First look at Blackpool's new £28m Winter Gardens conference centre
The countdown is on towards the completion of Blackpool’s £28m new conference and exhibition centre which is due to be handed over to the council in November.
Workers are now on the final stretch of the contract to deliver state-of-the art facilities designed to put the Grade II* listed Winter Gardens back on the conferencing map.
Contractors McLaughlin & Harvey have around 106 people working on site as the deadline for completion approaches.
While it is still a construction site, the scale and detail of what will be delivered to delegates across two main floors plus mezzanine areas is clear.
Visitors arriving through a dedicated entrance on Leopold Grove will be swept upstairs on escalators to vast spaces which can be divided into different sized meeting or exhibition areas.
But an exposed brick wall reminds visitors they are just a step away from the rest of the Victorian Winter Gardens complex.
And it is this aspect of the building – combining Blackpool’s heritage with its desire for progress – that will offer delegates a unique experience and hopefully put the conferencing offer ahead of rivals around the country.
Architects have designed the centre to seamlessly connect with its older neighbour, with access on a single level right through from Leopold Grove to the Empress Ballroom and the Floral Hall, as well as connections to the Opera House.
There will be ground floor capacity for around 430 delegates and first floor capacity for 1,200, bringing the total for the whole Winter Gardens complex to 7,000.
The main meeting space on the first floor can be split into four rooms using fully acoustic sliding walls boasting sound block boards to prevent noise slippage between partitions.
But pull back the walls, bring out the tables and chairs stored in rooms behind, and the same space can be transformed for a gala dinner with on-site kitchens.
A smaller convention area on the ground floor can be similairly divided, while break-out rooms offer a glazed outlook for when delegates need to switch-off.
But just as vital as space, is technology and engineers are busy fitting out reams of cable into the specialist IT room where there will also be a control centre for broadcasters.
Broadband fibre connections will be the best available along with state-of-the-art audio visual equipment.
Behind the scenes, a heavy duty air conditioning system has been installed, while toilets, cloakrooms, kitchens and staff quarters are also taking shape.
An undercover loading bay has been built with capacity for two articulated trucks to enable exhibits and scenery to be unloaded straight into the conference centre or onto the back of the Opera House stage.
Meanwhile a vehicle lift can carry a four tonne fully loaded transit van to the upper floors to unload.
Michael Williams, managing director of the Winter Gardens, says the investment is already attracting conference organisers back to Blackpool.
He said: “We’re on track for November and the finishing trades are now in fitting out things like the cabling.
“It’s an exciting part of the development seeing all the equipment starting to arrive right down to the big ovens and chillers for the kitchen. We’ve also just ordered the 1,700 chairs which will be needed.
“Connectivity with the rest of the Winter Gardens has been key throughout the design and building process.
“That’s why we have left in a feature brick wall to the Empress Ballroom balcony, which has been restored and repointed.
“The idea is people can relate to where they are, to the Empress Ballroom and to that 120-year tradition which is just behind the wall.
“That will be part of the unique selling point for our conference centre.
“We are going to have a 21st century conference centre with all the modern facilities and technology available, but people can walk through to the Empress Ballroom or the other rooms in the Winter Gardens and see the link to that heritage as well.”
Building work began in 2018 and has been disrupted by the Covid pandemic, although lockdown meant gatherings were off limits anyway.
A fresh appetite for conferences, as people have missed meeting, up is expected but lessons have also been learned from the restrictions put in place.
Mr Williams said: “We will be set up to hold hybrid conferences so some delegates could attend remotely from anywhere in the world.
“One thing Covid has taught us is that we have to be able to do things differently.
“If some international guests cannot travel, they can still attend the conference due to the technology we have put in.”
Proposals are also already in place for more investment which could further enhance the setting of the conference centre.
Planning permission was granted in June for a five storey, 160 bedroom hotel on Leopold Grove including an enclosed bridge linking the second floor of the hotel with the new development.
Meanwhile Blackpool Council’s £20m bid to the Government’s Levelling Up Fund includes new convention space with retail within the Olympia area of the Winter Gardens.
The Conservative Party will host its Spring Forum in the conference centre in 2022, which will be one of the first big events and will be the first time the Conservative Party has hosted a major conference in Blackpool since 2007.
Funding has included £15m from the government’s Growth Deal, £7m from Blackpool Council, and £2.9m from the Coastal Communities Fund (also government funding).