This winter the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions (BALPPA) reached its 75th anniversary. Park World editor Owen Ralph sits down with a group of former/future BALPPA chairmen to share their reminiscences about the association and the British parks industry in general.
Our panel includes current BALPPA president John Collins OBE (ex-Barry Island Pleasure Park/Tussauds Group), John Bollom (Mumbles Pier), Gary Smart (Harbour Park, Littlehampton) and Marshall Hill (Funland, Hayling Island).
BALPPA chairmen past and present pictured at January’s 75th anniversary dinner. From left to right: John Collins OBE, Gary Smart, Adrian Mahon, David Cam, Richard Pawley, Colin Dawson, John Bollom, Roland Mack (IAAPA chairman) and Tim Batstone
What would the industry in Great Britain have been like 75 years ago?
John Bollom (JB) – It was very much families and individual members, not corporations.
Marshall Hill (MH) – A lot of them were showmen operating at the seaside.
John Bollom (JC) – Yeah, Billy Butlin was a showman wasn’t he? He had all the hoiday camps and was one of the founder members.
JB – George Booth from our company Amusement Equipment was also a founder member and then when dad [Stan Bollom] took over the firm, he joined the BALPPA committee in about 1950, or the AAPP as it was in those days. Leonard Thompson from Blackpool Pleasure Beach was always the guiding light of it really; whatever he said went. My father received a phone call from Leonard: “Bollom, you don’t come to the meetings do you?” “Well no Mr Thompson, we are concessionaires of yours at Blackpool and we don’t think it’s right that the hare runs with the hounds,” dad replied. “Nonsense, you’ve got your own parks at Alexandra Palace and Southend. There’s a meeting tomorrow, come and pick me up at Claridge’s at 9 ‘o’ clock.” It was a bit of a scary meeting. The first item in the agenda was to elect a chair. Leonard Thompson said, “Well we’ve got Bollom here now; he’ll take the chair.” So the first ever meeting my father attended he was elected the chair! He actually became the association’s longest-serving member, and chairman twice, once in the ‘50s and then again the ‘70s
What were some of the early challenges for the association?
JC – It was formed as a reaction to the government wanting to tax games of skill, midway games.
JB – That’s right, they called it the “coconut tax”! There were big regional differences among prize payouts in those days. The idea was to create a single voice for the industry.
JC – There were also huge problems in the early ‘50s during the Festival of Britain. Festival Gardens at Battersea was way behind schedule and the LCC [London County Council] appealed to the industry for help. Leslie Joseph came in from Porthcawl and really sorted it out; it opened on time and that ultimately is why Leslie was knighted, for saving the embarrassment of the government.
What are the benefits of BALPPA membership?
JB – What’s great about this association is the exchange of information and knowledge. A lot of new members when they come in really don’t understand the openness between the members. From Merlin down to a little guy like me in Mumbles, there’s always something you can learn from somebody else.
MH – You’ve got to be in it to win it, and if you don’t go to any of the meetings you are not going to find anything out. I had a conversation with one of my partners and he said it’s a waste of money, so I told him we’d just got a £25,000 rebate on rates and planning. Where does he think I hear about these things? If it weren’t for us sharing information as members we would never know about all these issues.
Gary Smart (GS) – Then there’s the trade associate members. On a summer meeting, a supplier gets to work a coach load of operators. They can sit and talk, and it’s just a nice relaxed way of meeting people over several days.
In conversation (left to right) are Marshall Hill, John Collins and Gary Smart
Why are piers a special part of the industry in Great Britain?
GS – Piers are a great icon of the seaside, there’s a sort of British quirkiness about them.
JC – Most of them were built at a time when Britain really set the standard for worldwide engineering, and they are very unique structures, whereas in North America many of them have been replaced with concrete jetties.
MH – You don’t see many piers in mainland Europe do you?
JB – Most British people have a soft spot for them, but we have been losing one or two piers a year in recent times. The exception to the rule was Weston-super-Mare and that was only because the individual involved had the wherewithal to do it.
Beyond parks and piers, how has BALPPA widened its membership over the years?
JB – The only exclusion that we used to have was local authorities, although Southport Corporation was one of the founding members, presumably because they were operating Pleasureland.
JC – As Alton Towers developed and other inland parks started appearing, it seemed reasonable to welcome other types of visitor attractions, whether that’s museums like Beamish or more recently farm parks.
How did the emergence of inland “theme park” Alton Towers affect you as seaside park operators?
JB – I think you have to give credit to John Broome for creating what was the first UK theme park as such. It raised the bar generally, and John was the first one to bring American standards of operating to the UK. I remember you would go up there and he had pavement-scrubbing machines to get rid of chewing gum. I didn’t even know these things existed!
GS – He did things properly. But it was all about the Corkscrew [looping coaster]! He spent the previous summer touring round looking at all these things, came back, put the Corkscrew in, and that was Alton Towers. That ride was in all their marketing.
JC – It was actually Geoffrey Thompson [Blackpool Pleasure Beach] who brokered the deal on the Corkscrew. I was with Geoffrey when he introduced John Broome to Roland Koch, the German operator. Overnight he created the opposition to his own park, but that’s how kindhearted Geoffrey was. The Revolution [looping coaster] came soon after at the Pleasure Beach.
The Corkscrew at Alton Towers, pictured here in 1981, really put the park on the map. Image courtesy National Fairground Archive
Would you accept the proposition that theme parks have never really caught on in the UK?
JC – I think “theme park” is a very overused phrase. I think there are very few true theme parks in the world, and certainly the UK.
MH – Look at the American Adventure, it just didn’t happen did it? And they threw enough money at it.
JC – I have to say I was a real idiot at Barry Island because I tried to take on the theme parks by putting in a jungle boat ride …in South Wales. I must have been nuts!
GS – I do think a certain theme should run through your park. There is nothing wrong, because we are at the seaside, with giving our restaurant a bit of a maritime theme, putting in few ship’s anchors etc.
JB – It’s more branding than theming isn’t it?
MH – We are trying not to make things look so much like a fairground anymore, so we’ve got rocks around things, flowers, landscaping.
GS – I think we have evolved from being fairgrounds at the sea to amusement parks, and now we are adding theming, but you are right they are not true theme parks as you might see in some other places.
Did the arrival of Disneyland Paris make much of an impact in the UK?
JB – I don’t think that it has really had the impact that anyone expected. I remember going to the opening with dad and we all thought this was going to be the be all and end all for Europe and it hasn’t, for whatever reason. I don’t know if it’s the cost or the weather, but people I speak to all say the same: they’d rather go to Florida.
GS – I think the inland British parks have had far more impact than Disneyland ever did. I think that may also have something to do with Disney being seduced in going to Paris rather than Spain.
JC – Paris had much more potential than Spain, but that site in Spain is where we built Port Aventura [with Tussauds]. It is realising its potential now with between three and four million visitors a year. I think the biggest problem that Disney had in Paris was they over capitalised at the beginning, and they are still trying to dig themselves out of that.
What was the reason for the formation of Europarks?
JC – It was formed by BALPPA together with the German association VDFU as a way of getting together to have a say in what might or might not happen transpire within the European Union (EU).
GS – What we worried about was legislation coming out of Brussels without any monitoring whatsoever. It served its purpose very well and we did actually chase down a few threats, but now IAAPA Europe has taken over and carries a lot more weight.
How has industry changed in Britain in recent times?
GS – There’s been an enormous social revolution in the last 20 years. Tastes have changed, there’s more disposable income, people are travelling more overseas.
MH – We mustn’t forget Sunday shopping, that’s affected us. Sunday used to be our day.
JB – We used to be the only game in town; we’re not now.
MH – Now Saturdays are better days because of all the divorces, you get all the weekend dads down.
JC – I don’t think we want to be encouraging divorces now do we!
MH – And then at half-term you get all the grandparents bringing the grandkids, because their parents are all out working.
GS – The grey market has become quite a key market, however when the education act came in the early ‘90s, stopping trips to the seaside, we lost the school groups almost overnight. There used to be a healthy trade with coaches coming down to the coast from South London, you’d be very busy in June and July; every Monday to Friday you’d be packed. That trade has basically gone. I have no idea, but I am guessing the Olympics will not be good for us this summer either.
Blackpool Pleaasure Beach c.1937. Leonard Thompson was a founder AAPP member and his son Geoffrey a leading light within BALPPA. Image as used in the book Blackpool Pleasure Beach – More Than Just An Amusement Park
A lot of British parks have closed in the last decade. How do you survive at the seaside?
MH – Margate, Rhyl, Redcar, Spanish City; it seems lke every year we loose one don’t we? Because people are sitting on property that’s worth a lot of money, they sometimes have to make quite a hard decision.
JB – I think there is now a genuine spark of recognition of the importance of our industry to seaside economies. In a lot of seaside towns we are the major employer, and when an attraction goes the affects are huge.
MH – The typical seaside park is 5 acres, but we’ve got a lot of big parks around us – Thorpe, Chessington, Legoland – and we simply can’t compete with them, so we target families.
GS – We know though that if we have good weather – sunshine – then when the kids are off school we will get them and they will come to use rather than go inland.
What progress is the association making on ongoing issues like VAT and daylight saving?
GS – I think the issue of VAT is one we must keep chiselling away at, because if you look around the EU there are others that have an advantage over us because of their lower tax rates. We can’t be blind to that. Daylight saving may happen. We got so far with it, but I’m afraid it gets mired in the Union (UK) politics, which are all up in the air at the moment. We’ve also been able to ward off several other threats. Last year’s Machine Games Duty (MGD), for example, would have been particularly serious for our members had it not been for the exemption we secured on non-monetary prize machines.
JB – Yes we have done very well to get the prize exemption. My concern with VAT is that whatever rate it came in at, it would not be the same in a few years. I actually remember when VAT was 5% – for everything – but I’ve only ever know it go up, not down.
Explain why London remains such an important meeting place for BALPPA members each January
JB – It all goes back to the old Amusement Trades Exhibition (ATE), which started at the Horticultural Hall around 1936 I think. A few years after the war it moved to Alexandra Palace, then onto Olympia and Earls Court as ATEI, before the show was sold about five or six years ago. It was a different era back then, it used be called meeting week; the BALPPA dinner was on Monday night, the Fellowship on Tuesday and then the BACTA [British Amusement Catering Trades Association] on the Thursday night.
GS – We have always held our AGM in January to because everyone was here in London anyway, and the dinner is a bit of a legacy from that.
JB – Now we have EAG Expo at Docklands, but I preferred it when we were at Olympia, and I think that’s why Euro Attractions Show (EAS) was a big success last September at the same venue. One year at ATEI we had a European rides show in Earls Court 2 and there was at one time a vision of doing a joint ATEI/IAAPA European show in London on an annual basis.
JC – We were dreaming even further, thinking there would probably only be two or tree such shows around the world – IAAPA in the States, London and then one in Asia or the Middle East. The first EAS was in London, organised by ATEI.
What are some of your fondest memories of BALPPA’s summer meetings and events?
GS – We always used to have one year in the UK and then one on the continent somewhere. Geoffrey [Thompson] suggested Torquay, he said it was really nice and recommended a hotel. When we got there and it was just like Fawlty Towers, I don’t think Geoffrey had actually stayed there since the 1950s – they really hadn’t touched it since!
JC – When we used to go to Europe you’d have quite a fair itinerary, two or three parks a day. We’d be on the coach all day and then suddenly Geoffrey would spot a signpost. “Oh look, a model village! Shall we go and do that?” So off we all went to the model village…
JB – You talk about memories, but it’s all about the people really. People like Geoffrey, and Pat Evans who could really make you laugh in a very strange way. I remember a German trip where we were in Munich and a reception had been arranged for us. We were all stood there drinking champagne when the mayor came over. “Ah Mr Evans, have you been to Munich before?” he asked. “Only as a bombsite!” Pat always spoke his mind – and more besides.
Where will the British parks industry be in 10 years’ time?
MH – I think we will see more Thomas Lands and Peppa Pig Worlds appear, that’s for sure.
GS – Yeah more branding definitely, the new generation are used to brands in everyday life and we have got to recognise that. This industry has got a record of being able to spot the social changes and adapt.
JC – Looking from the outside to a degree, I think you won’t find three better examples than those people and families sat around this table. When they are so involved with ownership there are ways and means of bucking the trend or moving that little bit faster in the marketplace.
GS – My boys have just come into the business in the last three years and they bring new thinking that challenges the old thinking, and that’s entirely right.
Peppa Pig World at Paultons Park, part of a growing trend in recent years for branded attractions
AAPP to BALPPA
Formed in November 1936 by a handful of 11 families, the Association of Amusement Park Proprietors (AAPP) became the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions in 1986.
Today the association represents interests of over 180 operating members, in addition to over 100 trade associate members. The current BALPPA chairman is Merlin Entertainments’ Adrian Mahon, while former BALPPA and IAAPA chairman John Collins OBE serves as the association’s president.
Well regarded within the corridors of power, BALPPA has been said to ‘punch above its weight’ when it comes to lobbying activities. Currently on the association’s agenda is a fight to reduce the level of VAT (tax) on tourism and an appeal for ‘daylight daving,’ which would bring the UK into the same time zone as the rest of Western Europe and give most BALPPA members and extra hour of daylight in the evening. A continuing source of interest to the membership are the UK’s gambling regulations, reflecting the importance of coin-operated gaming revenue to operators on the coast.
As well as its political activity, the association provides a social programme, including get togethers at various trade shows and events, an annual dinner in London, and tours to parks at home and abroad during BALPPA’s summer meetings and autumn regional meetings.
There now follows a list of the 11 founder AAPP members, proving just how strong the industry’s roots at the seaside are:
•Leonard Thompson, Blackpool Pleasure Beach
•Oliver Dalton, Brighton Palace Pier
•HFB Iles, Dreamland, Margate
•Cyril Bertram Mills, Olympia Circus & Fair, London
•FE Williams, Kursaal, Southend
•William Butlin, Butlin’s Holiday Parks
•GE Booth, Amusement Equipment Ltd
•Robert Parker, Blackpool Tower
•Alderman Wood, Southport Corporation
•DF Warren, Merrie England, Ramsgate
•E Kingsman, Clacton Pier
•Albert Hargreaves, Fleetwood Pier