IF the size of RBS boss Stephen Hester’s pay package wasn’t already invoking the wrath of the new breed of mealy-mouthed ascetics, the news that his bank is spending £300,000 on Wimbledon hospitality has really got them frothing into their sackcloth. These people seem to dream of some shining future in which MPs don’t charge on expenses, chief executives don’t get incentives to save banks from outright ruin, and sports events aren’t fringed by marquees full of City folk making a merry racket over free bubbly and strawberries. On the other hand, that’s a future where people don’t become politicians, banks don’t survive and deals don’t get done.
We may paint it as a gravy train, but corporate hospitality has always been about more than having a grand day out – it’s where connections are made and relationships embedded at a level beyond the dryness of the boardroom. It’s also where employees whose morale has been wiped out along with their bonuses can escape the recession’s grind for a day, and recharge. These are, after all, the people we’re hoping will get us out of this mess.
That’s leaving aside the fact that events like Wimbledon, Glorious Goodwood and Ascot don’t just thrive on the patronage of those with money to burn and clients to impress, they depend upon it. The crowds sweating in the sun (or huddled under dripping umbrellas) at Lords might eye the corporate boxes with frowning envy, but they know that without the money they generate, not one ball of the Ashes would be bowled. So enjoying a bottle or three of plonk to a soundtrack of grunting Russian tennis starlets isn’t just corporate fun – it’s a national duty. Bottoms up!
I KNOW what you are going to say. That buttering up the clients with a few drops of champagne and the pink-plonk of balls on Centre Court is a harmless bit of fun, that it’s all part of the game and that fizzy wine is the stuff that oils the wheels of business. And I get that. Everybody reasonable does. Client entertainment is a fact of life, and so it should be.
The problem is where it all gets a little – how shall we put this? – crass. If there was ever a time when high style looks like bad taste, then this is it. If there was ever a moment when restraint looks stylish and quiet class trumps gaudy excess, then it’s in the summer of 2009. That doesn’t mean that you have to stop giving your friends nice things. In fact, it’s a perfect opportunity for showing some taste and class. One PR firm (who else?) made a song and a dance about not serving champagne at its party this year. But the wine that they served was actually at least as expensive, meaning that they got some publicity and still pleased their guests. Genius.
Clever firms have given Ascot and Wimbledon a miss this year – or at least toned things down. Some clients might be so important that they expect to be taken to SW19, but do they really enjoy watching American giants serving aces at each other for three hours, while nervously checking the weather forecast? A change can be good.
This is a perfect chance to show a bit of wit and invention. This year, clever firms should have steered clear of Murray Molehill (or whatever they call it these days) taken their friends somewhere imaginative and genuinely fun, without shouting from the rooftops about it.
There is a time and a place for everything, and this is the time for understated elegance and discretion. Buttering-up still has to go on. This year, though, the clever butterers should do it behind closed doors.