OPTIMUM EVENT MANAGEMENT held its last show at Priory Equestrian, Frensham, Surrey, on a drizzly grey early November day. But neither the dank weather nor the muddy lorry/car park dimmed the smiles or diminished the enjoyment of the competitors and their supporters. The only sadness was that it was the last day that Optimum proprietor Duncan Whitney-Groom would be running a show at the venue so there were lots of “thank you” hugs.

How does Duncan do it? All too often dressage competitors seem to be full of complaints. The fact is, Duncan is a professional with his organisation and preplanning, he communicates with everyone with an interest in the show in the run-up to the day, he clearly gets pleasure from seeing people happy — and he never forgets a ‘thank you’.

That pleasure and goodwill spread positivity throughout the show ground and they help riders feel, ‘we’ve come to enjoy ourselves — and we’ll do a good test’

On the day itself so much that competitors appreciate comes down to finding and retaining sufficient efficient, knowledgeable and friendly unpaid volunteers — whether its the gate and parking steward greeting arriving vehicle drivers with a smile and sympathetic directions to the best suitable parking spot — or an arena steward ensuring competitors in the warm-up reach the arena on time for their test. And Duncan has been able to find and retain a band of happy volunteers.

Katy Hancock a regular competitor with Mickeyfinn at Priory commented: “Duncan runs the best shows: they’re well organised, the helpers are all brilliant, the scores go up quickly and they run like clockwork”

Duncan ensures that judges, stewards, scorers, car park attendants, caterers — and even journalists and photographers — are all made to feel important to the day’s success and given the best opportunity to do a good job. Judge Margaret Drewe confirmed: “Duncan always has a smile for you and I know that the rider times and the sheets have been correctly organised and that there will be enough of them. If you want a cup of tea or coffee after your journey, he’s on to it immediately.”

Of course, a warm welcome on the day will not compensate for a lack of show pre-planning and as judge Mary Robley commented:

“Duncan runs shows where everything that needs to happen, just happens, without any drama. I’ve done a lot judging for Duncan. You’re prepared to judge for him whenever you can”

Margaret adds: “Duncan always gives an approximate class length a week before, so you roughly know how to plan your day. You realise that it can change due to late entries but you’ve always got some sort of idea and you know which level tests you will be required to judge that day and he always thanks you with a present in addition to your expenses.”

Duncan will in future be basing his activities around his new job at Easton and Otley College, near Norwich. His show diary at the college includes a 2018 winter regionals. He explains: “I don’t like last minutes panics. I already have some judges booked for next year. I try to be organised with my judges three months ahead if I can.

Volunteers are key on the day
Manning the gate with a hello and a goodbye for arrivals and departures on the final day (as on many before) was Claire Stockton, who has a full-time day job in international logistics. She said: “I’ve known Duncan since he ran shows at Hoplands in 2005. I helped there and later helped at Merrist Wood, too.”

Another of his regular volunteers, Sara Green, is well-known in dressage circles as a competitor and as an owner — and also renowned for her cleverly chosen music compilations for freestyles.

She says she is “happy to do anything from pooh picking arenas upwards” and she has undertaken more onerous roles in show secretariats from Merrist Wood regionals to Stoneleigh national championships. On this day at Priory, Sara was ensuring riders in the warm-up were kept informed when to present themselves for their tests, opening arena gates — and ‘running’ to collect sheets for the scorers.

Sara, who has a 36-year career with the Ernst & Young behind her, commented:

“Running a show is a people-hungry business. One of the problems today is encouraging younger people to volunteer to help who don’t expect to get paid”

She mentions, however, a  rare young exception Marcus Ruffell, who according to Duncan has always been extremely enthusiastic and made a point of speaking to riders and being very friendly and welcoming.

Scorers in the office on that day and other Priory days were Veronica Morris and Julie Gordon (seated). (Veronica also made the fantastic lemon-curd layer cake as a goodbye present for Duncan.)

Veronica and Julie are experienced scoring volunteers — doing a similar job at British Eventing horse trials all over the South of England.

Making local shows happen
What is the future for BD local shows like the ones run at Priory? Duncan foresees potential people deficits for other essential roles. He explains: “BD sends show organisers a list of future high profile show dates. It used to be that it could be contained on the front and back of an A4 sheet; it’s now two A4 sheets of dates. I can’t run local shows on those days because a significant number of my competitors will be going — and I will have difficulty getting judges for my classes.

“Besides the shortage of judges, I believe there will also be a shortage of dedicated and professional show organisers who are interested in and understand the needs of dressage competitors. When you look at the ones we have now, there are very few who are ‘young’. Unfortunately, nobody has offered to take over running British Dressage competitions at Priory — and although many people were able to suggest someone else who could do it, none of those suggested wanted the responsibility.

Emma Carter with her horse Miller’s Life: “I have supported Duncan’s shows when he was at Merrist, Frensham Manor and at Priory.
“Duncan is well organised and he’s very good at communication; everything is well run and shows run to time.
“He’s worked a lot in dressage so he knows that warm-up timing and fast results posting can make a lot of difference to competitors.
“He has been great and especially for this area because events now will be fewer and farther between”

“Making a show worthwhile financially when you have to hire a venue is more difficult than for someone who owns one. I have to pay the hire costs and the dates available to me at hireable venues are often limited. If you own a venue you can manage your own diary and can plan ahead. I have to book my dates for affiliated competitions far in advance. That can work in my favour, as many venues are not that used to forward planning, but once you are committed you have no control if the venue’s diary changes.”

The comment we often hear in the wider commercial world is that “businesses need certainty”. Duncan concludes: “I haven’t figured out BD’s sense of direction in their current competition structure and people seem to be voting with their feet. I have noticed a significant reduction in entries recently at Priory — even the first show that I ran three years ago in the month of January had more entries than I’ve had at a couple of shows this summer. This is despite the amount of marketing effort I put in, which included emailing all the people who have ever competed at Priory, and paid-for Facebook posts.

© Celia Cadwallader, 10 November 2017

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