Who's king of the leisure parks?

Market leaders pick their market leaders
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The Independent Online

Geoffrey Thompson OBE, managing director: Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Pleasureland and Frontier Land

The key to running a successful leisure park is being all things to all people. You have to be a chief engineer, a restaurateur, a retailer and a showbusinessman.

When we are not overseeing all those areas, we are dealing with health and safety issues and the taxman. The industry has so many different aspects you don't get it right all the time. We've just spent £15m on our latest ride, a huge investment for a family business. If tourism was treated for VAT like Tampax in the recent budget we'd all be delighted.

One of the parks I admire most is Oakwood in South Wales. The McNamara family are good old Welsh farmers who have managed to turn their land into a very clever leisure park.

Colin Bryan, managing director: Drayton Manor Park, Tamworth, Staffordshire

All the parks are looking for the same pound in your pocket, but we are far enough apart for us not to be in direct competition. In the early Nineties we wanted to be the first in the UK with a stand-up roller coaster. We tried to keep it a secret, yet everyone in the industry knew. We had the greatest number of rides in history unveiled in 1994.

In this business you have to spend, spend, spend to keep up with the changes. I think it's easier being a family business because we can decide what to invest in without having to think about shareholders.

We invariably plough all our profits back into the business. I genuinely believe that we have one of the best leisure parks in the country. I think the McNamaras have a pleasant little place at Oakwood. It's family-run, like ours, so all the money goes back into the business.

William McNamara, managing director: Oakwood Leisure Park, near Narberth, Pembrokeshire

We came into this business from agriculture, which meant we had no preconceptions and nothing to prove.

We were dairy farmers until the imposition of milk quotas, so we decided to use the land for tourism. We have only a 40 per cent catchment area and the rest is the Irish Sea - we had to be pioneering.

There is nothing on our park you will see anywhere else in the country. We are always looking at new ways of freshing up our product and unless those in the industry do the same they'll find themselves squeezed out.

There is so much competition for people's leisure time. People are working smarter, but they are also working harder so their free time is precious and often stressful.

One of the great things about leisure parks is that it gives families a shared experience, which is amusing and fun.

One of the people I admire most is Geoffrey Thompson at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. He's a very busy, wealthy man, yet he goes to all the trade shows and presentations and couldn't possibly come to Oakwood without his notebook. He lives for the business and has genuine passion.

Jim Caldon, general manager: Pleasure Beach, Great Yarmouth

This industry is weather-sensitive so the inland parks score against us when it rains, because they've already got their money from the gate. We don't have an entrance fee, but customers can buy tokens for the rides. If the weather is bad they can get their money back, up to a point.

In the early Nineties, a lot of leisure parks started to invest heavily in new rides. In hindsight we shouldn't have bothered. We bought a spectacular ride for £1m and it didn't take tuppence.

We've become more family-orientated. The big inland parks are clinical, they don't have the atmosphere we have and they certainly don't have the music. I think Drayton Park do a first class job because they've got a big selection of rides that cater for everyone. Colin Bryan has invested a lot of money and because of his location he's managed to recover it.

Ted Lewin, marketing manager: Adventure Island, Southend-on-Sea, Essex

People are beginning to realise that if you go a place like Chessington, you'll certainly have a fabulous day out, but that will be just about it.

The beauty of a seaside resort is that you don't have to stay all day. Some families have a few rides, wander off down the sea front for lunch, then come back to us in the afternoon.

We have a pay-if-you-play system, much fairer than an admission fee. We try hard to be like the larger leisure parks, yet we want to keep the atmosphere and ambience of a traditional fairground. As an industry, we all have problems with employment. It's such a seasonal business we all rely on students. They have to be extensively trained, so if you employ them at Easter, you can't afford to lose them during the summer. We provide bonuses but there is no guarantee they will return.

One of my favourite parks is Legoland. It's superbly run, has a lovely layout and is in a beautiful setting. I like Alton Towers as well. Both places make you feel safe, which is important.

Michael Jolly, chief executive, The Tussaud's Group: Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Chessington World of Adventures

Having three leisure parks is undoubtedly an advantage. The public wants to be entertained to a high standard, which is more difficult for the smaller parks.

We have to continually replenish our assets, which means spending significant sums to create new attractions. It all depends on the commitment of the investor and how interested they are in building the business.

The two important areas are the need for high levels of safety, and commitment to training staff. We find more and more British people come back from Disneyland and want an experience more like that, which is largely due to the courtesy of the American staff.

We are recruiting people, not for their qualifications, but for their personality. This business needs enthusiastic people. I know it doesn't come as second nature to the British, but we need people who like to smile.

The standards are pretty variable in the industry. The closest business to us in terms of excellence would have to be Center Parcs, which is in a totally different market."

David Bradley, managing director: Legoland, Windsor, Berkshire

British leisure parks are just a collection of rides. Their emphasis tends to be on who can create the biggest, tallest most expensive new ride each year. That philosophy comes from the United States. Companies such as Warner Brothers use their parks as showcases for their films and think nothing of spending $100m on one attraction. A lot of the UK parks try to emulate that on a smaller scale.

Legoland is very different, a hybrid between a brand and a park. We still have white-knuckle rides yet we don't see the point in scaring children. You won't find teenagers walking around, or adults without children, which you find at Alton Towers and Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

Parks have to move with the technical revolution. Most have remained relatively unchanged and are still seen as a by-product of the industrial revolution.

I admire and respect Disney. They have clearly established brand values and adhere to them. Apart from us, no one else is doing that in Britain.