During a career in the industry spanning almost 30 years, Paul Kelly has managed major attractions including Thorpe Park and the London Eye. As chief executive of the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions (BALPPA), he’s now the spokesman for facilities of all shapes and sizes.
Here he talks to Blooloop about Brexit, farm parks, industry safety and keeping it in the family.
Family businesses are the bedrock of the BALPPA membership. Most of these families are the same as they were 10, 20 years ago, often much more than that. And now we now are seeing the next generation coming through. These people are hugely consistent and committed to the industry. Many operate seaside businesses.
Some places have had very positive years, other resorts struggle a little from lack of investment in infrastructure. But all of these businesses are an important part of the industry. For some families it’s not always big business, but it’s what they do. Long may they continue.
The biggest change in the membership over the past few years has been the variety of businesses that we now have. We have the indoor play centres, family entertainment centres (FECs), bowling alleys, laser tag, plus the piers and traditional parks we’ve always had.
Farm parks and FECs
One of the most aggressive areas of expansion has been indoor play and farm parks. Most of these are family businesses too. Some of the larger farm parks are now practically small theme parks. So we have a good balance of indoor and outdoor facilities. Both are weather driven. When the sun is shining, the outdoor sector is happy, when it’s raining the indoor operators are happy.
I’ve been really impressed with the energy and drive of some of the farm parks and FECs that have joined BALPPA in recent years. Unlike other members where this is what they’ve always done, they might not come from a leisure background. But they’ve learnt on the job and done really well.
Whether it’s visitor satisfaction, safety, all those things we take for granted; I’ve been very impressed with how some of these newcomers to the industry have picked it all up. And it’s been great to see some of those people come through and sit on our committees, make presentations at our FEC days and so on.
It’s been interesting to watch the development of trampoline parks in recent years. It’s similar to the indoor play market, and there are a lot of crossover businesses. There are many speculative investors – people who may not have a leisure background. That gives us some concerns from a safety point of view. It’s not a heavily regulated area. Pretty much anyone can set up a trampoline park if they have the money. I think we will see many more setting up and closing down over the coming years. The best ones will survive, but a lot will probably be bought or merged with other things.
Staycations provide opportunities for our members. Around the time of the global financial crisis in 2008, people started thinking a lot more about taking holidays at home. A number of operators made decisions to invest in their product by adding ‘glamping’, tree houses, lodges and hotels. Resorts have become the biggest growth area in the sector. Those that have invested are benefitting from the growing appetite for short breaks in the UK. With current exchange rates, home-grown attractions seem even more attractive.
We are fully focused on Brexit. The outcome of that is really important for our industry and our relationships with our European partners. That includes some ride manufacturers who are BALPPA members. We’ve done surveys on what the impact will be with regard to free movement of labour and other issues. We are working together with IAAPA Europe on many issues. Together we can forge a way ahead.
The UK treasury has an opportunity, post-Brexit, to make some changes to VAT. We are one of the few European countries that do not have a separate rate of VAT for tourism or attractions. The rate varies from 5 to 20% depending on which country you’re in. Hopefully, the Treasury will look at us in a positive new light.
The worry is that they look only at the initial reduction in intake rather than the investment opportunity. With all business, you have to put money in to invest, and they should be looking at it like that because the long-term return will far outweigh the short-term drop.
The tourism sector
I don’t think UK tourism always gets the attention it deserves as an industry. If anything, we almost do ourselves a disservice by looking after ourselves quite well, therefore government thinks we don’t need any help. Everyone you speak to says we do a great job.
It’s a really dynamic market sector, the fifth largest contributor the economy, yet we still don’t have a dedicated tourism minister. Everything is handled under the DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport). If someone is a good minister at the DCMS, we know they will get moved on. The process of starting the conversation with new ministers and delivering it with the same energy and passion is hard work. A lot harder than I anticipated when I became chief executive.
A lot of routine ride stoppages are now reported in the media as something more serious. Some of that is a lack of understanding to some extent. There are certain protocols that companies put in place now when a ride stops, meaning you don’t instantly restart even if you can.
The Smiler accident at Alton Towers was very different from before. It was the first one in an era of social media where people can film it on their phones and send it around the world. Add to that it is was a £15m ride at a high-profile park owned by a public limited company and you can see why it attracted so much attention.
We’ve done crisis management courses since then. We used to say there’s a ‘golden hour’ after an accident happens when you’ve got that time to get yourself sorted, get your statements to the press ready; work on all that. That’s shortened. You’ve now got five minutes.
Terrorism is something that we as an industry are taking very seriously. The important thing to remember is it is still relatively rare. All our attractions are doing what they can. They are aware of it, they are taking precautions. There is a lot more bag searching going on; a lot more covert and overt security. The British public are very resilient, they keep going out to places, and we think it is safe for them to do so.
The season starts here. In 2017, we had a good Easter and early May, but in summer it was only really the last 10 days of August that we saw sunshine and the numbers returned. So I don’t think anyone in the business was overly happy, but they were not hugely unhappy either. With Easter just around the corner, we hope all our members with seasonal attractions have a great start to 2018.
It’s going to be the year of the roller coaster, with big rides coming up at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Alton Towers, plus lots of other investments from BALPPA members around the country. And in June we’re looking forward to going to Gröna Lund for our Summer Meeting in Stockholm.
Paul Kelly has served as BALPPA chief executive since October 2012 and been an active member for much of his career. Prior to leading the association, he worked for 22 years at Merlin Entertainments and the Tussauds Group. Before its Summer Meeting in Stockholm, BALPPA will be staging its FEC Spring Regional Meeting in Northampton on 19 March and an Accessible Leisure, Play and Tourism Seminar at Drayton Manor on 17 April.