Imperial Hotel general manager Alison Gilmore is enjoying a couple of love affairs.
Her first is with the town she has taken to her heart and the other is with the “grand old lady” she is delighted to be in charge of for the second time.
Everything became about costs and the conversations I was having were not the sort of conversations that were right for this gorgeous place.Alison Gilmore
The “Durham girl” left the city of her birth when she was 17 and came to Blackpool and The Fylde College “because it was the top catering college in the country - so that’s where I wanted to be.”
She worked at the Hilton to pay her way and “fell in love with Blackpool as you do - I lived on the front so saw the Illuminations every night, had my daily sandblasting to keep my skin fresh and really adored the place.”
Her first ambition had been to become a midwife but she fell for hotel management after a school work placement.
“They couldn’t get me into a hospital but said they could find me a hotel instead so did I fancy that,” says Alison. “I thought I’d give it a shot so I did a week, at a local hotel just up the road from where I lived. I washed up, peeled potatoes and made beds for a week and I was completely hooked.”
A college course in Durham and cheffing in a local restaurant preceded her Blackpool studies.
“Blackpool definitely got under my skin,” she says. “My graduation event was at the Imperial and I still remember driving up to the hotel in a taxi and thinking ‘oh my goodness me it must be God who manages it,’ and in a way it was because it was the legendary John Herdman who was managing it at the time.
“I would never have said then for one minute that I would be coming back here as general manager so when that offer was first on the table10 years ago it was a ‘yes’ straight away, there was no question.”
Not that it’s all been Blackpool. She was in Cardiff twice. Her first post college position was at the four star Park Hotel there before “travelling round” to the likes of London, Edinburgh and Brighton then settling back at The Angel near the Cardiff Millennium Stadium.
“I had a fairly raucous time there with the rugby and football and managed to find out as much about that as possible – then swapped my hobby for politics when I came back to Blackpool.
“The most important thing with this business is that it’s so diverse you’ve got to embrace every aspect of it so you’ve got to have an eye for detail, you’ve got to be able to turn your hand to most things within the hotel, you’ve got to be savvy when it comes to sales and finance and you’ve got to be able to get to know people wherever you are, support the local charities, get involved in whatever is going on in the town.”
So she arrived at the Imperial in July 2005 and left after six years to start “something completely different.” In short the general manager of Blackpool’s most iconic hotel became an electrician.
A change in the hotel’s branding, difficult trading times brought by the credit crunch and a general difference in opinion about what the future held were responsible.
“Everything became about costs and the conversations I was having were not the sort of conversations that were right for this gorgeous place.
“It was one of those that made the decision for me, it was the last straw. I didn’t want to be responsible for the downfall of this wonderful building, this wonderful hostelry. I’d no idea at that point what I wanted to do, I just knew I had to go.”
While she admits most people would have simply gone to work for somebody else she feared things would be just as bad elsewhere so “needed to go and do my own thing.”
“My partner’s a chef, we talked about taking on our own place but it’s nice to know where your next pennies are coming from so it wasn’t the right time to take that route.”
As part of a “bit of a midlife crisis” she’d earlier toyed with doing an electrical course at night school but couldn’t fit it into her timetable.
“I managed to find a company that could get me through in six months. I knew financially I was safe because in this business you work hard and spend nothing because you are never away from it so had enough money to tide me over a couple of years, do the course, set up a business. It was a lucky position to be in.”
So she took the course.
“I got my qualifications but I’d never even sawn into a floorboard so I needed to know the DIY stuff,” she says. “So I worked for three local sparkies, just training, not getting paid, but I wanted five full days not just half a day here and there.”
A phone call to Illuminations boss Richard Ryan resulted in her helping unpaid at the Lights depot. Then came her own business - Bright Girl Electrics - and a meeting with a former contact which resulted in successfully tendering for the contract to project manage the construction and attachment of the LED lights to the legs of Blackpool Tower.
“I did nine months on the Tower and think it was doing that job, being back as part of Blackpool, working on another icon and still being such a part of this wonderful town, that made me realise I had to stay here.”
A restless holiday in Thailand followed.
“I couldn’t sleep. What was I going to do after? What was the business going to look like? Could I go back to the domestic work again? How old was I going to be before I was 100% comfortable with what l was doing? Would someone still pay me to crawl under their floorboards when I was 55? Or was I going to fall in love all over again with hotels, because I’d fallen out of love with them.”
She had just decided to keep the electrical business going but look around at hotels when the phone rang. It was the head of HR for Imperial owners Puma asking if she would consider picking up the Blackpool reins again.
By January 2013 she was back at her desk.
“I’m not a restless soul. If I’d known how transient this industry is I probably wouldn’t have joined it. You are expected to fully embrace the world you live in, turn a place around, add your own touch to it, completely love it as your home for a period of time and then take the magic and apply it somewhere else.
“You can do it a few times but at some stage you want to put some roots down. When I walked through the front door again here I knew I was still in love with it. I can’t believe I’ve been back three years because it still feels like the first day since I had the time off.”
She admits there’s a special challenge caring for a “grand old lady” in a world of sexy young things.
“Isn’t that what’s so special about it? Who wants a sexy young thing? But it’s getting a little bit sexier. We’ve got a brand new Palm Court restaurant, there’s a few quid being spent on the place. There’s a twinkle in her eye again.
“But the Imperial is unique. Famous residents still stay with us every week, it’s the natural choice when people come to Blackpool, but in this world of the Internet guests expect more these days and you have to keep up with the changes.”
But aren’t there too many hotels in the town?
“Blackpool needs quality hotels, quality bedrooms. It has a lot more than it had10 years ago. There’s been a lot of investment across every sector of accommodation since I first came here and there’s lots of work going on along the Promenade in hotels.
“It’s a great time to be in Blackpool, it’s great for people to see. Even though the business has been sporadic over the last 10 years, the past three years have grown and people are recognising it.
“To invest you have to have confidence in the future and there are a lot of hotels at the moment that have that confidence.”
She admits that adverse publicity about Blackpool does put people off.
“But then they get here and say what a wonderful town it is, what a vibrant place to be and how much money has been spent on the promenade. Every conversation I have with guests is a positive one - nobody has seen a fight, nobody worries about stag and hens, nobody thinks the place is dirty.
“It’s the perception before they arrive that’s the problem. I think that’s better than it was but we have to get out there and keep shouting about it.”
So what can be done?
“We don’t blow our trumpet enough. There is so much passion in the town which isn’t necessarily seen further afield. We have such wonderful ambassadors so we should spend more time and more of our budget shouting about what we do.”
One bugbear is the perception that Blackpool is out on a limb.
“Location is the major difference between us and, say, Brighton – which has its own challenges. It’s the playground for London, a massive audience who will pay a lot of money to be there, but you can do door to door London to Blackpool in two and a half hours, Brighton in four and it’s easier to get to Blackpool from the M6 than it is to get to Manchester. But trying to sell that to people down south is difficult.
“If you’d asked me 10 years ago would I still be here, would I still love the place like I do, would I be living here permanently with roots down? I don’t know.
“But now if I could be here in 10 years time I would. My boss would have to pry me out of here. John Herdman was here 15 years I think so I want to beat him!
“We celebrated the 140th anniversary in my second year here. We’ve got the 150th next year and my plan is to see that through as my first target. Yes, I’d love to be settled here. The way I feel about this building, the way I feel about this town, I would like to think I’d still be here for a long time.”
As for the enduring charm of Blackpool?
“It’s the memories which we hope will endure for the children and generations to come.
“Every day I hear people rekindling the memories of previous visits and having a better time than ever.
“It’s things like the magic of the Illuminations, and they are magic – as one of the privileged few who has had my head inside most of them.
“The Switch-On night itself is just incredible, you can’t get a better show than that and the atmosphere that goes with it. And then they go on every night and you see the childrens’ faces and the adults’ faces.
“It’s just a wonderful place to be. And the views. Look at the sunset in the summer on the terrace with a glass of champagne in your hand and you could be in the south of France. There aren’t many places that have a view like that.”