FEATURE: The woman putting together the Norfolk Polo Festival
13:13 04 May 2012
Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2012
Shelli Wright has a job which can hardly be called a 9am to 5pm occupation by any stretch of the imagination.
Since Januar,y as polo secretary of the Norfolk Polo Club, her working hours have been filled with sorting out the detailed logistics of planning a weekend polo festival at the Langley Abbey Estate on July 28 and 29.
Sport is a leisure event millions of us enjoy – and with the Olympics and the European Football Championships all to come it is going to be a great year for many armchair fans.
But for a raft of businesses, including many in Norfolk, it is more than a game.
Think of any sporting event, even locally, and very quickly a chain forms linking suppliers, caterers, contractors together.
As Norwich City’s first season back in the Premiership comes to an end, the organisation of the catering operation is almost industrial in scale on matchdays alone.
And just a short trip down the A146, equally attentive preparations are being put together for a sporting event of a different kind.
Polo may not be a mass spectator sport, but organisers of the Norfolk Festival are confident of drawing a sizeable crowd for the two day event.
And that is where Mrs Wright, a 40-year-old South African comes in.
Already a commercial chain has formed which binds the festival to sponsors including Coutts & Co, and Archant, publishers of the EDP.
Catering for the VIP enclosure and the marquee area is being provided by Brasted’s, while there are also contractors coming in to provide food for other spectators.
“In terms of getting organised, you would be quite surprised how small a team there is that does it,” Mrs Wright explains. “Everyone just has to muck in.
“All the VIP catering is being done by Brasted’s, our partners for weddings, who will do the food marquees. Catering for general admission visitors is being outsourced.”
While on the field, teams will be competing to win the Townsend Trophy and the Bentley Norwich Cup. Off the field the aim is to create an event to remember.
“We are pretty much trying to create a five-star event in the middle of a field,” she said. “A lot of the sponsors we had on board last year have come back, which gives us cash flow up front. They are all incredibly supportive and helpful.
“Everyone had a fantastic time, whether they were playing, watching or just enjoying the atmosphere. Despite the weather. This year we are going to make it even better. We are improving the grandstand and the PA system.
“We try to keep things as local as we can in our sourcing. We think it’s important to support local industry. All these bits are coming together to make sure it all happens on time.
“We had more than 3,000 people through the doors last year. Last year the weather was horrendous – but if it’s a beautiful Norfolk day who knows how many people we can cater for?
“We have still got 14 weeks and we are in quite a good place with the logistics and planning and we haven’t had any huge disasters. Norfolk is a place where people want to help.”
But it is not just the human visitors which need to be catered for and another local business, Chapelfield Vets, is providing the veterinary service for the festival, and then there are the logistics of how the ponies are fed and watered.
“We could have more than 100 ponies to transport in as well as the players and the teams and there is also the welfare of the ponies that needs to be managed,” Mrs Wright said. “Each polo team has four players, who can each have five ponies, so we have a separate track for them to come in and out. Most teams will sort out their own accommodation.
“What’s been fantastic is that we have had teams calling us to ask to play – polo time is quite different to normal time! There is a lot of interest. We are not going to be short of teams.”
A former partnership development officer at Wymondham College, Mrs Wright said the polo secretary’s post was an ideal job.
“I heard about the job at Norfolk Polo a couple of years ago, but wasn’t in a position to work because I had two small children.
“It’s a fantastic place to work. Not many people would have an office like mine where I can look out at beautiful fields and ponies. I feel very lucky.
“I’m a competitive sports fan, being a good South African, I’m into all sorts of sports, but I don’t play polo. It wasn’t something I knew an awful lot about before I joined, but it’s completely addictive, and everybody is talking about the festival last year.
“I’m really pleased. It’s not just the festival, the club is also growing and we want more people to come down and have a go. We can do 50 to 100 lessons a week and we make sure these people feel welcome so that they come back again.
“It’s a very important part of what we do. The environment we want to create is one of being welcoming and friendly.
“People have an image of polo as being exclusive and it isn’t at all. We want everyone to come down and have a go. No matter what your size or your age or sex, you can play on an equal footing, and you can play together.
We have got a few families who come down and do that and that’s fantastic. As soon as you can swing a mallet you are ok.
“There are two elements to the Polo Festival. We don’t want people to think that polo is exclusive. There is a general admission price of £10 and for that you can come down and have a fantastic day out.
“On the other hand we have a VIP enclosure. We have got a corporate hospitality element, but the atmosphere is very relaxed.
“It’s a way of meeting people and colleagues in a very relaxed environment, and it’s not pushy. You are not going to have people selling in there at all. It’s somewhere to go for a unique experience
Last year there was more focus on the VIP element, but this year we want to make sure there is just as much focus on the general admissions. We’ve beefed that up – it’s not too VIP focused.
“If you were thinking of coming down and bringing friends, colleagues and clients, they are going to have the time of their lives. It’s totally unique in Norfolk, you can spend a day watching a thrilling sport, sipping champagne and being entertained.”