Former shopfitter Mick Grewcock didn’t make the best first impression on Sheila Chick when he did some joinery at her workplace.
He was, as she puts it, “gobby”. Today the couple, known as Mr and Mrs Bispham as owners of some of the best, and best known, holiday apartments in town, are inseparable.
Mick, 69, concedes: “I owe it all to Sheila really. We’ve never married because we’ve never had the time. I’m the front man, Sheila’s the organiser. When you look at what she’s gone through she’s an amazing woman.”
He’s alluding to Sheila’s three battles with cancer, the only reason, at 66, she’s beginning to think of semi retiring.
“It would be nice to get more than one holiday in two years,” she admits. “And I worry what would happen to Mick if ...”
Sheila’s lived with a lifetime of “if’s” having seen off womb and bladder cancer. At the last check she was clear of bowel cancer too. “That was by far the worst,” she adds.
“I’ve had it rough but others have had it tougher. I think keeping busy helps. It gives me other things to think about. Mick’s the talker. I’m the thinker. It’s a partnership that works.”
Sheila still struggles to get a word in – even when those words include “I do” to Mick’s long standing marriage proposal – but Leap Year may perhaps shock her partner into silence.
“We’d have loved to have been the first to marry at the new Festival House registry office but got beaten to it,” Sheila admits.
The couple are head over heels in love with – Blackpool. “It’s the most fantastic place and just look at all the investment,” says Mick.
They have transformed a run down corner of the village into an all-year success story since sinking savings, and borrowings, repaid on the dot, into the project.
Right now the magnificent art deco Queens Mansions block, acquired eight years ago, is full of paying guests a rarity for some hotels and holiday flats even at the height of the season. Some guests effectively live over winter there, before their caravan parks reopen after winter. Others come for various events in Blackpool – the dance championship season means particularly big business.
In addition to the luxurious apartments at the Queens Mansions there are six permanent retirement flats overlooking the seafront – one half of their Burbage Holiday Lodge apartments complex on the Promenade proper.
“That was our first investment here, back in 1992, before buying Burbage Lodge in 1999. It was all chip paper and strip lights then.”
Together, both rebranded Burbage Lodge, it’s a tale of two markets – retired residents in the half the couple occupy, the other half catering for holidaymakers.
They now oversee 19 apartments. To call it self catering is a bit of an understatement. “We set out to lead the market,” Sheila admits.
“We wanted to shift Blackpool’s image from grotty self catering to more upmarket.”
There are balconies, barbecues, decking, patios, bags of extra touches, such as special entrances for couples bringing pets on holiday, or utterly wheelchair accessible accommodation. For a pair with no previous experience of the hospitality or catering trade before selling up to move to Blackpool – after Mick was widowed, and Sheila divorced – they have become part of the local landscape.
“We could have gone down the hotel route, but why bother? Basically renting one apartment a week pays our bills, We don’t draw much of a wage, the cleaners earn more than we do. We don’t have as many overheads as an hotel, fewer staff, no waiters, no cluster manager struggling to cover a group, we even do the laundry here. Maintenance is a problem but I can do many jobs myself.”
They play a key role in Lights funding each year – contributing £1,500 a year. This year Mick got together with two other Bispham businesses to cough up £4,500 in total and pledge £9k over two years. “Considering the Lights fund raised £16k from other businesses in total Bispham’s doing its bit,” says Mick.
“With all the jobs going in the public sector it’s up to the private sector to dig, and dig deep. We know what the Lights are worth to us. If they switch them off you might as well ask the last person out of Blackpool to switch off all the other lights with it. I don’t know why we don’t add £1 Lights surcharge, voluntarily paid, to each booking.”
The couple have notched up awards and other plaudits and boosted their Visit Britain star ratings from four to five star – and the sky’s the limit.
Eighty per cent of their business is on a weekly basis, much of it repeat, the phone rings off the hook, they also provide an attraction booking service for guests, along with free buckets and spades for the sands.
Online feedback is good – and they stick with the town’s holiday brochure too. “We reinvest £50k in the business each year, and we repay it the following year,” adds Mick.
“Now all we need to do is invest a bit of time in ourselves...”