Britain’s Got Talent is helping put Blackpool on the national map anew. But has Blackpool got the X factor needed to make the most of it?
In the heart of town, above the Winter Gardens, in the Empress Building, Natalie Wyatt, formerly a Manchester marketing guru, is new managing director of Marketing Blackpool which will promote the town to the big wide world.
She’s already forging closer links with Visit England, the national body promoting the nation to the world, and indeed itself, in Olympic year. She’s also joined influential policy makers on the National Destinations panel, is collaborating with other resorts, and also carving out contacts, including at the newlook MediaCity.
But in an economy of cutbacks it’s a tall order to make Blackpool great again – on what amounts to a shoestring (little more than £100k) - and spread the word to others. And not just about tourism, what Natalie calls “the brand as personified by Visit Blackpool”, but the bigger picture. “We’ll market anyone who buys into our services,” she says, adding: “I’d love to assist with the airport’s advertising.”
Marketing Blackpool works in tandem with Visit Blackpool – as it does with Lights staff and other attractions but will become a self sufficient stand-alone company.
The company is currently run by a shadow board, but will ultimately have 12 directors, nine from the private sector, along with two councillors (council leader Simon Blackburn and tourism chief Graham Cain) and tourism chief officer Alan Cavill.
The company has been handed £2m but Natalie will have to source other cash, grant aid, support from the likes of Visit England, or new enterprise partnerships. One of the biggest changes she proposes is to charge the 20,000 who attend the Lights switch on at the Festival Headland – and use the ticket-wristband proceeds (£10-£20 a time) to lure bigger name celebrities, via Real Radio.
“It’s a risk but it’s a turning point. It’s always been seen as an honour, that’s how it was sold to celebrities and it worked up to the ‘80s-90s, but today we live in a commercial world. We need to market sooner, know the celebrity sooner, work round their tour dates.
“We have a budget of £102k to deliver switch-on, it costs £140k before we start, that’s already a deficit. How do we make it up and then make my marketing budget up? Where else do you go to see a mini pop concert for free? You can’t. It’s not a civic event like it used to be, even the councillors’ partners pay now to attend.
“Something has to give so we have to start selling one of our products to free cash, and when you’ve got near-on £700k going into events and only £140k going into marketing, this is the best way unless businesses are prepared to dig into their pockets and give, say, £100 each, money to invest in new features.
“The business collection has gone down massively. If the council said we won’t switch on the Lights for nine weeks there would be uproar. So we have to think outside the box. And it’s on my head if it all goes wrong.
“But I’ll stress this – there’s a misunderstanding about what Marketing Blackpool is here to do. It is here for the bigger picture, not just to big up Blackpool.
“It is not just the council, or Visit Blackpool, with a private sector mask. We need to look much wider than tourism – including for our own board. Why can’t we get someone in from the banks with a financial perspective, or from Virgin Rail with a national network, or Visit England?
“Those are the relationships we need to develop to build Blackpool into the top destination seaside resort. As with the acquisition of The Tower and the Winter Gardens, this is a brave move by Blackpool Council. I am determined to make sure it pays off.”
It helps to have a smart new tourist information centre now open slapbang on the seafront, within Festival House, sharing quarters with the wedding venue and soon to be let restaurant.
For John Sharp, TIC manager, it’s his fourth centre in 37 years. . . and the best. “The last time we had an office on the seafront it flooded regularly,” he recalls. “The sea would seep in from underneath. I’d open the door, water would slosh out. No baling out here.”
John’s upbeat on the seismic change in the town’s approach to both the marketing and frontline promotion of Blackpool.
“What we’re doing will put Blackpool right at the top. The town’s been in decline for 10-20 years because of lack of investment. We had reached an all time low and stagnated. But just look at it now – there’s been massive investment.
“There hasn’t been investment on this scale since Victorian times. It’s stunning architecturally and atheistically and equipped for the 21st century.”
John’s on the tourism frontline. He’s an inexhaustible source of bizarre inquiries through the ages – from where’s The Tower (it’s right behind you!) to what’s happened to the sea (the tide was out).
He cherishes the best in a little black book, his own favourite being the old lady who was given directions to her hotel and then said: “I’ll never remember that, you’ll have to tell my husband.”
“Put your husband on the phone,” said John. “I can’t. He’s not here.”
Facing the Comedy Carpet, tipped for umpteen awards, couldn’t be better either, he adds. There’s merchandise to match. Fan-dabi-dozi jelly beans and other catch phrases captured on cans of mints. Plus the I Love Blackpool hoodies which could be seen behind Ant and Dec when they strutted their stuff in Blackpool this week ahead of filming.
Blackpool, as ever, is determined to be the first resort – and have the last laugh.