Cheltenham Festival Jockey Club Meet The Member

Meet the Member – “The festival alone contributes more than £274 million to the local economy”

March 9, 2023

With Cheltenham week just around the corner our Content Manager, Alex Brinton spoke to the CCO of The Jockey Club, Charlie Boss and Cheltenham Racecourse’s Head of Operations Gethin Jenkins to find out how preparations were going and try and get a tip for The Gold Cup. 

Charlie, if you could very briefly introduce what the Jockey Club does and your role within that?

I like to think about The Jockey Club like the beating heart of the British horseracing industry. From a business perspective, we run 15 racecourses and some of the UK’s biggest sporting events like the Cheltenham Festival, the Randox Grand National and The Derby, as well as training grounds and the National Stud to help breed and develop the horses that race at those courses.

My role is to help The Jockey Club make money from all that. In turn we then invest every penny of profit back into British racing, primarily via prize money, which is like the lifeblood that sustains racehorse owners, trainers, jockeys and all the incredible stable staff who underpin it all.

On a day-to-day basis, that sees my team run what may be the biggest owned hospitality business in UK sport, selling 170,000 covers last year. We are also creating rich partnerships with our sponsors that storytell year-round and nationwide across our 15 courses. And we are always looking at ways to creatively drive revenue from our venues, from a thriving conference and events business to other on-site entertainment like hotels and golf courses. We even use the centre of the course at one location to graze sheep!

Within that time, there is a flow around the racecourse between the parade ring, food and beverage areas, shopping village, bookmakers and the viewing areas so the whole site feels like it’s constantly on the move.

You have been at the Jockey Club for two years, what has surprised you about the horse racing business?

The breadth and diversity of it. From a fan perspective, our 15 racecourses welcome very different audiences, and the more time I spend with each of them the more I realise how varied the communities and fan bases they serve are. At its extremes, we cater from royalty at The Derby through to farmers in Lincolnshire or Somerset, and from children attending for the first time at a family day to passionate racing fans who have been coming for an entire lifetime.

We are also a tremendously diverse business, covering everything from high end hospitality to mucking out the stables at the National Stud. It makes the job of Chief Commercial Officer an extremely varied and fulfilling one.

Coming out of the pandemic, what have been your biggest challenges as a business?

I obviously joined The Jockey Club in the middle of the pandemic, and I have been staggered at how quickly we have recovered, right through to us announcing record prize money in 2022 and then again in 2023. So in truth we have rebounded quicker and more successfully than we might have imagined. We have our fans and of course our incredible people to thank for that.

It’s probably those people and how best to look after them that I agonise most about. 

Firstly, they each endured their own personal challenges over the pandemic. Secondly, they have had to work incredibly hard to conjure the rebound and success we have enjoyed over the last 12 months. 

But taking a longer term view, like people everywhere the way they work has fundamentally changed since the pandemic, and making sure we help them to lead happy, balanced lives while still delivering more than 340 racedays and literally thousands of conferences and other events each year is a daily challenge.

Looking forward then, what are you doing differently in 2023?

With my commercial hat on, The Jockey Club is an amazingly entrepreneurial and innovative organisation. When I arrived I was blown away by how many good ideas to grow the business existed across our teams, and two years in much of my job is still fuelled by bringing those ideas to life. Over the course of this year we have several new business launches planned to diversify our revenue, with the most recently announced being a columbarium wall at Cheltenham that allows fans and their loved ones to be memorialised at the spiritual home of Jump racing. 

And of course all of those new initiatives are generating money we can invest back into the sport. Beyond commercial, we are obsessed at the moment about how we can work more efficiently, leveraging our scale with 15 venues and the talent that exists in the business to make the lives of our people easier and their experience of working for The Jockey Club even more rewarding.

So Gethin, talk to us a bit about your experience before you came to work at Cheltenham?

I’ve had a varied career, which has included being a CEO of a professional rugby team and EFL Championship football team, both with venues to run. I’ve also been on the governing body rights-holding side, as competitions manager/tournament director for World Rugby in countries as varied as Chile and Argentina through to Russia, China and Kenya.

More recently I’ve also been CEO of England Boxing. From an events perspective, I was Head of Event Delivery for the 2015 Rugby World Cup hosted in England and Wales. This meant I had responsibility for the delivery and match management of the 13 venues, which included Twickenham, Wembley, Principality Stadium, St James Park, Kingsholm and Sandy Park in Exeter and in addition there was responsibility for the team services. In summary I’ve had a varied career but one that has incorporated events, governing bodies and venues.

Other than being a different sport, what are the main differences between what you have done before and what you are doing now?

I think the biggest difference is the length of the activity and the flows around the venue itself. Spectators arrive from 10.30am at Cheltenham and many stay until well after the last race, which can be 5.30pm. 

Within that time, there is a flow around the racecourse between the parade ring, food and beverage areas, shopping village, bookmakers and the viewing areas so the whole site feels like it’s constantly on the move.

The difference in sports like football and rugby is that the fans and client groups arrive and stay mostly in the same areas before leaving again the same way they came in. The other significant difference, of course, is the added factor of being involved with the care and welfare of horses, which is clearly different to players and teams.

So we are in your first cycle of planning the festival, what has that been like?

So far it’s been excellent. It is an annual event as opposed to, say, the Rugby World Cup or Commonwealth Games, so there is greater opportunity to build year-on-year. 

There are also a lot of staff and contractors who are clearly experienced, passionate and invested in delivering racing and customer experience to the highest standards. Some of the areas we have been concentrating on are security and safety planning, resilience and contingency planning, especially in the case of a potential rail strike, for instance. Plus, there is the not insignificant challenge of 40,000 sqm of temporary build! As well as being one of the biggest temporary builds in Europe, it’s an added factor that most sporting venues which regularly host nearly 70,000 people on their biggest days don’t have to consider.

The festival has a massive effect on the community with so many people descending on to the town, what work do you do with locals?

The Festival alone contributes more than £274 million to the local economy, but while we celebrate it as an event of national sporting significance, it clearly has a local impact and it’s important that we are good neighbours and contribute throughout the year. 

This year we’ve launched the Love Our Turf campaign to work with the local council and other authorities and stakeholders to provide way-finding, extra toilets and other support to minimise the impact on local residents. These people are our neighbours all year, not just during the four days of The Festival, and it’s really important that we consider them before, during and after all our racedays.

The festival is obviously your biggest week, how do you go about trying to convert people from festival goers to regular attendees?

First and foremost it’s about providing a safe and enjoyable event coupled with the highest standard of customer experience possible, regardless of whether you are a racegoer joining us with a group of friends or paying for high-end hospitality as a treat or an opportunity to host business associates.

That starts when the initial contact is made and can be a phone conversation with one of our sales team or simply the quality of the information about the course and what to expect that arrives in an envelope with your tickets. 

I think racing is really welcoming and accessible in that regard, and this attention to detail should continue right through to the day itself, ensuring everyone has a fantastic experience at the event. It’s then up to us to follow up with racegoers afterwards to get feedback to make improvements in future and also ensure that they are aware of the other opportunities to visit Cheltenham Racecourse or other Jockey Club venues throughout the year.

One of the big attractions at the festival is the Guinness Village. What is it like working with Guinness on such a big project?

Guinness are a really dynamic and innovative partner who, like The Jockey Club, are always trying to improve customer experience. This year is no different, with one or two changes to the Guinness Village and the focus on raising the awareness of Guinness 0.0 and drinking responsibly.

Any tips for The Gold Cup?

Come early, dress for the weather, enjoy the day and be respectful of the neighbours when leaving. You wouldn’t want to rely on me for racing tips!

Not subscribed to our weekly newsletter? Click here to sign up and receive more content like this to your inbox every week.

Cheltenham Festival Jockey Club Meet The Member