LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) – From dress designers to hat makers to the hospitality sector, Royal Ascot is usually a lucrative source of income for a whole industry connected with one of Britain’s most feted social and sporting events.
However, Queen Elizabeth II will be absent this year, dresses will remain on their hangers and champagne corks will stay in their bottles — welcome to racing in the age of coronavirus.
The five-day event, west of London, starts next Tuesday behind closed doors for the first time in its 250-plus year history.
Despite efforts by organisers to encourage racing fans to dress up, put on a hat and take part in “Royal Ascot At Home”, things will feel very different.
Last year’s meeting attracted 300,000 spectators, with 6,500 temporary staff backing up the full-time roster of more than 200 personnel.
With no race fans present, the economic fallout for designers could be devastating.
Kate Reardon, former editor of high society and fashion magazine Tatler, told AFP the days were long gone “since the early years of Princess Diana,” when what was worn at Ascot set fashion trends.
“There’s a difference between fashion and getting dressed up,” she said.
Reardon, now the editor of LUXX, the luxury glossy magazine of the Times, said the event remains an excuse for people to buy a new dress.
“Let’s say that women attending, at least half would buy a new outfit just for the occasion,” she said.
“Aggregate sales of clothes probably won’t make the world’s biggest difference to brands like Chanel — they aren’t going to be gnawing at their knuckles in terror.”
But Reardon said the changed circumstances would have a “monumental impact” on an army of small designers, dressmakers and hat makers.
“It would be rather like cancelling Christmas for the jewellery trade,” she said. “Lots of occasion-wear boutiques, brilliant British craftspeople, and small businesses will be crucified by this.”
Tail coats, which men must wear in the royal enclosure, do not change year in year out.
But that is small comfort for Kristian Robson Ferner, owner of men’s outfitter Oliver Brown, who said his business had taken a hit, forcing him to use the government’s scheme to furlough staff at the beginning of the lockdown.
“We are going to lose £2 million ($2.5 million) turnover due to Ascot being behind closed doors,” said Robson Ferner, who has spent lockdown biking round London delivering to clients.
“We are OK as it looks as though Barclays (bank) are coming to the rescue. We have all the stock but hope for a double bounce next year.
“Loads of people who wanted to go this year will have had a year off so should be good.”
But Neil Phillips, known as the wine tipster due to his knowledge of wine and racing, says for those employed by Ascot in the hospitality sector it is a year’s work gone to waste.
Last year 350 chefs served up food, including 10,000 steaks and 3,500 fresh lobsters.
“The Ascot heads of catering and the chefs have been planning for ages,” he said.
“After one finishes they start on another. It’s a big loss to them, of course it is. All that planning and on that scale scrapped. Very sad.”
For Reardon, though, the Royal Family, primarily the Queen, remains the biggest drawcard for the meeting — the clothes and the food are secondary.
Queen Elizabeth, a noted racing fan, will miss Royal Ascot for the first time in her 68-year reign.
“It feels like a quasi-royal occasion where you can also go to have a bet and a drink,” Reardon said.
“The royal connection is pivotal to its allure — there’s a very patriotic bent to it and it’s wonderfully theatrical.”