God has been kind to Surrey County Cricket Club. Its famous south London ground, the Oval, will over the next five days play host to the deciding match in the npower Ashes series between England and Australia and the nail-biting climaxes to the last three test matches have ensured that, for the first time in decades, cricket has enjoyed front-page coverage in all our national newspapers. It's something that hasn't happened since the days of Ian Botham.
Surrey's executives must be rubbing their hands in glee, because not in their wildest dreams could they have imagined that they'd be presented with such a perfect shop window for the club's newly opened £25m-worth of new stand at the Oval's historic Vauxhall End.
The stand (called the OCS Stand because of a 750,000 sponsorship deal with facilities management company One Complete Solution) will of course be seen in its full sporting context during the test, but Surrey has developed it with an eye to cementing and growing its corporate events market in the off-season.
"We need to maximise the earning potential of the site and for that we need to be an all-year-round option, not just a hospitality venue for international and county cricket in the summer," Zac Toumazi tells me. Toumazi is the managing director of Oval Events, a joint-venture company set up by Surrey and All Leisure (the sport and leisure division of contract catering giant Compass) to operate the hospitality offering at the Oval. "We're here to make a profit and we're not ashamed to say that," he adds.
It's not surprising that Surrey and Compass want a bigger share of the corporate hospitality market at the Oval. It's generally accepted that the market as a whole is worth well in excess of £300m annually. "It's absolutely essential for sports venues to develop their corporate potential in order to survive these days," says Robert Barnard a partner at city consultancy PKF. Barnard is responsible for hotel consultancy at PKF and has been advising on the hotel element of Twickenham's west stand development at English rugby's national stadium in west London. "The Oval's proximity to the City makes it a perfect venue to capture a slice of that corporate cake," he adds.
Oval Events is hoping that with 12-month corporate hospitality running alongside public catering and retail outlets at the Oval, its annual turnover will be in the region of £5m. Once profit is worked out, Toumazi says, the split between Surrey and All Leisure/Compass is 75:25. (The joint partnership contract, incidentally, has been signed for a total of 12 years).
So what does the new OCS stand comprise? Well, spread over three levels it has general spectator seating (overall capacity at the stadium has jumped from 19,000 to 23,000), a media centre and, most importantly for the venue's future earning potential, the Oval Conference Centre. The latter incorporates seven hospitality/conference rooms able to accommodate delegate numbers of between 10 and 600; 15 private hospitality boxes (leases on these are coming in at between 14,000 and 40,000 per annum); 10 bars and a roof-top dining area under the sweeping arch of the stand's skyline.
Before the development of the new stand, the food and beverage contract was run by Compass's Letheby & Christopher subsidary, but since (and in fact during) redevelopment that responsibility has fallen to another Compass division, Facilities Management Catering (FMC) which comes under the All Leisure banner of the contract caterer (complicated isn't it?). Other contracts operated by FMC include Wimbledon and the Six Nations rugby at Twickenham, so its executive chef, Frank Coughlan, has a good set of benchmarks to work against.
Coughlan and the Oval's head chef, Andy Grimwold, have a staff of about 90 chefs that they can pull in for big events such as the Ashes fifth test when they can expect to put out somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 covers a day. Many of these covers will be turned over in the roof terrace where a buffet is the most practical way of dealing with the volume. Guests dining here might munch on smoked salmon, oysters, or Cajun turkey, for instance, at lunchtime: charcuterie, Danish pastries and assorted cheeses when play starts mid-morning.
The boxes are another matter. They have their own brunch, lunch and tea menus - served plated. Typically on a match day, box guests will get muffins, sausage rolls and sautd mushrooms on arrival; smoked salmon, sandwiches, scones, cakes and tea in the afternoon, with a cheeseboard to stave off the hunger pangs towards the end of play in early evening. Lunch menus might kick off with something such as foie gras with peppered pineapple chutney, brioche and endive salad, then progress to a hot salmon nioise with roasted new potatoes and finish off with a Chantilly-layered summer pudding.
Each box has its own satellite kitchen with a four-strong brigade of chefs in situ. However, as far as possible all mise en place is done in the centre's main production kitchen ("it's about the size of four tennis courts," Coughlan says). The key to serving a large volume of plated covers, though (we're talking about 300 every lunch, estimates Coughlan) is planning a straightforward menu, using ingredients that lend themselves to simple cooking techniques (eg, fillets of beef and salmon, or rump of lamb) like roasting and sauting - and using salads or pasta dishes like cannelloni that can be pre-prepped and cooked off at the last minute.
"Sticking to the seasons, is a good idea, too," Coughlan says. "There's no point in putting stews on in the summer, is there?"
There's no doubt that the Oval is upping the ante on its corporate function front. It's sold out for the Ashes test. That's been no problem.
The interesting thing will be to see how far it can go down the road to capturing off-season corporate events (product launches, awards dinners, small trade exhibitions and the like) during the next 12 months.
The London Rival: Lords
Owner: Marylebone Cricket Club
Ashes Test: First test match in the series 21-25 July. (In addition England has played Australia in two-day internationals - on 2 July in the NatWest series; and 10 July in the NatWest Challenge)
Hospitality opportunities: There have been 14 days of major match cricket at Lords this year and 60 days of county match cricket. But the venue is geared up for meetings and events year-round.
Covers: The 77 corporate boxes, holding 18 people each, have been sold out all season. Some 3,750 covers were served every day for the Ashes test match in July.
Menus: There are five core menus, plus wine and beverage lists. Two of the menus for the boxes are prepared by outside catering partners - the niche caterer Rhubarb and Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Tamarind. The other three menus comprise two buffet options and a sit-down menu provided by thein-house team.
Price guide: Average spend per head is about £100 - from menus priced between £58 and £75 per head and drinks spend of about £22-£33 per head.
Catering remit: Simon Swift, head of catering at Lords, says: "We work with a number if partners, including Mecco, which helps with hospitality, and the London-based seafood resturant Green's of St James's, which operates the Harris Garden inder licence. Besides feeding the cricket teams in the pavillion, we also operate the public catering, and have made a few fundamental changes to the concessions, bringing in more specialist food retailers such as Fine Burger Kitchen and West Country Pasty Company. Creative Events looks after the bars."
Why has the catering gone in-house? Sodexho Prestige held the catering contract at Lords from the mid-1990s for 10 years. This year the MCC brought the operation in-house. Swift says; "With the Ashes test matches it was a hell of a year to choose. The decision was no reflection on Sodexho. The MCC just wanted to get closer to the customer base and drive its own quality forward, which was easier from the inside. I operated the contract with Sodexho for three years so I simply transferred across to head the in-house operation in January."
By Rosalind Mullen
At the fifth npower Ashes test, Oval Events anticipates serving:
- 3,500 portions of Scottish smoked salmon
- 3,500 portions of foie gras mousse
- 2,500 portions of roasted rump of lamb
- 1,500 lobsters
- 3,500 portions of roasted English beef
- 500 baked vanilla cheesecakes
- 1,000 cases of fine wine
- 6,000 bottles of Champagne
- 12,000 glasses of Pimms
- 200,000 pints of beer
- 22,000 cups of coffee
- 12,000 cream teas