Lights out at the End Zone

It's time for P-Y Gerbeau to say goodnight to the Millennium Dome. What will the Frenchman with a 'Dome life but no home life' do next?
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The Independent Online

It's 11am and I'm strolling around the Dome with its Chief Executive, Pierre-Yves Gerbeau - or "P-Y" as he likes to be called, in his rather Butlins, "morning-campers" sort of way. P-Y is short and stocky and spectacularly talkative with sticky-up hair. It is a bit like going about with a madly evangelical washing-up brush that just will not shut up: "...you are now standing in ze most popular attraction in Britain. They say we never do six million people but today? We do six million people! Last Friday, Saturday, Sunday we 'ave 71,000 visitors. We 'ave 88 per cent customer satisfaction. Disney would kill for a figure like that. Ninety-five per cent love the millennium show. It's the best show on the planet. When the dust settles, everyone will see what a success we 'ave been. Hah! I cannot wait for that. Have you been to Home Planet? Home Planet is pretty spectacular. And the movie at the end is just a killer. Although the Journey Zone symbolises what we do best. You can educate yourself and still have a

It's 11am and I'm strolling around the Dome with its Chief Executive, Pierre-Yves Gerbeau - or "P-Y" as he likes to be called, in his rather Butlins, "morning-campers" sort of way. P-Y is short and stocky and spectacularly talkative with sticky-up hair. It is a bit like going about with a madly evangelical washing-up brush that just will not shut up: "...you are now standing in ze most popular attraction in Britain. They say we never do six million people but today? We do six million people! Last Friday, Saturday, Sunday we 'ave 71,000 visitors. We 'ave 88 per cent customer satisfaction. Disney would kill for a figure like that. Ninety-five per cent love the millennium show. It's the best show on the planet. When the dust settles, everyone will see what a success we 'ave been. Hah! I cannot wait for that. Have you been to Home Planet? Home Planet is pretty spectacular. And the movie at the end is just a killer. Although the Journey Zone symbolises what we do best. You can educate yourself and still have a fun day out... and I like all the rest of course..."

A visitor comes up to P-Y to tell him what a wonderful job he has done. "Sank you, sir. I sank you," says P-Y. He later says such positive feedback is very important to him. "How often I get fed up? Every day. The pressure has been horrendous. But I go into the Dome where the people say, 'You are doing a great job', and then I can go back into the boring meetings."

We pass the skating rink, where the slogan on the banners reads: "There's Snow place like Dome". I think the one thing you can safely say about the Dome is that it doesn't leave any cliché unturned. Unfortunately, I do not catch the Christmas procession which, apparently, is no ordinary Christmas procession. "We thought, what can we do that is different? So we have Santa doing the samba!"

Never mind. Next time, perhaps. Oops - silly me! - I probably won't get a next time. The Dome, of course, will close on New Year's Eve. P-Y, undoubtedly, loves the Dome. P-Y, even, lives for the Dome. Actually, he practically lives at the Dome. On his arrival, he was offered a three-bed apartment in central London but he turned it down. "When I saw the financial state of the company I thought no, they can not afford it." Instead, he opted for a Victorian workman's cottage nearby. It is teeny, he says. So small, in fact, "that when Channel 4 came to film me recently, the cameraman and producer could not be in the living room at the same time."

P-Y will be extremely sad to hand the Dome over. It might even break his heart. "It will be very emotional time for me. Very emotional." What will you do on 1 January, P-Y? "I will 'ave my first lie-in this year." What's the latest you've slept in so far? "Seven-am. But the world belongs to those who can get up early, no?" He might, actually, leave no cliché unturned himself. He later says that because he has given everything to the Dome since his appointment, his private life has suffered horribly. "I have a Dome life but no home life. Ha!" He and the Dome might have been rather made for each other.

I don't know about P-Y. Was he the right man for the job when he replaced Jennie Page last February? Would anyone, in fact, have been right for the job, or was it too far cocked-up, even then? Whatever, would P-Y have taken it if he knew what he knows now?

"I sink so, yes." What, you'd have taken it on even if you'd known it should have declared itself bankrupt? "I'd 'ave done it for the people. The people 'ere are brilliant. They work so hard and are very passionate. They 'ave supported me all the way in delivering the customer satisfaction. We have 88 per cent customer satisfaction. Did I tell you that? When people ask me how come I'm such a great people person and show such great leadership, I say it's because I was once a garbage boy for three months. I'm a people man. I 'ave been there. All you 'ave to do is never forget it. I love the people 'ere."

"He does," confirms Adrian, the nice media relations bloke who hangs out with us. "Although he fires me three times a day, don't you P-Y?"

"Yes. But that is because you are always abusing me! All the staff are always abusing me. I'm the boss and they don't give a damn."

Oh dear, I say. No, it's fine, he says. He's a people person, so, in fact, "it's absolutely great!".

OK, P-Y, if you could go back and change some things, what would you change? The initial projected estimate of 12 million visitors, perhaps? That's been a millstone round your neck, hasn't it?

"Yes. That and the fact it was designed for a year."

I say I've never properly understood why it was only designed for a year. He doesn't either, as it turns out.

"Ask the politicians," he says. "It is bad decision. The amount they spend... it was never going to be viable after one year. And the 12 million visitors? That figure was arrived at when they realised it would cost £758m to build, so they simply said they would need 12 million visitors to pay for it. If they'd said four million, I would be a hero, right? I would have my statue in Trafalgar Square, the dream of every Frenchman. But we have achieved six million, and to achieve six million when we are slaughtered every day of the year..." Why do you think you are you slaughtered every day of the year, P-Y? "The political agenda. Also, it doesn't help if you piss off half the editors in the country on the opening night [when VIPs attending the party were forced to hang around outside for hours on a chilly night]. When I was at Disney, we practised our opening night 25 times before we opened!"

When did you first realise the extent of the political agenda?

"On my second day, when I met the Millennium Commission..."

"P-Y..." implores Adrian.

"I get into trouble?" asks P-Y.

"It's your call, I guess," sighs Adrian.

"On my second day, when I met the Millennium Commission and I told them I wanted to run a volume strategy - wanted to cut prices and go for volume."

And?

"They then wrote to me to say they liked the volume strategy, but thought I should raise ticket prices."

Operate a volume strategy by charging more?

"Yes. And it's just very difficult with 15 decision-makers giving you 15 different instructions."He likes the much-maligned Lord Falconer, though. "It's been a difficult relationship but, at the end of the day, he inherited the situation and didn't dump it. I respect him for that very much."

I must say I really want to like the Dome. And chances are, I will. I'm not a highbrow or a snob, after all. I like Animal Hospital and Hello! and crisps that are normal crisps (Walkers, KP) and not hand-cooked or anything. But still. Still. Even I can see that it's a billion pounds' worth (the final total, when you include emergency lottery hand-out after emergency lottery hand-out) of horrendous mish-mash. Actually, it's most like some kind of project put together by a demented geography teacher with a passion for patronising platitudes of almost thrilling meaninglessness.

On P-Y's recommendation I do later go to the Journey Zone where I am vastly impressed by the thought, "Together, we can make the right choices for a future full of possibilities". And the Home Planet? Well, if you like your tornadoes to look like big messes of Play-Doh swinging from the ceiling, then I heartily recommend it. It's all very schooly. I expect to see dried pasta sprayed gold at almost every turn.

Why can't P-Y see any of this? Why, even, didn't he see what he was letting himself in for from the beginning? Ego, I suppose. He is quite magnificently egotistical, I think. He will say he does it for the Dome, of course, but I suspect he rather likes the photo-calls with the pop groups and can-can dancers and rosy-cheeked, big-bosomed pantomime dames on ice. He used, actually, to be a professional ice-hockey player, one of the French national team. He loved, he says, "being a star". But then, at 24, a serious ankle injury ended his career. "I went into surgery straight away. When I came round I said to the doctor: 'Doctor, it's the world championships in three months. Will I make it?' He said: 'Young man. You'll be happy if you ever walk again with a stick.' The world fell apart for me. It was the end of everything. I couldn't walk for a year. I wanted to be in the Olympics. So either I was going to drink and be an alcoholic or I was going to find another battle to fight. I make it in ice-hockey when I am a midget [he's rather small for the sport]. I knew I could be successful again."

So he went into his parents' office-supply business, then to Disneyland Paris, where he worked his way up to become a vice-president. He did not, he insists, anticipate the fuss his appointment at the Dome would cause.

"Do you remember the first photo-call," asks Adrian, "when I said you might find it a bit intense? That there are gonna be a few photographers...""...and the look on my face," continues P-Y, "when I saw all the photographers. I thought: Who am I? I'm trying to run a business here."

"Would it happen in France?" I ask. "In France," he replies, "people will go at you saying your strategy is not the right one, but they'll never go into the family side or the personal side. Here, your entire life is in the paper. That I've been divorced. That I have a four-year-old kid. They try to give my ex-wife money to say nasty things about me. And the lies. The pure lies. I never pretended I turned around Euro Disney. I was not a car-park attendant. I am not the wrong Gerbeau..." His daughter, Clemence, lives in France. As a people person, he sees her for "24 hours, intense quality time once a month". As a people person why, I wonder, is his private life so under-populated. Why does he have a Dome life and no home life? "Hey, let's not go that way," he says.

I ask if he ever gets lonely? "Yeah, often. But being at the top of a company is a lonely life." What do you do in the evenings? "I never get home until 11pm, midnight." Will you cook yourself a meal? "I just take something and put it in the microwave. My PA stocks my fridge for me."

He has not got another job lined up, no. He's had offers, "but I turn everyone away. I have to focus on this 200 per cent right to the end. Otherwise it would not be fair on my staff. As captain, I have to be the last to jump ship." No one is quite sure what is going to happen to the Dome. Yes, P-Y has put in a bid to buy it himself - so he can continue running it as an attraction - but, probably, it will go to businessman Robert Bourne and be turned into a business park. What will happen to the exhibits then? "They'll get trashed," replies P-Y miserably. "Or auctioned." Bloody hell. You'll need a big mantelpiece for the Body Zone. I've never seen papier mâché worked on such a scale.

Has P-Y done a good job? I don't know. But, then, as I've already said, I don't know if anyone could have done a good job. I leave via the gift shop where, depressingly, you can now get six erasers for the price of two and 29 sweatshirts for the price of one. (You don't want one? Well, take the 29 anyway.) I don't want to come over all pompous and go into how many hospitals the cost of the Dome could have bought, but JUST THINK HOW MANY HOSPITALS THE COST OF ALL THIS COULD HAVE BOUGHT! P-Y says that the Dome is the sort of place you should leave "asking questions". If so, then "why?" is, I think, as good a question as any.

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