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Gary England would never have predicted that he’d fall in love with Ascot, but four years on, Anna Longmore finds that the director of hospitality is leading the celebrated venue in new directions
If you were to bump into Gary England doing his daily rounds at Royal Ascot – top hat buffed to a sheen, immaculately tailored morning suit, Royal Enclosure badge pinned proudly to his lapel – it would be hard to imagine him doing anything else. Articulate but softly spoken, well-heeled but understated, and significantly calmer than a man who is hosting 300,000 people has any right to be, England might have been plucked from the society pages of Tatler.
Rewind 10 years, however, and it’s a very different picture. England, a committed urbanite, had his ‘dream job’ at the Barbican. It’s worth mentioning at this point that he is a rampant devotee of the theatre: for more than a decade of his two spent in London, he took in performances six days a week, including both a matinée and an evening show on Saturdays. So as head of commercial sales at an arts venue – at a time when the new Labour government had cut arts funding across the board – he was able to use his business acumen to support an area he loved. ‘The Barbican is one of the few places in the world with such a breadth of programming,’ says England. ‘It really opened my eyes to the importance of the arts.’ Indeed, it was seven years before his eye started roving again.
In 2005, a sales and marketing director’s role came up at Ascot. But England, who could count the number of racing meets he’d attended on one hand, was more than a little hesitant. ‘If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said that I’d never work out of London and never at a sports venue,’ he says. This wasn’t any old sports venue, though. ‘Two things appealed to me about Ascot,’ he remembers. ‘Firstly, the level of investment – it’s not often that you get the opportunity to become part of a team that opens a £200-million venue. And secondly, Royal Ascot is an event with almost 300 years of history and heritage. There are other race meetings that are as important but without the history and the pageantry, without the place in the summer season, the fashion element and the overall sense of occasion. It’s unique to any other sporting event, or any other event, in the world.’
And so it was that the great festival started to work its magic. ‘I thought, I’ll go, open the building and do two Royal Ascots. It’ll look great on my CV and then I’ll come back to London,’ he remembers. He joined Ascot in October 2005 and, having just been promoted, he’s still very much there today.
England describes his first nine months as ‘being in a pressure cooker... When you open a new venue, you form such strong bonds with the team. You’re working 18 or 19-hour days to get the building open. You never know whether you’re going to get that chemistry and we were very fortunate. Missing the deadline was never an option.’
The grandstand opened (on time and on budget) at Royal Ascot 2006. England remembers the day as one of the defining moments of his career. He had spent the last few months pouring over CGI images, selling ‘a fantasy’. ‘In the brilliant sunshine on the opening day, the grandstand looked identical to the images,’ he recalls. ‘It was like watching a painting come to life. It was at exactly that point that I fell in love with the place.’
The following year, England made his own mark on Royal Ascot with the introduction of the fashion show in The Bessborough Restaurant. To his mind, this was a no-brainer, just cementing the age-old relationship between Royal Ascot and fashion, but he didn’t want any old fashion show. ‘It had to have credibility, be of the same standard as London Fashion Week. Ascot was always about high fashion.’
The continuing relationships with top British designers – beyond the catwalks and into long-lasting partnerships – is the other achievement that England is most proud of. In 2008, milliner Philip Treacy was invited to offer his interpretation of Royal Ascot for the launch brochure – a striking series of monochrome shots of Martha Sitwell followed; in 2009, he enlisted the creative vision of Vivienne Westwood.
England had set his sights on Westwood well in advance. ‘I had a list of designers that I wanted to work with. Number one was Vivienne,’ he says. ‘It was a case of calling her office regularly for a number of months and generally making a nuisance of myself. Eventually, I was given 20 minutes to pitch to her.’ Fortunately, Westwood liked the idea. On the face of it, an anarchic designer famous for punk styling and political activism might not have been the obvious match, but England had done his research. ‘She’s quite unique, very avant garde but her designs are also incredibly British. She has a great respect and admiration for the monarchy and tradition and a lot of her tailoring is rooted in historical garments.’
This constant development of the brand is something that England is passionate about. ‘Royal Ascot has to be relevant if it’s going to retain its place in the calendar. Equally, you have to be respectful of the 300 years of tradition – it’s a very fine line.’ The combination of this reverence for heritage, alongside some commercial nous, has earned England the respect of Ascot’s directors and trustees.
When it comes to generating ideas, England draws extensively on his love of the visual arts. The concept for the 2010 Royal Ascot marketing campaign came to him at the Annie Leibovitz exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, for example. But he also owes many of his ideas to the M4, or at least to the three hours a day he spent commuting from London before moving to Berkshire last month. ‘The monotony of driving really allows your mind to wander,’ he explains.
However, England’s job is not all about creative musing and tea with Vivienne Westwood. His recent promotion to director of hospitality brings with it responsibility for all the food and beverage operations at the racecourse. For Royal Ascot, that means 14 hospitality restaurants, 262 boxes, four public restaurants and more than 100 retail outlets. Keeping 300,000 people happy over the five days is not easy, but it appeals to England’s sense of theatre. ‘I always say that every day of Royal Ascot is like opening night at the theatre. There’s that same sense of occasion and adrenalin.’
Then there’s the rest of the year. ‘We may be working on Royal in some capacity for 51 weeks a year, but we race every month and it’s a busy racecourse. Outside of the racing, we also have a very busy conference and events centre and not many people are aware that Ascot is used a lot as a film location.’ Little wonder then, that England puts in between 10 and 14 hours a day. Despite this unrelenting work ethic, the creative juices show no signs of drying up. This year sees the launch of a new partnership with big names from the restaurant world, as Michel and Alain Roux bring the three Michelin-starred Waterside Inn to The Panoramic Restaurant at Royal Ascot. Plans for ‘lots of special events’ for the centenary in 2011 are under discussion and 2012 will bring the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and, of course, the Olympics.
In the midst of all this, England is still pinching himself about the satisfaction he gets from the job that wasn’t supposed to last. ‘No one is more surprised than me that I get so much more pleasure out of Ascot than I did the Barbican,’ he says. ‘On paper, I should never have taken this job.’ Nearly five years later, however, he’s more aware of the magnitude of the institution in which he operates. ‘A colleague said recently, Ascot is bigger than any one person – at Ascot, you’re a guardian for a period of time.’ Right now, it seems, the 300-year-old treasure is in very safe hands.