Not only did the Horse of the Year Show crown some new champions this year, it also welcomed a new naming-rights sponsor, Land Rover, which signals the start of a whole new era for the show, according to event director, Dave Mee.
Dave’s events management company, SMC Events, is now in its third year of running HOY, under a contract that means the show’s profits go back to SMC as part of its fee, rather than to the shareholders (Equestrian Sports NZ, Show Jumping NZ and the Hastings District Council).
So it’s very much in Dave’s interests that the show is a commercial success, and he’s very excited about his new partnership with Land Rover, which he says will “raise the bar”. Just what does that mean, though?
We had a chat with him after the show, to see if we could find out.
Land Rover, of course, is no stranger to equestrian event sponsorship. The iconic British car brand, which is owned by an Indian company, Tata Motors, has been the naming-rights sponsor of the Burghley Horse Trials since 2005, and has this year taken over the naming rights of the Kentucky three-day event as well.
Dave was buzzing about the new connection between HOY and Burghley; the director of Burghley, Liz Inman, even came to the event, arriving in a helicopter.
Dave was introduced to Liz by Land Rover UK, and met her in England last year. “We just rang her up and said, ‘hey, we are coming to the UK, can we catch up?’.”
He was impressed by the reception he got from Liz, and so he invited her to attend HOY.
“Next year Land Rover are going to spend a lot of money leveraging this event. So, this year was a little bit of a bridging year in that we came on late, and there was not a lot of time to do all the things they want to do, but they will do a hell of a lot for the show next year, and for us that is super-exciting.”
Dave has worked hard at developing the relationship with Land Rover, who have been involved with HOY for some time as the vehicle sponsors. But to secure naming rights, Land Rover wanted HOY to “raise the bar,” he says.
“They were sort of on the fence, saying ‘oh, we are not sure, you haven’t raised the bar enough, and you need to elevate the status of the event.’ ”
One of the stumbling points was getting the show back on TV, and getting it screened live on Sky Sports was a major breakthrough, especially from Land Rover’s point of view.
There have also been some other, more subtle changes and rebranding, and Dave is excited about how far this can go. “I am sure that will bring on different partners, even little things like branding it [the Sunday of the show] as Cup Day, dress up and enjoy the day. It is a start of a lot of things.”
While his focus has been on developing the corporate relationships, Dave says he hasn’t forgotten about the riders, especially the grass-roots level ones who make up the numbers, pay the bulk of the entry fees, and bring along supporters with them.
“We are not forgetting our roots, which are the club competitors, the pony clubs, they are so important to Horse of the Year. It is just a real juggle.”
So Dave will now be soliciting in-depth feedback from riders, as he hadn’t heard a lot during the show, being “head down, bum up.” A survey will be heading riders’ way soon: “We want to hear everything, we want to hear the good, the bad and the ugly. There are parts that will have happened that I won’t even know have happened. There will be things that will come out of that.”
Health & Safety
We witnessed a serious health and safety incident where a dressage horse kicked out in the alleyway heading to the polo field, connecting with a young rider walking the other way. She was hit in the head, but fortuitously had a helmet on. She walked away, with her mother, battered and shocked, and was very, very lucky.
We asked Dave about the incident and health and safety generally, particularly in that tight area where there is a mixture of both adults and children on horses, on bikes and on foot, plus prams and wheelchairs.
“The thing that frightens me the most is the health and safety,” Dave admits.
“It is probably our single biggest challenge: how you fit everything into a confined space with kids, horses, with pedestrians. We are trying to improve the flows. We have looked at pedestrian-only areas and horse-only areas down that back end, but then you come to deliveries. We have to take a fresh look including at whether everything is in the right place. Should we have all the arenas where they currently are?
“We started doing that probably six months ago, but felt it was too late to try and really have a solid plan. I think you will have seen some improvements for cross-country this year the way we taped it off, and we used the horse fencing as opposed to danger taping. But these [improvements] just all, unfortunately, cost money.”
Another issue at this year’s event was the scheduling of the showing classes, where the title class for the park hacks ended up being judged in the dark.
Dave says he wasn’t aware of it until afterwards. “I became aware of that after the fact, if the truth be known. Those are the kinds of things that we want to look in to more and find out how we can facilitate. We have got to juggle of all these different classes, all these different things happening.
“How do we make it work? Should we play with it? Show jumping are looking at it right now… but everything you change has a ripple effect somewhere else.”
And talking of scheduling, there has also been a lot of talk about whether the current form of eventing should stay. Some of the other disciplines’ participants complain about having to put everything on hold for the cross-country on Saturday morning, when the show goes into lock down. Having a big screen in the main arena in previous years has meant the spectators could see more of the spectacle and action, but this year there was no big screen.
There has been discussion about whether a form of express eventing could be a better option, as it has a lot of appeal for spectators and would take less time (and a lot less money) to run. We asked Dave about his thoughts on this:
“I don’t want to pre-empt anything. We will look at anything, however, the feedback I have had from the [eventing] riders is that they don’t want express eventing. The number-one priority is the riders, so I don’t think we are likely to do express eventing. Chatting to the riders who either compete overseas or want to compete overseas, their feedback is that this is their best build-up locally, as it has crowds, it has marquees, it is quite frightening for the horses and that means it is good prep for them.
“This year we put more jumps in the arena and we thought that would appeal to the public. We separated the two- and three-star out a bit more as well, so there were not as many combined jumps. Chris Ross [course designer] is looking at all sorts of options.”
Nobody likes to hear the media moan about their facilities or how hard they work, but this year the grumbles were stronger than ever, due to the lack for the first time of a dedicated media manager.
This role in previous years has included such tasks as putting out press releases at the end of each day’s action, as well issuing start sheets, timetables and other information, such as arranging interviews with notables such as the visiting Burgley event director.
Experienced equestrian media (such as ourselves) generally don’t need too much in the way of management, but the problems creep in when the mainstream media are left to their own devices. This year, it resulted in some very weird and incorrect stories being published, such as the ‘plastic hooves’ story on Stuff, another about horses refusing to drink the chlorinated water at HOY, and riders and horses being incorrectly named. Much of this could have been quietly sorted by a media manager before it was published or broadcast.
Had there been a crisis, a media manager would have helped keep the publicity under control or at least offered some balance to any alarmist reporting.
Without media releases, there was little publicity about this year’s inductees to the HOY Hall of Fame, which was a big pity. We hope to rectify that shortly with our story on Ross Coles, who along with Julie Brougham, was inducted with little or no fanfare except from among those who were at the cocktail function on the Thursday night at HOY.
The show shared coverage on its social media channels, especially Facebook, but as of a week after the show had ended, the ‘latest news’ on its website was a story about the winners on Friday night, with no updates from the Saturday or Sunday main titles.
Dave acknowledges that HOY had dropped the ball in this regard. “I just think we are quite stretched to be honest and they [media releases] should be there, it is as simple as that. We were probably not as sharp on that media side as we could have been.”
We look forward to what the future will be for the most prestigious show in New Zealand, so if you are given the opportunity to give feedback to Dave, then do, he genuinely seems to want to make the show better.