Last week it was the glamour of horse racing at Royal Ascot that took the attention; this week it's tennis at Wimbledon; and in a few weeks' time Tiger Woods will take centre stage at the Open golf championship.
The British summer is liberally sprinkled with international sporting events which capture not only the interest of the paying punter but also the corporate buck, providing huge opportunities in corporate hospitality.
Each year, it seems, the number of events in the summer calendar increases, with a particular surge of late in the number of music concerts. Spectator sports still generate the lion's share of revenue for corporate hospitality firms, however. Golf and football are the biggest money-spinners, followed by rugby and horse racing. But, of course, there are the "crown jewel" events such as Wimbledon, which are big revenue earners and remain significant draws with the "prawn sandwich brigade" - footballer Roy Keane's description of corporate attendees.
Make no mistake, corporate hospitality is big business. According to figures from research firm Market & Business Development (MBD), the UK market was worth £765m last year. The sector has grown year on year since 1999, although the 10% growth at the beginning of the period slowed to 1% in both 2002 and 2003, owing to a scaling-down of projects and hospitality budgets. However, positive growth is set to continue - even accelerate - up to 2008 (see panel).
Having taken off in the 1980s, the UK market was then hit hard by the recession of the early 1990s, and some smaller hospitality companies went under before spending picked up again in the middle of the decade. But then came the events of 11 September nearly three years ago, which resulted in many companies cutting their hospitality budgets. Despite this, the market has become increasingly robust and now appears to be in relatively good health.
In a recent NOP survey of companies which buy corporate hospitality, commissioned by Sodexho Prestige, the food service giant Sodexho's corporate hospitality arm, one-third of respondents (34%) said that they had increased their spending in 2003, while almost half (44%) felt that corporate hospitality was now an essential part of doing business.
In recent years, the market has become much more sophisticated, and operators now provide a wide choice of tailored packages and interactive events, reflecting clients' increasing desire for "something a bit different".
Chris Morris, sales and marketing director at All Leisure - the division of Compass which contains its two hospitality businesses, Peter Parfitt Leisure and Langston Scott - says that the main driver is that customer expectations are rising. Not content with offering their guests a few drinks, some prawn sandwiches and a complimentary ticket, his clients now expect "a total experience".
Morris explains: "The thing about corporate hospitality is that you have to exceed, not just match, customers' expectations, and we must always look to push boundaries. People need to be cleverer about how they spend their corporate hospitality budgets now. The budget might be fairly large, and people have to justify that spend. It has to add value to the business and affect its performance. For that to happen, it has to be taken seriously."
His point is echoed by Simon Gillespie, sales and marketing director at event management firm Sportsworld, and a director at industry body the Corporate Event Association (CEA). Gillespie says that in the 1980s, corporate hospitality was "purely a reward and a jolly", whereas now most buyers link it to direct business objectives. "And you can't keep rolling out the same product and expect prices to go up," he adds.
These days, the industry is dominated by food service giants Sodexho and Compass, and more consolidation looks likely. Although the market is still growing and there are still opportunities for the smaller niche players, even Gillespie admits that the big boys are taking control of the principal events and it is becoming harder for smaller players to win these contracts.
"Corporate hospitality is much more a part of the mix now," Gillespie says. "But the UK market is probably the most competitive in the world."