Inheriting the UK’s most historic amusement park has been a thrill-ride all of its own for Amanda Thompson, Managing Director of Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Awarded an OBE in the 2012 New Year’s Honours List, Thompson rose to prominence as the director of Stageworks Worldwide Productions producing high profile shows across the world. She became MD of the Pleasure Beach in 2004.
Founded by her great-grandfather in 1896, Blackpool Pleasure Beach was perfectly placed to capitalise on the boom in seaside holidays that began in the 1860s. Over the next two generations, the Thompson family improved and developed the Pleasure Beach as Blackpool’s popularity grew. In its post-war heyday, the Lancashire resort was attracting 18 million visitors a year.
As the traditional holiday has evolved, so the Pleasure Beach has evolved, too, winning the Trip Advisor Award for the UK’s Best Amusement Park in 2014. Blooloop talked to Thompson about the challenges she faces and her vision for the future.
“There is something in Blackpool for everyone”
Thompson took over the business after the death of her father, Geoffrey Thompson, OBE. A charismatic businessman, he brought world class rides into the park such as Steeplechase in 1977, and the Big One in 1994, the world’s tallest and fastest rollercoaster.
“We were in a very challenging position because, when my father died, our financial commitments prevented us developing in the way that we initially wanted to, ” explains Thompson. Blackpool Pleasure Beach is still very much a family affair. Her brother, Nicholas Thompson, is deputy managing director and her sister, Fiona Gilje (née Thompson), is also a director. All are justly proud of the park’s heritage.
“It’s not just the north of England either, its British history and heritage, ” enthuses Thompson. “It was a ground breaking experience to visit Blackpool and I think that it still is and we’ve got to remember that – we’ve got to remember what’s really great about the town. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what you do in life. There is something in Blackpool for everyone.”
A guiding principal for Thompson when considering how to develop the Pleasure Beach is the following advice from her grandmother: ‘You must always, always deal to the highest common denominator. You have to educate the public.”
“She was a wise person, ” says Thompson, “and I miss her a lot.”
“I’m a firm believer in aesthetics”
One of the first things Thompson did was to remove the park’s log flume and replace it with a suspended looping coaster. She admits that it was a big decision to take – the log flume was the first of its kind in the UK and one of the longest in the world but, according to Thompson, “it needed so much money spending on it.” On the plus side, she stresses that, “it has given a really modern feel to that area of the park. We put in a suspended looping coaster that sits between the Big One and the Big Dipper so you get every type of rollercoaster in one spot.”
Thompson hasn’t been afraid to make other subtler changes, too. She believes that the look and feel of the Pleasure Beach is as important as the attractions themselves.
“We decided that we’d change all the concrete on the floor and that made a huge difference. I’m a firm believer in making sure the aesthetics are right – it’s not always easy to work with my family on that one because they like to have new attractions all the time. But, I think that it’s really important to make sure that what you build feels right, looks right, and everything around it looks and feels right, too.”
Given her theatre background, it’s interesting to understand how far Thompson feels she has been able to imprint her own personality and experience on the Pleasure Beach.
“All the people that have run the park before have been men. It’s quite challenging, sometimes, to be heard by a corridor of men but I think they now really believe that aesthetics are important. I’m a touchy-feely person making sure everything has good visual effect and I think that’s really important and part of having a good day out. Everybody talks about the Big Pizza Kitchen and how nice it looks and my brother said, why are you building such a nice Pizza Restaurant? And, I said, because I want it to last a long time and I want people to really feel that the Pleasure Beach has changed and is moving forward.”
Thompson says that her husband finds her obsession with detail, even down to noticing the floor covering in Tesco, “quite difficult”. But Thompson is, she says, “just one of those people that notices everything. He calls it being overly fussy [laughing] but I do know what I like and I am quite passionate about everything that I do.”
“If you don’t work together then visitors don’t get good value.”
Merlin Entertainment’s move into Blackpool with their Dungeon, SEA LIFE and Madame Tussauds midway attractions has enhanced the £250 million Seafront regeneration project for the UK’s most visited resort.
“It’s good to have a partner such as Merlin, ” says Thompson. “We realised the importance of working together because if you don’t work together then the people who visit Blackpool don’t get good value. What we have to do is provide a very good product that’s also very good value – I think that’s what Blackpool is about – providing excellent value for a really excellent product.”
Thompson also notes that the way people visit the resort has changed and this needs to be reflected in what the Pleasure Beach offers: “I think the internet has changed how people choose to spend their day. The majority of the people who come to Blackpool now, they don’t wake up in the morning and come to Blackpool which is what used to happen – they plan about 10 days in advance and that’s quite a long lead up for a day out, or a 2-day or 3-day stay. I think also the length of stay is different because generally, in off-peak times, it’s a day visit. In holiday times, people tend to come for 2 or 3 days. They don’t come for that week’s holiday or that 2 weeks’ holiday. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
“I’m going to stick by it because I believe it’s the right thing to do.”
Perhaps the most controversial move Thompson has made so far is to charge visitors to enter the park.
Visitors are now offered a flexible entry system allowing them to purchase a wristband for entry to the park and unlimited rides or a Pleasure Beach Pass for entry to the park with some added value.
One of the reasons for changing the entry system was security, says Thompson: “We did it because we wanted to send out a clear message to guests that the safety and cleanliness of the park, particularly for families, was of paramount importance.
But in addition, charging for entry also makes visitors value the Pleasure Beach more.
“I wanted people to come to the Pleasure Beach to enjoy the Pleasure Beach, not to use it as a cut- through ….I really received a lot of negative publicity but no other amusement park offers what we do. I offer a ticket for people who don’t want to ride so that is amazingly good value – it's £6 and you can, if you want, go on the rides because you can take that and upgrade it and it gives you a £5 discount on your wristband. So, it’s a good deal and you can see the shows, the water show and you can go on the Pleasure Beach Express and in the Chinese Puzzle Maze and Bradley And Bella’s Learning Garden. So, it isn’t something for nothing – it was very carefully thought out.”
She goes on to explain that, “we put in the fountain show and we made different quiet areas so people could walk in, sit down, relax and have a nice day out. It wasn’t meant to be the rush and racing to the biggest, fastest rollercoaster. I hope that, one day, people will understand why we did it. It’s just very different from any other park. I thought I was doing the right thing by giving people a choice. Clearly, it’s taken longer than I’d hoped. But, I’m going to stick by it because I believe that it is the right thing to do for the Pleasure Beach.”
“Wallace & Gromit are the perfect fit”
Recent additions to the park have included Nickelodeon Land , Wallace & Gromit’s Thrill-O-Matic and Red Arrows Skyforce. Why did Thompson choose to introduce branded attractions and, in particular, these three very different attractions?
Of Nickelodeon, she says: “It was an area of the park that we needed to redevelop and we could have redeveloped it ourselves but we chose to go with a brand and chose to go with Nickelodeon because we thought that it would be good for Blackpool and good for the Pleasure Beach. It’s a very different way of working and it’s not always the easiest way of working because you have to get approval to do everything and sign off on everything. So when you do your brochures and put something together that you really love, it then gets sent to New York for approval. It’s a process we have to bear in mind and it means that we have to start everything a good four months before we would have to start it normally. We have to work with it and understand it and learn how to make it work for us.”
Wallace & Gromit is a totally different situation, she says.
“Wallace and Gromit is a good Lancashire brand and it’s a perfect fit and it’s English. It’s a wonderful thing to have. If you work with a big corporation such as Viacom for Nickelodeon and then you work with Aardman for Wallace and Gromit it was just very different – neither one was better than the other – it was just a different feel and then a different way forward.”
She describes the Red Arrows as another perfect fit.
“The Red Arrows train near us and they fly over the Lake District a lot and they’re always dropping into Blackpool. It was my brother who suggested that and he put that together. I don’t think many parks get to work with the Ministry of Defence so that’s quite unique.”
The Pleasure Beach does have a planned capex cycle but Thompson explains that “it also depends on how your season is because with the banks being how they are at the moment we have to be very careful with our expenditure. Running a park such as Pleasure Beach costs a lot because everything isn’t new and maintaining some of the old rides is very, very expensive.”
Thompson has top secret plans for the future. She says, “People seem to think that I’m anti-white knuckle thrill rides, I’m certainly not. I’ve been on more coasters this year than most people and it’s sort of a joke in the industry which manufacturer can get me on as many coasters as possible.”
“When you work for a family business, it’s part of your heart”
In 2007, Thompson’s efforts were recognised at the Lancashire Excellence in Tourism Skills Awards where she won the Commitment to Industry Award. She won the Special Recognition Award at the Blackpool Tourism Awards in 2009.
Winning the Trip Advisor award in 2014 was, says, Thompson, “just fantastic for us. Certainly for the management because we weren’t really sure that we were moving in the right direction but that award told us we were and it’s given everyone a really big boost.
“I think the biggest challenges I see are making sure that we have enough customers coming into the company and we really, really look after their needs and make sure they have an amazing time.
Another boost for her personally came via her role as president of Stageworks Worldwide Productions when one of their costumes was modelled by Kate Moss in Vogue. “I was absolutely thrilled about it.”
Thompson believes she is lucky to work in an industry that is constantly evolving: “I like change and looking at the challenges that change brings.”
As far as the responsibility that comes with the stewardship of a family business, this seems to sit very easily with Thompson: “It’s a huge responsibility but one I’ve grown up with. I think when you work for a family business it’s part of your heart and it’s part of your make up, and it’s very important that you respect what has been before you and that you look after it and treasure it and make sure that there is a future for the company as well.”
Kate Moss dressed in Stageworks' Showgirl costume for Vogue Magazine. Photograph by Mario Testino.
All other images courtesy of Blackpool Pleasure Beach