When hospitality company Smart Group wanted to expand its business into the likes of Kensington Palace, it looked to high-class catering brand Moving Venue. Katey Pigden reports on a meeting of minds
Catering at museums and palaces wasn't exactly Smart Group's strong suit until recently, admits founder and chief executive Greg Lawson.
"We had a go, but we weren't very good at it," he says with surprising candour. "It's a disciplined business, so we decided to find an expert to share our skills with."
Having tried and failed to enter the world of venue catering at some of the capital's most prestigious sites, Smart Group decided that its best bet was to acquire an expert in the form of London event caterer Moving Venue.
Smart Group has been providing hospitality, catering and event management services to a raft of clients for over 20 years, and it certainly had its own strengths to bring to the table as part of the mutually beneficial deal. In April 2015 it acquired Moving Venue, which has more than 30 years' experience in the field. The company changed its name to Moving Venue by Smart, keeping its brand identity and remaining a separate trading division.
It was also agreed that Moving Venue founder and managing director Richard Beggs, who established the firm in 1984, would continue to oversee and direct the new company for a minimum of three years.
"The deal was pretty much made on the back of a fag packet," jokes Beggs, who has known Lawson for more than 27 years and had started discussing the idea of the acquisition while at the Paris Air Show, where they both had clients.
He adds: "It was a logical decision and it soon became clear that working together was the right thing to do. There was no overlap between the two companies so we were able to take the best of both and learn from each other."
"The deal was the worst-kept secret. Everything was leaked to the team in a controlled way months before the acquisition was officially announced. People were understandably worried at first, but I wanted to make sure everyone understood what was happening. There was no need to lie. We were able to carefully manage change so there was no resistance when the time came. The teams were excited about working in different areas.
"There were enormous economies of scale and I was keen to take the business forward rather than asset-strip it. The companies sit side by side instead of one on top of the other.
"Having owned a business for 32 years, I'm not sure how employable I would be now, so it's great to be on the board. Although it's not true that you can't teach an old dog new tricks," he says.
The new company now specialises in heritage and landmark venues and its clients include Kensington Palace, the Cutty Sark, the Natural History Museum, the V&A and the Science Museum.
Kitchens at Ascot
Smart by name, smart by nature
The acquisition has seen Smart Group grow to a team of more than 80 full-time staff with a combined turnover for live events, catering, corporate hospitality and Christmas parties in excess of £25m.
Moving Venue clients have also benefited from a wide range of event services provided by Smart Group, including Christmas party venues, corporate hospitality and a creative event design service, not to mention food from Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett, who has been working with Smart since 2010.
"What's not to like?" asks Beggs. "It's fantastic being able to take Angela's dishes to large-scale events. We have a powerful and dynamic culinary team that allows us to show potential customers what we do rather than what we aspire to do."
The group has two kitchens, a mile apart in South Bermondsey and Deptford, south-east London, where the company creates everything from scratch, including canapés, hot food and desserts.
The group has also generated a number of efficiencies in equipment and front of house, allowing it to introduce new features at some of the events it caters for, such as a pop-up restaurant of Hartnett's Café Murano at Royal Ascot last year. The temporary restaurant offered guests within the Royal Enclosure Gardens a three-course table d'hote menu, capturing Hartnett's signature style, to 1,500 covers during the five-day event. The company was invited back to Ascot this year, where it catered for the Royal Ascot Village and the Villiers Club.
Lawson says: "We could never have achieved something like the pop-up before, but now we are able to work in several areas at the same time. We're getting used to the structure and are now developing at pace following the acquisition. The businesses have picked up methods and disciplines from each other and it's commercially benefited both. We've still got things to learn and further to go, but we're seizing moments along the way."
The Bowler Hat bar at Ascot
A four-course lunch was prepared under the watchful eye of Smart Hospitality's (another of Smart's businesses) head chef Richard Hawthorn. After drinks on the riverbank, guests enjoyed a tomato gazpacho followed by a salad of rare beef, papaya, crisp vegetables, lemongrass and a muscovado dressing. The main course was roast hake fillet and crab cannelloni, spinach, cherry vine tomatoes and buttered new potatoes and dessert was a cassis parfait roulade with blackberry yogurt sorbet. Following the meal, guests were invited onto a Champagne river cruise, and then afternoon tea.
"We lead with quality food and always ensure we put out an A-team," says Lawson. "To successfully carry out events of this kind, we have to use a number of agency workers, but we're also keen to develop in-house staff. It's important to train your team and it's equally important to treat people nicely.
"You can make a career out of catering, but often young people view it as a stop gap. We have people working with us who studied a diverse range of subjects, and many are now making a name for themselves in the hospitality industry. We're bringing young people into the business and are seeing them come through the ranks."
He adds: "The staff love outdoor catering - it's a purer from of catering, as you only get one go, unlike restaurants where you do it every day. But the beer tastes so good at the end of the service."
Roast fillet of Surrey farms beef, wilted spinach, heritage carrots with Madeira wine sauce
For companies renowned for creating memorable events for customers, it's no wonder that both Greg Lawson and Richard Beggs have many stand-out moments in their respective careers.
One such example for Lawson was during the London 2012 Summer Olympics when Smart Group was tasked with providing world-class corporate hospitality for the Olympic Hospitality Centre. The company catered for more than 62,000 covers for the International Olympic Committee and major sponsors.
"It's my proudest achievement," says Lawson. "It was a crazy 17 days and after the first day I wondered what I had got myself into.
"We catered for the likes of Bill Gates and Orlando Bloom. The scale and complexity of the event was unbelievable and we developed a tight-knit team combining talented chefs, led by Angela Hartnett, with skilled operational staff. Angela was amazing. She rode her bicycle to work every day, worked for 16 hours and then cycled back home."
Greg Lawson and Richard Beggs
Beggs, who has more than 35 years' experience in hospitality cut his cloth working at some of London's finest hotels, including the Connaught and the Berkeley. He set up Moving Venue when event catering was in its infancy and has since catered for several highly regarded events including the Man Booker Prize, as well as for clients such as Marks & Spencer and the Financial Times.
"I decided to set up Moving Venue as people kept asking me to do events, but my career highlight has to be catering for a state banquet attended by the Mexican president at the Guildhall in the City of London," he says.
With the group continuing to go from strength to strength, the pair will undoubtedly create many more lasting memories in the years ahead.
"I'm still excited to come to work every day and I'm pleased it's all turned out well," says Beggs. "Unquestionably, I would do it again."
Lawson adds: "We don't want to work solo and it's good being part of a big happy family. I wouldn't have done the deal if I didn't think it would work out and I wouldn't enjoy it."
The two entrepreneurs are certainly not afraid to inject a bit of humour into their daily working lives. "I'm taller than him," boasts Beggs. "But I would win a fight," retorts Lawson.
Smart facts and figures
- Smart Group has hosted, catered or managed more than 500 events in the past year alone.
- The company hosted 70,000 party guests during the Christmas period and 90,000 guests during the peak summer season.
- Its outside catering appointments include Royal Ascot, Henley Royal Regatta, Twickenham, the Wimbledon Championships and the Farnborough and Paris International Air Shows.
- Exhibitions Smart Group has fed events including the Ideal Home Show, the Antiques & Collectors Show and the Affordable Art Fair.
- Clients Smart Group works with include Waitrose, Bentley, New Look, BMW, Superdrug, Audi, Cancer Research, Mercedes, Petronas, Adobe, Google, YouTube, Samsung and LG.
The Cutty Sark
The Smart Group companies
- Smart Hospitality caters for major sporting and cultural events, corporate and private functions.
- Smart Live works with corporate, private and third-sector clients to create live events.
- Smart Christmas Parties produces festive celebrations with themes, catering and entertainment for a host of clients.
- Smart at Battersea Evolution is a purpose-built facility providing flexible event space for up to 4,000 conference guests or 2,000 diners.
- Smart Experiences provides premium hospitality packages to private and corporate groups at high-profile sporting and cultural events.
- Smart by Angela Hartnett offers a range of packages for clients with Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett, who is creative director of food for the group.
- Moving Venue by Smart is an event catering company accredited at around 40 prestigious venues.
Angela Hartnett and team
- Walk In My Shoes is a company initiative designed to help Smart Group employees learn about the roles of others within the organisation. It helps create a culture of support and respect as people get hands-on experience of what is required in different jobs, from chefs to senior management.
- Smart Supper Club provides insights and practical experience of other food cultures to broaden the culinary horizons of staff. The initiative helps encourage innovation in menu design and includes masterclasses, such as sushi making. The company plans to take the club on trips to Paris, Morocco, New York and Tokyo.
Choc pops by Smart Hospitality