The British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions’ (BALPPA) regional meeting, which took place in Edinburgh 28th to 30th September, was a tremendous success, though the evenings of networking, drinking and catching up with old friends and colleagues were shot through with a rather unexpected note of a sadness …
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In the Shadow of Hogwarts
Tuesday we had dinner at the National Museum of Scotland, just off the Royal Mile. For a first time visitor to Edinburgh, the city’s topography is stunning. A huge granite mound, (which was once oblivious to the glaciers tearing out the soft stone from its sides), dominates the city and on its top lies the Edinburgh Castle. It is easy to see where JK Rowling, cradling a coffee and writing her Harry Potter books in the tiny cafe by the castle, got her inspiration for Hogwarts. Back at the hotel after midnight, I chatted with Martin Barratt, the new BALPPA Chief Executive, Finetra’s Mark Welch, Paul Sharp of Kids Play and Anita Waddell of Agility marketing. Mark, like Richard and Bridget House of Brean Leisure Park and me, was from the West Country and had flown up from Bristol. An hour later BeWilderwood’s Simon Egan arrived, having been out for an evening with his son, who is studying in the city. Thankfully, after a night of student frolics, he did not arrive in a shopping trolley with a traffic cone on his head. Simon’s park is an exciting operation and it was fascinating to learn of his future plans.
We made it through the rain
The next morning we travelled to Loudoun Castle Theme Park , a 600-acre park in Ayrshire, and the venue for the BALPPA members meeting.
Many of the major UK attractions operators were represented, including James Burleigh, Mike Vallis, Adrian Mahon and Glenn Earlam (Merlin Entertainments Group), Edward Pawley (Drayton Manor Theme Park) , Ivan Knezovich and Peter Sears (West Midlands Safari Park), Philip Miller (Adventure Island), Juliana Delaney, Kevin Smith and Nigel Hosier (The Continuum Group), Nick Thompson (Blackpool Pleasure Beach), Gary Smart (Harbour Park) and Barbara Smith (Edinburgh castle, but soon to be at Chester Zoo). Suppliers were also in attendance, with Leonard Sim and CK Foo from queue solutions company Lo-Q, Simon Nicholson from customer management and ticketing company Open Frontiers, Chris Brown from LIW, Ben Harbottle from Timberplay, Tony Sefton of Vision XS, Mark Welch from Finetra, Neil James from Chili games (sponsors of the golf day), Rob McGuiness from Magic Memories and Stef Putnam from Jardine Lloyd Thompson's leisure Practice all making the trip over the border. Stefano Moser and Sara Zanca of Moser Rides and Jeroen Nijpels had travelled from Italy and Luxembourg respectively.
Getting off the coach we were met at the entrance by Henk Bembom, Loudoun Castle’s genial Dutch owner, who welcomed us and spoke with evident pride about the park and it’s facilities. He apologised for the weather with which our arrival was greeted , as we stood huddled together in the driving rain, a few lucky souls frantically erecting umbrellas . Impervious to the rain, Henk is clearly part Scot.
We walked a few hundred yards through the park to the restaurant, those on the edges wisely walking through the conifers which flanked the road and provided a little respite from the rain. As we entered the rooms, Henk ‘s aside to me was, sotto voce, “you’re in for some bad news up there”. I was pondering this advice as we sat down, wondering if he was referring to non delivery of sandwiches or some other culinary mishap, when he rose to speak, addressing a packed room of operators and suppliers.
Chimney pots and free beer
It was, he told us, the theme park’s last day. Having found it increasingly difficult to attract enough visitors to make the park profitable and his task in doing so made more difficult by a number of extraneous factors, he had, with a heavy heart, decided he had no option but to close it down. This news came as quite a shock to those assembled, the majority of whom were themselves parks owners and operators, and the fact that Henk, an experienced amusement park man from a family steeped in the industry could not make a go of the facility served as a salutary lesson. Doubtless the weather in Scotland was never on his side and for sure the location of the park might have been better - “Not many chimney tops,” Howlett & Port Lympne Zoo’s CEO Bob O’Connor said as we took in the rolling hills in the distance - but he made it clear that his major challenges were threefold:
- Value addd tax (VAT). Across Europe, countries are encouraging and nurturing their tourism and amusement industries by ensuring VAT on visitor attractions is minimised. Here in the UK the 17.5% (soon to be 20%) figure really hikes up the entrance price.
- Heritage/lottery funding. Other local attractions, notably some museums, receive public funding. One local museum is to open a new £85 million expansion shortly and Henk anticipated this would have an immediate and measurable effect on visitor numbers. His astute analogy was of a pub, built by the government and serving free drinks.
- Free entrance to attractions. Unlike some local, competing attractions, Loudoun charges and in tough economic times it is hard to compete against free attractions. Whilst none of the factors in isolation is an overwhelming issue, the cumulative effect and the economic climate in which Loudoun had to operate meant that continuing the operation was simply not viable.
Though the news was dispiriting, (certainly for the 11 full-time and over 100 seasonal part-time staff employed by the park) he sounded a note of optimism, and does have plans for Loudoun Castle. Finally he expressed the hope that his announcement would not set a precedent for future BALPPA meetings…
Merlin telling it like it is.
Martin Barratt (left), BALPPA Chief Executive, then gave us an overview of BALPPA’s ongoing activity and aspirations for the year ahead. Regarding the position on VAT, one of the association’s key objectives is lobbying the Government to reduce UK VAT for visitor attractions. Although John Bollom (Mumbles Pier and BALPPA Chairman) suggested that recent news from the House of Commons was not positive – the minister in question clearly thinking the industry should not be a special case when all industries are suffering – Martin stressed that the association would continue to work for a VAT change. Merlin Entertainments Group, he explained, is to take the bold step of clearly delineating the tax component in their entrance prices, so that visitors know what the attraction itself is charging and what is being added on by the government. Next year’s information at the entrance to Merlin attractions will read, for example, “Admission: £15 plus £3 VAT = £18”
Another key objective for BALPPA has been to implement daylight saving hours across the UK, bringing lighter evenings all year round. This is looking like something that, with the continued dedication of Martin and his team, stands a good chance of happening.
We were then treated to lunch and took a stroll around the park. Though it was closed, a few rides were opened for us, so we took a ride on the “Barnstormer” and the “Twist N Shout” coaster (the biggest portable coaster in the UK) and were treated to a dive show by a small troupe of high divers, who entertained us first as clowns and then as professional divers. There is always something a little sad about a park out of season, an autumnal feel, but this was more, this was the last show on the last day of the park and it was a moving and poignant moment for us all.
It was a bittersweet day; good company, a lot of fun, yet tinged with sadness. Here’s hoping that with BALPPA’s continued lobbying and pressure from the tourism and attractions industry the problems faced by Loudoun Castle Theme Park and by all UK attractions are addressed.
Images: top - Edinburgh Castle at night. Above left: Chris Brown and Tony Sefton try out the Skytrail Adventre Course at Edinburgh Zoo, supplied by Innovative Leisure. Above right: the final dive show at Loudoun Castle theme park.
Sponsors: the event was sponsored by Lo-Q, Innovative Leisure, HB Leisure, Simworx and Chili Games