It is never easy, in any workplace, when a new party joins an existing business. Whether it is a take-over, a partnership or even just a new colleague, there are so many factors that could upset the applecart.
The new entity will want to bring new ideas and ways of working, and the existing business and its employees may not be totally accepting of the change. But often this change is necessary and can bring a whole new impetus and expertise to a venue.
Home to Sussex County Cricket Club, the 1st Central County Ground in Hove has this year brought in Centerplate UK as its new catering partner following eight years of managing the F&B in-house.
The 6,000-capacity venue took the decision following 18 months of discussion with the renowned caterer, which mobilised its F&B offer in March, just in time for the 2017 cricket season.
“The talks were about ironing out issues and concerns the client has from turning an in-house operation into a partnered operation,” says Matthew Nicholson, executive director – sports and leisure for Centerplate UK.
“The key is that it is a partnership. It’s a joint venture and we work very closely with the senior management team there. The catering had been in-house for eight years, so we knew the mobilisation of that partnership had to be dealt with very sensitively, especially with the people involved, who had been doing a fantastic job.”
The ground had won awards for its catering in the previous years, so Nicholson explained that Centerplate’s approach had to be considered and bespoke to the new client.
“We needed to be respectful of that and not sweep in with major changes,” he says. “We don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. We listen to the local clientele and try to reflect it.
So what changes were immediately necessary? Well, technology was first on the agenda.
“We agreed it would be quite a soft opening, but we did put cashless payment straight in,” Nicholson explains. “The biggest move at the moment is to card-based transactions and more of those being contactless payments.
“We know that it improves the speed of service and therefore our revenue streams because more people get served more quickly and they go away having had a better experience.”
Centerplate has a full time team of eight at the ground, including a general manager, head chef and sales manager, but during cricket matches and large non-match-day events, that team swells considerably.
The popular short-form T20 Blast matches bring in huge amounts of visitors, meaning the catering team can grow to some 120 staff, with freelance and part-time managers brought in as well as locally sourced front line catering staff.
“Our role includes everything from setting the standards of food and beverage to sourcing it, purchasing it and serving it. And staff and maintaining the payroll come into that.
“We oversee and manage all of the staffing related to catering. All of the staff who previously worked for the club transferred over to us when we took up the contract.”
Centerplate also takes all responsibility for training the staff that it brings into the ground and really focuses on making sure the staff it uses are setting the standards of catering to client demands.
“We have invested heavily into e-based learning system,” says Nicholson. “We use a system called Flow Hospitality Training, where all staff have modules to go through. They can do it on-site at work or in the comfort of their own home.
“There are fantastic computer-based tests and videos to go through and staff actually get a qualification at the end of it. The absolute minimum the staff have to do is achieve the basic health and safety certificate, which is what they have to achieve within the first couple of months they are employed with us.”
More venue-based training, specific to Sussex County Cricket Club and the facilities it uses, continues on-site.
“From how to pour the perfect pint to how to look after a customer in a hospitality suite,” adds Nicholson.
“That is part of the reason venues partner with caterers. We have these systems and processes in place. We have them in all of our venues so it’s easy for us to integrate them and develop our team within a venue.”
While Centerplate is busy behind the scenes, it places a huge significance on remaining indistinguishable to the guest.
“It is very important to us that when a customer walks into the ground, there is no evidence that the staff are Centerplate staff,” says Nicholson.
“From a customer or experience point of view we want to be a white label caterer and almost assume the identity of the client that we are operating for. You won’t see a Centerplate logo anywhere. The customer is coming to Sussex cricket, not to see Centerplate.”
As you expect from any good, modern sport arena, there is a full range of catering options available at the cricket ground, from concessions and kiosks through to high-end hospitality, but Centerplate is conscious of making sure its offer is tailored to the clientele that uses the venue.
“We obviously have to reflect the market that we are in,” says Nicholson. “We are conscious that is not all about
corporate hospitality. Walking into the ground you can come for a fine-dining experience, a fast and casual dining experience, or you can just come in for a pie and a pint.
“So we have a full raft of options, some of which we operate and some of which we partner with a locally sourced concessions caterer.”
For the retail kiosks situated in the general admission areas of the ground, Centerplate works with Brighton-based caterer Space & Thyme while also working with Sussex-based Harvey’s Brewery for beer.
“We partner with a third party on concessions so we can reflect some of the current trends in catering and locally,” explains Nicholson. “It is very important to us to source locally, from a product sense and a partnership. We are proud that we partner with a local caterer and a local brewer.
“Most grounds will do a brewery deal and be with one large brewer, but while Sussex have a deal with Heineken we also partner locally with Harvey’s and with the Arundel Brewery.”
The concessions offer ties into the trends of the moment.
“The buzz word at the moment is street food,” says Nicholson. “And Space & Thyme do an excellent job in delivering that. We had a spiced Moroccan lamb salad on recently, and that is exactly on trend in terms of what consumers are looking for. They also want to know they are getting value for money and that the food is being created with love and affection.”
Also on offer in retail are locally sourced burgers, grills, hot dogs and nachos, joined by the more traditional fish and chips – it is on the seaside, after all.
“There is a growing trend to be locally relevant, so we are very careful with the look and feel, and what image we want to portray to customers; Space & Thyme reflect similarly to what we do.”
But it is not just the home fans who like to see resident products on the menu, with away fans looking to taste the array of local goods when they travel to the ground.
“Without doubt there is this energy of fans coming back from other experiences and talking about them,” says Nicholson. “They see great ideas and tell us about them. We are very respectful of that and we want to react to that, because that is the way the market is moving, being locally relevant and doing business with the local economy wherever possible.”
The public catering restaurants offer a more substantial dining experience for those guests requiring it, with a carvery, a la carte meal or afternoon tea available depending on the fixture.
“At the very highest level is our corporate hospitality operation,” explains Nicholson, “which covers everything from The Boardroom (14 dining covers) for the great and the good of Sussex County Cricket Club, through to The Boundary Room, where we offer match-by-match hospitality for up to 200 covers.
“What is on offer and the service style can range dependent on the fixture. If it’s a T20 (short game), that could be a four-course banquet, or if it’s a tradition four-day county match it might be a full day’s catering including arrival refreshments, breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea.”
The Centerplate offer continues into the venue’s non-matchday events, catering for everything from weddings to business conferences and networking exhibitions.
“I have to give credit to the team who have been operating the non-match-day events for the last eight years,” says Nicholson. “They have done a fantastic job in making it a real destination venue in what is a really competitive market. Brighton has a huge concentration of hotels and conference centres, but they have a delivered a very buoyant non-matchday business.”
So what is Centerplate adding to this side of the business?
“We are just building on it,” says Nicholson. “We have systems and procedures that can help streamline it, like our CRM system that builds a portfolio on clients and makes rebooking with us extremely easy. Whether they have used us, or one of our other venues, we can cross-market.
“We are part of a bigger team. We have a marketing team and sales team, and being part of the Centerplate family and the cross-pollination that comes with it will help rather than being a stand-alone venue.”
CHOICE & QUALITY
One of the biggest requirements that guests have when entering a sports and leisure venue is to be offered different options at different price points, as Nicholson explains.
“I think that one of the most important things about catering at a sports and leisure venue is that the customer can make an informed choice,” he says, “whether that’s driven through the experience that they want or the budget they want to stick to. And I think we offer that full raft in the ground.”
So just how important is it for SLC venues to offer something competitive to the high street?
“Without doubt it has become one of the primary objectives of clubs over recent years, to drive the standard up to be more in keeping with the high street,” says Nicholson.
“Yes the high street is still leading the way, but I’m mindful that a lot of our stadia are old and we still have been a drag compared with the high street.
“But it’s all about fan experience. It’s not just about being successful on the pitch any more – you have to have great ticketing and online presence, and great facilities, the meet and greet, and then the catering operation. Whether that’s a cup of coffee or a meal in hospitality, it has to be value for money, cooked on site, sourced locally and as good as you can get it.”