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Cheltenham Festival attendance plunges as cost of living crisis blamed

Crowds enjoy watching a race during day three of the Cheltenham Festival, when attendance was down several thousand on last year (David Davies for The Jockey Club/PA Wire)
Crowds enjoy watching a race during day three of the Cheltenham Festival, when attendance was down several thousand on last year (David Davies for The Jockey Club/PA Wire)

The cost of living crisis is being blamed for a drop in attendance at the Cheltenham Festival this year.

The festival, the highlight of the National Hunt racing calendar, attracts tens of thousands of people to the Regency town on the edge of the Cotswolds every year.

It is matched by a rise in local hotel rates, with visitors charged an average of £3,000 for a four-night stay. The cheapest hotel room on the eve of the festival this year cost £399 for one night.

Paul Townend celebrates aboard Galopin Des Champs after winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday (Joe Giddens/PA Wire)
Paul Townend celebrates aboard Galopin Des Champs after winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday (Joe Giddens/PA Wire)

This year was the 100th anniversary of the festival’s climax, the Cheltenham Gold Cup – and on Friday, it was a sell-out with around 68,500 at the venue.

But across the first three days of the event, which included the rebranded “Style Wednesday” (formerly Ladies Day), attendance was down seven per cent compared to last year.

It continued a trend: last year’s overall festival attendance was also down on the record set in 2022, although attendance was capped at 68,500 in 2023 to prevent overcrowding.

Ian Renton, managing director of event organiser Jockey Club Racecourses, told The Independent the festival had been impacted by the economic situation in the UK.

He said: “The Cheltenham Festival remains the pinnacle of jump racing and a marquee event in the sporting and social calendar, but we and all businesses operating in the leisure and hospitality industry know only too well the huge effect that the ongoing cost of living crisis is having on consumer behaviour.

“Whilst we’ve seen slightly lower numbers in terms of general admission this week, hospitality sales continue to go from strength to strength.”

‘Bucket list’: (from left) David Evans, Alan Bryron and Andrew Hargrave (The Independent)
‘Bucket list’: (from left) David Evans, Alan Bryron and Andrew Hargrave (The Independent)

Tickets for this year’s festival started at £37 when they went on sale 12 months ago – the same starting price as last year, and £2 more than in 2022.

Yet there were clear spaces in the cheaper viewing areas – such as the Best Mate and Tattersalls enclosures – on Wednesday and Thursday.

Inside the Guinness Village, where the £7.50 price of a pint of the black stuff has been unchanged for 18 months, punters said the cost of attending would make it difficult for some people.

“The Gold Cup was on our bucket list but I doubt we’ll be able to come again,” said factory worker Andrew Hargrave, who was among a group of colleagues who had travelled from Washington in Tyne and Wear.

Forking out £284 for an entry package that included two nights’ stay at a hotel in Bromsgrove, they put aside £50 every month for a year for the “special day”.

“It’s expensive – last night I could have got almost three pints for this one pint,” the 54-year-old said.

“Wages aren’t high around where we are from and it’ll take some people two or three years to save up for this. It’s not just the ticket, it’s the travel, spend on food and drink and the bets. It’s a big treat.”

‘Tough choices’: Tracy Holt and her husband Darren (The Independent)
‘Tough choices’: Tracy Holt and her husband Darren (The Independent)

Also in the village was Tracy Holt, who paid £299 for a Gold Cup package, including two nights’ stay in Walsall, which took her by bus from her hometown Doncaster in South Yorkshire.

“Not everyone can afford to come here,” the 51-year-old said. “You can look at this and say it is the same price as a weekend away on holiday. With less money, people face tough choices on what to spend their money on.”

The Independent understands sales of multiple-day tickets were down this year, with the spiralling cost of accommodation in Cheltenham and surrounding towns thought to be a factor.

Data from Mybettingsites.co.uk showed the average four-night stay on Booking.com rose to £3,030, 255 per cent more than the pre- and post-race weeks.

Brothers Quinten and Pierce Wilkinson attended all four days but stayed at a budget hotel in Swindon, paying £50 a night. “You couldn’t afford a place near the racecourse,” said Pierce, 27, from Windsor.

Some said the festival wasn’t helped by the price of food and drink inside – but others believed it was competitively priced compared to other sporting events.

Outside catering: Andrew Thomas and his son Conor (The Independent)
Outside catering: Andrew Thomas and his son Conor (The Independent)

Prices varied depending on the enclosure. Outside the Guinness Village, a cheese and bacon burger cost £12.50, a bacon roll £8 and a coffee £3.40.

However, inside the Orchard area, open to premium Club Enclosure ticket holders, an Argentinian steak restaurant charged £85 for a two-course meal including main options like whole grilled sea bass and mushroom tagliatelle.

“We bring our own food and soft drinks,” said Andrew Thomas, 48, who drove for Gold Cup day with his 16-year-old son, Conor, from Swansea in Wales. “It can be expensive inside and this is a way to save a bit of money on the day.”

Friends Nick Madden and Dave Hartley, from Solihull in the West Midlands, set themselves a £100 budget for food and drink.

Cut-price entry: Nick Madden and Dave Hartley got tickets priced £175 for the Gold Cup at £85 from a friend who couldn’t go (The Independent)
Cut-price entry: Nick Madden and Dave Hartley got tickets priced £175 for the Gold Cup at £85 from a friend who couldn’t go (The Independent)

“The cost of the tickets and things here won’t impact a large proportion of people,” said Mr Hartley, a 35-year-old consultancy firm partner.

“But for those impacted by the cost of living crisis, they will look to save money and they will weigh up if this is worth it compared to a football match or concert.”

In the partially gravelled car park outside the festival, a group of tweed-wearing racegoers could be found standing around the open rear boot of a 4x4 vehicle, feasting on homemade sandwiches and soup.

Suited and booted: Rosanne Panes (second left) and friends (The Independent)
Suited and booted: Rosanne Panes (second left) and friends (The Independent)

“We much prefer saving some money out here while enjoying the space and socialising” said Rosanne Panes, who’d helped pay £210 for the car parking space for the four days.

The drop in attendance also impacted retailers inside the racecourse.

Marc Stevenson, who sold rocking horses inside the festival’s shopping village, said: “It’s not so busy this year – fewer people are in the retail village but we hope it can get put right.”

The Jockey Club said the starting price of tickets for 2025 will remain frozen when they go on sale on Monday.

The club said it will also look to improve car parking facilities – cars got stuck in the mud on Tuesday – as part of a “usual wash-up” process of the festival ahead of planning next year’s event.

Day 1 – Champion Day attendances

  • 2019 67,934

  • 2020 60,664

  • 2022 68,567

  • 2023 60,321

  • 2024 60,181

Day 2 – Style Wednesday (formerly Ladies Day) attendances

  • 2019 59,209

  • 2020 56,943

  • 2022 64,431

  • 2023 50,387

  • 2024 46,771

Day 3 – St Patrick’s Day attendances

  • 2019 67,821

  • 2020 65,218

  • 2022 73,754

  • 2023 61,451

  • 2024 53,918