Corporate spending has an image of champagne and sumptuous meals at prestige sporting events. But now companies want value for money, so the business is changing, as Rachel Gordon discovers

There's nothing like a corporate jolly to bring out the best in people and, while the insurance industry certainly has its serious side, it also knows how to show its customers - brokers in particular - a good time. If you like golf that is.

It seems golf is the number one choice for a good day out. In fact, sport in general scores highly when insurers want to spoil their favourite people. But, things are changing. Top people's insurer Hiscox emphasises it is moving away from putting greens and club houses to offer a far more sophisticated events programme.

Events manager Kylie O'Connor says: "We take a different approach. While golf is popular, there are plenty of other choices and there's always a way to be memorable."

She says when Hiscox takes brokers to the races, a bookie is on hand for a tour of the course and there is plenty of banter. If it's a classic car day, there'll be the chance to get behind the wheel and a treasure hunt will be laid on. And if it's a night at the theatre, then the chances are that a cast member will be along for drinks afterwards.

"It's about setting yourself apart from the rest, always going for quality and often dealing with smaller groups, so you can talk to them. Let's not forget, corporate hospitality is there to build a relationship, to influence and to reward," O'Connor says.

She gets to the heart of the matter when she says corporate hospitality is for a purpose. But, some companies get it wrong. Private health specialist broker Stephen Walker, who runs Brighton-based Medical Insurance Services says: "I don't go to that many, as I'm not into rugby or golf.

"The industry needs some new ideas. My passion is classic cars and I'd like to see an insurer involved with that."

Broker Ian Mantel of Hastings firm Manor Insurance Services comments: "I've had some great days out, but too often it's the same people there. I'd like to see companies look beyond the big spenders and invite, for example, a broker who has a good loss ratio or a fast growing account, rather than the largest." Mantel, for the record, is another motor fan.

Certainly most brokers will have one jolly that sticks in their mind. Whether it works insofar as bringing in new business is hard to estimate. But since most insurers take corporate hospitality seriously, clearly it must have a positive effect.

But simply spending loads is not a sure fire recipe for success. Independent Insurance was a master of the corporate hospitality game. It lavished attention on its brokers, flying them in by helicopter for events and driving them home in vintage Bentleys. From its boxes at Wembley, Old Trafford and The Oval, to name but a few, it knew how to lay on a show par excellence. But spending a packet, it seems, did not pay off.

Now, companies are taking the business side seriously, with Zurich conducting extensive research into what works. Spokeswoman Susannah Jeffrey says lack of time and travel is the biggest obstacle to attendance.

Zurich also tries to combine hospitality with a business seminar. Whether or not many brokers actually listen to the presentation is another matter. But it seems in the increasingly tough market, insurers will want to get their money's worth.

But the bottom line is the final arbiter. Royal & SunAlliance's disappointing results could well put a halt to some of its hospitality spend. With its focus shifted to general insurance, will its brokers now have to be content with a simple ferry across the Mersey instead of the Grand National? Time will tell.

But if you're lucky enough to get on a corporate guest list, first check out our pick of the best hospitality events.

Punters' choice
Who does it? Groupama

Event: Ladies Day at Glorious Goodwood

Why? Marketing director Jamie Marchant says: "This is a relaxed occasion for our key people. It is a chance to get close to these contacts, but we see it very much as a reward. We don't want to spend the day talking business. It's not confining, guests can wander out on to the course or stay in the box, it's very much up to them"

Other events: Plenty on offer and Groupama also has a box at the Royal Albert Hall

Cost: Goodwood charges around £355 per head for a box which includes all catering and private betting counter

Insurance Times says: Not that easy to get to, but a relaxing day. Not suited to those who hate gambling, or women guests who dislike hats.
Rating X X X

Fairway to heaven
Who does it? Broker Layton Blackham

Event: Golf day at Stoke Park Club, near Stoke Poges, Bucks

Why? Marketing director Charlie Whitfield believes it pays to entertain. "Most brokers expect to be guests," he says, but his firm does not go overboard. He believes the occasional quality event is well worth it. "Stoke Park Club looks after guests well and it's a quality location. He adds that for their top clients, something a little more personal can be arranged. "We'll sometimes fly a couple of clients to Barcelona or the Algarve and get in some golf there."

Other events: Whitfield is a wine buff and would need little persuasion to organise an event at London's wine tasting emporium, Vinopolis

Cost: Stoke Park Club charges around £165 a head for a golf day which includes 27 holes and full catering

Insurance Times says: Great for golf fans and a pretty handy location.
Rating X X

Thrills `n spills
Who does it? St Paul

Event: Land, sea and air treasure hunt

Why? Marketing manager says St Paul likes to spoil its top brokers. "We like to do something different. This was non-stop action." This event received the thumbs up from broker guest Andrew McPherson, associate director of PI specialist Dickson Manchester. "It was fantastic.

I don't want to go only to events linked to alcohol and little else. From power boats on the Solent to helicopters and even bicycles, we didn't know what was coming next. A great day out."

Other events: St Paul has some tickets on the North Bank at Arsenal, a firm favourite with `gooner' brokers

Cost: From £350 per head according to event management firm, Powerwaves

Insurance Times says: Full marks for originality, but sounds pretty scary.
Rating X X X

The ins and outs

Who does it? Allianz Cornhill

Event: Lord's cricket

Why? "Allianz Cornhill has a long standing tie-up with cricket and we've kept a box at Lords," says events manager Stephen Flynn. He adds that golf, while popular, affords less opportunity to talk to all those involved. His tip for a successful day is to always go for quality. And he believes in-house is best. "We want 100% in terms of enjoyment. Corporate hospitality companies can sometimes promise the earth and then not deliver," he points out.

Other events: Plenty going on, including debentures at Wimbledon, Twickenham and Glyndebourne opera

Cost: A box for the day costs between £2,500 and £5,500. A long term box is around £50,000 a year. Catering is extra

Insurance Times says: Fantastic if you're into the men in white. If you find it boring, could just be an occasion to drink too much and regret it later.
Rating X X

Plain sailing
Who does it? Zurich

Event: Cowes week

Why? Spokeswoman Susannah Jeffrey says Zurich has its own boat, a Sunfast 36, which is used to take out five guests at a time. "We found participative events like sailing, golf and driving are always the most popular, as guests enjoy the chance to compete and watch. We've also had success with bespoke events where guests can do things they wouldn't ordinarily do, like chef masterclasses."

Other events: All Zurich Premiership rugby matches, Ryder Cup and Wimbledon tennis, to name but a few

Cost: A hired power yacht and three crew costs from £3,000 to £4,000 a day according to charter company Rozel Marine, with an extra £47.95 per head for catering

Insurance Times says: For most of us, sailing is pretty glamorous. It would receive only one star if washed out by bad weather.
Rating X X X X

Vroom vroom
Who does it? Hiscox

Event: Scalextric racing

Why: Events manager Kylie O'Connor says a big stumbling block to events is that people are often just too busy working during the day to attend. She says this type of event will suit those who can come along in the evening. Hiscox is also fortunate in that it has its own cafe, which is suitable for hosting the occasion.

Other events: Many on offer, both sporting and cultural, aimed mainly at a smaller number of brokers

Cost: Hirer Funtime says it charges between £375 and £425 for the kit

Insurance Times says: A cheapie event, but fun for those who aren't allowed on all-day trips.
Rating X X X