Colin Dawson came to the Leisure Industry relatively late. After a brief, youthful music career singing with Roger Daltry, he was Group Marketing Manager for The RMC Group, before moving on to manage Thorpe Park in 1988 and then Dreamland Leisure in 1995. In 2001 he became Chief Executive at BALPPA (British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions). Nine years on, as he prepares to retire, Blooloop talks to Colin about his life in the Attractions Industry.
Life as an operator…
Your greatest achievement?
The first year that I joined Thorpe Park we were faced with a huge capital project. My background in marketing added to the good operational team already in place, filling a gap. As a team we became more rounded and focussed on what we were trying to achieve. I contracted a new ad agency and developed new campaigns which focussed on our strength, the family experience. We delivered the project on time and pushed attendance up by 300, 000.
Your best experience?
It has to be entertaining the Princess of Wales and her two sons at Thorpe Park. Their favourite ride was the log flume; they very much enjoyed seeing their security officers get very wet.
Never be surprised by what the public do, particularly in relation to safety!
What makes a great attraction?
It’s not simple, a mix of the right customer focus and the right team with foresight to deliver against that focus.
Do you miss being hands on?
Yes, nothing can replace the buzz of running an operation. You’re happy to close at the end of the season but can’t wait to open up again. You never know what’s going to happen; there are so many intangibles, not least the weather in UK.
Your work with BALPPA…
What made you the right man for the job?
I’d been associated with BALPPA for 12 years, on the Management Committee and was the Chair in 1994/95. The Management Committee decided that there would be benefits in appointing an ex-operator who understood the needs of the members. BALPPA was already a lobbying organisation but I feel I was able to bring a clearer focus, identify key objectives and how best to achieve them. The membership is now broader, BALPPA is more financially secure and we are politically active across a wider front.
The number of accidents in the industry in the UK has fallen by 80% since 2000. What were the initiatives that made this remarkable improvement in safety possible?
The key thing was that everyone came together so as to agree what needed to happen across the industry. At BALPPA we did work on getting the group to agree on key tasks, in particular the introduction and development of the Amusement Device Inspection Procedure Scheme and the formation of the Amusement Device Safety Council.
BALPPA is committed to the trial of Single/Double Summer Time for the UK, citing amongst many benefits an estimated potential 80, 000 additional jobs and £3bn increase in revenue for the tourism, hospitality and retail sectors. How is the campaign progressing?
We now have a Private members bill to be read on December 3rd. We are asking for a review of the options for a 3 year trial. I’m confident if we can get this review, which will be easier to agree to than asking straight away for the trial, we will then subsequently get the 3 year trial. This follows the approach taken with the seat belt issue which started with a trial, and now wearing seat belts in cars is taken for granted. I think we have a very real chance of succeeding.
How has BALPPA’s lobbying activity become more sophisticated and what initial reaction have you had from the new UK Government?
BALPPA has always lobbied but it is getting more important to understand the processes and how to achieve objectives. In order to do this we now pull in consultants and advisers to work with us.
We’ve had a positive reaction from the new government but it’s early days. At the moment we are in a honeymoon period where they are in “listening mode” – we’ll have to wait and see what action gets taken.
Funding issues are slowly being understood. Interestingly, a paper by the Conservatives before they came to office recognised that in the UK it is not a level playing field and recommended that there should be assistance for listed piers. It’s a start but there is a long way to go.
We always have to look carefully for the right opportunity to raise issues. For instance a reduction in VAT is always a key ask for us, however in current climate we need to consider the mood of the nation.
How do you think the UK Industry will be affected by the recession and what can operators do to protect themselves?
Previous experience tells us that the industry can ride recessions well but we may have a whole new ball game here. This one is deeper and broader, new territory BUT if we look out there operators are still investing in order to keep pedalling and move the business forward. My advice is control and beware of unrealistic expenditure, matched by suitable capex.
How can operators best respond to competition from free-entry attractions?
BALPPA has added free museum entry as lobbying issue. The new Coalition Government retain it as a policy but BALPPA argue that it should be not across the board – just schools, unemployed, senior citizens. A selective pricing policy would save around £16m per annum. In addition, two issues not often recognised with free attendance is that 1) people who come only because it’s free don’t spend once inside and 2) there is a significant cost to the additional footfall from wear and tear on the facility.
Martin Barratt is taking over from you. What advice have you given him?
I’ll be around to help with lobbying for 6 months. Martin has lots of experience. The key is to keep in touch with members and listen to their concerns.
Who in the industry has been an inspiration to you?
Geoffrey Thompson was an icon in the industry. I would always listen to and welcome his advice. I loved the way he was – no organisation too small and no person too junior for his attention. He would help anyone in every respect. John Collins is in the Geoffrey Thompson mould. Two real gentlemen worthy of respect and admiration for their honesty and integrity.
You have an IAAPA Outstanding Service Award and now an OBE. What do these awards mean to you and your family?
It’s very flattering. You choose to do what you enjoy doing in a business that you enjoy, so it’s a surprise to be recognised but very welcome. My wife is chuffed to bits. Over the years I’ve missed so many of my son's school concerts and plays; now family know what I’ve been doing
I understand that you served on the IAAPA Give Kids the World committee. What have you gained from the experience?
The concept is a fabulous vehicle for the industry to recognise the needs of others. What makes it special is that it’s all about the children together with their families. It’s wonderful to be able to give children who are suffering the chance to escape with their families into a magical world, even if it’s just for a little while.
What will be your memories of your time at BALPPA?
Working with the best people in the world. I’ve enjoyed it so much. I’ll miss the people more than anything.