Hospitality is such a social industry that the idea of a setting where people from a cross-section of businesses can gather and exchange ideas seems so obvious – but in the early 1980s, the opportunities were limited. You might see your peers at industry dinners, or at meetings of the various trade associations, but the kind of open forum created by Arena simply did not exist.
Now, as a member of Arena, there are at least four events and activities to choose from each year, and at each one, you are guaranteed interesting, enlightening and potentially lucrative encounters with some of the hospitality industry’s brightest and best.
Since its inception in 1983, there have been some 60,000 attendees at Arena events, and membership at any one time is around the 2,000 mark.
Over the years, Arena’s profile and reputation has grown beyond the vision of the original founders. The roll call of VIP speakers at Arena events includes Sir Rocco Forte, Prue Leith, Lord Coe, Guy Hands, Allan Leighton, William Baxter, James Horler, Richard Cousins, Jan Matthews, Luke Johnson and several dozen other captains of industry.
Arena’s origins date back to 1983 and an evening meeting that featured a line-up of speakers to discuss trends in the market and how to research them, including Peter Backman from Marketpower, Simon Davis of Sutcliffe Catering and a speaker from the Henley Centre. It was a resounding success attracting 80 paying attendees – 50 more than invited!
Attendees were insistent that another meeting be held as they all wanted to meet others in the industry – and so, for the next 10 years, on a roughly twice-yearly basis, a group called the Catering Industry Group became a forum for networking in the foodservice market.
A new lease of life
Towards the end of the 1980s Peter Backman was elected chairman and invited PR guru and industry personality Naomi Arnold to join the committee. They were joined by Bob Cotton of Gardner Merchant, Ian Neill of Rank Restaurants and Bob Adams of Wimpy. The newly resurgent committee decided on a more energetic marketing programme and a new name – Catering Arena.
Over the next few years the networking body was brought to life with lunches throughout the year and the name was shortened to the now recognisable Arena in 1994.
The next year, at the suggestion of Bob Cotton, a new, prestigious evening lecture was launched. The inaugural Savoy Lecture was given by Francis McKay of Compass. Arena’s Savoy Lecture is now a highly-respected annual event and its roll of honour now features many illustrious speakers including David Michels, Sir Michael Angus, Michael Grade, Michael Winner, Lord Coe, Alastair Campbell, Marcus Wareing, Richard Cousins and Jan Matthews.
Arena events have been held in a variety of locations – on board a Thames cruiser, at the Chelsea Flower Show, Taste of London, the O2, Fuller's Brewery and Wembley Stadium – and with new partners. For example, Arena was an initial partner of Richmond Events’ floating conference, the Catering Forum.
A new generation
Naomi stood down in 2002, and the secretaryship was handed on to a new generation of networkers. The following year Peter Backman stood down as Chairman. His successors have been Andy Kemp of 3663, Mat Baker of Premier Foods and the incumbent Chairman, Jan Matthews of RP Global.
Now in 2012, it is satisfying to look back at the high profile speakers, prestigious venues, challenging ideas and, the purpose behind it all, successful networking opportunities. There is no way of counting the number of encounters engineered, relationships fostered and new ventures forged, but they must run into the tens of thousands.
With companies keen to work more in partnership with complementary businesses, Arena is probably even more useful and relevant today than it was back in 1983. The organisation has remained current by reinventing itself over the years and, looking forward, you can be sure that it will continue to do so.