All done in the name of fun

In the inflationary world of corporate hospitality, many people will be surprised to find out what good value Wimbledon offers. Two dozen front-row seats, formal corporate sponsorship credits for a top game, buffet and a chance to meet the players at the bar after the match, can all be had for around £1,000 – at Wimbledon Football Club, that is.

Corporate entertaining at the other Wimbledon does, admittedly, come a little more expensive: £1,665 is the cost per person one law firm has been quoted for centre court tickets at the men's finals. But some firms find it worthwhile paying the steep charges in an attempt to reflect the prestige and status of their guests.

Rugby internationals are another popular option among law firms offering clients a Saturday afternoon soft-sell treat. But at £800 a head for top England internationals and with union rules allowing no half-time break to chat to guests, many believe rugby-based hospitality is topping out.

Chris Hill, director at Alternative Corporate Entertainment, says cheaper options often prove far more productive in making marketing budgets stretch further. The trick, he says, is to ensure the firm attempts to tailor the event to the interests of its clients, rather than the whim of the managing partner. So if the clients prefer Vinnie Jones to Pete Sampras, or go-karting to opera at Glyndebourne, the host should yield to the guest – and save some money into the bargain.

“It all comes down to budget,” Hill says. “There's a market place for the £50 to £60 pound a head with go-karting or going to the dogs. They work. They probably aren't the places where professionals would take clients, but are good for in-house entertainment.

“But for £100 to £200 per person, you can get some very good activity days which can prove far cheaper and more effective than the some of the packages surrounding top sports or arts events.”

A key element of corporate hospitality lies in establishing a convivial atmosphere between host and guest. This means ensuring the guests feel neither insulted or over-awed by the meanness or opulence of the event. But it also means that guests should not end up feeling like appendages to the managing partner's hobby.

“Too often events are arranged on the whim of senior people – often rugby, golf, sailing or horse racing – and then organised by PAs or junior administrative people,” says Hill.

Not that there is anything wrong with rugby internationals, an afternoon's golf or a day at the races so long as it suits the guests and allows some time to chat with clients. But grouse shooting with vegetarian clients or sailing regattas with non-swimmers are probably a no-no.

Corporate entertainment is often best treated as a way of cementing relationships with existing clients rather than winning new business, says Hill. But as all marketing professionals know, success in retaining clients is far more cost effective than finding new ones, so a few basic marketing rules apply.

Firms are advised to tailor events not just to budgets and interests of clients, but to the particular image the firm is trying to convey.

“For law firms, it may not be appropriate to take clients bungy jumping. It may not conjure up the image they want to convey to clients that they are in safe hands,” says Hill. “But it may work for something like a computer software company which wants to convey a young, get-ahead image.”

Treasure hunts, sailing, motor sports, paintball and country pursuits remain staples of the alternative, out-and-about events which have flourished since the 1980s.

Apparently, tank driving is the latest thing in the corporate hospitality field. The end of the Cold War has released military vehicles for corporate entertaining, with Chieftain tanks and Russian TS5s available for a day's spin. It can be arranged for under £100 a head but it is, perhaps, a little bit masculine for some firms' tastes.

But for those whose idea of a good time involves sitting around rather than running around, the traditional annual dinner or launch remains a popular choice for many firms.

Nothing wrong with that. But you can make your event stand out by arranging it at an unusual venue or with a celebrity speaker.

Places like the National History Museum are available for functions and many arts venues attempt to tie in arts and dinner packages for smaller groups, which may involve the chance to mingle with performers after the show.

Baroness Thatcher and Jeffrey Archer are available for a price. On a lighter note, captain of industry Sir John Harvey-Jones starts at £10,000 a throw, plus expenses, to chip in a few jokes and business tips over coffee and brandy.

But a common problem among firms booking speakers for dinners is failure to properly plan ahead, says Joseph Jones, director of After Dinner Speakers Un-Ltd.

“People are ringing us this time of year to book speakers for Christmas events, which is something which really ought to have been done in August,” says Jones.

“A lot of people can be, and do get booked nine or even 12 months ahead.”

There are plenty of speakers with a legal bent. James Pickles and Clive Anderson, for example, if you haven't had your fill of them on late-night TV. John Stalker also does the rounds, and more unusually Australian comedienne-cum-lawyer Lello Ross is available for a spot of cabaret.

Celebrity value rather than quality of speaking is what you pay for, says Jones. The two are often but not always related. “You can get a good speaker for a few hundred pounds who is better than one costing you thousands,” he says. TV comedians are always in demand, but Jones says some are currently trying to push up prices too much.

Murder-mysteries should appeal to most lawyers. Typically, these involve a play acted out between dinner courses with guests required to piece together clues and reveal the murderer. These can be tailored to a firm's brief and work for audiences from a dozen to hundreds, at a typical cost of £1,200 upwards. They may be more fun and unusual than listening to a former-celebrity rehashing old anecdotes.

However, with outside guests these games can raise a thorny issue of etiquette. Do you play to win, demonstrate your deductive and forensic skills, but risk “bettering” and offending your guests? Or do you patronise your guests by letting them beat you and bring your problem-solving skills into doubt?

Most corporate hospitality will involve a drink or two with clients. For those who are partial to a drink, wine and beer tasting events are becoming popular among law firms, and a number of more up-market off-licences are laying on facilities for this. This means the headaches are caused by the alcohol rather than organisation.

They can avoid time-consuming travel, allow flexibility of timing and venue and can be be tailored to cater for most types of budget. Costs can range from well under £50 to little beyond it.

However, if your client or managing partner drinks to get drunk, bungy jumping may prove the better option.