Colin's career in play

In one way or another, Colin Dawson was involved in indoor play between the mid-1980s when he took over as general manager of Thorpe Park, and his retirement from the role of BALPPA chief executive in 2010. He was on the judging panel of the inaugural BALPPA Awards for this sector last month and we caught up with him afterwards

How did your involvement in the leisure and attractions industry begin?

I came into the attractions sector by accident. I was group marketing manager for the organisation that owned Thorpe Park and we lost our general manager. The deputy manager went in for a pretty difficult year and then the Board asked me if I’d be interested in the role. So, in 1986, I took it on and I stayed there for nine years.

Our USP was that we had a lot of water, but that was also a damnation because we had so much of it! We used our water resource to our advantage, by creating an inland beach with a major water slide and suggesting to people that they didn’t need to go to the seaside because we had everything they could possibly need on the edge of London! We positioned ourselves very much as a family attraction with a top age limit of about 15 and had no ambitions to move above that. Now of course Thorpe Park is known for its amazing extreme ride portfolio.

The main problem we had was that as a single leisure entity in a very large group – the buildings materials company Ready Mixed Concrete Group (RMC) - we couldn’t offer the return on investment that they could get elsewhere in their business. So we were always fighting for capital and it was hard to position the Park with sufficient differential against Chessington World of Adventures, just nine miles up the road, and Legoland, which came on the scene nearby at that time.

It was probably the best job I have had – thoroughly enjoyable.

What did you have in the way of indoor play at Thorpe Park?

We had a very large indoor-play centre there, which we called Carousel Kingdom. It was originally a dark ride, which had outlived its life and needed investment, so we created this kingdom, the centre-piece of which was a double decker carousel, which was extremely unusual at the time. We themed the whole of the inside as a kingdom, with castle walls etc… and there was a soft-play area in one corner and various smaller play elements, as well as a large ball pond. That worked well; the only problem being it wasn’t a stand-alone attraction, it was part of the standard entry ticket, so it was difficult to make money out of it. Parties were quite simple, because they were managed and controlled and they got the Thorpe Park Rangers (five characters we designed) to entertain them. But it was always difficult to keep the other paying customers out of the area, so fact we didn’t, we just used to let them all in.

It never really got the attention it deserved as it was such a small part of the business in the great scheme of Thorpe Park and it was difficult to justify capital expenditure on indoor play when there were so many other demands. It doesn’t exist any more, they closed it down in the late 90s.

Where did you go after Thorpe Park?

I knew a guy called Jimmy Godden very well as he, like me, was a member of BALPPA, and he told me he was buying Dreamland in Margate and asked me to go and run it for him. If I thought capital was difficult to get hold of at Thorpe Park, it was a hundred times harder at Dreamland! I was successful in getting quite a chunk of grant money from Europe and other places, which allowed us to do the initial development.

Dreamland didn’t have indoor play originally, but we put it in. We bought a very large frame from a park in Italy that had opened and then gone bust within six months. We gave it a wizard theme and opened up the imaginatively named Wizard’s Wonderland! One of the easiest things I did was buy a wizard costume from a show in the US, which nobody had ever seen before in the UK.

Unlike Thorpe Park, it wasn’t a one-price admission, so we could sell it separately, and of course, it was open year-round, which was a big for us as a lot of our attractions were seasonal. I found a very good Portuguese lady to run it and she put her heart and soul into it, so it became very successful. It was still operating when I left, although it’s been turned into a disco roller rink now. They do have a very nice indoor-play area again though, themed by a company called Meticulous. They’ve built a lovely area that I would describe as part play, part learning.

Your next stop was BALPPA. How did that come to pass and what were your biggest achievements?

I joined BALPPA in 2001 as chief executive. It was one of those chance things; I was a past BALPPA chairman and I’d been on the board for a few years. I was thinking of moving away from Dreamland when the chief executive of BALPPA resigned and one of the other board members said ‘you should do that’.

The main thing that interested me was the political element of the job. I had no experience of that, but I was very aware of the amount of legislation and red tape that leisure businesses had to deal with, of course. Things like health and safety and licensing on gaming machines were big issues - there were a lot of battles to be won and positions to be defended. I found myself in and out of the Houses of Commons and Lords on a regular basis, having to get involved in a lot of committees to ensure there was a wide and good level of understanding of what was going on in leisure.

I think the greatest thing we achieved was the reduction of accidents within the industry. We worked with other trade associations to increase the amount of regulation relating to testing and more importantly the testing procedures. Registering inspectors correctly was a big part of it, so we knew that people with the right qualifications were carrying out the tests. That wasn’t just the amusement parks, it was on an industry-wide basis, because that was the only way we could work with the Health and Safety Executive. We all had to agree, so there was a significant selling job to get everyone accepting the same standards. But the consequence was that over a three-year period, we reduced the accident rate in the industry by 78%, which was huge.

It was important that we got the politicians to understand that this industry takes safety very seriously and we never missed an opportunity to remind them and update them.

We almost got daylight saving introduced, which would have been a great achievement too. It would have made such a difference to members in England to have that additional hour of trading time. We had some studies done that showed quite conclusively that the attractions business would generate a considerable additional income if we extended opening hours.

Generally, tourism stood to gain significantly. We got as far as a Second Reading of a Private Members Bill, which is no small achievement in itself, but the strength of the Scottish lobby was our downfall.

What part did the indoor-play sector have in BALPPA during your tenure?

I was chief executive until 2010, when I retired. I made several attempts to bring indoor play into the association. Cost was always a factor – trying to maintain the level of service that provides the benefits BALPPA brings requires what to smaller businesses can seem a significant sum of money as a membership fee. I tried to open up special packages for play centres, based on the elements of BALPPA we thought would best benefit play centres.

That was reasonably successful from a very low base, but I’m pleased with what has happened since, in that play centres have come in in a major way, through the FEC sub-group, and now play a significant part in BALPPA’s membership. From a political position, it makes it easier to talk to parliament from as wide a base as possible – politicians are always interested in numbers and percentages.

Having judged the indoor-play awards – what were your impressions?

My first impression was that the levels of investment are considerably higher than they were in my day, which is good to see. It is now without question a stand-alone sector in the leisure and attractions industry, a long way from the ball pool, a climbing frame and very little else. The standard of submissions was pretty high and it’s clear from them how seriously people are taking this business and the amount of money they are prepared to invest. Not to mention the amount of money some people are prepared to pay for their children’s birthday parties, which is astronomical!