Own goal for corporate entertainers

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The Independent Online
WHICHEVER team comes out on top when this soccer-crazy summer of sport is over, it is Britain's corporate hospitality industry that may count itself the biggest loser.

Faced with the choice between flying prized clients out to the World Cup or sticking with their annual marquee at a home-grown event, many companies have opted to go Gallic. As a result the hospitality industry is having to cope with a very slow year indeed.

Company bookings at cricket and tennis events during the current football bonanza have been particularly hurt.

As Mike Wheeler, MD of one of the country's leading corporate hospitality companies, Peter Parfitt Sport, explains, even if companies are not taking guest clients out to France, soccer has dominated everyone's thinking.

"Our sales at the Benson and Hedges cricket cup final - the day before the World Cup final - have been really affected," he said. "In fact, this summer's events as whole have been hit. A lot of people in the business have underestimated the effect of the World Cup."

While Mr Wheeler admits that the one-day B&H final at Lord's has never been a grade A event in the corporate calendar, until this year it has always been popular. "I would say it has hit our sales by 25 per cent," he said.

He believes that comparison with Euro 96 may have misled the hospitality industry. "In that instance companies could still afford to have their table at other events, be it Ascot or cricket, but with the World Cup and the extra cost of airfares they have not had enough money left in the budget so they have had to make a decision."

However, as Mr Wheeler points out, the British Grand Prix, which actually takes place on 12 July, the same day as the World Cup final, has not been so badly hit.

"I think clients may have underestimated the time it will take to get out of Silverstone and over to a TV screen, unless you have a helicopter."

Sarah Furness of Sportsworld says her company has attempted to get around the grand prix problem by bussing clients out after the race and taking them to a hotel where a large TV screen will be set up.

At Wimbledon, screens are available in many of the corporate tents - but the club's own big screens will be sticking to tennis. Ms Furness said: "Wimbledon tickets have not sold out so early this year because of the football. I would say we are now in the position we would normally have been in six weeks ago."

Upmarket so-called "women's events", such as Ascot and Henley, do not appear to have been affected and Glyndebourne opera house has not seen any noticeable drop in sales on World Cup evenings. A spokeswoman said: "If England are in the final we may be in difficulties, but what usually happens on those occasions is that people come up to us and ask the score all the time."

There are no plans to erect screens on the picnic grounds around the opera house, but it is quite likely that, elsewhere, the only real winners in summer '98 will be the companies who hire out jumbo TV screens.