Cup team on winning track

by 14 Oct 2008

Victoria Racing Club stages one of the most well-known racing events in the world The Emirates Melbourne Cup. Sarah OCarroll speaks to CEO, Dale Monteith and general manger HR, Donna Price about the challenges and opportunities within an internationally growing Club

It is the race that stops the nation. Running since 1861, the Melbourne Cup Carnival attracts more than 400,000 people to the annual four-day race meeting. Although fully funded by the Victoria Racing Club (VRC), the economic benefit to the state of Victoriafrom the carnival is roughly $420 million, making it by far Victoria’s most lucrative sporting event.

Growing in numbers every year, the biggest successes of the carnival have happened over the past 15 years. The turning point in the race’s modern history was in 1993 when Irish horse Vintage Crop surged to victory, placing the race at international status. Since then the VRC has been recognised at an international level and this year seven international horses are expected to fly in for the $5.65 million Melbourne cup.

Extensive year-round planning by the Cclub’s executive team is needed to deal with challenges and opportunities that, as with all similar all organisations, face the Cclub. Last year the carnival was almost brought to its knees with the break-out of equine influenza in Sydney threatening cancellation of the entire festival and financial disaster for the Cclub. This year the global financial crisis may result in some of the usual high-flying corporate attendees cutting back on their spend.

However, according to CEO of the VRC, Dale Monteith, sales are at the same level as last year and, thankfully, most of their sponsorships was secured before the slowdown really hit.

“We went to the marketplace very early – which was probably before the major economic decline –so a lot of our corporates had already signed up,” says Monteith. “There’s about an 85 per cent retention rate from last year in that area, and we’re finding it a bit slow to move what’s left. But that’s at the high end rather than the lower end.

“In terms of our presales and admissions, and dining and so forth, we’re up 15 or 16 per cent on the same time last year. So it’s really at the high end where we’re experiencing any kind of slowdown.”

Donna Price, general manager HR of the VRC, joined the Cclub this year to help drive the Cclub to an international level and develop the brands with which the Cclub is associated. Having moved from corporate line management and HR roles with Westpac, ANZ and FOXTEL, she says that the move to club level brings with it both challenges and rewards.

“One of the greatest advantages in working with the VRC is the tangible Club and family feel of working at Flemington,” says Price. “It is something that our people comment on repeatedly. There is genuine excitement about what we’re here to do and a palpable degree of energy and passion around bringing the carnival to life each year. And not just the carnival, but beyond that.”

CEO Monteith took the opportunity to bring Price on to reassess some the people issues within the company. He sees it as an opportunity to align the group’s people skills with the business of the VRC, and the Melbourne Cup Carnival, and to use HR as a strategy to help grow the business.

Monteith, who has 33 years experience in the racing industry, says the new emphasis on people strategies is a challenge for the Cclub because if they want to achieve the Cclub’s goal of becoming an internationally renowned club human capital is key.

“Our focus in the future is very much about taking the event, the Melbourne Cup Carnival and the race itself, to the world year-round rather than being focused on the first Tuesday in November, as it was for over 100 years,” says Monteith. “It’s how we leverage off the brand of the Melbourne Cup and the carnival, and get people in the Cclub very much involved in that process.”

The catalyst for the journey ahead has been, says Price, seeking the input of their people first and foremost. Through a series of staff focus groups involving all teams – marketing, membership, sponsorship and corporate hospitality, the race course, and track and ground staff teams – the executive team has tapped into some of the key drivers of employee engagement.

Price then gathered the data from those focus groups and developed it into a people management strategy defining the core themes they’re going to focus on. Two key strategic themes were identified: a clear sense of purpose and direction – which incorporates communication – and the opportunity to grow and develop – ie a learning and development theme.

“We’ve communicated that information to our senior leadership team, to our board, and to our staff and we have invited their participation in helping us to move forward on those two themes in particular,” says Price.

“We’re endeavoring to achieve at a club level, and at an organisation level, a people strategy that directly aligns with the Cclub’s goals, so that we’re all focused on heading in the one direction and we recognise that our people are the key enablers in achieving those business outcomes.”

To be an international leader in racing Price believes a clear sense of purpose and direction and an opportunity to grow and develop are vital for staff.

“That’s been the crux of what we believe has been in no small part a small feature of our success,”says Price.

It also presents a challenge for the Cclub, raising questions about how they can go about ensuring job enrichment and satisfaction, and providing their staff with the stretch opportunities that will give them the stimulation and growth that they’re looking for.

“It’s just about being creative in how we go about meeting those needs, being deliberate in our focus and making sure that we have the right strategies and processes in place to retain those people in particular,” says Price.

Price feels that while her experience at a corporate level has had many benefits and transferable skills, there are elements at a club level which gave her an immediate advantage.

“One of the most overt differences that I’ve noticed is the level of passion among our people,” says Price. “Not many organisations can engender that level of passion, commitment, pride, sense of belonging – all of those things that sit within the VRC.”

According to Monteith, it’s also a matter of working on all managers to better manage their people as a whole, rather than just relying on one HR individual within the organisation. He believes this will ensure management skills are developed across the board.

“The focus groups also told us pretty basic things like a ‘thank you’ and a ‘well done’ [were important]; little messages like that which are pretty easy to do but people are probably too busy to think of,” said Monteith. “It can make a huge difference to how people feel about themselves and how they’ll want to continue to be involved with us at the VRC.”


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