Ted Walker - Keith Prowse Hospitality
The pursuits of Ted Walker bear a common thread of striving whether it’s treating guests to memorable hospitality in iconic venues - or barrelling A-Frame waves in tropical oceans in his spare time.
The former saw Ted (pic left) rise from telecoms employee to head of marketing at leading corporate hospitality supplier, Keith Prowse. And the latter has taken him from Grommet surfer to the head of the Sri Lankan swirl.
Sports are a persistent theme of his role and it’s no coincidence that we chat at Edgbaston Cricket Ground, Birmingham which was recently refurbished at a cost of £32 million. Its stylish Jaguar Club, with panoramic pitch views, sets the scene for Keith Prowse’s ‘Edgbaston Wine Tasting’ event.
The wine we’re sipping (and there’s a lot) will be served in Keith Prowse hospitality suites for the international cricket season at Edgbaston. Our job is simply to drink and vote for our favourites; an apt setting for discourse on the hospitality business...
Sat Bal - The last time we were here was during the India v England Test match in summer. How did Keith Prowse cope with the advent of a new building and an international event?
Ted Walker - We had a big challenge ahead of us last year and it was quite tough because no-one had seen this venue (Edgbaston Cricket Ground). Even our hospitality launch took place in the old facilities at the other end of the ground where we could see this new building emerging out of the ground. But now people have actually been here, they’ve experienced it. They’ve tasted the food and they know the quality they’re going to get when they come to Edgbaston. Guests that we entertained last summer told me that of the other large sporting arenas in the region this venue really tops it. We’re very proud of what we’re doing here at Edgbaston and we want to make sure that it’s known as the premier entertaining venue for the summer.
As regards Keith Prowse I think we once said, in terms of our sourcing and brokering other events, we can go from the Chelsea Flower Show to Manchester United.
SB On an operational level do different events dictate different service offerings?
TW I think the level of service is the same at all of our events. We always want to make sure that you’re very well looked after. We like to think that the food is of a very high standard no matter which event you go to but obviously we have different price points and the offering will be different. For example at T20 we might offer more of a buffet type meal service whereas at a Test match it’ll be a three-course meal.
The theming of the menus does influence the offering. For example, last year at Cartier International Polo our African savanna-type theme inspired African dishes. At Wimbledon we have Albert Roux and he’s there on the day with his team making sure that the food is served to his exacting standards. And then for rugby in the winter we pick very hearty meals such as steak or a shin of beef or lamb and plenty of vegetables.
SB So understanding the culture of the event is instinctive by now
TW Keith Prowse almost invented the hospitality market back in around 1975 and we have people that have worked here for more than 20 years and that experience shows. Our day manager on a lot of the big events is a lady that’s often consulted on new menu ideas because she’s seen such a variety of dishes served during her time at Keith Prowse.
SB Which probably explains the recent recruiting of nine people to senior management positions
TW Yes, it’s encouraging and we’re expanding our operation in terms of people because we are in a very challenging environment and need to make sure we have the very best people in place. All the people at Keith Prowse have been promoted from within. Even our current MD started in the sales team.
We are a growing business but in a very competitive environment so it is tough but I think are companies are seeing the benefit of entertaining because they need to get close to their customers. They need to build those relationships and the best way to do it is to have a great entertaining experience with your customers.
SB I recall this suite being full of guests enjoying great hospitality during the England-India match. But what about smaller businesses who might balk at spending a four-figure sum on a table of guests - is Keith Prowse hospitality an option for these SMEs?
TW Definitely. We can offer SMEs smaller scale bookings. So if you have two or three key clients you really want to get to know we can accommodate smaller bookings. But the other option, if price is an issue, is events like the T20 matches here at Edgbaston and from our wider portfolio we have lots of cultural options such as theatre. In fact, for people who want to enjoy and entertain we’ve got options from £95 right through to the top end.
SB Congratulations on winning Wimbledon for another five years. Was it hard fought and who do you view as sector rivals?
TW We’ve worked very hard over the last 29 years to do our 30th year at Wimbledon and we were up against some very stiff competition but we were passionate about our involvement.
Regarding competition I think all of our contemporaries in the market will be bidding for similar contracts. Sodexo and IMG are very strong and we currently share the Wimbledon contract with Sportsworld.
There are some very reputable hospitality agencies who hold contracts directly with the organisers, for example, we don’t hold the contract for Royal Ascot. Those agencies provide excellent service and we sell a lot of products on their behalf.
It’s the unofficial agents who might set up a marquee down the road from the venue that can cause problems. Ticket purchasers have no guarantee on the level of service and there have been some horror stories. We always recommend that whether people use Keith Prowse or not that they should go with an official supplier. The last thing you want is to be stood outside a sporting venue with 10 of your best clients and no tickets to the event!
SB How did you get into the job?
TW I was working with a telecoms company and the commute was getting too much. I got a call from an agency for a position with Keith Prowse. I looked at the website and thought wow, these guys mean business! I could see a serious product and I wanted to be part of this. I could see straight away the improvements I might make in terms of making the packages more tangible. A more recent example of this is that I’ve launched new virtual tours so that prospective clients can see what the venue spaces are really like. Our sales people say it really helps in terms of explaining what the facilities are like, what people get for their money and the atmosphere. I knew that Keith Prowse had an amazing product but also knew there was a lot we could with marketing it.
SB Is the job still exciting?
TW Yes the job is great! It’s always different. We never stand still and are always trying to improve, whether it be our marketing collateral or the way we deal with our clients. We have got some exciting projects coming on board, two new websites for our two tour products and we’re always bidding for new contracts. Like I said, Wimbledon and Edgbaston are great projects to be involved in so long may it continue.
SB So no unfulfilled dreams of being an engine driver or suchlike?
TW No. (Long pause) Maybe a pro surfer... but I think I started a bit too late for that. I got into surfing when I was travelling at 25. I had a lesson in Bali and did a bit in Australia. When I returned home off a trip I planned to buy a house but decided to go on my last big holiday before I bought the house. I went to Bali for three weeks and did a two-week surfing course. Since then I’ve been to Brazil, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Chile and Panama just to go surfing.
I really improved this time in Sri Lanka!