The Arena Christmas Event 2014 provided a fantastic finale to an incredible year of successful Arena events. Interviewed by rugby star Matt Poole, our fascinating guest speaker, the creative, ambitious and entrepreneurial CEO and founder of Smart Group, Greg Lawson, delved into the excitiment, challenges and intricacies of world-class corporate hospitality and catering and the inspirational evolution of Smart Group, in particular its catering arm Smart Hospitality - sharing a few entertaining anecdotes along the way.
Horizons also presented Trends, fads and opportunities. The 2014 that was. Thoughts for 2015, that voyaged through Foodservice in 2014, highlighting some of the highs and lows, and trends and fads, and reflected on what this might mean for the year ahead.
Take a look at the attendee list for this event.
The sight of the magnificent Christmas tree on arrival at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park once again signified the beginning of the festive period and the grand finale of the Arena events calendar – The Arena Christmas Event 2014. And what a finale it was!
Horizons set the wheels in motion with its bespoke presentation ‘Trends, fads and opportunities. The 2014 that was. Thoughts for 2015.’ The diverse audience of foodservice and hospitality professionals was taken on an insightful voyage through 2014 and the significant events and developments for the industry. From the emergence of American brands and influences, the ever-challenging British weather, growing economic confidence and the World Cup to the coming of age of casual dining, the blurring of retail and foodservice, and the battle of the brands, to name just a few, we were reminded of the highs, lows and trends that defined 2014.
Making predictions for the year ahead, Horizons’ headlines featured more economic positivity as household income increases but with the caveat of the impact of potentially increasing interest rates, the continued importance of London due to the population demographic, and the impact of the beer tie ruling. Peter Backman concluded that 2015 is a year of opportunities with the prospects the brightest for many years.
The atmosphere at the drinks reception was uplifting and the lively conversation and debate spilled into the ballroom as attendees continued to interact and connect over a delicious three-course meal with a fine helping of five-star service.
The audience was then treated to an interesting and entertaining twist on the usual Arena Christmas Event keynote address. Greg Lawson, the successful CEO of Smart Group, took to the stage to be interviewed by England rugby star Matt Poole. The chemistry and banter between the two friends from Leicester produced a unique exchange that delved into the excitement, challenges and intricacies of the events hospitality business and shared a few hilarious anecdotes along the way.
The son of a dentist and a French teacher, Greg opted for a career in hospitality. After college, his hospitality baptism of fire came in the form of a job as assistant manager at a hotel full of colourful characters. A true entrepreneur Greg was always one to seize opportunities, such as opening a shop selling wholesale glasses to nightclubs and successfully cornering the Christmas party market.
When running his first restaurant, Greg was frustratingly aware that at Christmas he could fill the restaurant 20 times over at least but couldn’t afford the overheads. Out of this realisation was born the brilliant idea to put up a temporary structure for the month of December to host party nights.
His competitors sneered as the first Christmas party launched in Leicester but by late November almost 6,000 people had booked and the inaugural event was a resounding success that guests described as ‘the best day of their lives’. The Christmas Company was founded and went on to establish seven sites across the UK.
The key to its success was the hands-on approach that Greg took. During the festive period he would cover some 13,000 miles checking in on every site. He also gathered his teams several times before the start of the season to prepare for every health and safety eventuality, from severe allergic reactions to the inevitable results of alcohol.
Greg laughed infectiously as he admitted that he could write a book about Christmas party antics – from the guy who spent the night in the structure and was fed breakfast by the prep chefs coming to work the next day, to the shocking amorous behaviours and the incredible lost property haul, including numerous hired dinner jackets, mobiles, laptops and even a prosthetic arm!
Having sold the highly successful Christmas Company to Sodexo, Greg started Quantum Leap Events in 1999. Competition in the Christmas party arena was greater in the noughties as it was seen as a ‘get rich quick plan’, and then the recession took its toll. Ever the entrepreneur, he tapped into new ideas to keep things moving and fresh. Rebranded Smart Group, his business now boasts a number of brands covering Christmas parties through to corporate hospitality at cultural and sporting venues – with Angela Hartnett the creative director – and event management, that continue to go from strength to strength.
Greg’s personal career highlight to date he describes as ‘by far the most exciting and scary thing he has ever done’ – catering for 4,500 a day at the Olympic Hospitality Centre at the London 2012 Games. The plaudits for Smart Group’s achievements at the Olympics were huge and propelled the business forward, particularly in the sporting arena, where Smart continues to enjoy huge success at venues such as Ascot and Twickenham.
Looking forward, more Christmas parties and sporting venues are on the cards, with a tender for the Rugby World Cup already submitted. Greg was very clear, however, that “the focus always being all about food and drink".