The Blackpool Dance Festival goes to China
PUBLISHED: 00:00 23 February 2016
With a multi-million-pound revamp, ambitious development plans and moves to make it an international brand in China, Blackpool’s Winter Gardens are hot to trot. David Upton reports
When Michael Williams first worked at Blackpool Winter Gardens in the 1980s, he recalls having to put down a £1 deposit each night – for the dozen branded teaspoons entrusted to him as a teenage waiter!
Today, he’s more likely to be counting his blessings than the cutlery as managing director of the resort’s sprawling pleasure palace, and at a moment when it is enjoying a renaissance in its fortunes.
The building is nowadays owned by the resort’s council, but run by the Blackpool Entertainment Company which Michael agrees gives him the best possible arrangement to oversee its management and development.
‘I never, ever thought – back in the day when I was a student at Blackpool and Fylde College, and sometimes working at the Winter Gardens as a casual member of waiting and bar staff – that one day I would actually be back as MD!’, says this genial Wiganer.
College was followed by jobs in a golf and country hotel, roles in London and Chester and then on to his first job in venue management at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool. That led on to the Free Trade Hall in Manchester and later the city’s Bridgewater Hall when it first opened.
In 1998 he came back to Blackpool as part of the management team of Leisure Parcs, involved in the running of resort piers and the iconic Blackpool Tower building. His brief then widened to a resorts division that embraced everywhere from Eastbourne to Wales.
In 2010, Blackpool Council made a bold £40m move to take over the running of several of the resort’s major attractions. More importantly they were able to raise funding towards the extensive refurbishment of buildings that had sometimes been allowed to deteriorate, or – maybe worse still – had seen some of their finest features disappear behind the plasterboard and emulsion paint of the 60s and 70s.
As Michael conducts an impromptu mini-tour of his entertainment empire his pride in the revival of the Winter Gardens, and the restoration of many of its architectural and design features, is obvious.
Simply removing signage from above the main entrance on Church Street revealed a royal coat of arms to mark the official opening of the new Opera House theatre in 1939. It remains one of the largest auditoriums in the country, seating nearly 3,000 and its giant stage area is exceeded only by that of the Paris Opera House.
Indoors, some of the ornate tiling that adorned the building is now exhibited in glass cases in the Floral Hall, while original archive photographs show how this area lived up to its name with potted palms creating a virtual indoor jungle.
Some of that greenery has been returned for the present-day look and it helps the Winter Gardens re-create the feel of a year-round attraction, which is exactly Michael’s intention. ‘We are open every day of the year, with an incredible array of shows, events and attractions.’
Then there are the exhibitions, conferences and business lunches that can be hosted in 11 separate spaces around the building.
‘Whether it is the grandeur of the Empress Ballroom -internationally famous for its dance events but just as popular with music stars - the vast space of the Olympia or the more quirky surrounds of the Spanish Hall suite, each of the venues has its own individual character and heritage.’
That Chinese connection has led to an international marketing opportunity of which Michael is particularly proud. His suggestion that the Winter Gardens’ world-renowned Blackpool Dance Festival should launch overseas has been taken up by the company behind the Illuminasia attraction.
The first-ever overseas Blackpool Dance Festival will be held in Shanghai this August, with the annual May Festival continuing at the Winter Gardens. The home fixture, which started in 1920, is one of the world’s most prestigious annual dance tournaments attracting more than 20,000 competitors and spectators from more than 60 countries over a nine-day festival.
‘This is an historic opportunity for ballroom dancing and will further enhance Blackpool’s position,’ says Michael. ‘Over the past few years we have seen an influx of Chinese dancers competing in the resort and for us to take elements of our festival to China can only increase the number of dancers that will want to come and experience the magic. The tourism potential is huge, with more than 50 million Chinese registered as ballroom dancers!’
Another way in which the Winter Gardens is adapting to the modern challenges of the entertainment business is in the plans to create a Blackpool museum inside and around what had been the venue’s pretty Pavilion Theatre. A meeting with experts from the Victoria and Albert Museum was the next item on Michael’s agenda the day we met.
The ornate and intimate theatre space, parts of the original Victorian fabric are now 137 years old, would become a £21m museum, but one in which the Pavilion’s original stage might again come alive with daily performances.
Meantime Michael and his team have to supervise a roster of big name shows and West End musicals lined up for 2016. Already booked in are The Sound of Music, Dirty Dancing, Avenue Q, Blood Brothers, Save The Last Dance For Me and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
‘Every day is different and I have the best team supporting me,’ he affirms. So even on big opening nights – when his regular staff of more than 100 can swell to double that figure – it’s not out of place to find him manning the door, or even clearing tables. But nowadays he probably draws the line at counting the teaspoons.