- Function Rooms: 300
- Max Meeting: 0
- Max Dinner: 0
- Max Reception: 0
- Day delegate rate: £68
Ascot Racecourse reopened in a flurry of publicity in June 2006. Most reports were good, some were bad – so what’s it really like? Annica Wainwright had a good look around, both during Royal Ascot and at Square Meal’s reader event at the venue
OK, let’s face it: any redevelopment of a venue as iconic as Ascot Racecourse was always going to be controversial. Its world-famous royal meeting dates back to 1711 and is now Europe’s single most popular race meting, attracting more than 300,000 visitors over five days. A further 20 fixtures help bring the annual visitor figure to over half a million racegoers, which translates as an impressive 10 per cent of the national total. Taking into account that there are 59 racecourses in the UK, one can safely say that this one is popular.
Indeed, a great many fans have been coming here religiously for years and had unsurprisingly grown rather fond of the old Ascot, despite all its flaws. So, even if someone had designed the perfect racecourse to replace it – which is pretty much what HOK Sport+Venue+Event (the architects also behind the Millennium Stadium, Sydney’s Olympic Stadium and Wembley) have done here – there would always be nostalgic grumblings about how it was better in the good old days.
My introduction to Ascot was during this year’s royal meeting, held between 20-24 June, when the racecourse was officially reopened following its £200m redevelopment. As an ‘outsider’ who hadn’t experienced the venue before, I was able to look at the facilities with unbiased eyes and I must say I was very impressed with what has been achieved here. Architecturally, the new Grandstand is quite awesome. Defined by a spectacular ‘parasol roof’ suspended on ‘structural trees’, the bold mix of glass and aluminium looks almost futuristic and the lofty interior is flooded in natural light. But it’s the thought that has so obviously gone into every aspect of its design that really makes this place stand out.
A key objective was to make the racing experience more inclusive, which has been achieved by switching from horizontal to vertical segregation of the general admission and Royal Enclosure areas. Where the old Ascot had several ‘no-go’ areas at concourse level, anyone is now free to roam the ground floor and great fun can be had standing next to the double-height glass escalators, watching the fashion parade float past as hospitality guests make their way to the restaurants above. Similarly, the Parade Ring has been extended to accommodate 8,000 people, making it the largest such facility of any racecourse to date.
Equally important was to allow for swift movement of people, as Gary England, the director of sales and marketing for Ascot Hospitality, explains: ‘People who come to the races want to be able to view the horses in the parade ring, place a bet, get a drink and make it back to their seats in time for the start. At the old course, you’d be lucky to get two or three of those things done between races but now it’s very easily done.’
Even so, it is the changes in layout that have most upset ‘old timers’, who complain all the bars they used to meet at have now been replaced, which means they’re not as likely to bump into the same old crowd year on year. Admittedly, the new food and beverage outlets at concourse level – think soulless modern concessions for fish & chips, Pimm’s and Champagne – are probably the least endearing features of the new Grandstand, but it should still be possible to find a new favourite meeting point.
Something that certainly can’t be complained about is the quality of racing on offer. In fact, as the course itself has also been upgraded, this is now better than ever. But Royal Ascot is about so much more than that. Fashion, of course, is a biggie – I can’t think of anywhere else that attracts so many extravagantly dressed people to a single place – and, from a business perspective, there’s plenty of scope for top-notch hospitality.
The new Grandstand has four main hospitality restaurants, each with its own characteristics that will appeal to different types of clients. The most exclusive (and expensive) is the Parade Ring Restaurant, which arguably offers the best hospitality package of any racecourse in the world. Located on level two, with views of the Parade Ring through floor-to-ceiling windows as well as from a private balcony, it will be particularly appreciated by dedicated racing fans, who can check out the horses ahead of each race and then head for specially reserved seating by the finish line, right next to the Royal Box (obviously a main draw for Hello! Readers).
Also good for racing fans is the Trackside Restaurant, a marquee-style structure at concourse level with head-on views of the racing action. As the cheapest of these hospitality options, it has the most informal atmosphere and could easily be enjoyed with colleagues and friends as well as clients.
For something a bit more intimate, try the Windsor Forest Restaurant, which can be hired exclusively for groups of up to 70 guests. Like all the hospitality restaurants, it has its own betting facilities, as well as a bar, dining area and balcony with views of the race course, ensuring the possibility of enjoying a completely private experience. Alternatively, some 270 privately owned boxes, seating 12-24 guests, are available for sublets.
Square Meal’s choice for this year’s Royal Ascot was the Panoramic Restaurant on the top floor, where we enjoyed stunning views of the race course (this, we were told, is the only place in the Grandstand where you can see the entire racecourse) while feeling privileged to be part of an experience that was exclusive without feeling enclosed. The people-watching from up here was great, so while it might not be considered ‘up-close and personal’ enough for the most dedicated racing fans (you could, of course, wonder down to concourse level for this), it is certainly a top choice for groups where the overall experience is more important than the actual racing. Also a good spot for entertaining clients who are interested in architecture, the top floor allows visitors to view a fascinating cross-section of the new building.
Foodies, too, are well catered for and it is fitting that the hospitality restaurants are indeed called restaurants, for that’s exactly the kind of experience they offer. Not only do individual tables have the opportunity to choose what time they want to have their lunch served, but there’s also extensive choice on the very tempting menu. Everything we tried, from the delicious canapes served with Champagne on arrival right through to the fabulous Victoria sponge offered as part of the traditional afternoon tea, was of quite exceptional quality. Indeed, the likes or lobster with white truffle cappuccino easily qualified as the best banqueting food we’ve ever eaten – and, coming from our greedy selves, that’s saying something!
But don’t just take our word for it. Also in the Panoramic Restaurant was a group from Sun Chemical. We caught up with their sales director, Alan Burton, who had nothing but praise for what he described as ‘one of the better venues in the world’. He said: ‘I’m delighted with the way the day turned out. We actually didn’t move around much as everything we needed was right there. I think the hospitality has been great value – the food, in particular, has been excellent and the staff are very attentive – we’re definitely rebooking for next year.’
All the hospitality restaurants are, of course, available to hire outside race days, when it’s also possible to take over the entire Grandstand Galleria, which offers over 4,000sq m of exhibition space, as well as the plush surrounds of the Royal Ascot Racing Club’s restaurant and lounge (out of bounds for non-members during the royal meeting). With six further mid-sized function rooms and some 270 of the private boxes helping to bring the venue’s total number of available rooms to 300, one can safely say it can cater for just about any event, particularly when taking the 186 acres of outdoor space into consideration too.
On 7 July this year, Dell Computers became one of the first companies to hold an event at Ascot. Having chosen the venue for its proximity to Heathrow Airport (and, of course for the excitement of seeing the new structure), it used the semi-permanent Triple-Decker marquee in the grounds of the new racecourse to host a conference and dinner for 600 guests, with fairground rides and games on the Old Paddock Lawns. Shareen Pensar, PA to the vice president of Dell UK, said the organisers were very pleased with their choice of venue: ‘The feedback from everyone here has been fantastic. It all ran very smoothly and staff were exceptional on the evening.’
We chose to host our recent reader event in the Royal Ascot Racing Club, where top event organisers from all over London enjoyed afternoon tea and a presentation on ‘What Was Worn at Royal Ascot’. This was led by Paul Smith Women’s design director, Sandra Hill, who had accompanied the Square Meal events team to the royal meeting and put together a fantastic slide show of all the best (and worst!) outfits. Afterwards, guests were given an exclusive tour of the new facilities, followed by a Champagne and canape reception in the Royal Ascot Racing Club lounge, overlooking the racecourse. Every last guest was impressed with the venue.
‘As soon as you walk up to the entrance, you can see that it is a very grand and impressive building and that a lot of work has been done to it – it was unrecognisable from the old Ascot,’ said Louisa Bundy, an event manager with Incisive Media, who told us she’d love to take an event to Ascot. Amanda Good, head of sponsorship and events at Invesco Perpetual was equally enthused. ‘I was surprised at just how big the new stand is and how extensive the facilities on offer are. I thought the meeting rooms were great – stylish and contemporary with state-of-the-art facilities – but my favourite room was the Parade Ring Restaurant. I would consider hosting a small group here on a race day, possibly combining a morning’s business meeting with an afternoon’s racing,’ she said.
Of course, Royal Ascot is not the be all and end all in terms of hospitality at Ascot Racecourse. A wide range of entertainment options is also available for its other fixtures. Expect a busy year ahead for the most talked-about new racecourse in the world.
-Book well ahead. Tickets are usually released in October and the best hospitality packages sell out fast. If you like the idea of a private box, you’ll need to get on the waiting list for a
-Turn up early (car parks open at 9am and the gates at 10.30am). The day flies by quickly and you’ll want to make the most of the generous hospitality – plus, there’s less traffic to fight through if you leave London ahead of the crowds.
-Speaking of traffic, we recommend taking the train (53 minutes from London Waterloo). Excellent wines flow freely in the restaurants so you don’t want to be lumbered with a car.
- If you’ve booked hospitality, don’t bother buying the Racing Post, which is one of many thoughtful details provided in the restaurants.
-Can’t quite afford a hospitality package? Try booking a ‘loge’ at concourse level, which for £750 offers general admission and sectioned-off space for up to 10 people and comes with its own fridge that can be stocked with pre-ordered drinks.
-Don’t forget to bet. Not too much of a song and dance is made about the start of the first race (usually at about half past two) and it’s easy to miss the call for last bets if you’re busy enjoying your lunch.
-Skip breakfast and opt for an early lunch. Afternoon tea (served at 3.30pm) is just around the corner.
-Don’t miss the royal procession – it usually starts at 2pm and passes the Silver Ring, Heath and General Admission areas, finally turning into the Royal Enclosure, before the royal party alights in the Parade Ring.
-Note that the Royal Enclosure dress code (see separate box) applies to all hospitality areas from Level 2 Upwards and the most people at concourse level also choose to dress up, so you’ll feel left out if you don’t.
-Girls wearing summery dresses should take a pashmina. There may not be air-conditioning in the new Grandstand, but its natural ventilation system works very well (we felt rather chilly at times). Bring a pair of flip-flops, too. You don’t want to be limping back to the train (a good 15min walk away) in the heals you’ve worn all day.
-The last race is usually at 5.30pm but don’t rush to the train with all the crowds. All bars at the venue stay open for a further half hour, after which time you can join the Pimm’s-swigging crowds at Jagz, an enterprising pub by the station that puts on music, a BBQ and drinks tents in its courtyard especially for Royal Ascot. We rolled onto the train at about 9pm, by which time there were plenty of free seats.
‘Ladies are required to dress in a manner appropriate for a formal occasion. This means that: a hat must be worn; strapless dresses are not permitted; midriffs must be covered; and trouser suits, of full length, must be of matching material and colour. Gentlemen are required to wear either black or grey morning dress, including a waistcoat, with a top hat.’
Click through for Ascot Racecourse’s venue review.