Geoffrey Thompson

Charismatic managing director of Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Monday 10 October 2011 07:16

Geoffrey Thompson, managing director for almost 30 years of Blackpool Pleasure Beach, was one of the most charismatic figures in the British leisure industry. As head of a family business of which Barnum himself would have been proud, this visionary showman ran one of the most successful visitor attractions in Europe.

William Geoffrey Thompson, businessman: born Manchester 16 November 1936; married 1962 Barbara Foxcroft (one son, two daughters); died Blackpool, Lancashire 12 June 2004

Geoffrey Thompson, managing director for almost 30 years of Blackpool Pleasure Beach, was one of the most charismatic figures in the British leisure industry. As head of a family business of which Barnum himself would have been proud, this visionary showman ran one of the most successful visitor attractions in Europe.

Standing proudly at the southern end of Britain's premier holiday resort, Blackpool Pleasure Beach was founded by William Bean at the end of the 19th century. It was then a motley collection of mainly gypsy encampments dotted about the sands, but today the 42-acre site dominates the local landscape. On the death of Bean in 1929, his daughter Doris and son-in-law Leonard Thompson took over and considerably expanded the attractions. Today, 75 years on and now in her 102nd year, Doris Thompson, remains a director and still plays an active role within the company.

The only son of Leonard and Doris Thompson, Geoffrey was born in Manchester in 1936. Educated at Arnold Junior School and Rossall School before moving to Shrewsbury, he later read Economics at Clare College, Cambridge. Then, like his father and grandfather before him, he moved to America to broaden his education, studying Business Administration at Wharton Business School, part of the University of Pennsylvania.

On returning to Britain, Thompson worked for a time in London for New Era Laundries, consolidating the company's rapid expansion into the contract-hire business. In 1963, newly married to Barbara Foxcroft, the daughter of a Blackpool solicitor, he returned home to work at the Pleasure Beach, initially in charge of the catering at the Casino Building. With no special privileges, his training eventually took in all aspects of the business, including the two neighbouring sister parks at Morecambe and Southport. He always remained grateful for the tough tutelage his father insisted upon. On Leonard's death in 1976, Geoffrey Thompson was appointed managing director, his mother becoming chairman.

With millions of holidaymakers deserting the traditional seaside resorts in favour of cheap continental holidays, Thompson realised that a dynamic new management style would be needed. The key to the future, as he saw it, was rapid investment, particularly in the provision of bigger, better and more exciting rides. To attract a new generation of visitors, he vowed to take a fearless approach to risk, in partnership with the tried and tested promotional techniques he had seen at first hand while in America.

His first major new ride was the groundbreaking Steeplechase, in 1977, a horse-racing rollercoaster ride which allowed him to develop the relatively neglected southern end of the park. Relentlessly promoted, not least by the triple grand national winner, Red Rum, it was the first of the new generation of thrill rides. Others followed, including in 1994 the world's tallest, fastest rollercoaster, the Big One, then the Ice Blast vertical ride, and in 2000 the world's biggest dark ride, Valhalla.

During the Eighties, Thompson purchased Magic Harbor, a theme park at Myrtle Beach on the coast of South Carolina. Back home, the business remained buoyant and, with visitor numbers on the increase, in 1987 a new railway station on the South Fylde Line was constructed by British Rail to bring visitors right to the gates of the park.

A year earlier, the Pleasure Beach had become one of the first companies in the UK to register with the Government Profit Related Pay Unit. Under this scheme the company agreed that, where profits exceeded £1m, 10 per cent would be distributed among the permanent staff according to their length of service. As the successful decade ended, the whole frontage of the Pleasure Beach facing the Irish Sea was redesigned at a cost of £9m to include a series of shops, restaurants and attractions.

However, underneath the success lay a number of practical difficulties. A disastrous fire in 1991 caused £10m worth of damage, destroying Joseph Emberton's wonderful 1930s art-deco Fun House, together with many historical artefacts. Though personally devastated by the loss, Thompson was able to turn a negative into a positive, quickly announcing his £12m investment in the Big One, timed to coincide with the centenary of the opening of Blackpool Tower in 1994. When the ride hit problems soon after its inception, the decision was taken, to extend the season for as long as possible. During the winter months the park began to open at weekends, a practice that has continued ever since.

Two years ago, Thompson achieved a lifelong ambition when he helped his mother lay the foundation stone of the £4m Big Blue Hotel, the first situated within the confines of the park complex. Further hotels were planned, as was the introduction of gaming as soon as the legislation was in place. In 1989 he had been elected a member of the English Tourist Board and upon his retirement from the organisation in 1997 was awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Tourism Award. He was also appointed OBE.

Thompson was an indefatigable worker for many causes. During the 1970s he campaigned to save Blackpool's magical Grand Theatre from the threat of destruction by its owners EMI. Under his leadership the Grand Theatre Trust eventually purchased the property in 1981; he was chairman for the next 11 years.

An imposing, urbane man, Geoffrey Thompson had enormous personal charm. His warmth and wit endeared him particularly to those with whom he disagreed. Even after a lifetime in the leisure industry, beneath the hard-nosed exterior of big business still lay the romantic visionary who remained steadfastly resolute in following his grandfather's mantra of "making adults feel like children again".

Kenneth Shenton

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