Big Switch-On leaves council £372,000 out of pocket

Blackpool Illuminations Switch-On 2013 on the Tower Festival Headland. Below: Switch-On star Jonathan Ross turns on the Lights on Friday night.
Blackpool Illuminations Switch-On 2013 on the Tower Festival Headland. Below: Switch-On star Jonathan Ross turns on the Lights on Friday night.
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Blackpool’s under-fire Illuminations Switch-On has left its council organisers with a debt of £372,000, it was today revealed.

The massive loss was confirmed as official attendance figures for last weekend’s two-day festival – the first ever paid for Switch-On event – were announced.

Switch-On star Jonathan Ross turns on the Lights. Below: Peter Taylor and Coun Simon Blackburn.

Switch-On star Jonathan Ross turns on the Lights. Below: Peter Taylor and Coun Simon Blackburn.

Organisers Marketing Blackpool today said:

• 4,824 people attended Friday’s Switch-On which starred Take That singer Gary Barlow and TV’s Jonathan Ross.

Free Switch-Ons in recent years have attracted crowds of around 15,000.

• Saturday’s second gig – headlined by Madness – pulled in a crowd of 5,191.

The total attendance figure of 10,015 is half the 20,000 as quoted earlier this week by Blackpool Council’s tourism chief Coun Graham Cain.

The financial loss of £372,109 includes a six figure donation to Children In Need as requested by GaryBarlow in return for stepping in at the last minute in place of Irish band The Script.

As calls were today made for an inquiry, Marketing Blackpool said losses had always been predicted in the first year as a paid-for event and said its budget would take the hit.

And they stood by their decision to charge and revealed they were now in talks with music channel MTV over next year’s event.

However, the leader of the opposition made it clear his party would seek further answers. Coun Tony Williams, leader of Blackpool Council’s Conservative group, said: “My group will be calling for a special meeting to fully investigate this fiasco.

“This huge loss is unforgivable and the attendance figures are still not as perceived on the night with many people guesstimating around 2,500 at the actual Switch-On not the 4,000 quoted.

“Either way it’s certainly not the imaginary 20,000 that Coun Graham Cain stated.”

Organisers were given 48 hours to find a replacement headline act for Friday night when The Script pulled out citing a private family matter.

But when Gary Barlow announced on Twitter he would be willing to play the Tower Festival Headland stage for a donation to Children in Need, he was signed up with 24 hours to go.

Coun Maxine Callow, who was the portfolio holder for tourism for four years under the Tories, said: “It must be the flop of the century and the council taxpayers are picking up the bill for this.

“They are throwing money away and it’s an absolute disgrace when we are in dire straits with cuts. We have got to think about the people who were expected to pay £34.”

Peter Taylor, joint organiser of Lytham Proms, has made no secret of his desire to put on the Switch-On, although he said in a radio interview earlier this week that he “possibly would have lost money” had he staged it. But he added he would have put tickets on sale a lot earlier.

After the figures were revealed he said: “Coun Cain went on record and said there was 20,000 people there and his position is untenable. His facts and figures were grossly incorrect. I’ve been doing concerts for many years and there was not 4,824 people there on Friday night.”

Peter Sedgwick, owner of Blackpool’s North Pier, says the council cannot expect to charge £34 for a Switch-On ticket and expect to make a profit.

He said: “From my experience when you put a ticket above £20 people will not pay it because they don’t have the money.

“The idea of building a big show is right but the timing is wrong because people are struggling.”

Despite the criticism, many within Blackpool’s tourism industry defended Marketing Blackpool.

The events – and their headliners – themselves attracted praise from many there. Iain Hawkins, boss of Merlin which runs Blackpool Tower and Madame Tussauds, said it was the “best Switch-On event” in recent years.

And Fylde coast artist and businessman Robin Ross defended the figures.

He said: “Any businessman will tell you that in the first year it’s a loss, second year you break even and in the third you make a profit.

“This is the first year people have had to charge and what people don’t understand is the council is a business.

“We are in a recession and it’s very hard to get sponsorship, so what they’ve pulled off is very good under the circumstances.”

Claire Smith, president of hoteliers group StayBlackpool, added: “Everyone in Marketing Blackpool works extremely hard under horrendous circumstances and the traumas of last week have been horrendous. I thought it was a fabulous couple of days.

“It still brought people into the town and we have to remember this was the first year and just the starting point.”

Neither Blackpool Council leader Simon Blackburn or Coun Cain were available for comment.

WHAT THE LIGHTS ORGANISERS SAID: STAEMENT BY MARKETING BLACKPOOL

Since Friday night’s Switch-On there have been calls for answers over why so few people turned up and how much the event – Blackpool’s first ever paid for Switch-On – had cost.

Critics say organisers Marketing Blackpool got it badly wrong and should revert the show to a free event.

Here, in full, is what the council’s tourism arm said today in a statement released to The Gazette.

Marketing Blackpool accepts that a paid for Switch-On weekend was always going to be contentious. 

However, the intention behind the decision was to start to create an event for the future which is sustainable and not reliant on the public sector but also allows us to secure headline acts which will put Blackpool on the map as an entertainment destination.  At no time did we claim that this would be achievable in year one.

The pricing of the weekend was in line with, if not cheaper than, other similar events (including those in the area). 

The acts secured were of quality and great value; in fact all of the acts have charged higher prices both locally and nationally with some ticket prices often being more than double those charged for this event.

It must be remembered that when Marketing Blackpool delivered a free Switch-On event – even with a media partner – there was always a cost to the taxpayer of approximately £170,000; this is for staging, production, marketing, road closures and so forth, hence the decision to start charging for the event, with the aim that by years three – five it would become profitable and at no cost to the taxpayer.

Marketing Blackpool is experienced in delivering and promoting the event and has done so for more than 15 years.

Media partners have helped to secure some of the artists and content but were never responsible for the organisation.

Unfortunately, with this year’s event it became apparent quite late on that a media partner was not forthcoming or able to secure the acts for the prices required, despite protracted discussions being held.

This meant we needed to change our approach the result being we announced The Script approximately eight weeks before the event date.

Selling a different type of event in only eight weeks was always going to be a challenge and an earlier start would undoubtedly have delivered greater numbers.

For this year’s event attendance at the Friday Switch-On were 4,824. This figure includes 152 competition winners from marketing campaigns delivered across the country, VIP ticket holders and weekend ticket holders. No other free tickets were issued at any time.

The figure for Saturday’s event was 5,191, which also includes competition winners for the Madness concert along with VIP ticket holders and weekend ticket holders that had also attended Friday.

The Switch-On has always attracted many people to the town to enjoy the atmosphere of the first night of the Illuminations. This has always been over and above those who have a ticket for any event that we have run.

Expenditure for the event was £775,000 with income being £402,891.

Unfortunately with any new venture of this type, it is anticipated that the first year will not be profitable which is why we have a deficit of £372,109.

This had been expected prior to the event and Marketing Blackpool is already working to recoup this.

The deficit will be contained within our budget at no additional cost to Blackpool Council protecting Council Tax payers.

We appreciate that there will be questions relating to artist fees but due to confidentiality clauses we are not, for legal reasons, able to provide these. It must however, be remembered, that a significant donation is being made to Children in Need.

The weekend itself ran extremely smoothly and without incident. 

The location of the site is in a unique setting and at capacity, can accommodate in the region of 17,500. Given that our numbers were as above, a decision was made to reduce the footprint of the site to approximately 10,000.

For health and safety reasons, the location does mean that we will need to close the promenade for all future large events; this is not new as this was also occurred twice last year.

We feel that this year’s event demonstrated that the changes can work and indeed many positive outcomes have been achieved. A couple of examples of this follow: -

Media value to date for the weekend, generated over the last eight weeks not including TV coverage is currently at a value of £507,000. This is a huge increase compared to previous years.

A representative of MTV was present at Friday’s Switch-On as part of our on-going partnership discussions about an MTV Crashes Blackpool Illuminations event for 2014.

A spokesman for MTV said:“Blackpool has everything necessary to stage a 
major music event successfully and we’re excited to explore the possibility with Marketing Blackpool of bringing MTV Crashes to the resort in 2014.”

Finally, Marketing Blackpool would like to say that plans for Switch-On 2014 are already being worked on and we will make an announcement well in advance of next year’s event. We are also in the process of talking to very high profile talent in relation to next year.

A full debrief will be taking place reviewing all feedback before deciding on the best course of action.

We’ve listened to residents and attendees from both days and most of the feedback was extremely positive but, we do recognise that some local people feel that the event should be free.

It is very early days in planning Switch-On 2014 but we are looking at all options. We are not in a position to make any announcements just yet.

We will continue to provide many of these high quality experiences at no cost to local people but as a result of public sector funding reductions we must look at any and all opportunities that allow us to make the events programme more sustainable.

The Marketing Company was originally set up partly to enable new funding avenues to be explored working with the private sector and adding some protection to the public purse.

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