'˜They said we were stark raving mad'
Entrepreneurs who had faith in resort celebrate major milestone - and issue rallying cry to others to support town
“When we got the keys to this place, our friends and family and others in the business said: ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’, says Leye D Johns, reflecting on the five years which have passed since Viva Blackpool opened.
“People were saying we were stark raving mad.
“We heard that people were saying we wouldn’t last six months; it was the wrong time and the wrong place to do something like this.”
It’s safe to say, today, as they celebrate five years since first opening the Church Street box office doors of their cabaret venue to audiences, that Leye D Johns and Martin Heywood have proven those doubters wrong.
With business partner Phil Jeffries, Leye and Martin ploughed Â£200,000 of their own money - selling cars and remortgaging homes, ‘willing to lose everything’ - into transforming the Mecca bingo hall, which had lain empty and abandoned for seven years, into Viva.
Leye and Martin met at the Alabama Showboat at Liberty’s Hotel, on North Promenade. Leye had been the star turn there for 15 years and Martin the sound and lights guy, but when they were let go from the venue, the idea of Viva was born.
“This time five years ago we were very much in nervous anticipation, not knowing what to expect,” Leye said. “I had followers from the Alabama Showboat, but were they going to follow us? Could we sustain the size of the building, could we get the audience? We had never run a business of that size and including things like staff. It was a massive eye opener with things like bills, the massive responsibility soon became apparent. Behind the glitz and glamour, it was that side of things which we had to learn.”
Within a month of opening, Viva had made its mark, and they grew in confidence.
“It took us by surprise to be really honest,” entertainment director Leye said. “Hoteliers’ and locals’ support was massive, which goes back to my Alabama days and we cherished that and went forward thanks to their word of mouth. Within six months we had to double the size of the bar - which was a really big thing, a marker of what we’d done. Anyone who’s been in there when it’s empty can see, it’s a huge, daunting venue, but we were getting full audiences very quickly.”
Initially, the Viva in-house show was the team’s focus, with Leye’s comic skits and Phil’s vocals, supported by Martin on the tech desk.
But they soon looked to branch out, and invited touring acts into the cabaret spot.
“Entertainment is not a trusting industry, it’s easiest and safest in a lot of ways to be dismissive of something you don’t know - whether a venue or an artist,” managing director Martin said. “And that’s something we faced when we started looking into artists coming in.
“You have to build a reputation and use that to get and to keep artists coming.”
Luckily many of the big name stars they’ve welcomed have enjoyed their Viva shows so much that they have spread the word about Viva.
Leye attributes the popularity of the venue with performers to their hands on, personal approach.
“I know how people want to be treated as an entertainer,” he explained. “If someone wants Champagne - pink - and egg mayonnaise sandwiches with the crust off, then we do that.
“We don’t let them down.”
The Viva Vegas Show is still central to the diary 52 weeks a year, but with the addition of in-house magic and tribute shows, as well as a busy calendar of touring star acts already booking up into 2019.
Until this year, much of Viva’s expansion has been somewhat hidden up in their first-floor property.
From the initial original Cabaret Theatre, they’ve added the Festival Suite often used for weddings and functions, and the Round Room, an intimate bar space.
But earlier this summer, the pair made a major statement of their future intent for the Viva brand, with the opening of the Viva Vegas Diner - at ground-floor level, right on the Promenade in what had been Harry Ramsden’s, so a prominent spot for a new food-led proposition.
The diner’s been part of a Â£1.2m investment in the business, and while the doors have been open for two months, it’s clear Leye and Martin are not yet happy with how it’s operating.But it’s refreshing to hear business owners candidly accept there are issues and assert their determined to put them right.
Leye said: “With the learning curve that setting up the diner has been, we weren’t quite in the right place with the entertainment when we opened, but we are working on it.”
“We really want the diner to be unique in all ways; the food presentation and quality, the customers’ enjoyment and the entertainment,” Martin added. “And when we get it right it really will be somewhere special to talk about.”
A CHANGING LANDSCAPE
Five years ago, the entertainment scene in Blackpool was not in a great place.
So it’s no surprise people questioned Leye, Martin and Phil when they announced plans for Viva.
Now, though, things are on the up across the scene.
“I think we’ve helped to lead that improvement,” Leye said. “People in the business around us are thinking ‘let’s take it up a bit too’, but we’ve been at the front of the things happening. Our success has helped the whole of Blackpool. Maybe places were a bit complacent at that time,” Martin added. “But now people have looked at themselves.
“Viva was never about competition in Blackpool, it was about complementing what was already there, and we continue to do that; we feel with are something different.Visitors to Blackpool have a huge choice of entertainment, more than anywhere outside London.
“Just in our immediate area of town, there’s now Las Iguanas, Harry Ramsden’s, the Beach House, the new Ma Kelly’s Showboat up the road, it’s nice to have all these things at the North end of town and all in the five years since we opened.
“There’s a lot happened in the last five years. For anyone who complains about Blackpool, you need to take a look around, and name me any town that doesn’t have its bad areas.”
AN EXPANDING FAMILY
This year’s in-house show cast is the biggest ever at Viva, with extra singers and dancers, joining the team.
But the biggest addition to the Viva family is Martin and his dancer partner Joanna Hilton’s newborn baby girl Alice Anne, who came along just two weeks after the diner opened.
“June and July have been the most stressful times of my life, since we opened,” Martin admitted. “We had delays with the diner, but circumstances dictated we had to open when we did and we did a remarkable job to get there.
“There were operational things going on at Viva at the same time too, so we were spread a bit thin - and then I went on paternity leave.”
Fatherhood has changed his approach to the business, especially to staff, having developed greater empathy with people.
“You get a new perspective,” he said. “People don’t get 4am emails from me anymore - which is funny, as I’m up at 4am with Alice.”
TO THE FUTURE
“I never ever take the success for granted as it can go as quickly as it came,” Leye said. “We never lose sight of where we are and reinvest all the time.
“I’d like to live in a castle, but that’s not what we do.”
Re-investment in the business now totals ‘in the high hundreds of thousands’, and they’re on to the next project.
Martin added: “We’re always looking to the next phase of growth, so it’s not often I get chance to stand in the room and say ‘Oh my God, this is what we’ve done’.
“It’s one thing to make capital investment in buildings, but we have already made investment in people and it’s a big thing for us - when your wage bill is just under Â£1m it’s important; our staff are our product.”
Having the capacity to employ its entertainment staff on a ‘salaried contract with a guaranteed income’, is another commitment from Martin and Leye.
And VIP, Viva Improvement Programme, is the first step towards establishing the Viva Academy where staff will get a full career progression training scheme.
“We’ve found recruitment quite hard, which is why we’re looking at this, and working with the enterprise arm of Blackpool Council and training providers to create something of a standard for the hospitality industry,” Martin added.
They’re now confident of Viva’s status as a ‘brand synonymous with fantastic entertainment and customer service’, and they want to take that further.
“We can look to either expand in Blackpool to to take it out to other parts of the country or world,” Martin said of their future plans.
“We want to put accommodation into the mix, like a mini resort offering to create an all encompassing customer experience; somewhere to explore the town centre from, without relying on the weather, that will be an attraction out of season.”
Earlier this year, the Viva show Oh What A Night, featuring The Jerseys, went on tour to 12 venues across the country and selling out shows of up to 700 people. The same show will tour to 40-plus venues next year.
“It was branded as a ‘Viva Blackpool’ show, showing the quality of entertainment available in Blackpool,” Martin said. “And the more we can showcase what we do in Blackpool the better - it’s a fantastic marketing exercise.”
MESSAGE TO THE DOUBTERS
While Leye comes from Barrow and Martin from Bolton, Blackpool is very much their home and where their hearts now lie, and they’re - quite rightly - proud of the resort and their place in it.
So what would Leye and Martin say to those who doubted and warned them off back in 2012?
“We’ve done exactly what we said we would do,” Martin said. “We are really proud of what we have done, and there’s been a lot of people help us along the way - and we thank them all.“It has been really hard work, with personal and emotional investment as well as financial.
“Joey Blower put something online the other day, about being proud of local people investing, like us, Basil Newby and others, and it was so nice to be recognised.
“We all want the same thing; more people in Blackpool. It’s a great town and needs to be recognised as a great town; if we can all work towards that, we are all laughing.”
• Celebrate with Viva Blackpool with a special offer of Â£10 entry to tonight’s Viva Vegas Live. The first 50 customers to book tickets by calling 01253 297297 quoting “Five Years” will qualify.