses, such as in trendy coffee shops in London, to see whether we can borrow or steal ideas from each other or elsewhere.”

York’s success in the Showcase Food & Beverage category was based on a presentation titled ‘From pizza to parfait, from rose to red berry cider’, and centred on a regional aspect served in stylish facilities.

Derby explains: “We’re very lucky to live in a county where we buy our vegetables, meat and fish locally and have a huge focus on home-made, fresh food, delivered in a style and a way that offers excellent quality and good value for money, and is served in great facilities.

“What was pleasing about the Showcase process was not necessarily the impact of the big capital investments we’ve made but the little touches that the judges said they liked, the elements that made the new areas individual and special, which were an example of empowering the team to run with an idea.”

Horsemen were at the heart of developments that York completed for last May’s opening, and the project’s success was reflected in the Showcase award in the Owners’ Experience category.

Derby says: “This aspect has shifted up a gear everywhere, but for us it was a case of tracking the whole journey for the owner, starting with the entrance, where we wanted people with a runner to be made to feel welcome and special, in an environment that reflected the quality of the racing.

“So we’ve got the Sir Henry Cecil gate and the Frankel statue to give a flavour of history and heritage to the arrival, while our owners’ club area is very exclusive, greatly positioned with the parade ring and the track adjacent.

“The way we have structured our catering, beginning with a dedicated manager who knows the owners and can welcome them, is tailored to what an owner wants, when they want to eat, and to a quality and style appropriate to the course.

“We want people to aspire to have winners at York, so we created a circular winning connections’ area just by the parade ring, with an iconic building where after the race they can celebrate appropriately.

“The response has been fantastic. We had a record number of runners in 2015, and a record number of owners’ badges issued and lunches served, all done to a level of personalisation. These are very important measures to us, because they tell us whether we are achieving our objectives.”

And so to the overall award as Showcase Champion, which Derby says depended greatly on the huge amount of thought and work put in by Marketing Manager Amy Swales and her team.

“The general idea of our presentations was to capture the essence of innovation and what we’ve tried to do differently, reflecting what we wanted to do from the start of the year and how we assessed it at the end of the year,” he says.

“They had a lot of helpful guidance and feedback from the RCA team, and the whole process of learning and sharing is a credit to the RCA and the raceday experience group.”

Now comes the hard part – building on the success of 2015 but without the benefit of a £10 million development to work around.

Derby says: “The team have a track record of developing and innovating, and we are keen to keep moving forward.

“We are working on a number of projects during the winter. For instance, we want to improve the experience in the picnic area in the centre of the course, for people coming racing at a lower cost than the main enclosures, and we’re looking to make more of the heritage of the old Edwardian weighing room.

“These are physical projects, but at the same time we have to go on applying best practice from elsewhere, starting by carefully going through all of the other Showcase submissions. Some things we’re already doing; some are applicable to us and we’ll be looking to develop them for our own use, and others are more bespoke to the individual racecourses so wouldn’t apply to us.

“You can’t rest on your laurels. The bar keeps getting raised, in terms of both the competition and our customers’ expectations. At the same time, we’ve also got to keep raising our own bar.”