Herald Sun - - NEWS - JEFF WHALLEY


TO THOSE in the know, the secret rules of the Bird­cage game could not be sim­pler. If you in­vite Gina, you must also in­vite Pratt. It is about know­ing whom is in with whom. Bil­lion­aires like to hang out to­gether.

Next — be ruth­less with the guest list. Those in charge of the lists are bru­tal. “Once you go out of busi­ness — it’s amaz­ing how the in­vi­ta­tions dry up,” a for­mer busi­ness chief re­lated grimly.

An­other who penned many a list put it more point­edly: “You don’t want the Ge­of­frey Edel­stens of the world com­ing around and both­er­ing peo­ple.”

One busi­ness leader laughed when he re­called to the Her­ald Sun watch­ing Qan­tas chief Alan Joyce flee Edel­sten amid the pan­de­mo­nium of the colour­ful for­mer doc­tor propos­ing to Gabby Grecko in the Bird­cage three years ago.

An­other key rule is … toi­lets. Make sure the rich and pow­er­ful are not forced to cross their legs.

Jen­nifer Hawkins knew this best. Dur­ing the great “store wars” with David Jones, Hawkins was quar­an­tined in­side the Myer mar­quee for fear of be­ing pho­tographed and associated with David Jones. The only fa­cil­ity handed to her on that oc­ca­sion was a bucket hid­den be­neath a tar­pau­lin.

Hawko even­tu­ally found a bet­ter ar­range­ment and would leave the Myer mar­quee to use the toi­lets in the nearby Lion fa­cil­ity which were more swank (and quite a bit more dig­ni­fied than the bucket).

Also, keep the mu­sic at a rea­son­able level.

“You need the right mix, they want to be able to sit around and chat — that wouldn’t hap­pen in the dance mar­quees be­cause the CEO doesn’t want to walk in and be hit by a wall of doof-doof,” one Bird­cage vet­eran said. Oh yes, and the fi­nal rule — let the power­bro­kers bro­ker power: don’t get in the way of the rich and in­flu­en­tial race­go­ers rub­bing shoul­ders.

For more than a gen­er­a­tion, the Bird­cage was — as de­scribed by one busi­ness chief — the one place ul­tra­com­pet­i­tive Aus­tralian bosses could come to a cease­fire and talk with politi­cians and other power­bro­kers with whom they were usu­ally cross­ing swords.

He re­lated how a re­la­tion­ship with a key client was healed over balm­ing ales at the Bird­cage. “Busi­ness can be pretty bruis­ing so it is good to smooth things over,” he said. “That said, I wouldn’t drink be­fore the main race was fin­ished, you did not want to get too re­laxed.” Crit­ics say the chang­ing of the guard at the Bird­cage this year is trans­form­ing it from a home of the power­bro­kers to some­thing rather dif­fer­ent.

But as last year’s win­dow-lick­ing in­ter­na­tional celebrity guest Paris Jackson would say — rules in the Bird­cage were meant to be bro­ken. And — oh boy — things are chang­ing in the 130-year-old in­sti­tu­tion.

The new play­ers are do­ing it their own way and putting some noses out of joint.

This year’s Bird­cage in­cludes a big­ger Tab­corp mar­quee, a trans­formed Lion, a re­vamped Lexus, cham­pagne firm Mumm, dance fes­ti­val Ul­tra, dat­ing app Bum­ble and lux­ury goods sales­man James Kennedy, who first made a splash last year.

Croc Me­dia is ex­pand­ing its foot­print, tak­ing Lavazza’s old spot. And Bum­ble is tak­ing the lesser site Lexus had, as the car brand moves to a ma­jor po­si­tion on the straight.

While the likes of Tab­corp, Lexus and Lion are more tra­di­tional, Mumm — op­er­ated by Pernod Ri­card Aus­tralia — is at the other end of the spec­trum. La­belled by some as crowded, big on glam­our, al­ways a party at­mos­phere, but pretty dis­con­nected from rac­ing with its mod­els and “some kind of gim­mick” like a pool one year and an 18m yacht the next.

Ac­cord­ing to some old­timers, it is the Syd­ney-based PR com­pa­nies turn­ing some of the newer mar­quees into a “doof fes­ti­val”.

Crit­i­cism starts with get­ting the guest lists wrong: “They make it a dance party. No one looks at the races.”

They say the busi­ness elites will be con­fined to the “more ma­ture” venues such as Tab­corp, Lexus and Lion, while other types of glam­our — with very dif­fer­ent guest lists — dom­i­nate other fa­cil­i­ties.

“I think the Bird­cage is the piece that the Vic­to­ria Rac­ing Club needs to work on. The irony of it is, that it is where the money is and where the spon­sors are,” one said.

And while there used to be more high-priced celebs — who could get an ap­pear­ance fee of up to $250,000 — many in­vites are now sent to on­line “in­flu­encers”.

“Now they in­vite a bunch of peo­ple from so­cial me­dia no one gives a s--- about,” one critic said.

It should be noted, though, that crit­ics do not want to go pub­lic. Peo­ple might be dis­sat­is­fied but they also want to stay on the “in” list.

An­other vet­eran said peo­ple were get­ting ahead of them­selves if they thought the new­com­ers were that dif­fer­ent from the old.

John Tripodi, co-founder and CEO of the high-pro­file mar­ket­ing and me­dia com­pany Twenty3 Group, which in­cludes Ed­die McGuire and Paul Dainty as di­rec­tors, has worked on plenty of mar­quees.

Mr Tripodi said the Bird­cage had al­ways worked on the prin­ci­ple of the chang­ing na­ture of what is con­sid­ered lux­ury.

“Like any­thing, the prin­ci­ples of lux­ury mean that when you put lim­its on some­thing it in­creases de­mand and de­sire from a con­sumer per­spec­tive. In other words, pun­ters want to get into that area. There are peaks and troughs with the Bird­cage and which mar­quee is in de­mand,” he said. An­other stal­wart, Judy Ro­mano, said the Bird­cage had al­ways been chang­ing with con­stant moves to pro­mote it to a younger de­mo­graphic.

Ro­mano — in­volved in the Bird­cage for 27 years, manag­ing head­lin­ers Emi­rates for 20 years and Myer last year — said this year there would be a mix of mar­quees cov­er­ing all de­mo­graph­ics.

But she said there was com­pe­ti­tion from events such as the Aus­tralian Open. “Times are chang­ing. I’ve seen a lot of global bud­gets go­ing into ten­nis,” she said.

Be­ing in­side this so­cial whirl doesn’t come cheap.

It costs about $1 mil­lion for the build and an­other $1 mil­lion for things such as tick­et­ing, food and PR. Not to men­tion ap­pear­ance fees.

Go­ing into this year’s peak rac­ing sea­son, VRC chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Neil Wil­son said the Bird­cage was sim­ply evolv­ing, as ever.

“The Mel­bourne Cup Car­ni­val’s renowned Bird­cage has evolved from a hum­ble car park into ar­guably the world’s most lav­ish tem­po­rary fa­cil­ity,” he said. “It rep­re­sents one of the most unique brand and hos­pi­tal­ity plat­forms found any­where in the world.”

IT started a cou­ple of years ago. A flood of cor­po­rate ex­its from the Bird­cage even­tu­ally turned into a tor­rent, cre­at­ing room for the up-and-com­ers.

In the last cou­ple of years a suc­ces­sion of elites — Myer, Crown, Emi­rates, Swisse, Lavazza, Sen­sis and Hil­ton Ho­tels — have all walked from the rar­efied at­mos­phere.

Myer has a mar­ket value of $400 mil­lion, Crown $9 bil­lion, so the play­ers are big. Crit­ics say the big names are not be­ing re­placed by hefty enough brands. The ar­gu­ment goes: how do you com­pare Myer, Emi­rates and Lavazza to a dat­ing app and a rave brand?

An­other stal­wart said the trend seemed to sug­gest the Bird­cage was dy­ing.

Most of the ex­it­ing com­pa­nies have pointed to their own need to cut spend­ing amid mount­ing cost pres­sures and the chang­ing na­ture of cor­po­rate hos­pi­tal­ity.

All busi­ness mod­els, from re­tail to gam­bling to air­lines, are fac­ing chal­lenges and the abil­ity to stretch a mar­ket­ing dol­lar is a cru­cial skill in tougher times.

Emi­rates world­wide spon­sor­ship boss Boutros Boutros per­haps put it best, say­ing the com­pany had built its name recog­ni­tion and could not “keep spend­ing and spend­ing”.

“When we first came, no­body had heard of Emi­rates,” he said. Mis­sion ac­com­plished, the air­line is now a house­hold brand.

Other vet­er­ans point to a sim­i­lar exit af­ter the Global Fi­nan­cial Cri­sis, when bosses did not want to be pic­tured sup­ping cham­pers while sack­ing staff. “But they re­gret­ted it and were all back three years later,” one said.

Mr Tripodi said sev­eral fac­tors had af­fected the older model of glam­our.

“These days the eco­nomics have changed — try­ing to get celebs from over­seas it is re­ally ex­pen­sive, the ex­change rate doesn’t help as ev­ery­thing is in US dol­lars, but it is the same with mu­sic and other tour acts,” he said.

“And when you do have a high-pro­file tal­ent who wants to come out, it be­comes a bid­ding war.”

He said the evo­lu­tion of “so­cial in­flu­encers” within fash­ion brands was also a fac­tor. But any­one writ­ing the Bird­cage obit­u­ary was prob­a­bly jump­ing the gun.

“I know this year, there are no spots avail­able on Mel­bourne Cup or Derby Day in the Bird­cage,” Mr Tripodi said.

“The precinct has shifted from be­ing solely a ve­hi­cle to wine and dine clients to of­fer­ing guests an un­for­get­table brand ex­pe­ri­ence within a horse rac­ing en­vi­ron­ment.”

For its part, Mumm couldn’t be hap­pier with the in­vest­ment.

Pernod Ri­card Aus­tralia mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor Eric Thom­son said the nine sea­sons the brand had been at

the car­ni­val had been an im­por­tant part of Mumm’s suc­cess. “The Mel­bourne Cup Car­ni­val at Flem­ing­ton has be­come an es­sen­tial part of the Aus­tralian cal­en­dar, and a ticket to the Bird­cage is still one of the most cov­eted of­fers in the coun­try,” he said. Lux­ury car brand Lexus — the VRC’s prin­ci­pal part­ner this year — moves into the pres­tige front-row spot pre­vi­ously held by Emi­rates. Sep­pelt Wines takes over as the name wine, rep­re­sent­ing the Trea­sury Wine Es­tates lo­ca­tion. One busi­ness leader points to en­joy­ing the Lion Nathan mar­quee, this year named af­ter Fur­phy beer — a change from its sev­enyear Boag’s name — which tar­gets beer in­dus­try types. “It has a dif­fer­ent at­mos­phere, it is full of pub­li­cans who are re­lax­ing,” he said. Tab­corp has been a main­stay for many years and is renowned for at­tract­ing lead­ing play­ers from the com­mer­cial, po­lit­i­cal, rac­ing and me­dia sec­tors. Its ap­proach is about em­pha­sis­ing its con­nec­tions to rac­ing by host­ing lead­ing fig­ures from the in­dus­try, as op­posed to mu­sic or TV stars. This year it will be Tab­corp’s first cup car­ni­val as a com­bined en­tity. It ac­quired the lottery and wa­ger­ing busi­ness of the Tatts group through the 2017 merger. Some point out it is send­ing a mes­sage by the fact the ca­pac­ity of its mar­quee will be its largest ever — ab­sorb­ing the old Myer mar­quee space to of­fer room for 300 guests on each day of the car­ni­val.

That merger saw its mar­ket value hit a size­able $10 bil­lion, show­ing it is one of the ASX’s big play­ers in the Bird­cage.

COM­PLAIN­ING of fad­ing stan­dards in the Bird­cage is not a re­cent phe­nom­e­non. There were peo­ple say­ing it was not be­ing true to its orig­i­nal in­tent as far back as 1888.

A writer known as “Ster­ling” in The Sports­man com­plained of “fair women and brave men” crowd­ing the cham­pion thor­ough­bred Car­bine as he pre­pared to race.

While not­ing the “pretty maid­ens who dis­pensed tea, cof­fee and other good things with sweet smiles, looked fresh and fair, dainty and charm­ing”, he also railed against re­cent trends say­ing: “When the Bird­cage was first thought of, the idea was that it should pro­vide horse­own­ers, train­ers, etc, with lots of room to sad­dle and pre­pare their horses for the con­tests in which they were en­gaged, so that they might not be in­con­ve­nienced by the throng­ing press of the crowd.”

It is hard to say what he’d make of doof doof and Ge­of­frey Edel­sten.

But Mr Tripodi said peo­ple at­tend­ing the Bird­cage hadn’t changed that much.

“The car­ni­val caters to ev­ery­one, whether you like horses or not,” he said. “I think it’s a sta­tus sym­bol for a brand to have a pres­ence. It is about un­apolo­getic self-pro­mo­tion.

“The chang­ing of the guard, with the likes of a dat­ing app like Bum­ble com­ing in or with a mu­sic fes­ti­val like Ul­tra, is here — some of the brands are younger.”

FOR much of its life, the Bird­cage was es­sen­tially a glo­ri­fied car park.

It was once packed with Rolls-Royces and Bent­leys, but nonethe­less a place to park the week­end wheels and pop the boot and drink cham­pagne and talk about Bob Hawke’s tax poli­cies.

It was just over 30 years ago when things re­ally kicked off.

Race­horse owner Lloyd Wil­liams came up with the idea of putting up a tent at a cou­ple of ad­ja­cent car spots.

Af­ter this the likes of Judy Ro­mano work­ing with Saab, us­ing eight car spa­ces bor­rowed from Fos­ter’s, de­cided to put up a mar­quee.

“There was no liquor li­cens­ing. We ramped it up and then when it got dark we would drive four Saabs up and put on one ra­dio sta­tion and have the high beams on.”

The VRC quickly caught on. “They said, ‘You guys are get­ting away with this for noth­ing’,” she re­called.

Soon the names of L’Oreal, Myer, Chad­stone and AAMI all had a pres­ence.

One CEO de­scribed the evo­lu­tion of changes at the Bird­cage over the last decade:

“It went from sit-down white-table­cloth ser­vice to stand-up re­cep­tion to po­lite back­ground mu­sic to the dance­floor — it is a com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment in which ev­ery­one is try­ing to outdo each other in terms of fun. But you don’t want to turn your mar­quee into a disco,” he said.

The Her­ald Sun was told by one busi­ness leader that about 10 years ago he gave mar­quee plan­ning to “some fun peo­ple” which kicked off a move away from sit-down meals and the trend to­wards stand-up af­fairs and more in­for­mal func­tions.

An­other says: “I like the way Tab­corp does it and you can have a con­ver­sa­tion.”










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