Tuesday, 03 August 2021

The event really has changed... and for the better

DANIEL GRIST says it is a “big myth” that the regatta does not change.

DANIEL GRIST says it is a “big myth” that the regatta does not change.

“The other myth is that I only work five days a year!” he laughs. “In the background there are a lot of changes but we like to give the impression that nothing really changes because that is our unique selling position.

“To the person dressing up for the day things are the same but it is actually very different.

“Every few years we send our members a questionnaire and we ask them about the image. We get 50 per cent responses and the thing that they have all said is do not change. I think what they actually mean is ‘do not change for the worse’.

“Last year in particular I was keen to revamp our prizes tent. Instead of having it in a long tent on its own we created a glass double-walled structure so people could see our glittering trophies on display. Overall our members overwhelmingly say that they like our regatta as it is and please continue.”

One of the biggest changes to the regatta is the development of technology. “The internet was not a mainstream thing when I started but now it is,” he says.

“The results are still run up by hand but in the background they are sent electronically. The daily racing programme still looks the same but now the printers have a link directly into our data and things are done more quickly and more accurately.”

The recession, too, has had an impact.

Mr Grist says: “We have been conscious of that and wanted to make sure that we held our prices or kept them low, to make sure that the members and guests were able to come.

“I am pleased that the long waiting list for membership of the stewards’ enclosure is an indication that the regatta is still very good value, especially as people’s purses are being squeezed.

“The best thing is that the regatta is open to everyone. If you want to take a car parking space and come for a picnic and bring your family, you can. That is why, I am sure, the regatta enclosure has grown.”

WHEN Daniel Grist was invited to interview for the role of administration assistant for Henley Royal Regatta in 1990, he knew nothing about the town and even less about rowing.

Living at home with his parents, he had no access to television so decided to research his prospective career by visiting a family friend.

Mr Grist, who is now regatta secretary, recalls: “I was working as a production manager of a printing company in East Anglia when I saw the advert in a national newspaper.

“I did not know anything about the regatta but I was young and keen to leave home. I was looking for a new job and understood that the way to do that was to identify at least five jobs that I wanted to apply for each week and to practise my interview technique.

“The job advert seemed to have things in it that I thought I could do and that I would like. There was no internet back then so I did not spend any particular time researching but when I received a letter from [then secretary] Richard Goddard I thought I needed to find out more about the job and place.

“I had seen the Boat Race on a number of occasions so that was my only reference.

“A family friend worked in a rope factory in Great Yarmouth and I said, ‘you know about yachting, tell me about Henley Royal Regatta as I have been called for an interview’. He said it had nothing to do with yachting.”

Mr Grist spent the morning before his interview in Henley library, reading past copies of the Henley Standard.

“By the time I sat in front of Richard I understood a little bit about the regatta,” he says. “The interview took place in the regatta headquarters. It was certainly the most impressive place I had been to for interview — the view was amazing as we sat in a room overlooking the river.

“None of the construction had started yet so there was nothing to show me and the interview was focused on what my role would be. We talked a lot about the land gang that we employ and the team that cut the grass.

“We did not really talk very much about the setting and I have always thought my role was a management of resources role.

“Richard told me that there had been more than 80 applicants for the job and I went away not sure if I had done well.”

Despite his doubts, Mr Grist was shortlisted for a second interview, along with two other candidates.

He says: “I don’t remember much about the letter but there was a line saying that, if I was offered the job but turned it down then I would not get the interview travelling expenses. It was essentially a ‘don’t waste my time’.

“The 150-mile journey took me three hours. I did not do any additional preparation — they were so focused on the practical parts of my job that learning about the rowing and the regatta probably would not have been any benefit.

“It was a very different interview as all three of us were seen at the same time. We were all in this room and they would ask one of us a question and depending on how it was answered, another one could chip in. It was so daunting.

“It was clear that the two other candidates had learnt a lot at university and I had dealt with real people and their problems in a printing environment.

“The process took most of the day and the three of us were also taken to lunch with all the other staff. At the end of the day they sent us to watch a video. I was called down first and was offered the job to which I said, ‘yes please’.”

Mr Grist, 44, admits that he found the move from home, which included splitting up with a girlfriend, difficult.

“I was shown around Henley and helped to find accommodation, which made a big difference,” he says. “I lived in Wyndale Close and liked it straight away so there were no questions there but moving from home to here was a big struggle financially in the first year.

“I was on probation and I was not earning much until I was appointed as assistant about a year to 18 months later. Things became a bit easier after that as it was more routine.”

Mr Grist was in awe of the regatta in his first year.

“I had not rowed and I did not really understand the significance of what Henley Royal Regatta means,” he recalls. “I did not have any real sense of responsibility for creating this thing that is so important to people.

“I was so focused that first year — I was told I needed to wear a light pair of trousers, a blazer and tie and a clean shirt. It was made clear that there was no point in me getting involved in exciting stuff like the rowing.

“The fact that I was working for a printing company and this was a sporting event did not change very much — the skills that I needed were the same, though it was a very steep learning curve about tankers and water mains.”

He takes a similar view now, even after seven years as regatta secretary.

“I know nothing compared with people like Matthew Pinsent, Steve Redgrave and [chairman] Mike Sweeney,” he says. “It is much better that I concentrate on what I am good at and that is putting all this together. I am the facilitator.”

Mr Grist learned he was to become secretary in 2005 when Mr Goddard confirmed that he would retire after the 2006 regatta.

He had finished his MBA at Henley Management College in 2000, which the regatta had paid for him to do.

“I was hopeful that they were serious about investing in me,” he says. “I was hugely pleased to learn that I would be secretary.

“Now my role is very different to the one when I started. It is hard work but I love it.”

The spring is the “exciting” time for the secretary.

“The best time is late April/early May when it has been miserable weather and awful for months but the grass is starting to grow,” says Mr Grist.

“We are starting to deal with the little bits and pieces that have inevitably gone wrong after the weather but we really do start from a green field and put it all together. I love when it all starts taking shape, it is very exciting.

“Everything has to be ready for 8am on the Wednesday of the regatta. The arena structures go up first and are dealt with by Arena Structures, a tentage company. That is 13 weeks before the regatta starts.

“We are very lucky to be able to deal with the same people every year. The men do not tend to change much — they come back year after year.

“Our tentage foreman team is a father and son, Stewart and Roy Wood, and before that it was Stewart’s father Bert. It is nice to have that and you can go down and ask what they have been up to as you have not seen them since the previous August.

“We do not have to reiterate things — they know what to do as well as what not to do, such as drive on the grass.

“There is a real sense of common purpose and they all, from the very top, take great pride in making sure that the regatta works.”

Last year was one of the worst construction periods on record. Mr Grist explains: “After the hosepipe ban it started to rain and it did not stop for ages. The guys were trying to cut grass in the pouring rain. They said they would put their wet weather gear on and it lasted until morning coffee and the second set was soaked by lunch, with the morning set not yet dry, but they still did it.

“The weather is the biggest factor in everything. We had three flooding sessions this winter and I had visions of the site washing away and ending up on somebody else’s land.

“The amount of rubbish deposited on the land after it has flooded was unbelievable. I was really struck by the amount of debris that was left after the last flood.”

He says it is “almost a relief” when the first day of the regatta begins and he is at his desk on site at 6.30am ready for the contractor meeting.

“I have never thought that the regatta was not going to be ready but you do have different sensations,” he says. “You get to the beginning of the regatta before the people arrive and you think, ‘that’s the most difficult build phase that we have ever had’.”

For 10 days before and during the regatta, Mr Grist moves out of the home he shares with his wife and two children near Thame and comes to live in Henley as it’s more convenient when you are working 15-hour days.

“They are very long days as I am usually in the office at 6.30am,” he says. “I am in early just to get myself ready and see what the day is supposed to be bringing — there are always little bits that are going on.

“At 7am, I meet with all the principal contractors after Mike Sweeney has done his early morning inspection to see what has to be done before the gates open.

“I have some breakfast, then it is into the day. After the gates open I tend to go and have a walk around the entire site to make sure that the things that were mentioned first thing have been done.

“If it has rained overnight you can get a puddle of water disappear into an electrical socket and everything goes bang.

“At lunchtime I look after the official guests as people who provide services to the regatta are keen to come and be shown around.

“The day seems to fill up very easily and goes quickly. In the late afternoon it is the last-minute work to collate the results of racing for the day as we have to get them to Higgs for printing overnight.

“Then it is working out when to shut the bars and call last orders, so around about 8pm the enclosures are empty. I wander around to see if anything has gone wrong and am around to make sure that cashing up in the shops is going well.

“I do not tend to leave until everyone has got the end in sight, which is normally about 9.30pm. I am very lucky that the family I stay with hear my footsteps on the drive and get me a beer. They both very quickly realise whether it is going to be a day when I want to talk or not talk. They have become friends.

“My children do not come to the regatta yet as I am a bit tied up and if they came I would want to show them everything. They love to see where Daddy works, though, and love coming to the headquarters.”

As soon as one regatta finishes, preparations for the following year begin.

Mr Grist says: “We are very focused on packing all the stuff away and getting things down to start work on the renovations and making the place look nice and green and open again.

“I have a role in overseeing all that and we then spend quite a bit of time looking back at the regatta that has just gone and working out what went right and what went wrong and start putting it into some kind of framework.

“From August to September there are a series of meetings with all the sponsors and partners about what we want to start thinking about for the next regatta, then in October and November we are very tied up with the end of the financial year.”

Mr Grist describes this aspect of his role as the “toughest”.

“I have to take the audit figures and present them to the management committee and answer questions about that,” he says. “It is a coming together of everything from the previous 12 months and is a mammoth task because it is a large amount of information to understand.

“The management committee expects me to be able to answer pretty much any financial question that is thrown at me about the regatta.”

Despite this, he is in no doubt that he made the right decision in accepting the job in 1990.

“I am a different person now to when I started,” he says. “I am sure it has changed me and my style is reflected by the regatta.

“Not everyone feels an affinity for the event and we ought not to be surprised by that, but the regatta is a great spectacle and social occasion and people come to watch some superb rowing with world-class athletes. They are the best at what they do and it is great to see that.

“In a printing company there is nothing world class about it but everything that we do down on site is the very best of what is possible.

“Sometimes I think it is important to come out of regatta mode and take a step back.

“When I joined I thought I would do it for a couple of years then go on to be the chairman of some big company or something equally arrogant. But I love my job even more now than I did back then.”

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