Changes are afoot at the home of the world’s oldest classic horse race. Doncaster Racecourse, host of the almost 240-year-old St Leger Stakes, is poised for expansion, with a new man at the helm.
Executive director Kieran Gallagher is leading the charge towards new revenue streams and a more diverse business. Plans for a new hotel at the site are taking shape, while the venue’s star as a major national conference centre is rising.
The 2007 £34m redevelopment of facilities – including the creation of a new 3,400 sq ft exhibition space – is finally paying off amid a brighter economy and heightened willingness of businesses to invest in conferences.
Gallagher says: “We’ve seen a real shift, particularly out of the Midlands, and other areas that have historically had high footfall for conferences and exhibitions, into South Yorkshire.
“We are positioning ourselves against places like Telford and Harrogate international centres, Gateshead and the Ricoh Arena in Coventry. These are places that have been very popular large-scale conference destinations for events, while South Yorkshire hasn’t really featured in the past on that sort of scale. That was until we re-developed this location.
“Large blue-chip organisations are seeing the value of our proposition and we’ve had the likes of Boots, npower and E.ON bring their teams here. Going back to 2012, we are seeing around 70% of big clients rebooking.”
Doncaster, one of 15 UK race courses owned by Arena Racing Company (ARC), has around 50 employees, but with as many as 1,500 contracted staff on an event day. Last year the venue increased race-goers by 8% to 260,000 and had a record 150,000+ for conferences, exhibitions and other events.
Similar growth is expected this year, while long term the venue is planning developments including a possible hotel on site. Gallagher says: “We are currently exploring detailed capital investment plans to better equip Doncaster Racecourse in the future.”
Gallagher was promoted from general manager to executive director in January, succeeding Mark Spicer, now assistant operations director at ARC. Before joining Doncaster in 2010, the Rotherham-born exec’s leisure industry career covered football and horseracing.
He spent four years at Sandown Park Racecourse in the mid-1990s before a number of years in football stadia, including the RICOH Arena in Coventry, the KC Stadium in Hull and Derby County’s Pride Park.
At the RICOH, Gallagher oversaw the opening of the venue and the running of its exhibition centre, two restaurants and boutique hotel, including corporate hospitality and catering.
“I’ve spent 20 years in sports leisure and venue entertainment at multi-faceted venues. The key to all of my roles has been understanding consumer needs. You might have people wanting a great race day and to drink champagne at a concert on one day, and then a conference with 1,200 delegates the next. We change how the team operates by aligning it to the primary needs of the consumer.”
Perhaps Gallagher’s involvement in what is still loosely regarded as the people’s game – despite spiralling Premier League wages and ticket costs – has helped in his new role. For Doncaster, like many of its counterparts, is currently jockeying for more punters from beyond the tradition race-going set.
Family days, concerts and parties are all part of the gallop to make racing more accessible.
But does this broadening out of the racecourse’s appeal risk the annoyance of hardcore racing enthusiasts in a sport partial to occasional snobbery? Gallagher insists not. “A purely racing-centric approach, with 36 race days a year, will not sustain a business of this size,” he says.
“I think people accept that when you are competing for the leisure pound against all sorts of other visitor attractions and sports, we’ve got to do everything we can to make Doncaster a really attractive proposition. By doing that, we can continue to invest in new facilities. In fact, we expect to sell out our 1,000 annual memberships this year, which represents the avid race goer.”
With regular after-race music events, bringing bands like Kaiser Chiefs, Madness and UB40 to Doncaster’s champagne lawn, punters are getting a lot more for their day at the races.
The most recent family race day at the venue brought 23,000 through the gates last June, prompting Gallagher and his team to organise two more this year. Such attendance figures are only surpassed by Doncaster’s flagship St Leger meet.
The growth in non-race day activity is highlighted by the fact that there were only 30 of what Gallagher calls “dark days” last year – or days with no event on the calendar. “It’s all about enhancing the customer experience and making those good days even better. We want to do as much as we can to achieve that.”
Food and drink plays its part in drawing people in too. The recently developed Old Weighing Room serves up lavish British fayre where once calorie counting jockeys stood on scales. A former jockey’s sauna, meanwhile, is now a restaurant kitchen and the Clerk of the Scales’ old haunt is now a champagne bar.
Whatever would Anthony St Leger, the Doncaster soldier and politician who gave his name to the famous old 25 guineas sweepstake, make of such progress?