How to curate the perfect guest list (hint: don’t just invite influencers)

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Key points

  • You can’t buy a ticket to most Birdcage marquees and have to be invited to attend. 
  • The exception is the VRC’s marquee Lucky’s for its members which is sold out at $1,700 a ticket for a day. 
  • Derby Day and Cup Day are the most popular days in the marquees followed by Oaks Day and then Stakes.

Kristy Keyte’s phone has been running hot for the last week with people desperate to secure an invitation to Penfolds’ marquee in the Birdcage at the Melbourne Cup Carnival.

“It’s the hottest ticket in town I can tell you,” Keyte, chief marketing officer at Penfolds, says.

The red Penfolds marquee overlooking the parade ring at Flemington has an under the sea theme this year with shell-shaped cocktail glasses, caviar served from mother-of-pearl bowls and a series of portholes with a scuba diver graphic to make guests feel like they are on a boat.

Kristy Keyte is the chief marketing officer at Penfolds and says her phone has been running hot.

A last-minute text probably isn’t going to secure an invitation, Keyte says the carefully curated guest list at Penfolds for the four days of the Melbourne Cup Carnival includes media, key opinion leaders, customers and “friends” of the brand.

“We have lots of long-term ambassadors who we work with and we combine these guests with taste-makers and people that we believe fit within our spirit of venturing beyond in their fields and craft,” she says. “So I would say it is a bit of a melting pot of guests actually to create a great atmosphere. I guess the one thing that connects everyone together is a love of Penfolds and of wine of course.”

On the guest list are former AFL footballer Buddy Franklin and his wife Jesinta who are Penfolds ambassadors, singer and television host Erin Holland, model and television host Nicky Phillips, former AFL footballer Joel Selwood and his wife Britt and television host Abby Gemli.

Keyte is more tight-lipped on the prominent business figures who are also invited.

“I’m not going to give you names,” she says. But Keyte says the guest list reflects a balance of people who can market Penfolds wine more broadly and those who the company just wants to entertain in the marquee.

“It’s really important that we showcase the brand in the marquee and then we apply that message beyond the people that are lucky enough to attend, to give everyone a bit of a taste of what happened in the marquee,” she says.

Alongside the official guest list to Birdcage marquees is a secondary “drop in” list of people who have not received a coveted official invitation but are allowed entry to the marquee on the day as long as they have made their own way into the Birdcage through a media pass, a VRC membership or an invitation to another marquee.

Model Jessica Gomes at the unveiling of the Theatre G.H. Mumm marquee.Credit: Eddie Jim

Over at Crown on Derby Day chief executive Ciarán Carruthers said everybody wanted to be back at the Birdcage and in the Crown marquee.

“What I am loving hearing is that so many people want to get in on the drop in list which is a very long list,” he said.

The public relations agencies manning the doors of each marquee with an Ipad in hand will also let in those with a high enough profile who are guests of other marquees or who have come from the owners enclosure or VRC committee room.

“We get a lot of sports people, we get a lot of politicians just popping in,” GH Mumm’s prestige and private client manager Chris Sheehy says. “Some of my favourites are our business leaders in Australia. They are probably the most interesting.”

Space is at a premium with the marquees operating to strict capacity requirements for health and safety reasons.

When it looks like a marquee is about to reach its limit staff have been known to go around and quietly tap those not on the official guest list on the shoulder and ask them to leave.

At Mumm’s marquee at the centre of the Birdcage’s “Millionaires row” Sheehy says the official invitation list is heavily focused on the champagne house’s customers.

“The most important people in our marquee are our trade customers and we invite them down to either reward them or incentivise them to continue or to grow their Mumm sales,” he says.

The next pool of tickets at Mumm goes to media, next are what Sheehy describes as “captains of industry”, the chief executives of brand partners that Mumm works with.

Then there are the drop ins.

Sheehy says Mumm does not invite many celebrities as they often end up at the marquee anyway.

“Because we are Mumm, because we are champagne, we tend to be one of the marquees that everyone wants to be at,” he says. “We can be a bit more picky on the day and make sure that we’ve got balance in our marquee. Everyone’s having a good time, but everyone who’s there deserves to be there.”

He recalls one year in the Mumm marquee when the champagne house’s chief executive tapped Sheehy on the shoulder.

“He said ‘Chris, can you introduce me to Usain Bolt and Julie Bishop please?’ Because they were right behind me having a conversation. So that’s the kind of diversity you get.”

Usain Bolt at the Mumm marquee on Derby Day in 2018.

On the invitation list this year are model Jess Gomes who is the “face” of the marquee, fellow models Bambi Northwood-Blyth and Montana Cox, Jacqui and Mark Liberman of the Gandel family, Scanlan Theodore founder Gary Theodore, fashion designer Pip Edwards and former bookmaker Tom Waterhouse and wife Hoda.

Influencers are a more tricky demographic for Mumm with Rozalia and Nick Russian on Mumm’s invitation list this year along with Nadia Bartel.

“I think for a little while some of the older ones had an expectation,” Sheehy says. “Because we look after our customers first. I think there was always an awkwardness when they would expect to be invited and they weren’t, and they had to come in and ask.”

Sheehy says he’s seen a shift with “a new breed” of younger influencers coming through.

A bartender serves champagne in the ‘Théâtre G.H. Mumm’ marquee.Credit: Eddie Jim

“It’s a different energy on their way through and I think they’ve realised that they have to bring something to the table and they are not just there for a good time,” he says. “It’s becoming more professional in its approach. People are planning their days and planning what they can value add which is quite nice.”

The amount that each brand spends on the guests it invites to the Birdcage is something they claim is incalculable.

Sheehy points out that the VRC’s own Birdcage marquee Lucky’s costs $1700 to attend for a day.

“If you were to put a price tag on these tickets, it would be well and truly into the thousands,” he says. “You can’t buy the experience, so it’s hard to put a value on it.”

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