A BIT OF A DO
Few events are as quintessentially English as the Henley Royal Regatta. Annica Wainwright reports on a truly British summer classic.
If we had to choose one occasion to sum up ‘The Season’ from a hospitality perspective, it would probably be Henley. A firmly established date in the sporting calendar (the first regatta was held in 1839), this well-respected event has all the makings of a British summer classic, including royal patronage and a quirky dress code (men get away with blazers and straw hats but women can’t wear trousers, and hemlines must fall well below the knee). But above all – and despite what victims of the famously strict onsite fashion police might say – a visit to Henley is all about having fun.
The experience starts before you even get to Berkshire and the ultimate way to arrive is, of course, by boat (for ideas, contact Chelsea Charters, tel: 020 7376 3344). But there’s also great fun to be had on the train, where boaters far outnumber commuters, creating a lively, expectant atmosphere that, if it weren’t for the Champagne being passed around in plastic cups, would feel a bit like a school trip.
Those who do bring their cars tend to be hardened British picnickers. They set off early as much to avoid the traffic as to soak up the atmosphere in the Henley parking lot, where competition is almost as fierce as on the river. However, here it’s not about speed, but about who can bring the most home comforts. Anything from crystal glassware and suites of garden furniture – gazebos, even – are produced from the well-stocked boots of people carriers and 4x4s.
Walking past, you can’t help but smile at the Englishness of it all and this feeling continues inside the enclosures, where non-sporting entertainment centres around that English essential, the bandstand. Onsite restaurants serve traditional afternoon tea as well as lunch, and the demand for Pimm’s is so great that fruit-filled pitchers are topped up at specially designed draught pumps, through which the national drink comes ready-mixed with lemonade.
To an outsider, it’s all rather exotic and although Henley offers a wonderful opportunity to introduce foreign guests to our summer traditions – Americans, in particular, love this sort of thing – it isn’t exactly everyday fodder for your average Brit either. This is especially true if your invitation includes access to one of the impressive hospitality areas (see below) or the legendary Stewards Enclosure, reserved for members and their guests.
Unless you visit on the day of the finals, don’t expect much focus to be placed on the actual boat racing. With heats staged at five-minute intervals throughout the day, spectators tend to dip in and out between bouts of more pressing business, such as eating, drinking and socialising.
Not that the sporting element isn’t exciting, mind. Henley Royal Regatta attracts world-class rowers and operates a knock-out-draw in which one team is eliminated after each heat.
But, like most great British summer events, it doesn’t just do what it says on the tin. As much an opportunity to see and be seen, this is first and foremost a great day out or, to put it in plain English, ‘a bit of a do’.
HOSPITALITY AT HENLEY REGATTA
Corporate packages for the Royal Regatta are available through Prestige Hospitality (tel: 0870 421 4868). Groups of 24 or more can hire a luxury riverside chalet with its own bar, dining area and private garden, while tables in the Temple Island Restaurant can be booked for as few as two guests. Both options offer excellent opportunities for entertaining clients or staff.