Rod rocks

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Newbury Racecourse ventured into the live concert market last month with the first ever Newbury Live. Rod Stewart rocked an audience of thousands and Stand Out shadowed the racecourses’ head of sales, Nicola Butler…

There’s a culture within horse racing that sees people turn up at the gate to purchase tickets. Tonight, Nicola Butler, head of sales at Newbury Racecourse, is hoping that habitual trend crosses over. Stand Out is talking to Butler in the sales office, a hub of activity as she prepares to release a further 300 tickets to sell on the door when gates open at 3pm.

This evening, Rod Stewart will take to the stage – it’s the first time Newbury has hosted a stand-alone concert and the events and sales teams are excited with anticipation. There’s not a horse in sight and so Butler has appointed See Tickets to aid the ticketing process, as she steps into the live music realm for the first time in the form of Newbury Live. So far, more than 14,500 tickets have been sold – a figure Butler is more than happy with.

Over the last four years, the course has tested the race day and concert option and felt the time right to develop its offer to organisers and promoters. Last August, the Newbury board of directors was approached and in October Butler and Kate Walthew, marketing and PR manager, began initial conversations with those in the know. The pair met with Hugh Phillimore and Dick Tee to enquire as to which artists would draw an affluent, middle class audience, and according to Stephen Higgins, joint managing director, Newbury Racecourse, bands and artists whose audience profile age is 30 and above are “good for us”.

Building on reputation

Having previously hosted artists such as Simply Red, UB40, Boyzone and Westlife, tonight Newbury is welcoming a myriad of organisers, agents and big name promoters to look at the venue in the hope that they will consider the venue for events and tour programming.

“This concert tests the venue considerably,” Higgins explains. “It wouldn’t work if we were just holding concerts for 4,000-5,000 people. We need acts that will guarantee 12,000 people but it’s a case of who is touring and who is willing to play here.

“Rod Stewart gave us achievable sales. We’re well past breakeven point and are totally happy with where we are. Next year, I’d love to see one maybe two stand-alone concerts take place and I am pleased to say that West Berkshire Council has been very supportive.”

Higgins’ priority is to build Newbury’s reputation as a successful venue so that he is in a position to talk to artists. Despite operating in a competitive market, he believes that Newbury Racecourse offers better facilities in terms of a fenced arena, on-site toilets, ample parking and in-house catering.

I chat with Higgins for 10 minutes, giving Butler a breather from myself; today, I have been a shadow in every sense of the word: where she goes I go, inspecting hospitality areas, backstage, the Royal Box (Rod’s dressing room) and the box office.

Butler and I meet Rob McIntosh of MA Concerts, as we take five minutes in crew catering. McIntosh has represented the venue, acting in its interests and liaising with Rod Stewart’s production company. In relation to suppliers, Powerline, Arena Seating, All Alliance, Salima, ADi TV, Broadbase, MAS, MIG, British Red Cross, Major Tom and CPS are all present on-site. Thirteen KB Event artics are parked up. They’ve carried eight trailers of production and five trailers of staging enabling build to commence five days previous in the shape of a 22-metre Tower stage from European Staging.

Sailing sales

It took Butler just two months from inception to putting tickets on sale… 4,000 tickets sold on the very first day, and as we take two minutes to take stock back in the office more calls are coming in – everything from “have you still got tickets?” to “do you think it will rain later?”. The phone lines continue to be busy. It’s testament to the marketing campaign that has been orchestrated by Walthew.

She has utilised a targeted mix of media to promote the event – ensuring scope as far as Bristol, Southampton, Oxford, Reading and everywhere else within a one-hour radius. An ABC1 and “older” audience has been the key focus and to do this a plethora of channels has gone under the microscope – Newbury Racecourse website, pre-publicity at race fixtures, external banners at Newbury train station, Twitter, See Tickets website, Rod Stewart fan sites and official fan club, local and regional newspapers and online news portals, Daily Mirror and Mail on Sunday, billboards on commuter routes to Swindon and Reading, First Great Western commuter routes, Reading Football Club programme, local radio which has run ticket competitions and on-course fence banners so that TV audiences can see promo material as the horses leap over. Summer promotional material has been door dropped to 90,000 homes and what’s on listings have all been approached.

The result? Just under 15,000 people are now on-site and all hospitality is sold out – private boxes, the Fred Winter Restaurant and the Hennessey Restaurant – with hospitality packages starting from £125 and rising to £199.

Butler and I take a stroll through the packed restaurants, cold calling on tables to ensure guests are happy. We walk up and down the restaurants, back to the office, check backstage, back to the office, check VIP areas and so on – I wish I’d warn a pedometer.

Constant communication

At all times throughout the day Butler liaises with Liz Whittaker, Newbury’s facilities and events manager. She is responsible for co-ordinating stewards and security, dealing with customer queries and all site operations. The event has made her think about the site’s signage strategies and the placement of entertainment and activities, and states that the team has had to adopt a different strategy to race day.

“You’re dealing with a crowd that is not familiar with the site,” Whittaker adds. “We’ve had to carefully think about our site maps, and on an event like this people don’t know where the various restaurants and areas are so extra stewards have helped with that.

“Also, the crowd dynamic is different. On a race day, people turn up when the gates open, stop all day and have a different culture set. For a concert, the audience’s motivations are different and they are on-site for less.”

Newbury Live has helped Whittaker and the team understand better crowd dynamics and how people move about the site. The information she is collating today will shape how the Newbury Racecourse site is developed for future events, as it enters a period of change and redevelopment including the construction of a new hotel.

Whittaker tells Stand Out that the build has gone well, and that constant communication has allowed for that.

“For us, this event was always going to be a learning curve but if you look at what we’ve achieved on-site already then it’s great,” she concludes.