One of Blackpool’s major attraction bosses today backed a paid for Switch-On concert – despite calls by a leading politician to return it to a free event.
Iain Hawkins, head of Merlin’s Blackpool attractions, which include The Tower and Madame Tussauds, said the town should be “really proud” of last weekend’s Switch-On events.
His comments came as Blackpool’s Tory leader Tony Williams joined those demanding the annual Illuminations Switch-On be returned to a free event.
Coun Williams also called for Gary Barlow – who stepped in to headline Friday’s event after Irish band The Script pulled out at the 11th hour – to be made a Freeman of Blackpool.
This year’s Illuminations unveiling, which boasted performances from Take That star Barlow – who played in return for a donation to Children in Need – Eliza Doolittle and chat show host Jonathan Ross flicking the switch, came with a ticket price of £34.
The charge was the first time people in the resort had been asked to pay to see the star-studded show and Coun Graham Cain, Blackpool Council’s portfolio holder for tourism and culture, claimed 20,000 were at the Tower Festival Headland for the two-day extravaganza, which included a show by Madness on Saturday.
Many observers questioned Coun Cain’s estimate saying the real figure was nearer the 10,000 mark.
Coun Williams said: “The simple fact is The Lights Switch-On should be a free family event.
“After reading the critical comments in regard to the Switch-On event, and seeing the photos of the very poor attendance, questions have to be asked in regard to the actual cost and success of the night.
“I appreciate there were last minute problems with The Script and if it wasn’t for Gary Barlow the whole thing could have been a disaster.
“Gary should automatically be awarded the freedom of the town.
“We do however have to question whether the council should be promoting concerts and events, and if they have the skills and experience to do so, or if professional promotion partners would be better doing the job.
“The fact this was nothing more than a paid for pop concert at a relatively high ticket price reflected the low attendance.”
But Mr Hawkins, Merlin Entertainment’s head of Blackpool cluster, backed the ticket prices.
Industry experts say organisers may struggle to attract top artists if they lowered the price as many promoters of A-list artists would not want to be associated with a cheap-ticketed event.
Tickets for Gary Barlow’s Opera House gig in January were £65 by comparison.
Mr Hawkins said: “If you go from an event that has historically been free to one where you charge, not everyone is going to be happy.
“The question we need to ask is was the product one that justified the price and I have to say it was the best Switch-On I’ve seen. We should be really proud to have this event.
“Charging for the event makes sense because the money goes back into the resort.
“Where else in the UK has Gary Barlow stood on a promenade and done a 45 minute set? The answer is nowhere.”
Organisers Marketing Blackpool say it is unable to give an accurate attendance figure until refunds given to Script fans are confirmed.
Warwick Tunnicliffe, of the St John’s Traders Association, said: “I thought (the event) was absolutely fine except the cost to get in.
“That was the main reason the arena was half empty and thousands of people outside would have liked to come in.
“Had the pay gate been £5 or £10 maximum it would’ve been full and so many other people would’ve enjoyed it.”
Gary Barlow only confirmed he would be playing the gig 24 hours before he was due to be on stage after The Script pulled out citing a family illness.
Taxi drivers have also expressed disappointment with the Promenade’s closure due to the Switch-On concert arena being set up.
Blackpool driver Steve Kay said: “There was chaos while the Switch-On was on during Friday and Saturday.
“It’s all very well having these things because they are good for the town, but it wasn’t good for taxi drivers. People who visit the town want to see the Lights but they couldn’t because it was in gridlock for two days.”
But Shirley Hunt, from Friends of the Illuminations, added: “It can no longer be a free event. I think it’s hard because for years it has always been free.
“I really enjoyed it and it was a shame The Script pulled out but it has still got to be the best event in Blackpool because most people come to the resort for this.”
Hoteliers cool on prices
Hoteliers claim their business suffered as a result of the Prom being shut over the weekend.
The Prom was closed between Chapel Street and Talbot Square for the duration of the Switch-On shows on Friday and Saturday, stopping traffic from travelling north or south.
While the hoteliers were supportive of the event, they were left frustrated about the lack of people filling rooms their empty rooms.
Neha Shah, manager of the Best Western Carlton Hotel, North Shore, said: “Business was generally good but there was no walk-ins because the Prom was closed.
“If the Prom was open there would’ve been a bit more business for us.
“We usually have 10 to 12 people walking in on Saturday but there was nowhere for them to come because the Promenade was blocked”
“The guests that we had staying here and went to the Switch-On really enjoyed it and we need something like that to keep attracting more people to Blackpool.”
Mo Cameron, manager of The Sands Hotel, South Promenade Blackpool, said: “It was pretty poor people were charged.
“It hasn’t done anything for Blackpool or our business.
“We’ve been here for six years and this year wasn’t as busy as years gone by.
“They should take it back to a free event.”
Peter Dobson, manager of The Camelot Promenade Hotel, South Shore, added: “There needs to be more done to keep people in the town when the Switch-On is over.
“The only guests I had over the weekend refused to pay (for the event) and chose to stand further down the Prom and listen to the acts then watch the lights.
“Guests will only come for the Switch-On and don’t care about the acts.”
A spokesman for Marketing Blackpool said: “All businesses on the Promenade were warned in advance in writing there would be road closures in place because of the event. This also happened last year and is because of health and safety.”