‘Free’ Switch–On costs you £265,000... but is resort’s big night out a price worth paying?

Switch-on: Peter Kay turns on the Lights.
Switch-on: Peter Kay turns on the Lights.
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The Gazette can today reveal the cost of this year’s Illuminations Switch-On event.But as the council faces brutal budget cuts, including how it financially supports the Illuminations, BRIDGET CHANDLER asks whether the resort’s annual Lights’ party is still worth the expense.

A year ago Blackpool’s embattled taxpayers were left with a whopping £372,000 bill after the town’s annual Illuminations Switch-On party was beset by problems. The gamble of introducing a ticket price for the first time sensationally backfired.

Blackpool Lights Switch On 2014.'Pictured are Little Mix performing at the illuminations.'29th August 2014

Blackpool Lights Switch On 2014.'Pictured are Little Mix performing at the illuminations.'29th August 2014

Add to that headline act The Script pulling out 48 hours before the biggest night in the resort’s calendar and you had the ‘perfect storm’.

Not even Take That star Gary Barlow – riding into town like the heroic white knight – could save the day as just 4,824 people turned up for a gig later slammed as a “farce”, “disaster” and “the flop of the century”.

In the post mortem which followed, the council decided to go back to basics, get a radio station involved and revert the show back to a free event.

Cue the widely-applauded night on August 29 when Peter Kay arrived in town to switch on the Lights and pop stars Little Mix, Pixie Lott and George Ezra got an estimated 18,000 people dancing on The Tower Festival headland.

Blackpool Lights Switch On 2014.'Pictured are the fans watching Union J.'29th August 2014

Blackpool Lights Switch On 2014.'Pictured are the fans watching Union J.'29th August 2014

While tourism bosses heralded the return of a free event as a major success, the question was asked: “How much did all this cost?”

Blackpool Council has revealed to The Gazette that the cost of staging this year’s Illuminations’ Switch-On weekend was £420,000 – with the taxpayer picking up £265,000 of that bill.

Of that £265,000– £230,000 is met through VisitBlackpool’s £500,000 events budget.

The £35,000 shortfall will also come from the VisitBlackpool pot.

Cash-strapped council bosses clearly see the cost as money well spent and point to the amount of positive publicity the event gleaned for the resort.

But at a time when council budgets are being hammered by savage Government cuts, staff have lost their jobs and essential frontline services compromised, can Blackpool afford to spend £265,000 on a big annual party?

Then again, given the people and trade such an event brings to town, can it afford not to spend it?

There are those within the tourist industry, who make a living off the back of the Lights, who say the historic show has to happen – the Illuminations, quite simply, need a high-profile curtain raiser.

Those in charge of this year’s three-day event say it was an overriding success.

Entry to Switch-On night was via free wristbands obtained through a ballot and follow-up gigs on Saturday and Sunday were both ticketed affairs.

Council chiefs re-iterated a “free” event is what the public wanted after the heavy criticism of last year’s £34 ticket prices.

Coun Graham Cain, Blackpool Council’s cabinet member for tourism and leisure, said: “I think most people were delighted with the Switch-On weekend with record numbers attending the fabulous free event on the Friday night and very high quality performances on the Saturday and Sunday evening.

“The purpose of the festival – starting Blackpool Illuminations season with a bang – was fully achieved with coverage worth more than £750,000 at a local, regional and national level.

“Our ethos from the outset of this year’s event has been to return the main Switch-On to a free event which is clearly what the public want.

“We won’t rest on our laurels though and our job now is to ensure an equally good show next year.”

The council is facing major budget challenges and the historically untouchable Illuminations are not out of scope.

The Lights will continue to receive its £2.2m council funding over the next year but new ways of paying for the attraction are being explored – this could even include charging people in future to drive through part of the Illuminations.

And there are those questioning the annual cost of the Switch-On show and asking whether it could be funded without such a huge burden on local taxpayers.

In defence of the 2013 event, former Marketing Blackpool boss Natalie Wyatt told The Gazette, last September, that the usual cost to the council of staging a free one-night Switch-On – even with a radio station partner – was around £170,000.

Hotelier Claire Smith, owner of Number One St Lukes, South Shore, and president of the Stay Blackpool holiday group, said she was not opposed to the main Switch-On show being a ticketed event in a bid to mitigate costs.

The simplistic maths, based on this year’s estimated crowd of 18,000 (excluding VIP packages), would have meant a £5 charge bringing in around £90,000 –a £10 ticket price £180,000 – which could help offset costs.

Mrs Smith said: “Switch-On 2014 was a brilliant weekend and the council did a fabulous job.

“But I was disappointed that having taken the hit last year, when the tickets were £34, the concert on Friday night was free. Where on earth do you go to a gig like that and not pay anything?

“The Switch-On event lets people across the country know the Illuminations have started and we got loads of coverage. I feel though charging people something like £10 would go some way to reducing the shortfall.”

Coun Tony Williams, leader of the opposition Conservative group on Blackpool Council, said he would like to see the Switch-On event remain free but says the council should work closer with the private sector to keep costs down.

He said: “Anything after last year’s farce is an improvement, but I’m still disappointed the Switch-On is costing £265,000 – it’s still a loss no matter how you look at it. The whole event needs some professional thought going into it to see how we can make it into a money maker.

“We should look at how the private sector is managing events in Blackpool such as the Rod Stewart concert, which was very successful.

“The Switch-On event is important. It is a celebration – but the cost of bands and artists is increasing all the time.

“I still think the Switch-On event should be free, although I understand some people argue for a small charge and that could be a possibility.”

Hotelier John Grierson, of the Fairhaven Hotel in Woodfield Road, South Shore, is among those who feels the cost to the taxpayer is too much. On the £265,000 cost, he said: “That’s a ridiculous figure and a waste of money whether it encourages people to stay or not.

“We were full anyway, but it wasn’t because of the Illumination’s Switch-On.

“In fact, we had to tell people the Illuminations were being switched on. People just like coming to Blackpool for a weekend away.”

North Pier comic Joey Blower was heavily critical of the 2013 event.

And he questioned whether this year’s event could be described as value for money and called on the council to think about how the event could be more inclusive.

He said: “You could not go to the bank with a business plan that would lose £370,000 one year and then £265,000 the next year.

“It was definitely not the best Switch-On we’ve had – the year it brings in money or breaks even will be the best.”

He added: “I was at South and Central piers this year and there was no atmosphere. It was like someone had just turned the landing light on.

“The wristband idea is still a ridiculous one. It segregates people and stops people wanting to come to Blackpool.

“I see no reason why we could not open up the North, South and Central Piers for the event. There is land available next to all three piers that could be used for stages.

“I already have sponsors waiting if we could open more stages to the public. The council fails to see that we have an untapped source of sponsors for the event.”

Shirley Hunt, of the independent group Friends of Blackpool Illuminations, said the event needed support.

She said: “This year’s Switch-On was fantastic and a huge success but there’s always a different way.

“Careful attention needs to be paid so we retain the high profile and excitement while looking to keep costs down.

“We feel that with the cuts Blackpool Council is making, all businesses need to look at how they benefit from the publicity and see how they can support the event.

“Every taxi firm, burger van and paper shop in Blackpool sees their tourist season extended by weeks and weeks thanks to the Illuminations.”

Dominic Herdman, manager at Blackpool North Pier, believes this year’s event has led to much more of a positive feeling on the Prom.

He said: “As a trader we are always looking for more people on the Prom and the Switch-On provides that.

“The feeling after this year’s event was much more positive than last year.”

Mr Herdman added: “The resort is coming through a huge recession and it’s important we’re going in the right direction. If we’re spending less money than last year that has to be seen as a success.

“The key is making sure the event is more accessible to tourists for more people to visit the town.”

The cost

Cost of Switch-On weekend (including staging, road closures, media partnership with Rock FM, sourcing of acts for Saturday and Sunday shows, stewarding and medical services): £420,876

Income from ticket sales (Saturday and Sunday) and on-site concessions, sponsorship, merchandising etc: £155,000

Cost to taxpayer: £265,876

Council budget for the event: £230,000

Additional cash needed from this year’s events’ budget to meet shortfall: £35,876

Switch-On 2013 cost £775,000 to stage, took an income of £402,891 – meaning a total loss of £372,109

This year’s weekend-long festival began on August 29 with a free gig starring comedian Peter Kay backed up by bands Little Mix, Texas, George Ezra plus others. Around 18,000 people attended the show on The Tower Festival Headland after applying for free wristbands in a ballot.

Two concerts on the Saturday and Sunday night featuring stars of the West End and X-Factor singer Rebecca Ferguson both attracted estimated crowds of around 3,000 with audience members paying for admission.

The council budgeted a cost of £230,000 from VisitBlackpool’s annual events budget which totals £500,000. Other events to be funded from this budget include Blackpool Air Show, the World Fireworks Championships, Armed Forces Week, Showzam and Ride the Lights, Remembrance Day, and other smaller community events.

What traders said

Andrew Paterson, of the Rock-Dene Hotel in St Chad’s Road, said: “We have our regulars who come back every year for the start of the Illuminations. The cost of the Switch-On is definitely worth it.

“Our customers thought it was excellent value for money.

“It was basically a weekend’s festival for £20.”

Kate Hulme, of the Fairview Hotel in Albert Road, added: “At the end of the day every other resort shuts down at the end of August so the Illuminations make Blackpool.

“It’s definitely worth the money to have the Switch-On. There wasn’t a bed to be had in Blackpool.”

Lee Andrews, 36, who works in The Tram Shop at North Pier, said: “It’s a lot of money to spend on one weekend but it does bring people into the town. The more people that come the more money they spend. In my opinion it’s important to have specific events to publicise the Switch-On.”

Corrie Norris, of the Seabreeze Hotel, in Gynn Avenue, added: “If it wasn’t for the Illuminations we’d have no Blackpool. We have to look at the wider picture and how much money the Lights brings into the Blackpool economy – from hotel beds to spend in restaurants.

“I don’t feel the event should be completely free, I don’t think anyone expects anything to be free these days. A nominal fee of £5 would do or ask people to text to get into the event and use the money generated by the texts.”