Susie Bradshaw is a flash of red satin in a green Cotswolds bowl. From here in the grandstand, I can just make her out skipping around for the camera in the early spring sunshine. At one stage, she finds herself standing on top of one of the fences. The impromptu assault course has its plus points – Bradshaw, Cheltenham Racecourse’s conference and events manager, rarely gets out on the course, and it’s looking magnificent. That must be a relief for her, given that Professional Manager is here just over a fortnight before Gold Cup week.
It is hard to overstate the importance of that festival in the racing calendar. It’s the most prestigious week in the National Hunt year. More than half a billion pounds is placed on horses during the four-day event and the festival alone accounts for 10% of the Tote’s total annual turnover. So monumental a betting-fest is it that, in 2003 – when favourites won half the races – bookmakers blamed the festival for their lower-than-expected annual profits.
“They are a bit on edge,” admits one of Bradshaw’s colleagues. “But that’s not because they are worried, but because they want everything to be perfect.” If the Cheltenham team are on edge, they don’t show it. As we trot down to meet Bradshaw we are hit by the sound of cheering, as if the favourite has just come in in the 3.20. “Oh God, it’s the board!” says Bradshaw, as the sight of her in eveningwear and jewellery attracts whooping from the top brass in the stands. “They are up in the Royal Box having a meeting. I guess I must make quite a sight, running around the place in an evening dress.”
The ‘inner robot’
The job varies as much as the outfit. It’s the evening dress one night, business suit the next day. At the Gold Cup Festival her role changes again: she’s on the frontline at the course, shepherding royalty, keeping the punters safe and trying to reunite visitors with their friends. “You find missing people,” she says. “They’ve just gone off and partied somewhere and turn up at the end of the day, separated from their friends; they seem oblivious.”
Only 16 days a year at Cheltenham are devoted to racing – as well as the Gold Cup, there’s the Open in the autumn and a handful of other meetings. But 500 events of other kinds use the course and Centaur conference centre – around two for every working day. “I have a panic sometimes when I wake up at three in the morning and think, ‘have I forgotten that?’,” she admits. “You are paddling like crazy underneath. But if you aren’t calm, the client will not have faith in you.”
“The way you communicate can be interpreted in eight different ways by eight different people. You learn to tailor it to individuals”
SUSIE BRADSHAW, conference and events manager, Cheltenham Racecourse
That’s the striking thing about Bradshaw – her calm exterior. She’s breezy, but, like all strong project managers, her responses belie a very process-based, methodical character. “There are basic templates there,” Bradshaw says. “When you first get the enquiry, you drill down into what the client wants. You get lots of support from the team, and you just make sure you keep in constant contact with the clients.”
It surprised her, she says, when exposure to formal management training revealed her inner robot. The Jockey Club asked her to join its Racing Academy for high-flyers and is putting her through her CMI Level 7 qualification in strategic management and leadership. It is during this process that she first became aware of the dissonance between how she thought her brain worked and how it actually does. “I came in thinking I had scrambled eggs for brains,” she admits, “but I was quite surprised by the assessment. It said I thought logically and analytically. I came out pretty well.”
Relying on instinct
This is classic Bradshaw: she thinks she’s scatty (but psychological tests reveal the opposite); she thinks she’s nervous (but she performs well at interview); and she thinks she’s camera-shy (but she soon gets into the swing of it). Her self-effacing style is endearing.
Certainly her team seems to like her. It’s not easy being promoted from a team you are then asked to lead, and that’s what happened to Bradshaw. In 2008, she was asked to take a step up, to lead a team of nine. “At first, your confidence is low because suddenly eight people are asking you, ‘is this the right course?’ and you say, ‘I think so, what do you think?’” Doing CMI, she says, has made her more aware of something all good managers come to realise – that whatever a manager says to their team can change their day, for good or bad, even if to her it’s just a throwaway comment. Bradshaw says: “You don’t realise, at first, how the way you communicate can be interpreted in eight different ways by eight different people in the team. You learn to tailor it to different individuals, so they are not thinking, ‘What does she mean by that?’”
With so little slack in the system, there is no time for muddled messages. Events are of a broad variety of formats, with an incredibly diverse client base. So what are the most memorable she’s been involved with? The centenary of Morgan cars – which included a gala dinner for 1,000 people – was unforgettable, she says. “We shipped in the cars and rigged them to the ceiling.” A Sainsbury’s rebranding event saw tons of produce delivered to site; a National Trust day was characterised by its cast of Belted Galloway cows; and the Conservative Party’s spring forum saw the racecourse thronged with politicians and media. It’s all high-wire fun, but managing such big-hitting dates makes Bradshaw a difficult guest when she goes out socially, she admits. “I become very event-manager-ish,” she says. “I want to go and help them, or I think, ‘That’s a bit late coming,’ or ‘I wouldn’t have done it like that.’”
That said, she’ll give credit where it’s due. The best event she’s ever been to, she says, is the Honourable Artillery Company summer ball in London (her husband is in the forces). “They had a fairground theme. It is a stunning facility and there was a real party atmosphere,” she says. So she managed to relax then, be a good guest? “After the third large glass of wine, yes,” she says. “We didn’t leave until five in the morning.”
So she does let go sometimes – in fact, she has to. With so much going on at Cheltenham, the trick to her job is working out when and where her intervention is required and when to simply let her team get on with it. So, when she does step in, what drives her decisions? “I’d tell anyone who was thinking about stepping up to be a manager to take as much advice as possible,” she says. “But you do have to rely on your own instinct.” You don’t always get it right, though? “No, but you can only act on the information you have at the time. If it doesn’t work, you have to chalk that one up and keep going.”
We can all drink to that.
Susie Bradshaw’s milestones
Graduated with a degree in marketing
Worked in marketing at a BMW dealership
Became events manager at Cheltenham Racecourse
Promoted to conference and events manager