Agenda item

Question and answer session with Mr Paul Gregg, Apollo Resorts and Leisure

Minutes:

PG thanked the Task Group for the invitation.

Q1       Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your experience in the entertainments business, particularly in Scarborough?

PG      I have great experience of resort entertainments and theatres generally.  I did for many years present shows at the Futurist Theatre.

            I formed Apollo Leisure over 30 years ago building the company over those years to be the largest Theatre and production company in the UK owning or managing 25 theatre operations, 2 arenas, cinemas and sports facilities. By way of background, most of the situations were re-opened theatres which hadn’t done very well. A strong entertainments group has been built up now which puts on concerts at key resorts. 

Apollo was fifty per cent shareholder of Barry Clayman Concerts producing seasonal entertainment for six major resorts including Scarborough.  We produced Christmas shows and toured major musical and were the largest concert promoters in the UK presenting Michael Jackson, Neil Diamond, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and many others.

            The company was sold ten years ago to the World's largest entertainment company currently branded Live Nation.

Q2       Can you expand on your experience of running the Futurist Theatre and why you withdrew?

PG       The Futurist was originally built for summer shows.  Robert Luff discovered the Black and White Minstrel show and invested in Scarborough.  But entertainment has changed and become more sophisticated.  Television produces and gets rid of stars very quickly these days.  The Futurist building restricts the type of show which can be accommodated.

            The Futurist has, for many years, required serious investment not only from outside appearance, internal public areas, auditorium and the stage facilities.

            Sadly, the Futurist cannot accommodate major musicals or productions, the stage get in and the access together with the depth of the stage are not capable of hosting today's modern and highly technical productions.

            The programme of this year's attractions, mainly one night stands could be accommodated at the Spa, more so following the council's currently planned investment programme to improve the venue's facilities.

            Apollo left the Futurist because even with some subsidy it was losing £25k per year.

Q3       Have you seen Lynne Burton and Robert Cogo-Fawcett’s presentation?

PG       No but have read the reports.

Q4       Do you recognise their description of the theatre market place generally?  And in Scarborough?

PG       A lot of what they said was correct, particularly regarding the state of the theatre.  The difficulty with the Futurist is that it cannot stage major musicals (quality) due to the technology needed today. For the summer season at Blackpool they put on 'Cats' and the show ran for 20 weeks,  which indicates that if you have the right attraction in the right facility – there is an audience for it.

            But this is not just about the Futurist – everything is a compromise – the back stage facilities are not adequate.

            Given the right facilities it is possible that Scarborough has an audience for the new musical productions but without investment in a new theatre facility it is not possible to accommodate shows like Les Mis, The Lion King, Wicked or We will Rock You – all currently huge West End successes.

            The simple fact of life is that the Futurist doesn't work for today's major musicals.  Even with a £10M investment the shape of the auditorium doesn’t work.  When Robert Luff converted it – it was successful for what it did for those particular shows.

Q5       Are there any areas in which you take issue with Lynne and Robert from your experience?

PG       What is Scarborough's job as a town?  It's about attracting people in for holidays where they spend money.  There are many great facilities. 

            All could be accommodated at the Spa.  How can you get the best out of the Spa if operations conflict?

Q6       As a businessman working in the sector:

i)                What would you see as the challenges of managing the Futurist?

PG      I think the Futurist is now sadly a relic of days gone by and even with an investment of 8 or more million pounds will not become fit for purpose for the big musicals  the stage, auditorium, foyers – the whole set up is wrong.

ii)              What do you think the Futurist has to offer?  How does this compare with other venues in the town?

PG       Very little with the lack of major light entertainment stars and talent it will be difficult to operate without a major subsidy each year.

            The Futurist cannot offer a lot in its present state – unless £8m is spent on it and I don’t think this would “drive” a bigger audience, you can't take the revenue out of the building you want to.  It is a compromise.  The technical crew find the access very difficult and would rather go elsewhere.

iii)            Do you see the Futurist as being in competition with other venues in the town?

PG       The only competition is The Spa which also enjoys council funding each year to operate and without the Futurist would attract more attractions hopefully reducing the current trading deficit.

            The Futurist cannot offer competition.  It can only do what it does in a poor way. Robert Luff invested in the right shows for the right times as it was then.

iv)           How would you approach the challenge of running both the Spa and Futurist together?

PG       My view is that the operation of The Spa and if the Futurist were to continue then it is logical that one management coordinating marketing, booking of shows and events, ticketing, operational expenses for both venues would be advantageous to the town in many different ways, reducing operating costs, ability to cross market and sell more tickets, saving on overheads.

            Scarborough needs a joined up ticketing policy in the town.  Need all buildings to be able to sell tickets for all attractions.  Nowadays 80% of ticketing is sold on the internet.  If it isn’t easy top book, people often won’t bother.

v)             From your knowledge of the theatres market is there a niche market for a new smaller replacement theatre for the Futurist in addition to the Spa and Stephen Joseph Theatre?

PG       I think the offer in the town of The Stephen Joseph Theatre; The Spa and Open Air Theatre now bring a mix and balance to the resort attractions.  – A new smaller theatre would need a subsidy again and would then compete with Hull and York theatres for product and an audience.

            Scarborough needs to be different; a new 1800 seat theatre with state of the art back stage facilities could attract major musicals.  Opera and Ballet would complement the town's offer and bring a new audience to the resort and would in many ways improve the resort's profile, the economic impact on the resort's hotel and business during the out of season months.

            If you had the right attraction – people would come even in winter.  But would you be able to fill 1800 seats throughout the year?  This would need a large capital investment; it would be very difficult to obtain a good return and would be difficult to justify commercially.  It may be able to operate with a nominal subsidy each year.

vi)           How has the marketplace changed in the time you have been working in Scarborough?  What are the issues now?

PG      It's technically more advanced and the audience expectation has increased.  If the attraction is right people will travel e.g. the Cats production in Blackpool.  Manchester has its own population around the city and is able to attract audiences from Liverpool, Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Midlands.  Les Miserables ran for 18 months.  The production has to be the right one or people won’t travel.

            The main change is the lack of new talent in traditional resort terms, the audience is more demanding.  I believe that there is an audience that will seek out and travel to support new and current West End theatrical attractions during the out of season months.  London West End shows wouldn’t survive without 36% of the audience coming from outside London.

vii)         Does the seasonality of the Scarborough market cause any issues for a theatre operator?

PG       There is not a theatre in Hull, Leeds, York, Middlesbrough for a major musical to visit and then each production is a compromise from its original concept.

            Given the right event, production, show or concert Scarborough will attract an audience throughout the year.  The town can be very busy in January with some good weather.

            Scarborough is one of the more fortunate towns.  It's a destination that people come to throughout the year.  If the sun shines – people come.  As far as getting all year round audiences, Scarborough is not an easy place to get to, or get back, by public transport, especially in winter – this can work to its advantage over a resort such as Blackpool which has good transport links.

Q         Have you had experience of charitable trusts?

PG       The Empire, Liverpool was managed by a trust.  Merseyside City Council worked with a trust and raised money through the Arts Council and lottery support.  There are advantages to Theatres Trusts.

            Disadvantages – depends on the people in the Trust.  Needs to have a commercial focus – a practical trust.

Q         Did the Trust receive a subsidy from the Council for rent and operational costs?

PG       The City Council provided a subsidy of £¾m pounds per year.  We took it over without a subsidy and made it work. The Arts Council guaranteed us several weeks of major product, providing indirect support.  The Empire had a £11m grant for refurbishment and currently makes £¾m p.a..

Q         Are there many theatres that operate under Trusts and receive subsidies from local Councils?

PG       Many theatres are managed by Trusts and are subsidised directly or indirectly by Councils, eg Plymouth, Nottingham, Leeds, Bradford, Hull, York.  The Councils often grant aid the Trusts.  Some theatres should be able to operate on a commercial basis without subsidies.

            I enjoy opening theatres.  Trusts have opened theatres that have been “dark”.  I’ve been very fortunate in proving that it can work. 

            But looking at the Futurist – you can only throw so much time and money at it – it doesn't work.  The physical site it is on – I don’t think it can be done.  If you could knock back into the cliff and re-configure the stage – but there isn’t enough space to do this.  The stage is too small and needs new access and a new proscenium arch.  In the past we looked at a tiered site and this would have cost £30m years ago.

            You would be better off starting somewhere else with a box – there's just not enough space to do a proper job.

DJ thanked Paul Gregg and said the Task Group valued his experience.

 

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