Mark Graham speaks to the organisers of British Polo Day about its unique business model and the particularly British flavour to its success
Ostensibly, it is a rather jolly, British-themed day out – polo players are competing vigorously on the pitch whilst a spiffily-dressed crowd of mostly-Chinese spectators are gathered on the sidelines. Some watch the action, others sample the Scotch whisky and tuck into gourmet dishes, whilst a handful are deeply involved in business discussions.
British Polo Day, held every year in Beijing, is much more than just a fun sporting occasion though. The event, now in its tenth year, is a sophisticated showcase for luxury-oriented British products and services. The fundamental premise is that the ultrarich are seduced by heady displays of Britishness and flash their cash accordingly; perhaps buying a swanky apartment, stocking their wine cellars, chartering an executive jet, or ordering cases of fine wine and malt whisky.
It is clearly a formula that works, as companies keep putting up the money to be part of the action, satisfied that they are getting ample return on their investment. British Polo Day has one-day events in various cities worldwide, with the Beijing event proving a key fixture in the annual calendar.
The business structure is somewhat novel, at least in the sporting world. With a turnover of between £1million and £1.5million annually, the day itself is bankrolled by the sponsors, while a secondary company, Britannia Capital Elevation Limited, makes money from the various deals that are negotiated.
This income-generating arm is owned by Tom Hudson and Ben Vestey, former soldiers who first met when they were in school at Eton. Both are expert polo players and count fellow old Etonians Prince William and Prince Harry as friends and fellow players.
So far so elitist. But Hudson is keen to stress that the spectators at British Polo Day events worldwide do not have to be in possession of the right school tie, or have blue blood in their veins. Instead it’s a much more diverse crowd than would be found on home turf, though the exclusivity of the event and the focus on British heritage, style and the associations with the Royal Family still acts as a lure.
“What we try to avoid is some of polo’s connotations, we like to be open to everyone. We have hosted Elon Musk of Tesla, Richard Branson of Virgin, some of the world’s top entrepreneurs. We say there is only one rule to being a British Polo Day guest: you have to be interesting and interested. We want you to have a story but also be interested in everyone else’s story. You can strike up a conversation at British Polo Day with anyone else. Polo is the background,” says Hudson.
“On the sponsorship side, it is pretty simple; a group of amazing, mutually complementary, non-competing brands come together and share the cost of the events. Although some have priorities in different countries, we work with them to agree that support for all countries is good for everyone. It is invitation only so, by having more discretion over who we and our partners invite we get a more exclusive and interesting group of people. That again drives the partners who want to appeal to them and give them an experience.
We think we’ve brought together an amazing group of people; for us community and experience are absolutely why we do what we do
“We know that sponsors measure it and we know that they consider it a success. The dream for us is to create situations where, for example, we meet a Chinese couple at British Polo Day China who are looking to move to the UK. They then buy their property at Chelsea Barracks and go to Hacketts for their suit fitting. They get their Bentley, their cellar is Justerini & Brooks and their whisky is Royal Salute. That is the dream!”
The first British Polo Day in Beijing was a rather primitive affair compared to the slick operation it later became. It was held at a polo club out near the Great Wall, owned by an individual who first became interested in the game after watching a video of Prince Charles in action. The businessman subsequently learned to play well, and founded his own polo club.
Being close to the Great Wall was a novelty, particularly for flown-in guests, but there were severe limitations to the lavishness of the hospitality that is such an important part of British Polo Day. Entertaining was carried out in separate marquees, making it difficult to mingle freely.
As well as specially selected High Net Worth Individuals, there was a delegation of local cadres who felt the urge to make long, and dull, speeches welcoming guests from afar. On the other side of the pitch were bleachers packed with peasants from nearby villages who, it is safe to say, had little idea of what was happening. But they did cheer the expert Mongolian horse-riding display at half time and were wowed by the landing of a helicopter bringing in a VIP guest.
For locally-based guests, the long journey to the venue was tiresome, so when a hosting offer came from the Tang Polo Club, much closer to downtown, it was eagerly accepted. The owner, Liu Shilai, also has close ties with Britain and recognised the prestige that would come from being associated with British Polo Day.
Liu is a top-notch player in his own right who joins one of the day’s teams, comprised of seasoned players from the top polo-playing nations, Britain and Argentina, with a complement of ace stick-wielders from other nations such as New Zealand and Australia.
The Tang Polo Club layout is also far more conducive to the mingling and schmoozing. Various terraces and grassy areas allow guests to lounge around in easy chairs, with a more formal dining area on an upper level, catered to by one of the sponsors, the China-funded NUO luxury hotel group.
“We get more invitations from countries and clubs than we will ever be able to deliver, says Hudson. “I think that it has become a bit of a thing; if your club hosts British Polo Day it is seen as a badge of approval and that you are part of an international network, you are part of something bigger than just your country.
“Shilai has great British connections and we became genuine friends with him. It goes back to that overused phrase of Churchill’s that polo is a passport to the world. We’re reinventing that for the 21st century; through British Polo Day people’s passions and enjoyment intersect with business opportunities, and we like to be at that apex.”
For the major sponsors, the chance to be up close and personal with some of the country’s most affluent individuals can also offer significant advantages. A regular in Beijing is Chad Delaney, of the distinguished wine merchant Justerni & Brooks, who is able to impress potential clients by stressing the company’s royal associations, storied history and, of course, impressive stock of fine wines.
“Justerini & Brooks is extremely specific and cautious about partnering with other organisations to the point that we barely ever do it, “he says. “As a business that is 270 years old and one that is managing a very clearly defined group of customers around the world, we will only partner with businesses that understand and share our philosophy. We are about building meaningful personal relationships. We are about advice tailored to the person asking. We are about luxury. What we interpret that word to mean is knowing our customers individually, and working with them to help build their passion – beyond just buying products we look to provide context and connection with the wines and whiskies they choose to collect. British Polo Day, from the very first event I went to, personifies a business that understands what luxury is, and ensures that it curates events that clearly presents the best of British luxury around the world.
“We look to secure customers for years, if not a generation. That is highly unlikely to happen if we focus on trying to sell specific wine to the first people we come across. What we look to do is give insight into the lifestyle of a collector. We do that through all sorts of means. Customers that are interested then choose to come to us. Sometimes it happens after one event, sometimes it may take a few years.
“We have seen fabulous results from British Polo Day – both from a sense of it always feeling like a natural partnership with a shared strategic aim, and from a commercial perspective, we have secured a number of private customers.
“One of the most positive aspects is their constant reflection on how to improve – they never rest on what they have achieved. It’s through such restlessness that they create a rare magic. I firmly believe that the events in Beijing of the past couple of years are the best they have ever done. I would hope Chinese guests leave with a sense of how truly special those days are.”
Another drinks purveyor, Royal Salute whisky, has reaped rewards from associating with British Polo Day. At the events, guests can sample a selection of fine malts from the Scottish distillery and then, if they are interested, arrange a visit to see this revered whisky in production. A special 21-year-old edition was unveiled at last year’s event, with marketing director Mathieu Deslandes on hand to explain the whisky’s qualities.
“We place a bespoke Royal Salute Bar at each tournament and also introduce polo to the guests through interactive activities such as our Royal Salute Polo Clinics. Through these experiences, guests are taught the basics of polo, before enjoying the professional British Polo Day match with a dram of Royal Salute.
“Storytelling is also very important when it comes to how we promote ourselves – which is why our collaboration with such a credible partner as British Polo Day makes perfect sense,” Deslandes continues.
“China is a key market for us and we have noticed a shift in the desires of our consumers. In China, it’s no longer about flaunting what you own, it’s now more about showing what you know. Being knowledgeable in the field of whisky is a must – much more now than ever before. Chinese High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) want their friends to know about their experiences, what they have learned and what they have achieved, be it through their travels or the luxury goods they consume.”
“When it comes to whisky, they want people around them to know that they are educated in this field, that they know what a good whisky is, and the craft that goes into creating it. Being able to buy what is expensive is no longer enough to impress. This is why I’m confident with Royal Salute appealing to High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) in China. We are a brand of substance, integrity and quality.
“In China, there is a strong appreciation for high quality and luxury goods that offer a superior experience beyond just the product itself. People are keen to look for the best and the exclusive and are very interested in Britishness and royalty as symbols of success, so brands that can showcase these qualities will naturally be appealing. “
The pitch of the sales team at the Chelsea Barracks upscale housing development is similar, stressing that owning property in the British capital city is also a sound investment. Located in Belgravia, the historic heart of the city, it is being promoted as a celebration of British heritage, a finely-crafted luxury complex that is the ultimate in exclusive addresses. The sales team even bring a model of the development with them to Beijing to help emphasise the scale of the 12.5 acre site.
“The Chinese market is very attuned to the London property market, they have been investing in this market for some time and are knowledgeable purchasers,” says Richard Oakes, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer, Europe and Americas, for the developers, Qatari Diar.
“We expect this trend of investment from China to continue as the weak pound makes the market more appealing again to overseas purchasers. Our approach to HNWIs in China is to focus on the quality and attributes of the development. Chelsea Barracks represents world-class design and a plan on a scale completely unprecedented in London. It is a truly special and unique development which is what we try to convey to the Chinese market.
“British Polo Day has introduced us to an incredible network of people and established a special network of connections who can speak about Chelsea Barracks from a knowledgeable viewpoint and act as brand ambassadors for the scheme. It has also proved incredibly popular with our clients who bring friends to enjoy the spectacle. It has been a worthwhile association for us and the Chelsea Barracks brand.”
The Beijing bash also has a local sponsor in the shape of NUO, a China-funded five-star hotel group. The hotel provides rooms for players and guests in addition to putting on a lavish lunchtime spread at the Tang Polo Club.
“After meeting the team some years ago, it was clear to me that NUO Hotel Beijing would be a perfect match,” says hotelier Adrian Rudin. “We had the same values; I thought it would be a good story to tell for our brand as a pioneering Chinese luxury hospitality group.
“For me, the brand association was always the return on investment, to calculate the marketing value is, as usual, difficult but for NUO it is a good deal. For us, it is the partnership which counts.”
Standing out from the luxury-focused sponsors is Clinova, known for its health-care products and, in particular, rehydration tablets that are used by elite sportspeople including members of Tottenham Hotspur football club.
The company used the British Polo Day event in Beijing to accelerate its entry into the China market, hosting a would-be distributor. It worked a treat: after a day of lavish hospitality, the team went on to a hawker stall in Beijing where the deal was cemented.
More broadly, Clinova uses British Polo Day events around the world to build up contacts, look for investors and distributors and promote the performance-enhancing effects of the hydration tablets.
“We focus on getting the polo players to use the product throughout the British Polo Day event schedule and also activate a hydration station during the event for patrons,” says Arsalan Karim, Director of Research and Development.
“Many of the British Polo Day locations mirrored markets where we were keen to launch Clinova’s brands, so British Polo Day has been a great platform to meet and build relationships with a diverse community of global leaders. The curated attendee list means you get to meet A-listers in their respective fields. We have built a strong bond with the British Polo Day team.”
The business side of Polo Day has also benefitted, with a revenue stream from Clinova linked to deals. Other companies have different arrangements with Britannia Elevation: in the case of the clothing company Hackett, they sold US$1.5 million of British Polo Day clothing, all of which is subject to a licence fee.
There is also a charitable element to the operation, with US$2.5 million so far distributed to good causes. All in all, it is an intriguing business model, one which has scope for constant expansion, especially with the networking functions arrayed around the day itself.
Hudson is in it for the long haul, whilst keeping his hand in elsewhere. As well as juggling his day job as a banker, the former army officer has also had a career as a lawyer and is based in Dubai, where the polo days were initially launched with fellow former soldier Ed Olver.
As he explains, “We think that we will carry on for as long as we live, and hopefully, our children can take it on. We are still learning, a lot of polo events have withered and died because they have taken the short-term approach. We think we’ve brought together an amazing group of people; for us community and experience are absolutely why we do what we do.
“It’s not about trying to make as much money as quickly as possible. Instead, it’s about getting amazing people together to have awesome experiences all around the world. If there are deals resulting from that then people can use our office and legal entity as a conduit. We think that business success is a natural derivative of what we’re doing.”