'˜I didn't realise I'd still be here 20 years later'
'Coming to Blackpool, I didn't realise I would still be here 20 years later,' says Michael Williams, looking back on his time at the Winter Gardens.
The managing director of the complex admits he hadn’t necessarily planned to stay - ‘you used to move on every three of four years to go to a better job’ - but he’s proudly led the team there ever since, through some of the biggest changes in its history.
In the same year that the Winter Gardens marks its 140th anniversary, Michael is celebrating 20 years working there, initially employed by First Leisure, then by Leisure Parcs and most recently as the managing director of Blackpool Entertainment Company Ltd (BECL), under the ownership of Blackpool Council.
The father-of-two - his twin girls Tara and Mia, with wife Milena, will be 15 in September - was running the venue back in 2010, when Blackpool Council took the decision to buy the Tower, the Golden Mile Centre and the Winter Gardens from the private ownership of Leisure Parks.
“In private ownership, they [the venues] were unable to secure the funding needed to keep them in use,” he said.
“It was a very bold decision for Blackpool Council to buy them, but it allowed funding to be forthcoming for the refurbishment of the Tower and the Winter Gardens.
“And the Winter Gardens as it stands now is a very different set of rooms to what we had before.”
Prior to the sale, Leisure Parcs had warned that £20million needed to be spent on the landmark and that it had ‘little purpose in the modern world’.
During the past eight years, the Floral Hall has been renovated, the Theatre Bar has been reopened on St John’s Square, Olympia spent three years as the Illuminasia attraction, and there’s ongoing repairs and refurbishments in the Spanish Hall and on the Coronation Street facade of the building, among other projects.
Much of the funding for these repairs was simply not available to the Winter Gardens under private ownership.
Instead, BECL can now apply for grants from various sources to restore the jewel in Blackpool’s crown to its former glory and the complex looks better than it has in decades.
“I’m delighted we can continue the refurbishment of the public spaces,” Michael said.
“The entrance and the Floral Hall was the first place we did, and I still really enjoy taking people round the building, either for the very first time or for the first time in many years, and they look up in there and say ‘Wow’.
“Somewhere like the Mazzei Cafe too. It was a garish games arcade and we’ve turned it into a cafe, but it was a good revenue generator as an arcade so it was bold to make it a coffee shop – but to recover that architecture which had been hidden for about 40 years is a wonderful thing to do.
“A whole generation had never seen that space in all its glory.
“I get real enjoyment in doing things like that and we couldn’t do it without Blackpool Council.
“It was very bold but very much the right decision to buy the assets.”
The last major addition to the Victorian leisure palace came in the 1930s, and now work is well underway on the £25million conference centre development.
“The conference centre is the next step in the journey,” Michael said. “It’s 80 years since the last major development of the complex, with the addition then of the Spanish Hall suite and Olympia at that point.
“It’s fantastic to be involved with the conference centre, adding to an existing landmark building and creating a brand new facility for the resort; a state-of-the-art facility alongside the heritage site to bring new events and conferences into town, and the connectivity will give so much flexibility.
“For example, with our own Blackpool Dance Festival each May, we are already planning how that will be able to expand with the additional spaces.
“We’re talking to various clients about how they can expand their events and enhance what they offer in terms of attendances - which in turn creates economic benefit for the resort; more delegates, staying longer in hotels, using parking, eating and drinking in cafes, bars and restaurants.”
Blackpool is a town which makes bold decisions, today’s council buying the key landmarks - and more than 100 years ago taking the step to install ‘electric sunshine’ along the Promenade to encourage people to stay outside the traditional summer season.
The Winter Gardens as it stands today helps to further extend the resort’s tourist season into a year-round destination with events such as the pigeon fanciers’ weekend in January and the magic convention in February - providing welcome boosts to the local economy.
The Winter Gardens employs 140 people - on a minimum of the enhanced living wage, and Michael praises the ‘dedicated and loyal team’ with the variety of work helping keep them on board.
He said: “They enjoy the work as every day can be different for them, whether it’s college graduation, formal dinners, theatre shows, festivals...
“We go from rock and pigeons, from ballroom dancing to street dance, all with very different audiences and very different needs, but that adds to making it the unique place it is.”
The Winter Gardens first opened in July 1878, with the original building including the Vestibule, Floral Hall, Ambulatory - now Horseshoe, and the Pavilion Theatre.
In 1889 the Opera House opened, although it was rebuilt in 1910 and again in 1939, and and the Empress Ballroom and Indian Lounge, now Arena, were built in 1896.
The newest parts of the complex are Olympia, built in 1930, and the Galleon Bar, Spanish Hall and Baronial Hall added a year later.
And as is to be expected in a 140-year-old venue, there’s a constant programme of repairs, as well as more major refurbishment projects.
In September, the grand Empress Ballroom was forced to close its doors and cancel several high profile gigs, when one of the 91 plaster ceiling panels came away, reopening just in time for the Blackpool Dance Festival in May.
At present, the Spanish Hall is closed for a scheduled project to replace the ceiling, and the Pavilion Theatre - which has been listed as ‘at risk’ by the Theatres Trust, is going to become the northern base for theatrical production company Selladoor.
The Opera House is an increasingly popular destination for theatre-goers in the North West, with more and more touring productions adding the mammoth theatre on to their itineraries.
Michael was central to bringing the 2014 summer season run of hit West End show Mamma Mia to the resort, and the 12-week run is to credit with the growing popularity of the auditorium.
“The Opera House was in the wilderness, pre-2014, and pre-Mamma Mia,” he said.
“That show put it back on the map and re-established the Winter Gardens and Blackpool as a place to stage big musicals.
“Producers now have confidence to bring their production to us, and we’re not only booking and planning for 2019 but also well into 2020 now.
“We can confidently go to producers and promoters saying ‘We have fabulous facilities and a great team who can look after you’.
“Those people are now coming back time and time again, which is testimony to the team we have here.
“It’s great for us filling that space, for the Opera House to be used, but again it’s also good for hoteliers and other places in town, and we want that relationship with businesses across the resort.”
‘Pleasant lounge’ to thrive
The Winter Gardens was originally built with the intention ‘to place on the land a concert room, promenades, conservatories and other accessories calculated to convert the estate into a pleasant lounge, especially desirous during inclement days.’
And with the work going on under Michael’s leadership, the ‘pleasant lounge’ looks set to be restored and to thrive in future years.
“The benefit of the Opera House, the Empress Ballroom, the Winter Gardens as a whole, is the capacities these venues offer,” Michael said. “If we are busy, the town is busy and everyone benefits from these combinations.
“It’s such a unique venue.
“When we host events like the soul festival recently, they’ve used the Spanish Hall in previous years but it’s out of use for the refurbishment at the moment, we needed another two rooms for them, so opened the Olympia and the Derham Lounge - and those attendees hadn’t previously seen those spaces before.
“Over the years, as each facility and space has been expanded, it has been sympathetically and logically done, and hopefully the conference centre will take that to another level.”
Michael’s career highlights
Among the highlights of Michael’s 20-year career are the 2009 Royal Variety Performance, attended by Queen Elizabeth II, and leading the expansion of the Blackpool Dance Festival into China.
“The Royal Variety was one of the best events, for one night only, that I’ve ever worked on and it was a tremendous team effort,” Michael said.
“We had major investment and the refurbishment of the 21 dressing rooms back stage at the Opera House, redecorated the front of the building, and front of house of the Opera House, replacing art deco light fittings, all of which still looks great now.
“It was a big 12 months of work and organisation with the team, but as we stood in the audience and the music started to play in the Queen, it was a real ‘Wow’ moment.”
The Blackpool Dance Festival China launched in 2016 and takes place each August in Shanghai.
And Michael says Blackpool is reaping the benefits of the expansion.
“We’re now in the third year of the dance festival in China.
“In 2016, no-one knew how it would work.
“We had confidence in our product, the festival itself, but working with different contractors and in a different country, it was hard to tell.
“But the dance community came to it, and this year we have more than 6,100 entries.
“On the last night of the first festival, I gave a huge sigh of relief and was the happiest man in China.
“We take a real flavour of Blackpool to China for the festival, the Empress Orchestra play for it, our same adjudicators attend, and the Chinese dancers now come in even bigger numbers to support the festival back here in Blackpool.
“There’s been a 24 per cent increase in Chinese competitors at Blackpool, and there are more Chinese dancers than British.
“We’ve even had children’s teams come for the junior festival now too from China, as we have junior categories as part of the festival out there.”