Catering at the Henley Royal Regatta

12 August 2010 by
Catering at the Henley Royal Regatta

Managing the hospitality at Henley Royal Regatta is a tricky task, demanding a mixture of traditional values and modern technology. Janie Stamford gets ready for service at this quintessentially British event.

The Henley Royal Regatta is one of the few remaining events in the UK's sporting calendar to run without any reliance on commercial sponsorship, and it has done since its inception in 1839. As a result it boasts an unwavering commitment to tradition, which its long-term hospitality partner is happy to satisfy. Keith Prowse, a division of Compass Group specialising in sporting and cultural events, manages the hospitality at the five-day rowing event, which costs around £2m a year to stage.

Every year around 90,000 people flock to the three sites: Fawley Meadows, the official hospitality village on the west bank of the river Thames; the Stewards' Enclosure on the east bank; and Temple Island, situated by the start line, where guests are treated to a four-course lunch prepared by Albert Roux.

The Stewards' Enclosure is particularly passionate about retaining the event's traditions. Open only to members elected by the Regatta's Committee of Management, it offers contemporary and innovative fine-dining at long tables, which tradition dictates are laid out in a manner reflective of the rowing teams' college refectories.

This year, the style of chairs in the members' marquee changed for the first time in a quarter of a century, while decorative chandeliers replaced simple hanging bulbs just a few years ago. But Chris Proserpi, operations director for Compass Leisure, is quick to point out that this dedication to the Regatta's values is not a problem. "The facilities don't change and that's to be respected, but we do try to ring the changes in terms of the catering," he explains. Where 10 years ago the wine list was dominated by classical French wines such as Chablis or Fleurie, Proserpi says that today there are many more New World varieties selected.

Head chef Frazer Wilson's menu is also designed to keep the catering fresh and cutting edge. "It's inspired by seasonal British produce with a summer feel, but we have free rein to give it a twist," he explains. Something as seemingly simple as strawberry and rhubarb yogurt ice-cream with baked meringue is presented on a stick as a lollipop, for example.


Over the course of the five-day event, more than 25,000 pints of Pimm's are polished off by guests. The popularity of this quintessential summer drink has cost the caterer many man hours over the last 20 years, as bar staff make sure each glass is prepped with the classic sliced lemon, orange and sprigs of mint.

But 2010 saw the introduction of the Pimm's garnish ice cubes. Prepared in advance off-site, each cube comes frozen with the prerequisite fruit and mint already inside. "It's worked wonderfully well," says Proserpi. "There's a slight cost in terms of production, but it's balanced out by the time and prep space we've saved, not to mention the mess avoided."

If the trial at Henley is found to be successful, there is every chance Compass Group will consider rolling out the iced garnish elsewhere. In addition to the 14 Jockey Club racecourses, Compass looks after a number of other quintessentially English events in its portfolio such as the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, the Cartier International Polo Day, and Wimbledon, where 80,000 half-pints of Pimm's were drunk this year.

Despite the huge amount of experience to hand, there are some eventualities you simply can't plan for. At 5.30pm on the first day of the Regatta, disaster struck: while most of Henley was completely unaffected, the Regatta site and a handful of neighbouring homes on the east bank of the river were victims of a power cut. "Now that really did present a challenge," admits Proserpi. With service not due to end until 8pm and no way of knowing how long the site would be affected, the primary concern was keeping food refrigerated.

Proserpi's first ports of call were nearby Compass sites to see if they could help. "I rang Wimbledon, Twickenham and the Madejski Stadium in Reading, to see if they had any spare refrigerated vehicles that we could move down to Henley, because that would have been the simplest solution," he explains. However when this proved fruitless, Proserpi was able to take advantage of the facilities across the river at the Fawley Meadows site. Most of the food was transferred by road across the river, while some stocks of sandwiches and other perishables had to be discarded.

The second major problem was the washing up. Back-up generators didn't arrive on site until the following morning and a dedicated food and beverage team worked through the night to get all the glassware, crockery and cutlery ready for Thursday's service. With a strong team ethic, determination and plenty of elbow grease, Wilson is proud to say they were back on schedule with 10 minutes to spare.

Annual sports events are reliant on casual staff and Henley is no exception. The central HR department at Compass recruits around 650 people, most of whom are students returning home to the surrounding area for their summer break. Proserpi says it's another of the Regatta's traditions that the jobs tends to be kept in the family. "Someone who works here one year might see their younger brother work here the following year," he adds.


The bulk of the casual workers are on site for the first time on day one of the Regatta. As such, staff motivation and teamwork is considered absolutely crucial, and this focus is delivered from the top in a briefing by Proserpi to his team of managers and supervisors the day before the staff arrive.

"You have to create an atmosphere and culture for people to work in that is customer friendly and the only way to do that is to be upbeat," says Proserpi. Most of the supervisors set daily quizzes for their team with questions such as "guess the age of Chris Proserpi", with the winners receiving a small prize. This method of engaging casual employees has clearly paid off, with the team even being awarded a certificate from the Polite Society for its consistent display of courtesy.

The Henley Royal Regatta has been Compass's client for 15 years, and it is that continuity that Proserpi believes has created trust between the client and the operator. He says: "I think the secret to the long relationship is that we're not seen as ‘the caterer'. None of the Regatta people treat me like a contractor; they treat me as a partner and that is vital to the delivery of the catering, because it's such an integral part of the Henley experience."


â- Pimm's is served with pre-prepared garnished ice cubes, saving time and mess at the event
â- Seasonal produce is served with a twist: strawberry and rhubarb yogurt ice-cream with baked meringue is presented on a stick as a lollipop
â- Casual staff are kept motivated because the event is catered in an upbeat and customer-focused atmosphere
â- Continuity is preserved by keeping key figures involved each year - the experience goes towards next year's event and is built upon


The use of technology has allowed Compass Group to not only streamline its recruitment procedure, but also its labour management. Staff are recruited in a number of ways: as well as the more common advertising through Job Centre Plus and the radio, Compass attends higher education recruitment fairs located near the event, and mother and baby groups to promote the child-friendly shifts available.

But it is through its own website (, where every vacancy and event is advertised, that the company has been able to make real strides in cost- and time-savings. Paper applications used to take around nine minutes to fill in, but now candidates fill in their own online forms and Compass only has to fill in the passport details. Records are kept of each employee's skills so that other relevant opportunities can be offered throughout the year via text messages.

Mobile messaging is also used to keep new staff in the loop. Employees receive texts with instructions on where and when to arrive for their job, and this has also allowed the most important time-saving device to be implemented - a barcode check-in procedure for each member of staff at Compass events.

As well as accurate and efficient registering of employees on client sites - at the Cheltenham Gold Cup, more than 3,200 were processed in under 45 minutes - the system gives Compass the opportunity to identify situations where the redeployment of specific skill sets can maximise service delivery, while the employees benefit from fast payment of wages.


September 2009: Compass Group meets with Henley Royal Regatta chairman and secretary for a debrief of the 2009 event. Changes for the following year's Regatta are discussed and agreed.

November 2009: Menus and prices for the 2010 hospitality lunches are submitted to and agreed with the Regatta secretary.

February 2010: Compass starts recruitment of managers, supervisors, waiters and bar staff. Senior managers and chefs are brought to the Regatta from Compass's other sport, leisure and hospitality sites.

March 2010: Following the publication of the budget, Compass submits and agrees wine lists and bar tariffs with the Regatta secretary.

Mid-April 2010: Official menu tasting session with the secretary to finalise the menu. Individual dish presentations are agreed and photographed so that they can be produced to a consistent standard on the day.

Late April 2010: Compass begins ordering china, glass, cutlery, linen, uniforms, ice and kitchen equipment as well as commercial equipment such as credit card machines.

Three weeks prior to event (early June): Compass begins installing the equipment.

One week prior (late June): Compass begins setting up the restaurant and bars.

The first day: The five-day event always begins on a Wednesday and ends at 8pm on the following Sunday.

Post-Regatta: Work begins on transforming the site for the Henley Festival of Music and Art, a five-day evening event. This includes creating a 1,000-cover restaurant with an Á la carte menu created and overseen by Albert Roux and Michel Roux Jnr.

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