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Andrew Hodgkins and Andy Vinsen are the driving force behind sporting
hospitality giant Keith Prowse. We hooked up with them at Wimbledon to talk trends and discover how the sector has coped in tough times
It is 2.30pm on a glorious early summer’s day on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. The sliding roof, wonderfully redundant in the sunshine, is fully retracted. The sacred playing surface is a lush, vibrant green. And the wider, more comfortable seats – a concession to the changing shape of British backsides – are empty, giving the arena a silent, hallowed eminence. The 2011 tennis championship is just around the corner and over a courtside chat with Andrew Hodgkins and Andy Vinsen, MD and commercial director of corporate hospitality giant Keith Prowse, it’s soon clear that, for them, Wimbledon is the very essence of what their company is all about.
Both men, 20-year veterans of the industry, acknowledge that although hospitality has changed massively over the years, the core principles are the same. ‘People always say that clients want new
experiences,’ says Vinsen, ‘but by and large they don’t. What they want is to go to the ultimate sporting venues to see the UK’s greatest sporting events – be it the Wimbledon Final on Centre
Court, England v Wales at Twickenham in the 6 Nations, or the final day of The Open. If you can give them an experience that complements those amazing moments, you will be successful.’
It sounds simple, but in an increasingly competitive industry, offering a marquee, a few glasses of fizz and all the canapés you can eat is not going to cut it. At this year’s Wimbledon, for example, Andy and Andrew intend to take hospitality to a new level with the evolved Gatsby Club, a stunning art deco-style structure with service akin to top restaurants. It’s twice as big as Keith Prowse’s previous facility and will feature a nine-metre-high all-glass marquee, filled with Eames-inspired furnishings and food by legendary superchef Albert Roux. ‘It will be very contemporary, very modern and undoubtedly will have that wow factor,’
The championships personify where Andy and Andrew are looking to take modern corporate hospitality. They’re creating a broad range of packages, accessible to all manner of sports fans and companies with hospitality budgets. At entry level is The Experience Club, a relatively basic package with reserved seats, a buffet lunch and complimentary drinks for around £325 per person. At the top end of the spectrum are the bells-and-whistles Skyview Suites, a balconied private facility in the All England Club grounds. Not only will a personal chauffeur pick guests up from anywhere inside the M25 all day, but four-course à la carte meals come as standard, paired with a wine list that wouldn’t look out of place in a Michelin-starred restaurant. This kind of hospitality doesn’t come cheap, mind you. A price tag of £4,500 for Men’s Finals Day means packages are reserved for particularly good clients and the very best of friends.
It’s certainly a far cry from the early days of hospitality back in the late 1980s. Although Keith Prowse as a company dates back 220 years, when London gents and theatre aficionados William Keith and Robert Prowse became the first ticket agents, it was only then that a sophisticated form of sports hospitality – known initially as ‘Supersports’ – took shape. ‘The concept was borne out of an idea that a few guys at the company had,’ recalls Vinsen. ‘They were keen football fans who brought a couple of celebrities onto their table at an event. And they thought: “Hey, if we liked that, some of our mates might like it too”.’
The role of the ticket or hospitality agent hasn’t changed much since Masters William and Robert started the now-global firm. Agents act as middlemen, sourcing tickets at the best available price
and selling them on, earning a profit or commission. While it does still sell on packages for myriad worldwide events, KP has evolved, essentially becoming the organiser at many sports venues,
constructing hospitality facilities as the rights holder for big events. With more such official appointments than any of its competitors, it’s fair to say that the company is the UK hospitality
industry’s biggest player – see box on p. 187 for a full list.
For college graduates and self-confessed sport fanatics Andrew and Andy, it was the mixture of sport and business that led them to stumble into the industry. Hodgkins cheerily recalls tearing a Keith Prowse telesales job ad out of the Evening Standard while having a few beers one night. >> The morning after, he found it in his pocket and thought, why the hell not? And for Vinsen, who started off stuffing envelopes as a stop-gap before he went travelling, it was only after he started sticking his nose into the various Keith Prowse departments that he came across an area that grabbed his attention and has fascinated him ever since.
Supersports as a concept took off quickly, says Hodgkins. ‘Initially, it was quite easy to sell because the market was so new. Clients wanted to take a few people to some key events and we were able to make it happen. The big four back then were Wimbledon, Henley, Ascot and the Open Golf. People would take a marquee for the duration of an event, having different people along on consecutive days.’
If the idea was simple and straightforward, so was the service the company offered. ‘We look back on the things we did back then and they were almost laughable compared with today’s offerings,’ says Vinsen, with a chuckle. ‘But at the time they were cutting edge! For example, back then you couldn’t have air conditioning in a marquee.’ Likewise, the marketing of the business amounted to the production of a small brochure – worlds away from the high-tech video and online tools used today. The pamphlet would be mailed to thousands of people and then they would wait for the phone to ring. But with watershed UK sporting events such as the Ryder Cup of 1989, the Rugby World Cup two years later, and Euro ‘96, there was no shortage of callers.
As the business grew and stadia modernised, the corporate hospitality product evolved in tandem. At venues like the old Wembley, hospitality was catered for at the conference centre or exhibition halls, a very basic affair. But with the advent of modern arenas – the new Wembley, the Emirates and the Millennium Stadium – and with clients demanding higher standards and greater sophistication, the industry inevitably took on a life of its own. It also became far more competitive. ‘In the old days, I think people accepted they were at an off-site location, you were catering in a field somewhere, and they were realistic about the product they would receive,’ Hodgkins explains. ‘These days, the standard people expect has risen much higher. People eat out much more now, they want and demand a serious dining experience, and we have to deliver that.’
Fine-tuning and evolving the product is something that both Vinsen and Hodgkins have taken very seriously. From organising wine tastings for its clients to choose the lists at various hospitality facilities, to launching the entry-level Experience Club product in the midst of a recession, it’s a progressive approach that’s characterised the pair’s tenure. Next on the horizon is an online ticketing process, where guests receive their invites online, reducing the hassle of exchanging tickets between last-minute dropouts and invitees.
The guys have also had to face up to economic fluctuations. As a barometer of the financial feel-good factor, corporate hospitality knows the peaks and troughs, as the recent slump proved only too well. ‘We saw the recession coming and we were hit reasonably hard, there’s no denying that,’ says Hodgkins. ‘And it forced us to change the business, change the internal structure, but we came out of it stronger. These things force you to reassess your business and that is never a bad thing.’
Far harder to deal with are random acts of God that are impossible to foresee. Bad weather can mean early lunch, rain delays, late tea, or bad light stops play… all of which, when you are catering for 2,000 people, is a logistical nightmare. And then there are the real horror stories. Both Andrew and Andy still recoil at the memory of one event from their recent past: Cheltenham 2008. ‘That was the worst one,’ Hodgkins says with a rueful smile. ‘Our hospitality facility was actually blown down a couple of days before the race meeting began. It was awful. But we had to deal with it so we got most of the company involved in sorting it out. We re-housed all our guests in other facilities around the course, and we gave people the experience they wanted. But having your hospitality facility actually blown down… that’s about as bad as it gets.’
With the worst of times come the best of times, and it is delivering the unforgettable experiences (for the right reasons) that still drives Keith Prowse forward. But where can the pair see
hospitality going? ‘We’re looking to make it become even more experiential,’ says Vinsen as he casts his eye over Centre Court. ‘We work with Pat Cash and have a package where you can play a set of
tennis with him, a former Wimbledon champion, have a shower then sit down to a meal prepared by a celebrity chef such as Albert Roux. When you’ve finished, you then pick up your ticket and go and
watch a game on Centre Court.’
He smiles. ‘That’s the kind of experience that once you would have said money can’t buy. But actually, you can.’
Call Keith Prowse for hospitality enquiries
tel: 0845 415 0628
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events, summer 2011