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Marking International Women’s Day: Felicity Barnard, Ascot Racecourse

Felicity-Barnard-Ascot-Racecourse

PA Life talked to Felicity Barnard, Commercial Director and Deputy CEO of Ascot Racecourse,  as part of our International Women’s Day 2024 series where we uncover how talented and successful women have made it to the top of their game. The women we interview represent different professions from a multitude of industries and fields, but all have one thing in common: their achievements are an inspiration to others.

Felicity joined Ascot Racecourse as the Commercial Director in 2021 with a number of high-level positions behind her in the sports industry. She had served four years as a CEO of Tie Break Tens, where she launched the new short format of tennis around the world. Prior to that, she had worked at Arsenal Football Club at both their London base and their Singapore office. That was before joining West Ham United as the Commercial Director, to implement the Club’s move to the new Stadium in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

How do you find the horse racing world compared to professional football and tennis?

The world of horse racing is most similar to tennis I’d say with a broad audience appeal and an ongoing ambition to diversify and expand beyond what might be considered our usual audience. Football can often be quite tribal in its fandom and attending a game would be intensely focused on the pitch with limited dwell time in the venue before and after. Horse racing differs in that our guests will generally be with us from 11am through to the evening with say 30-40 minutes of that time focused on the racing itself. The rest of the day becomes about the build up to each race, the atmosphere, fashion, food and drink, and surrounding entertainment such as live music.

Similarly to tennis where there’s such a rich history to the sport, we have a real responsibility to celebrate and stay true to our heritage. At the same time we are always looking to the future and how our business can continue to innovate. But like most sport in Britain, it’s a very welcoming environment. Each stakeholder – whether a ticket holder, member or hospitality client – really wants to understand the sport in more depth and share in a communal passion for the sport.

Have you always wanted to work in sport? What key qualities and opportunities would you say have been most important for your career success?

Yes, in some form. There are many similarities across the different sporting communities but at the same time great differences that are always so interesting to get stuck into and understand from a deep level. Having supportive mentors and superiors throughout my career has been extremely important in allowing me to dive into new opportunities and stretch myself with fresh challenges.

Ascot is such an iconic sporting venue, with strong ties to the British Royal Family. Do traditions ever conflict with development plans and need for change?

Surprisingly no. I’ve always been encouraged by the support of the entire business in evolving the Ascot brand into new areas. Our heritage is one of our many strengths but times change for all of us and that means we need to explore new avenues and evolve with the world around us. Having strong ties to our monarchy is a privilege and benefit that complements our ambition to be so much more than a physical racecourse. Staging a showpiece event such as Royal Ascot means that we have the world’s attention on us each June. It’s therefore extremely important that we develop our offering – both physically and digitally – beyond those five days, to maintain that connection with our global audiences.

What are your main areas of focus as the Commercial Director?

Increasing revenue is my ultimate goal as this allows us to continually increase our prize money to ensure we remain competitive on the international stage. Prize money is our way of directly investing back into the sport, encouraging owners and trainers around the world to run their horses at Ascot. International participation in turn creates global broadcast appeal, allowing us to showcase the very best equine stars from across the planet. I’m also focused on modernising the brand, making sure the business is future proofed through new and innovative ideas and initiatives. While we celebrate our 300 plus year history as a sporting institution, we also want to embody ‘elegance at play’ as a lifestyle brand in the modern world. Balancing these two elements is always at the forefront of my mind.

The world of sport management is dominated by men, and horse racing is no different. How do you think it could be made more inclusive?

Having worked across many sports, it’s been interesting to see just how inclusive horse racing is. Male and female jockeys compete in the same races and have done for a long time. At Ascot we want to continue championing participation in the sport from all areas of society. We do this through our support of industry charities or through our Colts & Fillies Club which gives youngsters access to training yards and racing experiences so they can learn and understand how they can get into the sport. As a business, we really support working families and focus on how we can be flexible to our employees’ needs – this is a big factor in our recruitment and retention of talent.

A day at the races is a very enjoyable and exciting experience. How would you ensure it’s kept at the top of the corporate hospitality options?

We’re continually evolving our corporate offering and rely on customer feedback to identify trends and adapt what we do. As mentioned, a day of racing is from morning through to the evening with ebbs and flows throughout the day. We can have anywhere from six to eight races in a day with around half an hour between each one. With that in mind, flexibility in our offering is key. People don’t want to be tied to a formal ‘silver service’ experience where you’d be seated at a dinner table for two or three hours straight. Instead, we have a range of offerings that allow clients to curate their day and enjoy the cadence of the day fully.

Although you might be in a specific restaurant or space for the day, starters might be served from chef stations, with mains a choice of a la carte options and then dessert a series of interactive stations. Each course can be enjoyed around the racing so it’s a real fusion of experiences and excitement, whether culinary or sporting.

Any advice and tips for PAs and EAs booking hospitality and events for the coming racing season?

Music will focus heavily this year at Royal Ascot as well as our Ascot Racedays year-round. We’ll have live music in the Village Enclosure at the Royal Meeting in June and a full festival lineup after racing at the Dubai Duty Free Shergar Cup in August. The QIPCO King George Day in July features a post-racing DJ, and an oompah band at the Autumn Racing Weekend & Ascot Beer Festival in October. These are all additional experiences on offer away from the track action and dinner table.

Following last year’s hugely successful Royal Ascot, we’ve seen a remarkable increase in enquiries and bookings for both private events outside of racing and for raceday hospitality. We’re seeing a real shift to forward planning with lead times longer than ever as people want something in the diary to look forward to. Cliché as it might sound, my advice in 2024 would be to book early to ensure you get your first choice of date and restaurant!

 

We also cover a fine dining preview of this year’s Royal Ascot