Louise Stewart Races CEO interview

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Louise Stewart is CEO of Chester Race Company. She is originally from Yorkshire and was appointed to the role in November 2021 , commencing her duties in March.

“My immediate previous role was the Chief Executive of Alexandra Palace in London, it’s a large independent event venue, it hosts music gigs, sport and a whole range of events, Before that I was deputy chief executive of the National Tourist Board, responsible for tourism strategy for England and securing funds from government and other sources to deliver product development programmes, and to oversee research, policy, marketing and communication. Prior to that I’d done roles in local authorities and development agencies covering culture, regeneration and tourism. Before that I worked in private sector leisure and tourism roles. “

Before taking up the post she did not have much prior knowledge of the city. ” I knew it professionally through work. When I started in tourism, Chester was one of the exemplars of tourism management in England if not the UK, in how it managed its tourism and promoted itself. It was a major competitor to York so I was aware from that perspective. I was aware of the Roman Heritage. What really surprised me was the River, it’s a massive selling point and a real joy. When we came to have a look around, I really liked it, but I didn’t have a huge knowledge. “

She says that she had always intended to return to the North of the England, and Chester’s location “ticked so many boxes. I love Snowdonia, I used to work as a mountain guide there, and so the location for me and my personal life was brilliant. I like smaller locations, we may have worked in London but we actually lived in a village just outside. The job itself was a really good match for my professional skillset, I am constantly surprised at how many similarities there are to roles that I have had before, the challenges and the issues that you come up against. “

Since taking up the role Louise has not made a huge number of changes saying that ” You have to be careful as a CEO not to come in and change things too soon. You have to have a period of observation. It took a while for Chester to get back into full swing after the pandemic because of the ongoing restrictions. I started on the 1st March, we were racing at the May festival, so I really needed to see it in full operation. We are starting to make changes in how we treat the site, especially when we’re not racing. The centre of the course is public open space, and making sure we remember that and respect that is increasingly important. We have changed our cleaning contractor and regimes. We have changed a lot in terms of how we communicate internally, I never want to be a remote CEO, I’m very accessible, people need to know what I am thinking. So introducing things like staff newsletters, staff briefings, some of the standard things, to make the team feel more engaged have been great, but there is a lot more to do. Its early days the team are busy delivering racing and there are 3 race courses in the group (Bangor on Dee, and Musselburgh in Scotland, just outside Edinburgh) Chester is a critical part of the racecourse portfolio.”

She says that the post Covid recovery is ongoing. “When you asked that question originally, I don’t think we were quite as far into the cost-of-living crisis. The two things combined are extremely challenging. For individuals and businesses and it’s not likely to get better any time soon. As a race company we have become very conscious about how we rebuild. Before I started there were lots of false starts for the team, we’re racing, we’re not racing, we’re racing behind closed doors etc. We had to be ready as a business to deliver and that was hard. Getting back to full steam, I don’t think we’re quite there yet even though we’ve nearly delivered a full season. ” Staffing is an additional challenge, at the Races but also across hospitality in general:

“We’re trying to make sure that we have got enough staff for each race day when we’re in competition with all the other things those staff were doing during Covid, like working for Aldi and Tesco or as Amazon drivers. It’s a huge issue recruiting casual staff, and trying to retain your existing team. It’s tough, and then there’s energy bills. Like many businesses and homeowners, we are facing energy cost increases; everyone’s overheads are going up. Racing hasn’t fully recovered, so what we’re seeing in our higher cost enclosures is that people with money are still spending. Like a lot of racecourses across the country though, we are finding that the crisis has hit a certain demographic. For some race meetings where we were seeing a drop off in sales in the lower priced enclosures we offered ticket holder the opportunity to bring a friend for free. “

The contentious banning of racegoers bringing their own alcohol into the open course in 2015 has been heavily criticised with some critics saying racing is now less attractive for locals. Louise comments that: “The ban is quite interesting. You can bring alcohol onto the course if you drive, but not on foot. I have gone away and explored it and the reasons behind it, and I don’t think people are aware of the issues that allowing people to bring their own alcohol in caused. It wasn’t just on the racecourse, it was across the city, the police have horror stories that we weren’t aware of because they were doing the mopping up. We have to remember we are right next to the city centre and we have a duty for responsible alcohol consumption.

“We also have a duty to respect the city. I don’t think the ban will be reversed, you can’t take your own alcohol into a football match or most other event venues. Our duty as a licensee is easier for us to perform if there is no alcohol allowed on site that isn’t bought on site. It’s not about the commercial opportunity , it’s about being a responsible racecourse. ”

Other options are being considered to make racing more accessible: ” One of the things we are looking to do is opening the open course at every fixture next year. I’m not promising at this point! We are also looking at our alcohol pricing across the site. We don’t sell the volume that Wetherspoons sell so we can’t offer those prices, but we are looking at our pricing and whether different enclosures might have different pricing strategies to help ensure “racing is for everyone” and that lower priced enclosures offer good value. No promises at this stage but we are modelling it at the moment. We are also looking at improvements we can make to the lower priced enclosures which I think offer some of the best trackside viewing. “

I put it to Louise that the Races have their fair share of detractors, especially prevalent on social media. However she says that she hears “a lot of support” for The Racecourse. ” It’s far outweighed anything negative. I would be keen to understand why people hold a negative view and if there are things we can do to change it, determine if it’s a long held historic view and therefore may no longer be true or is there anything we could do to overcome these issues? I think the racecourse being so close to the city has massive benefits for the city, but I can also see those that even when carefully managed there is an element of negative impact. I think you have to put it into balance, the amount of tourism, the economic impact, the employment , is valuable to Chester and Cheshire but even with the best management of the racecourse and the flow into the city centre, it is going to require residents and businesses to be a patient. I don’t think I can ever deliver the perfect race egress that pleases everyone, so I think it’s about maintaining an ongoing dialogue and fixing the things that we can fix. I do think responsible sale of alcohol is part of that.”

One widely quoted view is that residents avoid the city on race days. Should people avoid the city? I asked. ” I think lots of people love it on race days, I think they like the atmosphere and the spectacle , the party atmosphere, and I think it’s a major selling point for Chester. I can see that some people wouldn’t like it. But people need to make their own decisions about how to live their lives. Personally, if there’s a big event going on around me that I’m not part of, I’ll plan around it. I don’t want to detract from other people having a great time. Its 15 times a year that Chester races, it’s not huge and I think it’s possible to plan around if you don’t really like it. ” 

Equally businesses often report a loss of trade during meetings. “I’d like to have that conversation with them . Is it a real issue or a perceived issue ? What could we do to encourage people to come into town? The city centre still functions pretty well, people are in the racecourse for about 1230 and they’re not out until 5.30, so that’s five hours of trading. Maybe there is something the Business Improvement District could do to perhaps promote the quieter times to shop on a race day. The free parking is very popular (on Sundays post race meetings) it’s been a great initiative and it encourages people to come into the city centre. This year we have delivered an initiative with the BID to improve the egress from the course into town, and reminding people to behave sensibly and respect the city. We steward much further up Watergate street to manage those behaviours, we litter clean further outside of the racecourse than we used to. I think there is a conversation with traders to be had about how serious the problem is and what we can do jointly to encourage people into the city. I do sometimes wander into town on a race day and I think it’s quite pleasant… but it’s not deserted. “

With critics depicting race days as an anarchic Wild West free for all, Louise firmly disputes this.” I walk around on a race day and we are not a high-risk venue for disturbance, it’s a well-managed site. I think people that come here feel that it’s a safe environment to enjoy yourself, even if you have drunk quite a lot. We have over 200 security on site who are trained to deal with any difficulty. We provide lots of toilets. Once racegoers leave the course, legally they aren’t our responsibility but morally they are. We do refuse to serve drunk people, but the effect of alcohol is not uniform. We do quite a lot to try and limit the negative impact and I’m always open to new suggestions as to how we manage it. There are different routes people could walk but it’s a compact city with lots of residential areas. The bars in the city generally do want the post race custom so they do have to go through the city. ” She also confirms that racecourse staff are involved in the post event clean up of the city centre.

“I think that there are other things the racecourse does that go under the radar that we haven’t really promoted. We do contribute more than just that direct economic impact to charities, via collections , tickets or direct donations. Now we are coming out of covid we are looking at how we package that into a full programme. The economic impact overall, I can’t quantify that yet. I know a report was undertaken but it needs updating. It’s going to be in the multiple tens of millions into the city’s economy. “

How would Chester function without the Racecourse Company? “It would be public open space. I think there are advantages having a business operate on it, knowing what happens on public open space when there is no operational presence. I think it’s a fundamental part of the city centre and its identity and history. We lease the space from the council and we do maintain the land. I think we do that well. It should be the event space for the city ” In terms of additional use for the land alongside community events such as the marathon, race for life etc I asked Louise about the possibility of live music events returning. “The team are definitely keen” she says, “and a lot of people in the city are keen for us to do more. Local residents’ organisations are not against it, if we do it sensibly, but we are limited in how many times we can do it. We don’t have any firm plans at the moment but it’s something on the list of things to do.”

Louise gave an update on the £100 million “masterplan” including a conference centre and new grandstand, which was previously given planning permission. ” A lot has changed since that masterplan was drawn up, we have gone through a global pandemic which has changed how buildings might be designed in the future, if we expect another pandemic. Its changed racing but we don’t know for how long. Attendances are not what they were, although or last two meetings of the season are seeing great numbers. It’s changed our finances. We have decided to take a step back and have a think about how the site is used and how it might be used in the future. The masterplan building may be what we land on, but coming into the company fresh I have questions about it. Building at this time, with the cost of materials and labour, and even getting labour is particularly difficult. That location is one of the last spaces available on our site so it’s really important that we take the time to get it right. To continue after the pandemic without reviewing it would be a mistake. “

Concluding, I asked Louise for her assessment on the city’s positives and negatives.” I really like how compact it is. I really like the mix of shopping, the independents and the chains. I know people comment on the empty units but I don’t think Chester is doing badly when you look around the country. It may not be what it was pre pandemic but the high street has been changing for a long long time. I think Chester with an increase in residents in the city centre probably has a good chance of getting to where we all thought UK cities needed to be- that continental European feel of a mixed economy of living, working and meeting. A place to be, not just a place to shop, I think Chester has some of the ingredients to make that happen. There’s definitely a cafe culture and spaces being developed for long term lets and permanent residences. The river was a revelation and I think that’s massively underplayed. We have great places to eat including our racecourse restaurants- they are open outside of racing!

“I like the fact that people are passionate, whether positive or negative. A place without passion isn’t a place. I’ve met some real characters in the last 6 months and I think it’s great they care so deeply. It’s not actually negative, they all want the best for Chester, it’s just not everyone agrees on what the best for Chester is.” She says that public transport needs improvement and favours a move away from cars in the city centre. ” I know some businesses don’t like it, but the evidence is, if you do it well, it helps city centres to thrive. Also, I go around and see somethings that aren’t as well maintained as they could be, it doesn’t sparkle, You can get away with that for so long, but I’d go round with a paintbrush. It’s great that the area round the station is being improved. Pavements bins and lighting, all of that stuff makes a difference.

“Looking at it from a national perspective it seems like other heritage cities have overtaken Chester which may have rested on its laurels a bit. The ingredients that Chester has haven’t changed, and that commitment to promote and attract people is still there, but it takes money to do and businesses and people coming together. I know it’s happening and I have a good feeling about it. I don’t think there’s anything it can’t do it just takes the passion and focus of all that energy wanting the same thing. “

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