Leger Day could be the biggest day in the Yorkshire social calendar, says new Doncaster racecourse boss
St Leger Day could be the biggest day in the Yorkshire social calender, believes the new boss at Doncaster Racecourse.
New executive director Russell Smith wants to build the event into a big diary event, with support from businesses across the borough and beyond.
Since taking over the role at a site which is now a resort, since the opening of the Hilton hotel on the site last September, Mr Smith has gone about building the audience for racing and developing the site into a major conference venue for major events.
A programme of events running around the race meetings, such as the recent Jess Glynne concert on May 18, has been brought in to appeal to new and wider audiences, and he says the hotel beds now on the site have increased the level of interest in the venue for conferences.
Now the plan is to boost the profile of what is the only classic horse race in the north of England across the whole of the region.
Mr Smith said: “In the past, the focus was talking about the St Leger as the oldest classic. Its heritage is huge, but some people can regard old as negative. This year we are positioning at as ‘experience Yorkshire’s Classic’.
“We think its important to focus on the fact that this is the only classic in the county, and that is a big thing. There are also two races from the British Champions series in the festival – it is a significantly important part of the British racing calendar. We’re appealing to people to experience that.
“But we are also trying to re-engage with the town. I think there is a real opportunity to get a groundswell of support from people within the community. We want to get people to align their company to the St Leger. We want this to be the biggest day in Yorkshire, full stop. We want it to be celebrated as it was in the past, but we need everyone to come in with us on that.
“We’re going to be putting together a toolkit for businesses.”
The toolkit will include things that can be used electronically, such as logos. But the plan is also to provide things like bunting and banners that shops and businesses can use in window displays. The plan is to have a competition around such displays.
It is expected to be launched during the summer.
Racecourse bosses are in talks with Visit Doncaster and Welcome to Yorkshire.
Mr Smith arrived in Doncaster with a background in sports management. He was a commercial manager with Hibernian FC in Scotland, and then business development manager for the Scottish Rugby Football Union. He went on to work for the Homeless World Cup in Scotland. He then got a job with Arena Racing, first as the number two at Newcastle Racecourse, and than running Bath racecourse.
He arrived a month after the opening of the hotel, which he also runs.
He said: “We are now a resort. This is what we have been telling people.
“It has huge benefits to the racecourse. We can now offer conferences and events with beds and overnight stays available as a package. It is extra value when companies are looking to book. It means we can take business that previously have gone to Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds, and bring it to Doncaster. It’s a key driver.”
The hotel has 154 beds. But there are conferences which attract 2,000 delegates. Mr Smith says that will mean more business for other hotels across the borough as well as they will be able to take the overflow.
Mr Smith feels the hotel has started well. Work is ongoing to establish a base of customers who will return. But six months on from opening it already has a 65 per cent occupancy rate.
Work is also ongoing to boost the interest in racing with more events around the racing.
“In the UK there is a proportion of people with a keen interest in horse racing. That is great, and we want to make it exciting for them.
“But there is huge potential to bring in people who want to go out for a social day out, to have a great experience, and tell their friends and family about it and come back, and that is where we’re planning to grow.
“We’ve introduced themes. We’ve had a Motown themed day, and we've had bands including Rita Ora, James, and Madness. We recently had a dance event with the Hedkandi brand. That attracted 4,000. These are events after the racing, which bring in brand new customers, and that is a massive tick for us – an audience who have come and had a great time. We work hard to attract the right acts, looking at the profile of our customers. and the profile we want to attract.”
Some of the events have attracted nearly 20,000. Mr Smith sees it as adding extra value to the day out at a time when there is a lot of competition for people’s leisure spend.
Other themes have included family events. There was a wild west themed meeting in March to appeal to children, and a Jurassic Park themed meeting in June, designed to pull in families with attractions such as animatronic dinosaurs walking around the venue.
“The big plan is to maximise the opportunity we have at the moment,” said Mr Smith. “The hotel was a significant investment and we need to deliver increased attendance.
“We are not just re-investing in the racecourse, we’re re-positioning it as a place were you can go and really enjoy yourself – we have something for everyone as a day out. There is something on racedays and on conference days.
“We want to benefit the whole town, and we are working with organisations across the borough to re-invigorate the place.”