Navigating the Crisis | Will Woodhams, CEO, Fitzdares

What do you do when you’re running the world’s finest bookmaker and the global pandemic cancels all major global sports events one by one? We hear from Fitzdares’ CEO Will Woodhams, on how he led the business through the toughest of times with innovative thinking, decisiveness and hard graft.

“The lockdown occurred at a very difficult time for us, just after The Cheltenham Festival. On a normal year, Cheltenham is like Christmas rolled into the Harrods sale. It is our acquisition, re-activation and hosting moment of the year. We were obviously concerned about the safety of the 500 members we hosted and indeed a few did cancel. However, for those that didn’t, we created Fitzdares tweed facemasks, designed by our friend Patrick Grant at Norton & Sons. The masks were actually banned by Cheltenham, who thought it was a PR stunt – says a lot about how much the world has changed since then.

After Cheltenham, the writing was on the wall. Within 48 hours, our staff had shifted entirely to work from home. That includes a fully-integrated telephone and text system, answered 14 hours a day. We respond to over a 1000 messages per day, all of them requiring bespoke, expert answers.

As all major global sports were cancelled one by one, we became more and more reliant on our tech. Although we launched our app in 2018, this is when it really came to the fore. New and obscure markets were promoted online daily to make up for the lack of quality racing and football.

It wasn’t just our app that came to the rescue in lockdown – our publishing team kept our members in touch with our activity and provided a positive outlook on the world of sport. We received over 100 emails thanking us for our (near legendary) Daily Tonic emails for their mix of humour, celebrity and obscure sports. In April, we also took a calculated risk that racing would return for Royal Ascot. Among a team of three, we produced a printed newspaper that landed on our members’ doorsteps just before Royal Ascot. We gave all of our print advertising away in order to support UK luxury brands, including some Walpole Brands of Tomorrow.

We took a few risks on marketing and decided to work on new advertising creatives and some PR moments. We’re proud to say we made it onto the cover of the Financial Times, albeit with a miniscule circulation during lockdown, I would imagine. We also took the opportunity to sign the legendary broadcasters Sir Geoffrey Boycott, John Motson and Cornelius Lysaght as our ambassadors. The BBC’s loss is very much our gain.

We invested during lockdown, finding that both topical print advertising and luxury brand advertising got us considerably more cut-through than before, and at a considerably reduced rate. Our ‘attack ads’ on Bet365 (when they closed their telephone lines) also garnered plenty of media attention. Who would have thought we could take a double page inside front cover on both a weekly magazine and a national newspaper? I secretly hope print advertising will stay cheap – we love it.

We attempted some digital PR moments – creating a virtual Grand National (with real hampers sent to members), a Virtual Royal Ascot Royal Enclosure and finally, London’s first physical sporting event with the ‘Derby Drive-In’.  A huge screen in West London beamed out the world-famous race, with 100 cars and 500 guests watching safely in their bubbles. We couldn’t believe it when French TV new crews arrived to film it!

We had to make some tough decisions with the furlough scheme but were happy to bring back staff with 24hrs notice when the business kick-started again in June. We also instigated a ‘work from home’ grant scheme, where staff could apply for money to improve their home working situations. We also kept in touch with staff through zoom calls and accompanying cocktails (sent directly to their homes).

Has it worked? Short answer – bloody hell, yes. We have had members return to us after five-year absences having seen our activity. Our new clients are at a record high. They are high-value customers, looking for a premium brand.

Did we do it the right way? I think so. We leaned on a much smaller team but they doubled their output and found that our new ways of working, worked. We also made decisions much faster (although with probably not enough consultation!). Company announcements weren’t left for a Monday, either. They were put on the office ‘Slack’ group and you’d have an hour to agree, object or finesse.

Personally, lockdown was a great reset for me. I haven’t really taken stock in 20 years and this time really helped.

Finally, lockdown gave us, as a business, time to think. We have finessed our five-year plan, sharpened up the business and put into place the processes that should deliver growth sooner rather than later.

It’s not been easy but we have collectively worked hard to make the best of a bad situation. Ending the financial year in a healthy place was the amalgamation of that innovative thinking, being decisive and hard graft.”

www.fitzdares.com