BLACKPOOL is a fitting end to this series on British tourist resorts. It claims to be the biggest seaside town in the UK, the best-known and the busiest, proud of its reputation as the place to go for down-to-earth fun.
It was built as a working class playground and has never tried to shift its focus from that core market. Blackpool is a modern pleasure palace, brash and proud of it.
Assistant tourism director Jane Seddon spells that out: "Blackpool is a whacky, tacky, wonderful, tongue-in-cheek resort. It is what it is; what you see is what you get. If we tried to say we are a four-star resort then we would quickly suffer as some of the southern resorts have."
What other town council would allow a Grade 1-listed building of the architectural magnificence of Blackpool Tower to have a giant, inflated King Kong hanging from it and describe it as a new fun feature?
The UK's best-preserved working tramway system boasts tramcars with garish mobile advertising hoardings instead of the subdued municipal colour scheme of the past. Entertainment ranges from summer shows and pub sing-alongs to the two most outrageous comedians in the country, Chubby Brown and Bernard Manning, who regularly do summer season shows.
Pubs can put on strip shows and hardly a civic head turns; the trendiest bar in town at present is a transvestite showbar. People go to Blackpool for simple, unsophisticated fun; to sit in a deckchair with a stupid hat on and not feel stupid, to stroll along the promenade late at night singing Abba songs and get cheers, not jeers.
Yet, while those who come to Blackpool are guaranteed a good time, many of those who live in Blackpool and have businesses that depend on the good-timers are not so happy. There is a side to Blackpool that the reveller does not see.
Blackpool was built in a period when there was only one way to visit it: you travelled there by train or bus and stayed for a week. Its popularity led to a huge building programme of simple lodging houses; row after row of Edwardian terraces with shared walls and bathrooms.
Blackpool's 3,500 hotels and guest-houses flourished until the late 1960s when tourists' expectations of weather, facilities and scenery changed with the opening up of Spain. Along with the boom in car-ownership and motorway connections into the heart of Blackpool, a big shift began in the holiday business. Ironically, in the wake of these better communications Blackpool started to develop into a second holiday, short-break destination.
Short breaks were already in place in one respect with the popular Blackpool Illuminations, which light up five miles of the promenade in the autumn and are promoted as the greatest free show on earth. Free, that is, to the tourists. It costs local people £1.6m to stage, of which £1.46m is raised through appeals to local businesses and visitors.
The timing of the Illuminations is clever. The lights are switched on in early September, when the summer staying trade drops, and continue to the end of October, extending the season by two months and increasing visitors to eight million. Illumination business for hotels and guest-houses today is as strong as it was 30 years ago. Most are full at weekends and midweek bookings are healthy.
The situation today is that those hotels and guest-houses that have upgraded facilities, offered flexible dining and marketed aggressively are doing moderately well. The smaller units that are under-capitalised and run by people who cling to the memories of how Blackpool did business 30 years ago are struggling.
Blackpool is over-bedded with accommodation of a basic standard that is unacceptable to tourists other than those who just want the lowest possible price. These businesses are unlikely to recover and are difficult to sell. As such, many are destined to become Department of Social Security hostels, which is a worrying trend for Blackpool, or even worse, bankrupt, a disaster for their owners.
On a more optimistic note, within two years Blackpool hopes to clean up its badly polluted sea water. North West Water is building a new £150m sewerage system, which will mean Blackpool's sewage will be piped down the coast to Fleetwood and discharged through a pipeline three miles out to sea. When that happens, Blackpool expects to gain Blue Flag status and see tourists once again in the sea instead of just beside it. n
Long-term plans in train for short-stay visitors
About 99.9% of Blackpool's hotels and guest-houses are family-owned and run, and many of them have been trading for years. Eileen Fullard has run the Warwick House Hotel just behind the Pleasure Beach for 17 years and has seen a lot of changes to the business.
"When we started, 90% of the business comprised week or fortnight stays. This is down to about 25% now. It's a short-break business with people ringing up a few days before they want to come."
This has meant a change in the way Fullard markets her business. She does a lot of last-minute advertising in provincial newspapers rather than relying just on the town's holiday guide. "But it has made it more costly to run the business with all the extra advertising and things like extra linen change."
Although business in the south end of Blackpool is family-orientated because of attractions such as the Pleasure Beach, there are still some extremely low room rates on offer. Even at this time of year, it is not difficult to find a hotel on the promenade offering an en-suite room at £15 a night including breakfast. Move off the promenade and the rate can go down to £12.
It is possible to get a profit from rates like that, explains Fullard, "but there's the VAT to come off and those who are not on VAT will drop below £10 if they have to. There ought to be a minimum rate of £12 a night for bed and breakfast." n
BLACKPOOL Pleasure Beach is the most successful family-owned amusement park in Europe - possibly the world. Its last published turnover was £40m and this is growing at a rate of 8%-10% a year.
The rides are among the most spectacular in the world, topped by a 235ft roller-coaster, which opened last year at a cost of £12.5m. That sum is destined to be eclipsed in a few years, with final plans being made for an indoor ride that could cost £20m.
Group secretary David Cam says the 42-acre park was not affected by the change in tourism business in Blackpool to short-stay visitors. "Thirty years ago, 70% of the business would be from staying visitors and 30% from day visitors. That figure is reversed today, but we still get the numbers."
Growth in business has come from an aggressive £1m marketing campaign and an extension of the opening season. The park's popularity has also been boosted by a move into seated entertainment and an upgrade of merchandising and food.
Food is more than candy-floss, explains Cam: "Food and drink is now 26% of turnover. We have everything from chips to a French restaurant. Food is one of the few areas of the park where units operate outside of its ownership. There is a Pizza Hut and a Wimpy bar let out as concessions." n
CONFERENCES have always been big business for Blackpool, earning £50m a year for the town. These range from high-profile political conferences at the huge Winter Gardens, to smaller conferences and exhibitions at hotels such as the Pembroke (owned by Metropole), Imperial (Forte) and the Norbreck Castle (Principal).
For the 274-bedroom Pembroke Hotel, conferences and exhibitions are the biggest slice of the business, according to general manager Jan Asprey. She says they regularly have more than 20 events in a week.
"There's very little corporate business about as there is no industry in Blackpool. We have to attack the conference market very hard, but it's still tough. We should do 56,000 guests this year, the same as last year, but there will only be a marginal rise in business."
Leisure makes up the smaller part of the Pembroke's business, but it has to compete with the going rates in the town for leisure accommodation. The hotel offers a double room with dinner and breakfast at £47.50 per person with leisure use. That same room taken at rack rate during a conference would command £132.
Although few large companies have moved to Blackpool recently, in 1993 Boddingtons invested £19m in a Village Leisure complex at the back of the town. It has 166 bedrooms, an 18-hole golf course, leisure club and swimming pool.
Conferences make up most of the hotel's business. It targets those firms that would not normally choose Blackpool because of its loud image.
General manager David Banks says the hotel will achieve 73% overall occupancy this year, with 60% of that coming from conferences. "Companies want to come here because we have so much on site and Blackpool is there on the doorstep if delegates want it."
The leisure facilities on- and off-site mean the Village attracts a good number of weekend conferences, where delegates will bring partners and children, often staying on extra days. Despite the low rates offered for leisure breaks elsewhere in the town, the Village stays firm on weekend rates, says Banks.
"We ask £55 for dinner, bed and breakfast based on two sharing and we get it. We stick out for rack rate and won't discount - we don't have a need to." n
Closing the generation gap
BLACKPOOL Tourism Department first recognised that changes in its marketing strategy were needed back in 1972 when it commissioned a report that looked at, among other things, the age profile of visitors.
The survey showed the age range of tourists to be predominantly 35 to 55, with the suggestion that the way Blackpool was perceived by potential customers was as a "mums and dads" destination. The high-spending 18-to-30 age group associated Blackpool with family holidays and wanted something different.
Mike Chadwick, media liaison officer at Blackpool's tourism department, says they heeded this warning. "We decided we had to target younger people aggressively in our marketing. From 1972, all our marketing has been geared to attracting younger people and it has worked. We get a high proportion of younger visitors now. We have not forgotten the older people, but we need those younger visitors."
The marketing has worked, agrees the town's assistant director of tourism, Jane Seddon. "We are probably the only resort in the UK to have completely changed our visitor age profile, though we've just had some more market research that says we should be targeting the older market more, which we will do."
The latest figures on the age profile say that 43% of visitors are between 15- and 34-years-old.
With the demise of the traditional long-stay market drawn from industrial areas, Blackpool's tourism department is looking further afield. The Middle East is a small but significant market, with 10,000 visitors a year coming on package trips through Manchester airport.
Russia has been targeted in a deal with a Russian travel agent selling tour packages to Blackpool. "We're expecting about 2,000 Russians this year. That's not much but our Irish market started small," says Chadwick.
That is a reference to the huge growth in business to Blackpool from Ireland. Ten years ago there were fewer than 20,000 visitors a year, this year the forecast figure is 250,000. All are long-stay visitors, wooed by heavy marketing at Irish travel trade fairs and through advertising in the Irish press. In the past year, four Irish bars have opened in Blackpool and more are forecast.
Enjoying the biggest slice of this new Irish tourism is Principal Hotels, whose 361-bed Norbreck Castle Hotel has become a short-break mecca for the Irish.
The Norbreck Castle has marketed itself heavily at Irish travel fairs, says general manager Michael Lees. "They love the value for money and the all-day, all-night party atmosphere.
"It's about 8% of business at the moment, but we are predicting a lot of growth. The Irish stay longer - five-day breaks instead of two days - and they spend more when they come. They come as families rather than couples, which is one reason why we are investing in more children's facilities."
These facilities include a cinema and a children's play centre. The hotel is also recruiting staff from Ireland to create a homely feel for the Irish guests.
The business forecast for the hotel is that the number of staying guests will rise to 190,000 this year from 166,000 in 1994, with a 17% growth in room rates. Occupancy figures this year are well up on last year, with a forecast of 89% for July to September.
The Norbreck recently had a celebration weekend to mark the opening of a £1m conservatory, inviting conference and holiday buyers. So far, the event has produced £600,000 of bookings. n