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April 6, 2008

Corporate hospitality: RFU debenture holders fight back

Imagine you’re back in 1992 when England’s rugby team is delivering Slams and Triple Crowns to Fortress Twickenham’s ivory towers. Life’s pretty rosy, so you and your business partner buy four debentures at Twickenham for £8,000. Now you can share your passion for the immortal game with two other mates or clients for the next 10 years.

So far so good. You have just secured the rights to buy four tickets at every match for the next 10 years and you’re pretty confident that this will secure more than enough goodwill and business if you choose your guests sufficiently carefully. You still have to pay the cover price for the tickets on top, but they’re yours if you want them and as Edward’s army begins its elevation towards the 2003 World Cup triumph, you’re mighty glad you renewed the debentures for a further £18,000 in 2002.

But eventually things start to go sour. On top of the capital cost of the debentures, ticket prices rise from £45 to £65 per match in just two years. There’s still no web-based ticketing service so the old forms that you were sent in the 1970’s are the same archaeic forms you have to complete in 2006 and the whole process, from applying to receiving those tickets, can take weeks.

OK, so you also get ‘preferential’ seats at the U2 concert, but sadly by RFU standards ‘preferential’ clearly means being stuck behind a lighting rig leg-truss. When you pay by credit card, the RFU charges an 8% admin fee, and if you don’t like it, be aware that there’ll be a hundred other suckers (mainly corporates) who’ll buy your debentures next time around.

Enough is enough, Francis Baron and his greedy cohorts within the rugger elite, are being called to account. The recently registered www.furfu.com is going to engage in the naming and shaming of the RFU’s blatant disregard for customer service, and encourage fellow debenture holders and supporters alike to turn their backs on their passion and vote with their wallets for a blackout of Twickenham.

The RFU is content to treat us like dirt because it knows that the market demand for what we have bought seems insatiable. They also command higher debenture fees from corporates than from the private individuals that got them where they are now, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this attitude is deliberate. I simply want to be treated like a customer. I believe the behaviour of the RFU is a disgrace to the world of hospitality and entertainment.

Twickenham is iconic: it is the home of rugby, and as such, the experience that it delivers to its private and business customers should be first rate. It should be one of corporate hospitality’s flagships, an advertisement for best service and best practise.

Compared to a day at Newmarket or Ascot, the RFU’s offer is falling at the first fence. And its fall from favour is compounded with the negative experience that it appears to be delivering to its most lucrative customers.

While live events are always memorable, Mr Baron of the RFU should remember that not all experiences are memorable for the right reasons and the Old Boy network and systems that administer his £35 million empire do little for the hospitality sector as a whole.

Maybe its not just Team England that needs a new manager.

Hugh Keeble, managing director, Imago Communications

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