IT’S two years since Iain Hawkins arrived in Blackpool as Merlin Entertainment’s Mr Big, and the milestones keep coming: Tower Eye, Blackpool Dungeon, Madame Tussauds, and more.
Sea Life is next up for a magic of Merlin makeover.
Iain heads a cluster of attractions second only to London in terms of size and diversity.
Merlin itself is second only to Disney internationally as a global entertainment giant.
Now on the brink of the definitive bank holiday test, Iain declares: “Bring it on. Blackpool’s ready.”
The Tower still looks like a pagoda, partially clad in scaffolding, because the steel is being stripped of paint, checked for corrosion, and given the sort of paint job likely to last 20 years.
By the end of 2014, says the boss, the last of the scaffolding will have gone.
You can’t rush a Grade One listed building, he admits.
“There are hoops to jump through. We are preserving an unbelievable building for the future.”
What lies beneath the facade can sometimes shock – or delight.
Iain adds: “We took off the great big white horrible pavilion at the front, and it was fairly clear it hadn’t had tender loving care for years.
“Terracotta tiles were broken, beautiful stained glass windows exposed, but they had been smashed.
“It will take a lot of time to replace them, money too. Each tile has to be remade.
“You can’t just put in a bulk order. They have to be measured, the same goes for the glass, all remade to specifics.
“But we’re reducing the scaffolding and replacing the vinyl out front with better materials in coming weeks. The work continues behind. We don’t do things by halves.
“We’re looking at the lifts, too, because in high winds they can’t be used.”
Iain admits Merlin “couldn’t wait” to transform the historic Tower into a Tower Eye attaction to stand alongside Sydney Eye and others in the “family”.
He heads an operation so diverse, and in such a concentrated area, he still can’t quite believe he started here himself, as a general jobbing worker, at the local Sea Life centre. It’s still close to his heart – hence that makeover.
“It’s been here since 1990, changed and tweaked in that time, but a major new look is long overdue.”
The proposed Ocean theme will see new creatures installed. “Some fish will go into tanks elsewhere, but our policy is to keep visitors in via clever routing.”
Sea Life’s a hit with locals, thanks to schools and other links. Iain explains: “Blackpool’s next big investment year is 2013. Lots of investment went into the Dungeon, Tussauds and rebranding Blackpool Tower Eye. Now it’s Sea Life’s turn. A new manager is doing an amazing job of turning round a 22-year-old attraction.”
He’s uniquely placed to appreciate the challenges of a seaside economy from the shopfloor up – to the very top of Blackpool Tower, where the Eye offers uninterrupted views from the breathtaking Skywalk. Down below, the Tower Dungeon commemorates the 400th anniversary of the Pendle witches, along with other spooky features.
Traditional favourites the Tower Ballroom and Tower Circus hold sway midway – a pass permitting free access to key public areas, including the ballroom balcony. Jungle Jims is part of the Tower portfolio.
Beyond the iconic structure, Tussauds has transformed into grand dame Madame Tussauds, with a constant parade of new celebrities checking out extraordinarily lifelike tributes in wax. Pirate Adventure Golf is under Merlin’s wing, too.
Iain says it’s the first year all of Merlin’s local attractions have operated at the same time.
“There is nowhere quite like Blackpool. Our teams love the place. You learn so much here. History and experience teaches you.
“The Tower team goes to Sea Life to learn about management and vice versa. We share best practice.
“Last year was about work behind the scenes, this year is operational, getting visitors through the door. It’s great to see the Tower, the iconic hub of Blackpool, used as a catalyst for the Visit England’s advertising campaign.
“Blackpool Council report numbers were substantially up towards the end of the year, as Merlin attractions came on line. Key performance indicators are up from 88 per cent to 91 per cent – and rising.
“In Merlin, we already live or die by our touch screen survey results and mystery shopper scores.
“There’s a nice bit of competition locally – but our Tussauds scores higher than Las Vegas’ Tussauds. I’ve just been to Vegas on honeymoon, and have to say I agree. Our Dungeon scores higher than those in Amsterdam or Hamburg. We got a 99 per cent satisfaction score from mystery shoppers – and that was for a visit at Easter.
“Two years ago, my biggest battle was to convince locals this wasn’t some false dawn. We get on well with the council and the marketing company set up by the council is a triumph of public and private partnership.
“Blackpool has wiped its bloody nose from the supercasino bid. It was good news it fell flat on its face. It would have driven more stag and hens to Blackpool. Blackpool was half-and-half a year ago, too reliant on stag and hens. With us coming in, investment at the Pleasure Beach, Zoo and Sandcastle WaterPark, the balance is swinging firmly in favour of families.
“I truly believe families are absolutely necessary for our longevity and future. We’ve got more tricks up our sleeves, new features to come. It’s all about improving the quality of the existing businesses. But it’s not all down to us. It’s critical to move forward in investment in accommodation, retail, the central business district.
“Blackpool’s been reborn. It feels new and fresh. Locals are starting to get the message that here is something to be proud of.”