Slow burn... but top resort venue has a real glow now

Michael Williams.
Michael Williams.
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If you see Michael Williams smiling, there’s a reason why.

The Winter Gardens chief has overseen one of the venue’s best ever years (its economic contribution to the town was calculated to be in excess of £70m in 2013) and, assuming nothing disastrous happens, can look forward to another bumper 12 months.

All sorts of big names have played there this year – Bob Dylan for three spine-tingling sell-out shows; Gary Barlow, complete with a guest appearance from Peter Kay; Arcade Fire, one of the world’s biggest bands, who sold out the Empress Ballroom in a record 90 seconds.

Then there have been the string of musicals direct from the West End, including Blood Brothers, Joseph, Cabaret and Scrooge.

And with international hit Mamma Mia and the world-famous dance Riverdance already booked in for this year, it is fair to say Williams has every reason to be a very satisfied man.

But things haven’t always been this good.

In fact only four years ago, before Blackpool Council decided to shell out £40m to buy the place, there was a danger the famous old venue – opened in 1878 and one of the jewels in the town’s crown – might not have lasted much longer.

“We mustn’t under-estimate the position it was in,” said Williams.

“It was previously in private ownership and there was no funding available. The building is a four and a half acre site, it is 135 years old, and it takes a lot of upkeep.

“But with the intervention of the council purchasing the property, that generated enough funds to be able to do the first stage of refurbishments, and that helped turn things around.

“I don’t think the town would have let this place go out of business because it is so important to the resort but I think we were at the point where we risked losing events which have historically come to Blackpool because the facilities weren’t as good as they should have been.

“It’s been a slow process to make it a success story, but the refurbishments were key because when we are inviting clients into the venue now it is a much easier sell to encourage them to bring their events to Blackpool.”

Considering the resort has struggled for several years to attract the real big names to the town, the last 12 months – and the calibre of artists and shows that have visited – makes Williams proud.

“I do sit here and think ‘wow what a year 2103 was’. We are delighted with what we achieved,” he said.

“The highlight was probably Bob Dylan and then when someone like him comes it’s a snowball effect. Other big acts want to come too, like Arcade Fire and what a night that was.

“But we are not going to rest on our laurels. We are going to improve on last year.”

Williams, managing director at the Winter Gardens, reckons he attends around 100 events a year at the venue.

He works for Crown Leisure (the company chosen by the Council to run the Winter Gardens) and is also responsible for piers and nightclubs at various other seaside resorts, including Eastbourne and Llandudno.

“But a lot of my time is spent in Blackpool because our offices are here and my personal affinity with the Winter Gardens goes back many years,” he added. “I remember seeing Deacon Blue and Beautiful South in the late 80s and I just love the venue. I think it is a fantastic place, and the variety of events we host – there is always something different, every day is diifferent.”

As well as being busy at work, he also has his hands full on the home front.

He is a father to twins – both aspiring dancers – and lives with his wife and children in the town, a place he is proud of.

“I think the investment the council have made on the promenade, with the Spanish steps, and the infrastructure within the town centre is fantastic,” Williams said.

“In terms of how Blackpool continues to improve, I think it is about working together with the night-time economy

“We are doing our part in trying to encourage more shows into the town centre – we already have over 100 nights of entertainment in the venue booked for this year.

“I’d like to see more restaurants and cafes staying open into the early evening, to encourage visitors or workers to stay in the town centre and come to a show.”

Williams added: “As for ourselves at the Winter Gardens, we will keep encouraging more promoters and more shows and more event organisers to use our facilities and to bring their events to Blackpool.

“This year we have 10 weeks of Mamma Mia, River Dance follows that, and we are looking for other shows, not only for 2014 but for 2015 and beyond. The future looks rosy and that’s not just good for us but the whole of the town.”

It’s easy to see why he’s pleased – and long may the success continue.