POWER SHIFTS AT THE RACES
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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