Far more than chukkas and champagne, British Polo Day is 'the founder of MySpace talking to the Maharaja of Jodhpur, who’s talking to Millie Mackintosh from Made in Chelsea,’ co-founder Ed Olver tells Charlotte Metcalf.
‘Polo brings all kinds of people from all over the world together,’ says Ben Vestey, managing director of British Polo Day. ‘No door is closed. And this family has taken us to their bosom.’ The family in question is that of His Highness Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Marwar-Jodhpur, and about 50 of us are gathered on the elegant, jasmine-swathed verandah of the Maharaja’s private apartments in the magnificent Umaid Bhawan Palace listening to Ben’s speech.
As guests of British Polo Day, most of us are staying at the palace — a hotel voted, that very day, as the best in the world by TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice Awards. Ben rounds off his speech with an amusing anecdote about visiting the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle with the Maharaja and we all, including the Maharaja, chuckle appreciatively, raising our glasses and giving each other the kind of knowing looks that say we recognise how privileged we are to be part of this rare and prestigious occasion.
Later, as fireworks sparkle and explode overhead, we walk up a lantern-lined red carpet through the beautiful palace gardens to watch a fashion show by British designer Helen Bromovsky with Amrapali Jewels. Afterwards, dinner for 200 is served under the trees. By now we’re almost taking the luxury and splendour for granted. Between polo matches, we have drunk cocktails on the palace rooftop, been treated to poetry readings at a banquet served on specially commissioned granite tables inspired by EM Forster, dined atop the historic Mehrangarh Fort, and danced in one of its courtyards under the stars.
These spectacular three- or four-day events happen roughly ten times annually, from China to Marrakech. Though polo is their apparent raison d’être, the events are really an opportunity to network — big-time. In Jodhpur there was the expected sprinkle of British society — Geraldine Harmsworth was the guest of honour — but I was just as likely to be sitting next to Vinod Kumar, CEO of Tata Communications, or Marc de Panafieu of Jaeger-LeCoultre.
Surprisingly, given the heavy hitters it draws, British Polo Day is run by a very young team, headed by Vestey and founders Ed Olver and Tom Hudson. The idea was Olver’s brainchild while he was serving in the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. ‘One day I was riding round Hyde Park with Field Marshal the Lord Guthrie and I asked, “Why isn’t the Musical Ride performed abroad?”’ says Olver. ‘The next thing I knew we were flying 50 horses out to Abu Dhabi. I saw the horses appearing from the plane, ears pricked, nostrils flared to take in the different scents of the desert, and at the age of 28 I found a new bubble of oxygen in my life.’ He believes the horse plays a powerful role in diplomacy: ‘Churchill said, “The outside of a horse is very good for the inside of a man.” You have to be gentle around horses. Horses represent an international language, a bridging point.’
Encouraged by the success of the Musical Ride in Abu Dhabi, Olver helped his university friend, Hudson, stage a Harrow-Eton polo match in Dubai, which became the Prince’s Cup and the first British Polo Day. Today, British Polo Day has headquarters in Chelsea and employs 26 people. Polo remains the starting point, but the game is part of a much bolder project under a holding company, Britannia Elevation, which aims to bring the best of Britain, including our good manners and values, to an international stage.
‘We are held in such high esteem globally but we’ve lost our confidence in all we have to offer,’ says Olver. ‘We’re reluctant to project ourselves. We’re strong on tradition and people like to pat us on the head as a great little country with our sweet Royal Family, but we’re not adaptable, entrepreneurial or innovative. The only constant in our modern world is change, so how do we harness all the best of British values and compete? We’re holding over 2,000 years of luxury heritage in a crucible and my vision is to revive all those great British brands.’
So far, Olver has persuaded a fair number to hop on board, from Harrods and Land Rover to Royal Salute and British Silverware. The knack is to offer the brands high visibility in return for the steep price they pay to be a partner, so Olver has to keep guests coming back for more — hence his obsession with detail and micromanagement of his long-suffering team to deliver unforgettable evenings that have even the most privileged oohing and aahing.
When I catch up with Olver in London a month after Jodhpur, he’s just back from a leadership course at Singularity University in Silicon Valley and is enthused about ‘platforms’, ‘ecosystems’ and ‘lily pads’. I ask how he’s applying such knowledge to British Polo Day.
‘Our business is not scalable or replicable,’ he says. ‘It’s about providing a pure, genuine, rare experience. What else do you give someone privileged who has everything? We’re entering an era of abundance and the world can be moved.’ He refers to his course again and explains how technology is the ‘Archimedes lever’ changing the world. So can polo change the world? ‘Part of the joy of riding a horse is that it’s not a robot and it’s unpredictable. We’re taking ownership of that which is precious and not “roboticised”. People who dismiss us as a bunch of rich kids just don’t get it. Billionaires are interested in us because of the scarcity and unpredictability of what we’re offering.’
It’s a nice sentiment, but to keep his sponsors on board and attract more, Olver needs to be constantly raising his game. He does it superbly, but subsequent sales are harder to quantify. ‘Business is very volatile and increasingly businesses need strong networks of relationships. That’s what we supply. We don’t want to be seen to be profiteering, but basically we have hosted members of twelve royal families, one hundred billionaires and over 20,000 guests since inception — all of whom are potentially interested in doing business with our clients. We’re building trust across boundaries and identities. The passion point for the people running the world is to meet and interact. What you see at British Polo Day is the founder of MySpace talking to the Maharaja of Jodhpur, who’s talking to Millie Mackintosh from Made in Chelsea.’
British Polo Day also offers sponsoring partners exposure on its social media outlet, Be Social Global, set up in partnership with @london, the Instagram channel boasting 1.8 million followers. ‘We can amplify brands, parachuting them into any country where we know everyone,’ says Olver. ‘If a Middle Eastern capital wealth fund wants to invest in Mexican real estate, we’re giving them the lily pad from which to do that.
‘People keep advising me on monetising the brand, but I’ve resisted all attempts to turn it into a commodity. We remain an invitation-only model and no one can put a price on that. What we’re creating is back to the future — we’re seeing the return of good manners and a place where billionaires can let their hair down, because our focus is always on quality and, above everything, on relationships. Watching Martin Sorrell listen with rapt attention to Jack Ma talking about Alibaba and knowing I can sit someone in the space business between Richard Branson and Elon Musk…’ Here Olver pauses and grins: ‘I realise that my whole life has been in preparation for what I’m doing now.’
Photographs by Keoma Zee