The circus gets serious

Roger Trapp sees modern management being applied to the Big Top business
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The Independent Online
Circuses are not everybody's idea of well-oiled machines, but Martin Burton is convinced that this form of entertainment can survive only if modern business methods and management techniques are adopted.

As proprietor of Zippo's circus, which this week celebrates its l0th anniversary, he is putting his belief into action. And if the result has not exactly been riches, it has at least ensured a living of sorts for the troupe of more than 40 people. Out has gone the traditional "gypsy, happy-go-lucky" image of the circus and in has come a "professional attitude".

Mr Burton - who created "Zippo the Clown" 20 years ago and named his character after the cigarette lighter on account of his fire-eating act - says he recognises he is operating in the late 20th century and that consequently "there are things like customer comfort".

He adds: "You can't expect people to pay as much as they would at the cinema and get less". As a result, he says, staff are not as scruffy as might be expected, while the area around the Big Top is covered to prevent it from becoming a quagmire as soon as there is rain, and the 1,000-seat tent itself is heated in winter and air-conditioned in summer.

Moreover, there is a commitment to train the clowns, acrobats and other performers to fulfil a full role in the business. In the summer the group is swollen to more than 60 by the arrival of students at Zippo's Academy of Circus Arts, said to be Britain's only true circus school.

The main focus is on "on the road" sessions in the traditional skills of the circus. But much emphasis is also placed on the students' need to contribute to all aspects of the circus. Consequently, graduates of the course are expected to be experienced in all aspects of erecting and dismantling the Big Top - anything from splicing ropes to arranging a water supply.

The idea is that they will leave as "complete circus artistes, able and ready to find work and start climbing the ladder to stardom". But before departing, all the students take their own tents to festivals around Britain, testing their skills on live audiences before performing in an end-of-term showcase for circus celebrities, proprietors, agents, and even film scouts. Prizes are awarded for the best, but Zippo's claims that 95 per cent of its graduates find employment in the industry.

Nor is that all. Running alongside the tuition in circus skills is an RSA entertainment diploma course that takes in such areas as health and safety and lighting, while Mr Burton is experimenting with national vocational qualifications.

Such a dedication to training might be surprising if it were not realised that Mr Burton and many of his colleagues have themselves attended college. The performers - some of whom, such as the Kenya Tumblers, come from the far corners of the world - include graduates and professional people who could not resist the lure of the Big Top.

Mr Burton himself got into the business after training in education and, being unable to find a job, started a fire-eating and magic busking act on Brighton beach. The show director, Kevin Twomey, is an accomplished linguist who graduated from Lancaster University before adopting the persona of Alexis, believed to be the only traditional white-face clown in Britain.

Since starting, Mr Burton has stuck to his instincts about what sort of acts should appear. "If you try to produce a formula, you end up flat and grey," he says.

But this does not mean that he takes no notice of public tastes. The lack of performing animals is a response to modern audiences' attitudes. The ringmaster has long been abandoned because it was felt that he held up the show with his constant announcements, while there is an emphasis on keeping events moving.

And Mr Burton's awareness of modern business techniques means that as it travels around London and the rest of the country, Zippo's makes greater use of public relations and promotion than its rivals. It has carried out market research into the most effective ways of advertising and has recently started a telemarketing campaign to make sure as many as possible of those 1,000 seats are taken every night.

Early indications are encouraging. Last week's opening night in East Ham attracted a capacity crowd, despite the continuing heatwave that would have been expected to keep the crowds away.

But what works with one set of customers does not necessarily do the trick for others. And Mr Burton's problem is that he faces new customers every week, when his entourage moves on to the next site.

"It's like starting the business again every week. You have to find local printers, equipment suppliers, make relationships with newspapers," he says, adding that the only way of dealing with it is to speak "for hours and hours on mobile phones, trying to explain what you're about and that you're not a gypsy invasion".

At a time when other circuses are struggling, Mr Burton is happy to report that his is doing "better than holding our own". But, anxious to find other opportunities, Zippo's has started looking abroad. He is keen to take the company to the Far East.

In the meantime, though, he is hoping a grant of pounds 48,000 received earlier this month from the National Lottery will help to consolidate Zippo's domestic position. With tents alone costing up to pounds 40,000 each, he is certainly not at a loss for what to do with the money.

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