UK: Blackpool Pleasure Beach - the monoamine oxidase factor. (2 of 2)

UK: Blackpool Pleasure Beach - the monoamine oxidase factor. (2 of 2) - Ocean Boulevard itself supplies one answer to this quandary. If you cannot cram more people into your pleasure beach (and with 85,000 visitors a day during the Illuminations, Thompso

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Ocean Boulevard itself supplies one answer to this quandary. If you cannot cram more people into your pleasure beach (and with 85,000 visitors a day during the Illuminations, Thompson cannot), you can at least arrange for your pleasure beach to cram more into people. Catering now provides BPB with something over 20% of its annual takings (by far the largest share, perhaps 60%, still coming from the rides themselves), making it the largest catering concern in Blackpool, cuisines ranging from the White Tower Restaurant's pricey "nouvelle" to the ubiquitous hot dog.

Given the heinous admonitions against motion sickness appended to Thompson's rides, this juxtaposition of roller-coasters and "rognons roti" seems risky: but BPB's MD hoots: "Good. We'll sell 'em one meal, and then they'll need another later," hastily adding: "We don't really want to make them ill - just to spend money."

One other way in which Geoffrey Thompson has managed to get the punters to do that has been by persuading three rival banks to place their cash-dispensing machines side by side, "uniquely", Thompson points out, all over the Pleasure Beach site. Another first is that BPB services these machines itself, constantly replenishing them so that "they're never out of money".

As well as giving visitors more to spend their money on, and more ways of spending it, Thompson has also given them more time in which to spend. What with ice shows in BPB's own venerable Ice Drome and a growing trade in corporate entertaining, the Pleasure Beach's season is now effectively eight months long, the remaining four being used for refurbishment and staff training.

The mainstay of Thompson's operations remain his white-knuckle rides, however, a tradition which he is loath to change. Since Blackpool Pleasure Beach Ltd's inception in 1910 by his grandfather, Alderman W G Bean, the company's site has become home to the world's biggest and most fearsome collection of roller-coasters, in MAO potential far outstripping better-known behemoths such as Coney Island. Thompson admits to spending much of his time on an international snooping circuit, and rides reflect changing tastes in popular culture.

At the same time, there is something curiously homey about the Pleasure Beach's attractions. Some rides, like the Sir Hiram Maxim Flying Machine, date from before the Great War; slightly peeling mannequins of life-sized blacks crooning spirituals on the Tom Sawyer Lake would hardly get past the Race Relations Board these days.

BPB remains a family affair, in more senses than one. Thompson's mother, uniformly referred to in hushed tones as "Mrs Thompson", a feisty octagenarian, is company chairman; Thompson's three children are all involved.

There is a curious lack of prurience in the Pleasure Beach's charms. Alderman Bean wanted to give the people "gaiety of a primarily innocent character": his company still adheres to the letter of his law. ("The Sunday Sport did once superimpose pictures of nude women onto one of our rides," says Geoffrey Thompson, wistfully. "It was rather good for business.")

BPB's MD is proud of his new banks of no doubt highly necessary Portaloos and on-site laundry. This may well stand BPB in good stead, given the next challenge that it is likely to have to face: demographic change. Statistics suggest that the spending public will become increasingly elderly towards the end of the century, so that a growing proportion of Thompson's projected 10 million visitors are likely to be mature. Given his rides' advertised affinity with coronary disease, it is easy to imagine Revolutions full of deceased pensioners.

Thompson's reasoning - that if the youth market is set to diminish, he will have "to win a larger share of it" - only answers part of the question. The other is answered by departures such as the "55 Club", which allows older punters reduced-price access. Thompson believes that the relative immobility of these Woopies will pay dividends, and has been installing benches, another first, all over the beach. "There's a lot of money to be got out of grannies," he says.

This alloy of family feeling and profit motive, modern pizzazz and traditional values, has served the Thompsons well and should continue to do so. Geoffrey Thompson notes with pleasure the growth in foreign visitors to Blackpool, but remarks that they still number under 2% of the total. His eyes are firmly fixed on its traditional hinterland, "the band between Birmingham and Glasgow".

As to the husbandry of the familial cash cow, the message is similarly one of evolution-not-revolution. Thompson speaks with sorrow of the changing mores of The Walt Disney Company, the late Walt having been a long-time family friend and, it is hinted, plagiarist. "The industry's changed," he concludes ruefully. "I think people like Disney have forgotten where they learnt it all." The Thompsons, clearly, have not.

(Charles Darwent is a freelance writer.)

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