A fire in July 2008 wrecked the Grand Pier’s pavilion and most of the rides and attractions inside it at the English resort of Weston-super-Mare. As the pier’s owner’s unveil their £51 million ($79m/€61m) transformation, Park World takes an exclusive look at the progress that has been made.
More than two years after buying the Grand Pier Michelle and Kerry Michael (pictured above) have yet to open for a full season. After that fire back in 2008, the brother and sister duo decided to a build a bigger and better pavilion to take its place but a catalogue of delays means that even now, at the end of the summer season, the Michaels still cannot name the date it will open (Editor’s note: It eventually opened in October 2010). Here Owen Ralph hears Michelle Michael’s story.
Why did you and Kerry decide to buy the pier back in 2008?
I think it was just such an unusual asset to own, they don’t come up for sale very often. Initially we were quite daunted by the prospect but as the weeks went on we grew to love the idea and thought, “let’s have a go, see if we can do something with it.”
Once we had been on there to have a look we realised it was very much the same as it was 20 years ago when we played on it as kids. It was a solid business that had been in the same family [the Brenners] for 64 years so we knew that we were buying something that even if you left it as it was would make you a reasonable return. However, we knew that if we made it even better then we could really be successful at it.
What is your business background?
We used to have a garden centre, which sold just before we acquired the pier, but our predominant business was mass-market insurance, things like extended warranties on sofas and electrical equipment in high street stores. We’ve now got our original insurance broking business, a number of hotels and properties that are ripe for redevelopment and two very large restaurants in Bristol.
Kerry’s background prior to insurance was always pubs and clubs and our family business is hotels, restaurants and off licences [liquor stores], so we’ve always had the food and beverage experience as part of our upbringing.
What were some of the initial changes you made to the pier after taking over?
The new go-kart track was one of the biggest. As well as the rides, all of the food, beverage and retail is run in-house and we went from around 40p per head spend on catering to around £1.80 [$2.75/€2.15] in the first few months. The biggest success story for us though was the retail. In the whole of the previous year the previous owners sold I think £29,000 of retail. In the six months up until the time of the fire we sold £360,000 ($555,00/€430,000); we had a good time with it.
How determined were you to rebuild after the fire?
I don’t think there was ever a time we thought we wouldn’t. The worst thing was that it happened on our watch. The previous owners had looked after it for 64 years and pretty much nothing had happened to it; we were the new kids on the block and all of a sudden in six months it was gone. That was a massive responsibility for us.
How did you go about it?
We decided to get the design right for the envelope, the outside of the building, and then we would employ a professional team to navigate us through the planning and building process. The important thing was that the new building should be as future proof as possible because we had to put our hands in our pockets, more than the insurance because it’s a bigger thing.
We wanted it to remind people of the old structure, so part of the remit for the architect was that it had to have four towers because the previous building had four towers but apart form that they were pretty much free to design what they wanted.
We’ve got two piling systems in there now, the existing one which holds up the deck and floor for people to walk on, and 64 new piles that go down 32-metres and hold up the new building, which is 60% bigger in bulk than the previous one.
Before there was only ever about 55% of the building customer facing because historically the previous owners were slot machine manufacturers and used a lot of the space for storage and work on site. Now we have about 95% customer facing.
What challenges have you faced along the way?
We had a massive challenge with the council and other interested parties, like English Heritage and Natural England, all of who have a vested interest in how the building in constructed and what it looks like. We had, for example, a problem with wildlife in the area and the hours we were keeping. English Heritage wanted to have a say in the way the new piles were interlaced with the existing piles.
We were building a quarter of a mile out to sea, and part of the pier only had a two-and-a-half ton weight limit, so we couldn’t take materials down the pier. We ended up having jack-up barges in the sea either side of the pier with cranes on top lifting the gear and building in situ. It was a very difficult working environment; in addition to this I think we had one of the harshest winters for about 30 years.
Who has been of assistance to you?
We met the chief executive of BALPPA [British Association of Amusement Parks, Piers and Attractions], Colin Dawson and his team, when we went on a summer tour to Germany. Immediately they made us feel very at home.
They came into their own after the fire when they were able to open doors to other attractions and allow us one-to-ones with their management teams. We have had behind the scenes tours in the UK, in Europe and internationally, thanks to BALPPA. These attractions don’t see us as competitors; they see us as colleagues, and we are very grateful. When we are open, I hope that we can share some of our best practice in return.
How frustrating have the delays been?
It’s been very difficult because we have a staff base we have been building up since the spring and we are still keeping those people warm for when we open. Absolutely everything we have done in good faith, but to be told on the 25th of June that we were not going to get they keys was disappointing. We have had a series of false starts since then, I think four dates that have been missed by the contractor.
I think the delays are down to a number of things, it’s a very big project that they could never have done without some subcontractors, the quality of everything has to be right, things have to arrive on time; there are so many factors. It’s been very frustrating and I think had we known then what we know now we would have written off this season and opened next spring. Once you start going into the winter, it really hasn’t got the same momentum.
You plan to stay open year-round though?
Yes. We really are building this facility as two distinct and separate businesses. The first one is the tourist season, which is basically the school holidays, and the second is the events business, which is very important to us. We are already getting about 40 enquiries a week on the events side, a combination or private functions, weddings, concerts and conferences.
It’s not a question of us thinking the season is over and resting on our laurels, in fact it’s the opposite. We are desperate to prove the model and establish ourselves as a serious player in the market. We want to pitch ourselves as a mini indoor theme park, so it doesn’t matter if it’s raining, we’re open every day and everything will run every day. If it’s beautiful day outside, fantastic, we’ve got 800 seats for you to sit out on the deck and fantastic views from three floors. I think something else that will sell us is there’s no entry fee. Piers have always been perceived as value for money, and I don’t see we will be anything other than that going forward.
How big is the “holiday at home” trend in the UK?
I think it’s happening more and more each year. We’ve all got used to getting in a plane to go and get some sun, but it’s only about the sun. If you take the sun away from some resorts, what have you got? Very little. The UK’s got so much more to offer if you stay and look, so much more culture, more heritage, and much more for the kids to do at the seaside. If people can save on the airfare and spend it on their family, it makes the holiday.
I think there’s also a lot of “glamping” going on, people who wouldn’t normally think about camping, but who are finding facilities popping up all over the UK with a touch of class. We have got bit of a problem with the guest accommodation in Weston, although within 12 miles of here we have got 5,500 beds on caravan sites, one of the biggest in the country.
How did you choose the rides and attractions?
When people get inside the pavilion we want them to have whatever they had before, plus a lot more. So all the old attractions like the Dodgems, the Helter Skelter, the Fun House; all of those are there, plus a brand new go-kart track. Then we went around the world looking at different kinds of attractions and picked the best of what we could find.
We have a 50-seat 4D cinema. What’s good about that is it’s flexible use, we’ve just got Sky TV to give us 3D football, you can do presentations and you can hire it out privately. We’ve got the very first double laser maze in the world, that has generated a lot of interest when we take people around.
I think the biggest wow factor is our Robocoaster. When we saw one in Germany two years ago it was bolted to the floor of the facility. We have elevated ours onto a plinth in the main pavilion and it sits about 15ft in the air. It’s as much about theatre for those looking at it as it is for those riding it. It is the most expensive piece of kit we have in there but I think it is the probably going to be the most widely talked about.
On the outside of the pier there is some feature lighting, it can change colour, pulse or be static; it’s quite a unique thing. We wanted to emulate the effect of fireworks and have a little light show going on.
How much room is there for expansion?
We have got two attractions that are not on yet. One is Surf’s Up, a surfboard-style ride that will go on top of the canopy, very visual. The other is a panoramic tower at the rear of the pier. That will be very tall, 90-metres, looking out across the bay. The tower will be an attraction in its own right and you can get married on it too; even better!
I think you could probably build more outside on the canopy, you could probably change the shore end buildings. As regards the main pavilion, some of the rides are built into the fabric of the building so you’d have to think carefully before removing any of those, but we are great believers in reinventing ourselves, so we will never stand still.
Built in Britain!
Where possible, Kerry and Michelle Michael have tried to use local contractors to rebuild the Grand Pier. This includes British attraction suppliers such as Simworx, Gravitron and Pan Amusements.
Based about an hour away from Weston-super-Mare in the town of Stroud, Gravitron built the Michael’s original go-kart track in 2008, but has played a much larger part in the pier rebuild.
“We were very happy with the previous track,” confirms Michelle Michael. “We started our conversation with Gravitron about a new go-kart track but they have ended up building another six attractions, including some things they’ve never turned their hand to before. It’s been great process for them and fantastic for us.”
Spanning the upper two levels of the pavilion building, the track twists and turns over a 300-metre course and comes equipped with 22 of Gravitron’s own single-seater electric karts and a floor pick-up system. A double loading bay allows maximum throughout put at peak times.
Gravitron’s background is in electric drive systems, hence the go-karts, and it also supplies products such as “aqua kart” boats and amphibious vehicles. The Grand Pier project, however, has been a much bigger test of its skills.
As well as the go-kart track, the company has also built a Dodgem track, again with floor pick-up but this time with 20 Soli bumper cars, a Ghost Train (House of Horrors), three-tier Fun House (Crazy Circus), Crystal Maze, Psychedelic walk-through show, a pair of intertwining slides inside one of the pavilion’s four towers, as well as a pair of land trains to ferry visitors along the pier deck.
Most of these attractions were decorated by ’Matt,’ a local airbrush artist who counts many truck drivers and travelling showmen as customers. The Psychedelic show is particularly interesting. Inspired by an attraction on the German fairground circuit, it features a labyrinth of corridors filled with light effects that come alive when guests don the provided light-refracting glasses.
“Our strength is in one-offs,” says Gravitron founder and technical director Morgan Nicholas, “however we have the capability to develop a wide range of attractions for parks and travelling fairs. The Grand Pier has opened up our product range and proved to be a bit of a shop window.”
Located on the first floor of the pavilion, the pier’s new 4D theatre was supplied on a turnkey basis by Simworx. This 51-seat installation utilises full HD 3D projection, a Christie high definition sound system, special effects lighting and numerous 4D effects such as seat vibration, water spray, leg ticklers, wind blowers, low smoke and bubbles. Films will be changed on a regulars basis, but include such titles as the fast action Ravine Racer, pirate adventure Curse of Skull Rock and spooky but fun Dracula 4D, all by Red Star Studio. The flexible use theatre will also be used to screen 3D football matches, for presentations and private hire.
“Having decided to install a 4D theatre, Simworx was the clear winner when it came to choosing a supplier,” says Kerry Michael. “We are delighted with the results.”
Visitors looking for high octane thrills will enjoy two attractions by Moser’s Rides, including a 13-metre Freefall drop tower and Frisbee-style mini Sidewinder. What it lacks on capacity the Robocoaster (by Kuka), makes up for in impact thanks to its strategic placement overlooking the main hall of the pavilion and its mass or arcade games.
A world’s first for the Grand Pier is a double Laser Maze installation by Funovation, where players crawl through tunnels against their opponent and against the clock whilst trying not to break the green beams of light.
Also located inside the building is a large children’s play area, three Cruden simulators, a Pan Amusements pirate-themed shooting gallery and a birthday room. A total of 29 food, beverage and retail operations are spread across the pier, with several cafes and restaurants inside the pavilion taking full advantage of the views overlooking Weston-super-Mare and Weston Bay.
Update January 2013 – alarm company found at fault for pier blaze.