Smart Group’s chief executive officer (pictured) takes Access through his company’s highs and lows and predicts some trends for Christmas parties to come.
THRILLER Outdoor catering is really thrilling and exciting. It just happens, and if you’re not ready, you’ve failed. It’s the purest form of catering. You’re either great or you’re not. I love it, and it interests me a lot more than being a restaurateur.
FOR STARTERS I studied catering at college, then went from being a restaurateur into outdoor catering. Going into outdoor catering is a really tough thing to do because it’s a very difficult business to scale. I then started The Christmas Company, which was the first company set up to do corporate Christmas parties. I drove that through until 1997, when I sold it to Sodexo. In 1999 we formed Smart Group.
ONE OF A KIND I think Christmas was the first big eye opener for me. It is the season that defines Great Britain. We are the one country in the world that celebrates Christmas in the way that we do. Other countries have holiday parties, but nothing like the density that we have. I never dreamt that I’d do some of the things I’ve done, just starting with Christmas.
FOOD MAD Diametrically opposed to other event managers, everything I do is to make catering profit. I will make profit out of other businesses as well, but the catering profit is the main core reason that we work.
EXPERIENTIAL What you’ve got to do is produce a themed party, with pieces of entertainment – something to keep people excited that is orchestrated around them. You want to take guests through a journey, and then they get to party. You can’t just pop them in somewhere and say, ‘Get on with it’. You have to give them an experience.
ACQUISITIONS Originally, we had hoped that we would build Smart Hospitality to cater for big spenders like the Natural History Museum, the Roundhouse, Old Billingsgate and the Science Museum – places like that. It’s a very different skill base, very different from what we do. We decided to acquire Moving Venue to help grow.
RUGGERS A perfect example of what we at Smart Group do was the Rugby Captain’s Dinner back in September. We created something from scratch, getting all of the World Cup-winning captains in the event’s history on one stage together and putting on our own event.
DIGGING DEEP The recession was a really important time because people started to say, ‘You don’t need to have a Christmas party’. With the recession as deep as it was, one company that might spend £50,000 on a party – well, that could be two persons’ salaries. Can you really justify such an expense?
LEFT OVERS A real high point for the business was winning the catering contract for the Olympics. We did the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and catering for the sponsors in the IOC. We invested a huge amount of money in equipment, so as a legacy from the Olympics we have massive amounts of kit.
QUIET DOWN At Battersea Evolution, we always remember that we are in a Grade II-listed park with residential buildings on all sides and don’t want to upset neighbouring residents. We control sound, we control access and egress from guests and we also run a socially responsible business.
TREND WATCHING We’ve seen the trend for mixed parties in tighter times, but we got through that. We’re at the other end now where the City of London is starting to party again and there are more single party users – although the mixed party is still in demand.
This feature originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Access All Areas, out now.