When it came to entertaining in The Birdcage during Melbourne’s famed horse racing season, less was once more. Then the corporates arrived – and in going upscale, it all went downhill. Last year’s Mumm marquee incorporated a swimming pool. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
When it came to entertaining in The Birdcage during Melbourne’s famed horse racing season, less was once more. Then the corporates arrived – and in going upscale, it all went downhill.
???Oh yes oh yes oh yes, that season is upon us once more. Of air-kisses and evil eyes and side-eyes and side-boob. Of the fragrance from those famous Flemington roses wafting up gin-blossom noses, of celebrity chefs cooking artisanal morsels and bearded bartenders mixing fizzy cocktails for those in top hats and tails.
Of the bourgeoisie mixing with the cashed-up bogans, and of marvellous millinery atop fine frockery. Of tents with Moulin Rouge dancers, Arabian dancers and Schuhplattler slap-dancers, of dance music and hot DJs but (by contractual agreement) not David Jones. Of sponsorship spats and door bitches and thinkfluencers and – depending on the weather – either designer-suit sweat stains and melting make-up, or muddied heels and blinging in the rain. And, of course, the main point but perhaps a little beside the point, the greatest – and richest – two-mile handicap in the world of thoroughbred racing!
And the place to be – to see this decadent scene while being seen – is The Birdcage, a premium enclosure for luxurious sponsored marquees, which sits just next to Flemington Racecourse’s Parade Ring and not far from the on-course helipad.
Through November, for the Victorian Racing Club’s Melbourne Cup Carnival, this little patch of private land, measuring 17,000 square metres, is reached by one of three security checkpoints – before additional iPad (n??e clipboard) entry into one of 28 purpose-built parties. An enticing vehicle for corporate promotion and self-promotion, for confection and celebration, The Birdcage has become part of the fabric of our spring – but this latest and lavish incarnation is a relatively modern phenomenon. It was not always this way.
The Birdcage was born in the 1880s. In a common act of grovelling colonial linguistics, the actual term “Birdcage” aped that of the saddling paddock at Newmarket Racecourse in England. It was a spatial barrier between horses and spectators, and indeed its early “exclusivity” was based on a small fee designed to deter large numbers of the latter from spooking the former.
By the 1950s, the area had come to encompass the Victorian Racing Club’s nearby car park, increasingly popular as a picnic spot, and so the VRC seized on that opportunity to create “reserved” spaces that they might sell to members. The Australian Women’s Weekly started sending snappers to document all that old-world splendour on the grass, while business barons and wealthy graziers snacked on chicken sandwiches pulled from the boot of the Rolls-Royce, reaching for champagne flutes balanced on Range Rover tailgates.
By the 1980s, the area was fully fenced and policed. In 1985, the race that stops a nation was sponsored for the first time, becoming the Foster’s Melbourne Cup. “Then the corporates really started getting involved,” says racing historian Andrew Lemon. “You used to invite a few sponsors into the VRC committee room, but once you started getting multiple sponsors the challenge was, ‘Where do you put them all?'”
Lloyd Williams – the Melbourne-based property developer and racehorse owner now worth $784 million – had a thought. Why not reserve four adjacent car spots, and erect a little tent? He did, and others saw, and it did not take long for the idea to spread. “That’s when The Birdcage got this amazing feel about it,” says catering giant Peter Rowland. “Everyone used to stand out on the little road between them [the tents]. It was like a big cocktail party, and they would wander in and out of everyone’s tents.”
A good idea is a saleable idea, of course, so in 1986 the first corporate marquees were established. Deeta Colvin, a long-time premium brand strategist, set one up for her client at the time, Louis Vuitton. “Single-storey, fresh flowers, antique furniture,” she says. “Beautiful bar, great food. Simple, elegant – like a very upmarket picnic races. The guest list went from the PM to the top CEOs and chairmen, and our French visitors. It was the AAA-list – a very sought-after ticket.” Colvin ran the show there for 12 years and watched as more and more companies replicated her feat: some well, others poorly. “We set the scene. Little did we know what would happen,” she says. “They jammed marquee on top of marquee. You don’t even see a blade of grass anymore.”
The “tents” began to incorporate dance floors, private rooms and chandeliers. Long before chefs such as Attica’s Ben Shewry and Maha’s Shane Delia began creating degustation feasts for hungry racegoers, the late and disgraced entrepreneur Christopher Skase ran the first sit-down lunch: roast crispy-skinned duck and Grand Marnier souffl??s, for 80 people.
And so it went. “We had a fantastic decade,” says Colvin, “but the dynamic and target audience totally changed. For our clients, we felt, sadly, it was time to go. For our last one we just served Krug and caviar on the lawn, then we left.”
That was two decades ago. The growth since that time has been stunning. Setting the trajectory was a little-known airline, arriving with sheikhs and mystique and dollars from Dubai. Judy Romano, the Melbourne PR queen and “matriarch of The Birdcage”, handled the Emirates account when it landed in racing in the late 1990s. She was, in fact, the person responsible for (quite literally) taking the tents to another level. “The first year Emirates did a marquee, they were at the back of The Birdcage, with no view at all of the race,” she says. “But I stood up on the bumper bar of my car, and I realised if we elevated the marquee 1?? metres, we could see the track.”
They did so, and next they moved a fraction closer to the track, on a plot of a land that the late socialite Lillian Frank dubbed “Millionaires’ Row”. Then the arms race truly began, almost as if someone had fired a starting pistol, or opened the gates and screamed, “On your marquees, get set, grow!” The structures became “pavilions” and the strip became a “precinct”.
The marquees began hiring the best architects and taste makers to construct their canvas wonderlands, whether Mim Design or Joost Bakker, Matt Martino or Hecker Guthrie. They created pop-ups within pop tents, and began giving their spaces narrative titles like “A journey of the senses”. The physical one-upmanship, however, started with a humble dunny. “It really did begin with Emirates getting plumbed-in toilets,” says Romano, who now handles the Myer marquee. “The media could not get enough of that.”
Motorola was the first to build a two-storey structure. Lexus then created a third-storey rooftop area. Pernod Ricard’s Mumm had cancan dancers, then a pool. As one insider notes, “It’s like a bike peloton: someone steps back while someone else steps up, pedals hard and takes over. But really, we’re all sprinting.”
The pace, however, is not always easy to maintain. The Birdcage is nothing if not a kind of bellwether reflection of the nation, or at least its coffers. As one writer put it, “If there is a barometer of how well corporate Australia is travelling, it’s a small patch of land just up the main straight from Flemington’s grandstand.” Tales of excess abound. In one marquee, guests inhaled four kilograms of Beluga caviar in four days. Last year, a host shipped in three cases of Penfolds 2012 Grange, so that its 250 guests could enjoy a glass during the big race.
If such consumption represents the zenith, then the global financial crisis was surely the nadir. Pre-GFC in 2007, for instance, The Birdcage held 53 marquees. Post-GFC in 2009, only 34 were left. (In 2008, the Packer family famously withdrew their Ellerston Capital marquee at the last minute, leaving the VRC to hastily erect a temporary fountain in its place.)
There are 28 marquees this year, but that low number is no longer a reflection of belt-tightening, for they’re now more grand than ever: The Birdcage today is built to hold more than 4000 people on each of the big four race days during the carnival. “People say, ‘My God, they’re building houses here!'” says PR queen Romano. “But it’s still cheaper per head to have a good Flemington marquee than to host people in the Paddock Club at the Grand Prix.”
And the guests at Flemington can remain in the space you create – in the thrall of your brand – unlike, say, the Australian Open, where they must totter from their tent into the arena to watch forehands and unforced errors for hours on end. “In The Birdcage you’ve got four days – eight hours each day – to entertain your clients. It’s powerful stuff,” says Romano.
That said, guests can be fickle – hopping from marquee to marquee depending on the invitations they gather. Some come only for that peak moment on the card, neither showing up for Race 1 nor sticking around for Race 10.
Investment in a marquee is a sizeable expense. It has been reported, for instance, that in 2011 Emirates spent roughly $1500 per guest. With 250 guests per day over four days of racing, the total cost was around $1.5 million. Not only that, but to get a marquee on the front row, a brand basically needs to sponsor a race, costing more money again but also tying in with various contra deals.
Naturally, this spend demands a measurable return. Valentina Jovanoska currently runs the Sensis Digital marquee, but she was first involved in racing decades ago, running the Fairfax Media marquee, which was admittedly little more than a tent, tables, chairs and an open bar. “There wasn’t a lot of pressure on you for return, or exposure. It was just a way to thank advertisers for their spend,” she says. “Gone are the days when CEOs just put these on because they enjoyed racing. Now, you need ‘times-five return’ overall to warrant the investment.”
Emirates, for instance, is stepping aside. The airline has seemingly drained all the exposure it needs from the carnival and so this year will be its last as principal naming rights sponsor of the Melbourne Cup. Hilton had its final marquee in 2015, and Crown Casino has withdrawn as the key sponsor on Oaks Day.
The Emirates marquee in 2015. Photo: Eddie Jim
The vitamin giant Swisse had a marquee for a handful of years, but left last year to focus on a 2016 Olympics campaign. Sarah Chibnall, communications director for the company, well remembers what it was like trying to maximise the space. “Oh dear, the panic that starts to set in when there’s two weeks left,” she says, laughing. “I do miss it – so much – because there’s nothing quite like The Birdcage. But it’s also nice not to be preparing for that onslaught.”
She says the company got involved because, simply, stepping into The ‘Cage makes an organisational statement: we are bold and strong – maybe even sexy.
The celebration also becomes part of a “360 model” of publicity, working with other brands and PR campaigns to ensure maximum awareness and exposure. “Honestly, it just brings everything and everyone together,” Chibnall says. “For stakeholder relations, The Birdcage is one of the strongest returns you can get. I talk to suppliers and manufacturers all the time, and they still talk about their time at the races. It creates a lifelong connection.”
But the experience is not all roses. It can be a thorny patch, too, with inevitable territorial pissings. A 2015 branding spat, for instance, led to a national anthem no-show by singer Jessica Mauboy. One of the key sponsors of the carnival is Myer, and Mauboy was wearing a pair of shoes – tsk, tsk – from a “banned” brand.
It was not the only sponsorship row that year. A photo of the Cup being held by US actor Hilary Swank was vetoed – because the Hollywood star was wearing an outfit by Christopher Esber, which is stocked by David Jones, direct competitor of major sponsor Myer. (That same day, a photo with model Ashley Hart was blocked for the same reason, this time because of a Dolce & Gabbana outfit sold at DJs.) One fashion industry insider, speaking to The Age, summed up the at times farcical situation: “I do wonder if Donatella Versace came to the races, would the VRC make her wear a Wayne Cooper frock?”
Actor Hilary Swank at Derby Day in 2015. Photo: Eddie Jim
The attracting, pampering and promoting of celebrities is, of course, a Birdcage tradition. Jovanoska lays claim to one of the first “major” celebs to grace the track – but it wasn’t an actor, or a royal, or a pollie. It was Calvin Cordozar Broadus jnr, otherwise known as Snoop Dogg. She had to ask the dapper rapper to a buy a suit, as he doesn’t ordinarily wear one, and the VRC is infamously inflexible on such matters. “He came in with his entourage, and the party vibe went up 100 per cent. I remember The Birdcage being gridlocked entirely, just because he had arrived.”
The trackside arrival of the megastars, however, created a competitive challenge for all involved – a new rod for the back of every party planner. If a marquee is erected and it doesn’t have at least one Nicole Kidman or Kate Upton – a solitary Chris Hemsworth or Usain Bolt – did it really happen? And was it really that happening? Can your soir??e be said to have celebrated sport without Ricky Ponting or Lleyton Hewitt? Can a venue claim a seat at the power table without a politician such as Julie Bishop or Bill Shorten, and a billionaire like Gina Rinehart or James Packer?
A case could be made that the best guest lists once prioritised people at the top of their game, and presented a sincere opportunity for networking, rather than an easy grab for attention. Has the calibre of guest slipped? Perhaps. After all, remember who came to the track back in 1985? Charles and Diana. “Once you had actual royalty,” says one former host. “Now it’s dropped down to soapie stars and people chasing social media blindly. It’s Kardashian culture.”
The trick is in keeping the mixture of guests fresh and diverse and lively. You obviously want an array of beauties and bachelors???but perhaps a limited number of stars from The Bachelor. As one organiser notes, the famous folk are there to attract attention: “And journalists get sick of people who’ll go to the opening of a wound.”
The Emirates marquee in 2012. Photo: Angela Wylie
In recent years, a crucial cross-section of invitees – beyond the A-listers and B-listers and also-rans – are the Insta-famous. Last year, for instance, the “Fashions on the Field” ambassador was Stephanie Smith, a woman best known for having 1.2 million Instagram followers. Traditional media is still a key target, but the instantaneous buzz of social media is now almost as fruitful. “Once upon a time, you would get a few snaps of famous guests in front of a media wall, and you would cross your fingers it was in the paper the next day,” says Jovanoska. “That won’t fly anymore.”
Built into the front facade of the tech-heavy Sensis Digital marquee, for instance, is a vast LED screen, which streams pixelated footage and social media from within. On site, a “digital lab” with video crews, photographers and editors produces and disseminates moments on the run. Last year on Derby Day, Sensis had close to 2.4 million impressions on social media throughout the day.
All of which, of course, sends the excitement and exclusivity of The Birdcage experience out into the ether, which is the general point of the enclosure now. The Birdcage, after all, is not really about racing but rather the party. True racing fans almost never set foot in its confines, for it is a carnivalesque, burlesque scene – one that has been captured in words before.
“Along with the politicians, society belles and local captains of commerce, every half-mad dingbat who ever had any pretensions to anything at all???will show up there to get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious???Nobody minds being stared at; that’s what they’re in there for.”
Familiar as that might sound, this passage was not written about the Melbourne Cup, nor specifically the hermetic, wristband-only world of glitz and glamour that is The Birdcage. They are in fact the words of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, from 1970, and were written about an entirely different but strikingly similar race in a famous piece of journalism called “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”
Thompson wrote of the masses he saw in Louisville, guzzling mint juleps and vomiting on their shoes, but also the bourbon-stained gentry glad-handing and swaying in the sunshine, and perhaps how, taken together, it all stood as some signifier of a doomed atavistic culture.
Some of our own harsher cultural commentators believe the Spring Racing Carnival is an Antipodean version of the same thing. A bunch of billionaires watching horses get whipped for fun, or at least boozy barbarians getting ripped in the first warm breath of spring. One only need watch the simultaneously well-dressed yet dishevelled masses pouring forth from train carriages on their way home from the Caulfield Cup or the Cox Plate to imagine how big and messy it will all become by the end of today – Derby Day – and then Cup Day, and then Oaks Day, and then Stakes Day.
But there is also a more forgiving view of the epicentre of our tarpaulin celebration. A different writer, and a better one – Mark Twain, in fact – visited the Melbourne Cup in 1895, and he had his own impression of the bright pageantry and the muscled thoroughbreds, of a race that brings the swarming multitudes together, and an excitement that is kept at “white heat”. Twain’s observations are now 122 years old, but could have been made this week.
“Their clothes have been ordered long ago, at unlimited cost, and without bounds as to beauty and magnificence, and have been kept in concealment until now, for unto this day are they consecrate.”
The day, and indeed the entire racing season – and specifically the biggest party therein – may have shifted of late from prestige to something broader, something closer to “masstige” – but perhaps it was always as such, and what could be wrong with that? Take the words of Twain, again: “And so the grandstands make a brilliant and wonderful spectacle, a delirium of colour, a vision of beauty. The champagne flows, and everybody is vivacious, excited, happy…”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.