Changing the design from a wheel to a tower has proved a crowd-pleaser rather than a compromise, thanks to the shared experience created by the large pod.
“It’s almost a kind of excited, party atmosphere, whatever the crowd – families or adults, ” says the CEO of the British Airways i360, Eleanor Harris.
Blooloop spoke to Harris about the creation of Brighton’s bold new landmark attraction that has already become a catalyst for regeneration.
An Eye on Brand Experience
Harris began her career at British Airways as a graduate trainee. After a number of diverse middle management jobs across the business, she went on secondment to the London Eye within two weeks of its opening.
“Initially, I was sort of parachuted in to help improve the overall customer service. I also had to bring the brand experience in line with BA brand values: BA was the sponsor of the London Eye when it first opened. I ended up staying for six years.”
She fell in love with the attractions sector, working there as Head of Customer Service before becoming the Commercial Director.
“I looked after the customer operational side. I was also responsible for delivering the revenue for the business, doing product development and so on. So I was part of the set-up team at The London Eye.”
In 2006, when BA sold their stake in the London Eye, Harris found herself at a career crossroads. Having enjoyed her time there, she wanted to remain in the attractions sector.
A New Attraction, British Airways i360
“I decided I was ready for my next step, and had a life-changing conversation, because at that point I was brought on board to start working with the Marks Barfield Architects on their new attraction, which was the i360.”
This was ten years ago, and at the same time she set up her own consulting business, i-Experience, specialising in the attractions sector.
“For eight years I juggled lots of different, interesting consulting assignments, while also working on the i360. Then, two years ago, I became the Chief Executive of what is now the British Airways i360, having secured them as a sponsor.”
The slowly unfolding view
Harris knows the project inside out having been there at the very beginning.
“The original idea came, really, from the London Eye. Lots of different cities came to the architects to see if they could replicate the success of the London Eye in their city.
“What we realised early on was that the cost of building a large observation wheel was not commercially viable in many cities. London has this unique set of circumstances that makes it a phenomenal success. And the London Eye is still the most visited paid-for attraction in the whole UK.
“What the architects realised is that what people actually love about the London Eye is that slowly unfolding view, which is a great experience and very different from going up in a fast lift into a traditional observation tower.
“This didn’t need to be achieved with a wheel. Changing the design to a tower brought many advantages.
“One is that you can get this fantastic large pod that is a really great shared experience. It’s interesting on the many flights I’ve taken on the i360 just what a wonderful atmosphere there is. It’s almost a kind of excited, party atmosphere, whatever the crowd – families or adults.”
The tower design also freed up space on the ground for a large beach building. This has provided a valuable source of revenue.
“It means that we’re not only running a visitor attraction, but we also have a large hospitality business, ” explains Harris.
“We’ve opened two restaurants on the site. There is space for a large shop and we’ve got around ten different beach-side hospitality spaces that we can hire out. We’re in Brighton which has a very strong conference market as well as the leisure market. Now it’s autumn, it’s real conference season here in the city, and we are able to cater to those conferences with banquets, meetings, stand-out receptions, and run that business alongside our bread and butter leisure business.”
The construction of the British Airways i360 was rapid: it took twenty five months in total.
“We started in summer 2014. The first year of construction was about doing the groundwork. We had to move a Victorian sewer, re-route electrical cables running beneath the site, build foundations and meanwhile, off-site, the steel was manufactured in Holland, the giant glass pod was manufactured in France, and then everything came together after that.
“In summer 2015 the tower went up in an amazingly short ten weeks and, after that, the pod was added. Then, we built the beach building underneath and added all the electrics and other internal elements of the pod.”
A Party Atmosphere
The attraction welcomed its hundred thousandth visitor after just over three weeks of opening. Apart from a technical hitch in September which closed the attraction temporarily, bookings have remained strong.
“The main feedback we’ve had is that people are amazed at the beautiful views. They love how smooth the ride is, because one of the incredible things is that as you rise up you don’t feel the movement at all, even on a very windy day.
“And they really are enjoying the size of the pod, and the way that you can move around and see from different points of view. It’s a great shared experience.”
The Nyetimber Sky Bar is an added draw. Harris expect it to be popular in the evenings. Probably owing to the party atmosphere she mentioned, business is brisk from the moment it opens at ten in the morning.
It specialises in drinks from the local region including Nyetimber, recognised as one of England’s finest sparkling wines, which is produced just up the road:
“… and we serve Brighton gin and tonic, distilled in Brighton, Wobblegate apple juice, also made in Sussex, South Downs water and Harvey’s beer from probably the best known Sussex brewery. That’s been really well received.”
There was little or no objection to the concept of the British Airways i360 at the planning stage in 2006; certainly far less than there had been to the London Eye. Harris puts this down to the fact that people could see the success of the London Eye, and the same team was involved.
“Also, tourism is very important to Brighton. That really helped. But I think it’s fair to say when the tower went up last summer it certainly was not without controversy.
“At that point it wasn’t finished, and what makes the i360 make sense is when you see it with the pod riding up and down, with its beautiful mirrored underside, and the reproductions of the original Grade 1 listed West pier toll booths flanking the tower on either side.
Bold Projects and Controversy
“The site now looks fantastic, ” she says. “The little bit of controversy that was there is definitely reduced. We’ve had people who have made a complete U-turn about the project. They now say it’s fantastic, and they’ve become real advocates.
“I think bold projects like this often do attract controversy – with the London Eye, everyone forgets that, but I remember the same reaction when it was being built. The Eiffel Tower faced opposition. From our point of view, what’s been interesting about the controversial aspect is that it’s made a lot of journalists want to write about the project, and I can’t think of any other visitor attraction in the UK in my lifetime that has generated as many column inches. People are interested in the project and have an opinion on it.”
Harris is unperturbed by the attraction’s few teething troubles:
“To me it’s very reminiscent of the first year of the London Eye, when we faced similar technical challenges. These things go away over time.”
Ticketing for the i360 is by Tor Systems. Harris explains:
“They do a lot in the museum sector and are used by Brighton Pavilion and Brighton Museum.
“They’ve delivered all of our ticketing including online ticketing, and their system is integrated with a retail and stock management system, so we just basically use Tor Systems for everything, and behind the scenes it does all the stock control as well, which is really handy.”
People who have ridden the British Airways i360 are already returning for a repeat experience.
“What we’re finding is that people will revisit to see the night-time view. Having visited in the daytime, the night-time view is completely different. We’re finding people are coming back to enjoy the sunset. We’re also finding already that people are coming back with different groups. In particular, local residents bringing friends and family along. I think, naturally, it’s repeatable.
“We’ve done a very good local residents’ scheme. Local residents can sign up, paying a pound to become a member, and then they get half-price entry. That’s been very well received. I think it is helping make it an easy decision for local residents to bring a friend along.”
An advantage unique to observation attractions, says Harris, is their universal appeal across all ages and demographics.
“We have lots of families during the school holidays. Equally, we’re seeing a significant number of students and young people. And now it’s autumn we have many older customers coming through, coach groups from the traditional grey market, foreign language school students, lots of international visitors: a complete mix. We often see mixed age family groups. Because it’s completely accessible, so it’s something you can do with your baby buggy, or with Granny who’s not very good at walking. You get the full spectrum of customers all able to enjoy the experience.”
It is popular with stag and hen groups and there has already been a wedding.
“About ten couples so far have become engaged on the British Airways i360.”
The British Airways i360 is a regeneration project for Brighton, a big motivator for the council providing so much support for the project.
“Tourism and the digital economy are the two most important sectors in Brighton.
“Tourism brings in more than a billion pounds a year to the economy. The seafront is the city shop window. We’re located in the part of the seafront that had historically become run down, a site that had been challenging after the West Pier closed and the subsequent arson attacks. It became very difficult to regenerate this part of the city. The BAi360 is seen very much as a catalyst for regeneration.
“Already that’s happening – we’re seeing new businesses opening right next to the BA i360 on the seafront. Also some of the existing businesses are reinvesting. For example the Holiday Inn right next to us is just having a major upgrade and the Hilton Metropole has just done a massive upgrade. There’s a popular restaurant next to us, The Regency, which is putting in a planning application to expand.
A Vertical Pier
“The feedback from local businesses here is that there is an amazing footfall and improved trading. I think Brighton Council would like to see the sort of regeneration that happened on the South Bank when the London Eye opened.
“I think there are all the right ingredients for it to happen.”
The architects have described the BA i360 as ‘a modern-day vertical pier’.
“I think that’s a lovely way to describe it, ” says Harris. “When the Victorians built the piers of the past, really they were designed for people to promenade, seeing a different perspective on their city. The i360 is very similar. You’re promenading, or walking, in the air: in the sky rather than out to sea, and the amazing thing when you watch customers is they promenade around the BA i360: they promenade from side to side and go and look at the different views, and the children run around it like it’s a race track.
“It’s a sort of 21st century reinterpretation.”
All images kind courtesy British Airways i360