On song at the Stadium of Light

It’s not only the football at Sunderland AFC which is premier class - the hospitality is in a league of its own too. As the Stadium of Light prepares to host two of Britain’s biggest bands, Karen Southern talks to group catering and events manager Gary Hutchinson about the mammoth operation that keeps the Black Cats purring along.

Match-days are the lifeblood of the Stadium of Light, but the action isn’t purely focused on the pitch for 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon.

The club’s catering and events department works seven days a week, 365 days a year, cooking up everything from the traditional pie and pint to a la carte meals and banquets.

And such is the rise in demand for top-notch hospitality that the club recently invested £250,000 in a kitchen upgrade, and has extended its main banqueting suite to seat up to 700 people, making it one of the largest venues of its kind in the North.

Gary Hutchinson is delighted with the way his army of staff has developed since the turnstiles turned for the first time at the stadium a decade ago, but he isn’t content to sit on his laurels.

He has been instrumental in attracting Brit Pop heroes Oasis and boy-band supremos Take That to the stadium for three sell-out dates this summer - and as projects manager is responsible for the mind-boggling logistics created by such a massive event.

Once the Black Cats have played Chelsea in the last home match of the season, Take That’s road crew will move in to start work on setting up the complex stage and lighting system ready for rehearsals.

Over 160,000 visitors are expected to come into the city over the course of the week, and the club is determined to help create a festival atmosphere they will never forget.

“Previously, big promoters thought there wasn’t the demand for their acts in the North,” Gary explained, “but it didn’t take long for them to realise that the opposite is true.

“Now we have proved that the Stadium of Light is more than a major football venue, it’s also a fantastic place for live music.”

With demand for drinks alone expected to be up to six times higher than an average match-day, the forward planning is a huge task.

“We are putting a tourist information link on the clubs official website from the end of February so that visitors can make the most of their city experience, including the best places to eat and stay,” Gary pointed out.

While all three concerts are sold-out, a limited amount of quality hospitality packages, both on and off-site are still available.

*Club at a ten-year high*

On a typical match-day in the hospitality areas 300 staff in eight kitchens work from 6am to 6pm to service demand, with the majority of food - including soups, stocks and desserts - freshly made on site.

Based on a sell-out attendance of 49,000, famished fans consume an average 10,000 pints of beer/lager (inclusive of hospitality areas and public concourses), 500 bottles of wine), 500 kgs of potatoes, 3000 burgers, and thousands of portions of steak, chicken, fish and duck.

But it’s not only the supporters who need feeding - everyone from ball boys and the media, to the players and manager is catered for.

Every area of club hospitality has seen a big increase in demand, from conferences and gourmet nights, to weddings and Christmas party nights.

“We are enjoying increased turnover, with bookings at a ten-year high, even without the added bonus of the concerts,” Gary explained.

“We’re very proud of our standards, which are reflected in our five-star hygiene and food safety ratings.

“And our hospitality training academy also makes us a market leader - no other major venue in the North East has this facility.

“The departments entire management team has been promoted from within, and they all act as mentors for the academy which is an added bonus.”

Christmas 2009 looks set to be bigger and better than ever, and includes cabaret themed nights with named tribute acts, private parties and festive dinners. Bookings made and paid for by the end of February will be charged at 2008 rates, with a complimentary half a bottle of wine per person.

“Now we have proved the Stadium of Light is more than a major football venue. It’s also a fantastic place for live music” - Gary Hutchinson.

Take That are a summer hit in Sunderland.

Oasis is a sell-out.

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