I recall attending my first ever Arena Network event some eight years ago, when I had just started to report on the industry. It was undeniably a smart affair, a drinks reception followed by lunch and a talk staged in the Dorchester. I knew relatively few people back then, and entering a grand ballroom filled to capacity with the industry’s great and good, all of whom seemed to know each other, could have been entirely daunting in those circumstances.
However, such was the approachability of the people I met there that I had little difficulty in making several new acquaintances, one of whom was an especially knowledgeable gentleman who had worked with Julian Metcalfe. He generously explained over lunch the insane complexities of the international meat supply chain. Let’s say, thanks to that encounter, I was better informed and also unsurprised when the horsemeat scandal broke a couple of years later. Like any reporter, you are only as good as your contacts, or in this case, your network.
The Arena hospitality network, which has the vision to ‘engage, educate, inspire in everything we do’, is the oldest of the industry social networks and one of the most influential. The organisation was initially started by Naomi Arnold, purchasing director for Wimpy, and industry guru Peter Backman some 35 years ago, initially as an informal network where senior executives, both operators and suppliers, could meet regularly to discuss the issues affecting their industry. Over time, those series of informal meetings, usually held in a nearby hostelry, began to formalise. The organisation began to charge its members a small £10 fee in order to hire a private room in a hotel or pub. It also acquired a name – Catering Arena.
The Arena network, as it is now styled, has grown considerably since then. More than 60,000 people have attended its events and it has over 2,000 members. It has successfully built a board, which includes new and established members such as Steve Norris, sales director for Nestle Professional, who has been chairman for three years. It is also now offering events such as An Audience With guests including Michel Roux Jr and Mark Sargeant, as well as panel discussions highlighting industry issues such as retaining and growing talent, technology and, of course, Brexit. The list of past speakers at its annual Savoy lecture includes Sir Rocco Forte, Prue Leith, Lord Coe, Guy Hands, Alastair Storey, the late Richard Cousins, Andrew Selley and Allan Leighton.
While the social aspects of the organisation are still undeniably appealing, it has also moved with the times, reflecting a more serious, professionalised foodservice and hospitality industry. As Lorraine Wood, who has been Arena’s director for the past 11 years, explains, it is less about being part of ‘an old boys’ network’ and more about facilitating connections that can help businesses prosper in challenging times. It’s also an opportunity to meet many of the industry’s leaders and learn from their experiences in a formal but relaxed setting. “The days where you could just pop out of the office to attend the Arena lunch at the Dorchester have more or less gone,” she says.
There is still an undeniably strong social element to many of its key events, but now that increasingly combines with serious intent. While enjoyment in luxurious London settings remains a core ingredient, it coincides with greater emphasis on serious content that is both informative and educational. A recent summer event at Stationers’ Hall also included presentations from five different speakers, experts in specific aspects of staff recruitment, engagement, training and retention. The last two events have sold out, and Wood is confident the next one will too.
The Christmas event at the Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park, the biggest social highlight in the Arena calendar, will involve a serious element: an industry overview from Peter Backman in the morning and a talk by celebrity chef Michael Caines MBE of Lympstone Manor about his own plans and perspective on industry issues. “We continue to meet in five-star venues and hotels, such as the Langham Hotel, where we held an Arena dinner in October with Michel Roux Jr. who was our guest speaker, but all those venues have to have something unique about them,” explains Wood. “Increasingly we try and mix things up a bit.”
Mixing it up has also involved concerted efforts to attract new members and a more diverse, inclusive audience. “It’s fair to say that we were traditionally a fairly male-orientated group, but that’s changed,” says Wood. “Now a lot more women come to our events and they tend to come in their own right, rather than accompanying a more senior male boss who might bring them along as a reward.”
Active strides are also being taken to attract younger members and attendees. Again, this is reflected in Arena’s efforts to introduce more experiential events into its annual programmes, something that is designed to appeal to millennials, many of whom are in senior positions, particularly in supplier companies. This is reflected in the recent development of staging more experiential visits, something epitomised by back-of-house tour of Wembley Stadium in 2016 for more than 75 people, hosted by caterer Delaware North. “Inevitably, some of our senior people are approaching retirement, so it is important that we encourage the next generation behind them to come along,” says Wood, adding that when they do participate, the feedback is always ‘terrific’.
Apart from the obvious benefits of meeting a wider circle of influential people in the wider industry, there is still no substitute for face-to-face contact, even in this fast-moving world of instant digital communication. A good network matters more than ever in difficult times. I don’t think you should ever make crucial, calculated judgements based purely on a phone call or through social media. “We have definitively moved with the times and become more experiential, something that is increasingly focused in our summer programme,” says Wood.
Arena tends to publish its guest list before each event in order to give attendees ample opportunity to decide well in advance who they would like to meet. Wood and her Arena colleagues advise guests to do their homework beforehand to find common ground with their ‘target’, but strongly counsels against temptation to indulge in any hard sell.
“I remember introducing one young executive who worked for a cheese supplier to Karen Forrester, the very approachable chief executive of TGI Fridays. After saying ‘Hello Karen, lovely to meet you,’ he just demanded to know where she got her cheese from. Frankly, it was excruciating to watch.”
Most people, however, adopt a more empathetic approach, doing their homework in advance and are well-versed in the issues and views of the person they most want to meet. That strategy has been successfully deployed by many of its members, one of whom is Tevin Tobun, chief executive of Gate Ventures, a company supplying food logistics services to the foodservice sector. Tobun, who was recently appointed to the board of Arena, credits the organisation with helping him pull in more than £1m worth of additional revenues. “Arena events are unique and one of the only few industry get-togethers that give you direct access to the most senior level decision makers within the sector,” he says.
Given that Arena covers the whole of the hospitality industry, that even if the person you would most like to meet is not present at a particular event, Wood says the chances are that there will be someone there who knows that specific operator and prepared to forge an introduction. “It may take several months for that invaluable introduction to occur, but I’m convinced it is a far more effective method of making the right connections than just attempting to cold call,” she says.
So, in her 11 years of fronting up Arena, I wonder what Wood regards as being her own personal highlights. There are many things to be proud of, but she says it is the speaker events. Her three standout guests were Karen Forrester of TGI Fridays, Charles Wilson, chief executive of Booker, and the late Richard Cousins, group chief executive of Compass, who sadly died in a seaplane accident late last year. Each was compelling in their own unique way and all three were disarmingly unassuming, despite their considerable achievements. “I thought Karen was amazing,” Wood says. “She was very animated and spoke with no notes about how she had transformed TGI Fridays by enlisting the support of her staff from day one.”
She was similarly impressed by Charles Wilson, who spoke at Arena twice, initially as the guest speaker at a Summer event, and subsequently in 2013 in a Face2Face interview conducted by ITN newscaster Alastair Stewart. “He combined a quiet demeanour with a huge intellect. He was a captivating speaker.”
Her ability to persuade Cousins to speak in 2011 was something of a personal triumph for Wood, as it was well-known that the Compass boss was a deeply private man who preferred to stay well away from the limelight. Again, Arena’s network of high-level connections helped her secure him as the guest speaker.
Talking at industry events was clearly something of an ordeal, yet he somehow managed to conceal any nervousness or reluctance he might have felt. He was disarming, human and engaging in his frank talk about Compass’s turnaround from its former troubles. The only quid pro quo he demanded in return, Wood recalls, was that she was ready at the end with half a pint of Guinness – his favourite tipple.