How John Childs has risen from lifeguard to managing director of the internationally acclaimed waterpark
John Childs is a bricks and water man.
For me it’s the golden age of the waterpark
After almost 30 years at Blackpool’s Sandcastle Waterpark – where he started as a lifeguard/supervisor and is now managing director – it’s perhaps only natural his conversation is littered with references to “diving in the deep end,” “sink or swim,” “revenue streams” and the like.
But having seen the South Promenade attraction rise through the ranks from being “a glorified swimming pool, a leisure pool with slides,” (his words) to being an award winning internationally acclaimed “fully fledged waterpark with people coming from all around the world to see it” (his words again) he’s rightfully proud of his achievements.
“It’s amazing really,” the 52-year old enthuses. “I didn’t think I’d stay so long to be honest but I saw what I thought was an opportunity here and worked at it.”
The former Thames Road and Collegiate student was first drawn to the leisure industry as a teenager working in the likes of the Pleasure Beach Fun House.
Armed with a degree in geology from Portsmouth (and later a Masters in business) he headed back to Blackpool where he’d lived since being four.
“I’d got the Blackpool bug,” he says. “I enjoyed geology, I enjoyed the travelling that came with it but you don’t get to meet people with geology and I missed the interaction.”
So he got a job teaching swimming and doubled it working his way up at the Warwick Hotel from kitchen porter to assistant general manager.
Then he saw The Sandcastle being built.
“My passion was working at an attraction and I was big into swimming so I thought the combination would be great. I decided then that I wanted to live and work in Blackpool.”
From lifeguard/supervisor (“I actually helped train the lifeguards because they were struggling with the course and with my qualifications I was able to jump in”) he rose to being waterpark manager in 1988, operations manager two years later, general manager by 1997 and a director of the company not long after.
“One of the things they wanted from me was to look at the strategic direction of the business because it was failing,” he says. “By 2002/3 we’d have been losing a million. It was very lacking at what was in there, I’d a lot of knowledge about waterparks by then so I have spent the last 10 years redeveloping the business.”
Changes included getting rid of the “dry side” of the operation. Out went a Coronation Street attraction, summer cabaret, winter conferences and a short lived night club. In came the Grosvenor Casino.
“I put a lot of hours in to turn the business round from what it was into making it profitable at a time when other waterparks were going out of business,” says John.
Ironically part of the success story came by putting some prices up. The bigger the attraction, the higher the price.
“We didn’t want to do that for everybody because for example if you brought grandchildren in they’re probably not going to go on the bigger rides but if that’s what you want then you pay extra,” he says. “It’s a way of keeping costs down for people who don’t utilise the whole of the facility, it’s all there in black and white, there’s no hidden extras.”
The result is that at peak times the waterpark has become a victim of its own success.
“We used to squeeze people in. Now we allow half the number in that we used to but the waterpark is the best it’s ever been. The bottom line is we are not charging a threepenny bit to get in – but the product is so much better.
“The problem is that we are too successful during the busier times meaning we can have people queueing two or three hours just to get in.
“If we were in a field with lots of land we’d probably be three times bigger than what we are. We could add so much more.”
As a director of the World Waterpark Association he tries every ride out and gets to see what’s happening globally.
“I get to water parks all around the world, if we are planning a new attraction I see what is already being done elsewhere. The slides we’ve added recently were a result of visiting other waterparks.
“One of the big passions we have is looking at what the waterpark industry can do for disabled guests. In Blackpool we are at the vanguard of disability tourism anyway.”
Under his watch The Sandcastle is also racking up accolades from Visit England, Investors In People and elsewhere.
“How we train our staff is so important. I’m a big believer in trying to give staff transferable skills so that when they leave here they do so with more qualifications and skills than they arrived with.
“Obviously our aim is to give our guests a really good time but it’s important everyone feels respected in their job.
“I just want Blackpool to do well. You’ve got to start somewhere. Be confident, increase self-esteem, confidence, do a good job, treat our guests like royalty but above all enjoy your job because if you do you’ll have a smile on your face and it makes a difference.
“We want to give people a fantastic time and the fact that we give a damn to make for a fun and memorable visit is important. It might be your major memory as a child. Something to remember for all your life. It’s a crying shame if by 18 you haven’t got that memory.”
John’s passion is infectious and makes for a staff which unanimously opted to donate two per cent of its wages to the attraction’s Splash Foundation which in a little over 18 months has coughed up over £100,000 to local charities.
“I’ve always done a lot of work with the community and I’ve done voluntary work since the age of 14 with disabled adults,” he says. “It’s important to put something back into the community especially at a time when so many charities have seen their budgets slashed.
“Everyone is chasing the same pot of money. There are so many good causes out there. I just thought that we really needed to do more. Thankfully everyone agreed.”
The money comes in from the wage bill, £1 from each online booking fee, fund raising activities and an awareness created via social media.
“There’s a lot of help needed in Blackpool and I just think that what the staff here does can make a difference. And it’s something they can take with them when they leave us.
“Some people say the council should do more but at the end of the day people can usually do more themselves.”
So with all the goodwill why does Blackpool still seem to hit the wrong headlines?
“We top all the lists we shouldn’t top and we’re bottom of the ones we should be top of,” he admits. “There’s a lot of deprivation and having a transient population makes it difficult - it skews the statistics. There’s a lot of spare accommodation as well so the housing part is not as big an issue as other places. I think also that if you are claiming various benefits, would you rather claim them by the seaside or in a city? Some people still think that Blackpool is paved with gold.
“Blackpool has some fantastic things – we are just such an easy target. But look at the beach, the sea, the promenade – and the quality of its attractions. The town has made some massive leaps forward. The fact that so many people still come is testimony to the fact that we are still doing a pretty good job.”
Especially Sandcastle Waterpark? “For me it’s the golden age of the waterpark,” says John. “We will be 30 years old next June. We have people bringing their children who came when they were children.”
Then there’s the growing disabled market (“They are so grateful for the service we give them – and they don’t have to be”) and a big increase in the number of Asian guests.
“It’s a market we are adapting to – selling and hiring acceptable swimwear and employing someone who they can understand and be understood by.”
With high tech wristbands making cash transactions a thing of the past and private hire “cabanas” complete with fridge, food and a Jacuzzi what does the future hold?
“I’d love a four or six person raft ride that the whole family can enjoy experience together, and combining rides for more excitement, a surfing machine, a bigger wave pool… we like to be the best and that’s what we intend staying as.”
Despite the long hours (“not much time for television”) he’s turned down several lucrative head hunting offers.
“I thoroughly enjoy my job here. There’s never been a day when I’ve thought I don’t want to go to work. I love coming in. It’s been a real challenge and it’s been quite stressful trying to turn things around.
“But it’s good to think I have been able to make a difference. And to have put something back into the resort in the process is a bonus.”
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