I’m barely fifteen minutes into my interview with Xscape’s creative director, Robert Warner, when his face takes on a look of incredulity as he tries to vocalise what it was like to work at The Millennium Dome. Warner worked as show and events director at the beleaguered attraction for three years, and it was there he met his, now business partner, PY Gerbeau. Just by the look on his face, you can tell it was a life-changing experience.
“The Dome, oh my goodness, how long have you got?” he says. “I worked on the project for three years, so I was the only executive member of the management team to start and finish. All the positive messages of the Dome didn’t get communicated through the press. It was a political stick to beat the Government with, at a time when it was New Labour and Cool Britannia. Whether it should have been built or not, I don’t know. It’s very ambitious to build something for a year and open it on New Year’s Eve, which is the worst time to open a tourist attraction. It had a very aggressive business plan. We then had a major problem on New Year’s Eve when everybody got stuck in queues because we had coded bomb messages, so security had to be ramped up. All the odds were stacked against The Dome, but for me it was a fantastic experience. No commercial entity could survive under that press scrutiny. It was like being the band leader on the Titanic.”
Forty year old Warner is not your typical marketer. Although he is responsible for the marketing and PR of Xscape’s other two centres in Leeds and Milton Keynes – its third in Braehead is due to open in April – he hasn’t ever held a conventional marketing post. His background is almost exclusively in theatre, until the Dome. He’s been responsible for lighting, set and costume design for over 200 repertory and national touring productions, including opera, dance and musical theatre and spent 10 years at Chelmsford Theatre staging large scale open air events. He believes this background actually makes him a natural marketer.
“When you have your own business and you put your own money into a theatre production or a big open-air concert, you suddenly become the best marketer ever, because as soon as you put those tickets on sale you need them all to sell,” he says. “You quickly becoming savvy to what works and what doesn’t. Now if you get the right PR, it’s a really good tool to promote yourself in a certain way. We don’t do PR stunts as such but it’s another good way of communicating the message.”
Xscape has just hired Nation1 for its launch campaign for Braehead, but Warner’s quite clear on how the centres are marketed and promoted. “Once we open the centre, we don’t run a conventional marketing campaign,” he says. “Big chunks of our marketing budget is spent on events and entertainment. We don’t do very much advertising once we’re open. Pre-opening for Braehead, we will do a fantastic, clever quirky advertising campaign, which will hopefully capture the imagination. The awareness is quite good already, but we’ve got a fantastic PR campaign to implement. We’ll have a huge launch night on the 6th April, where we’ll get in to bed with a media partner. We want people to say ‘I remember when Xscape Braehead opened, that was a fantastic experience”.”
The first Xscape was opened in Milton Keynes by investment firm Capital Regional, but it wasn’t particularly successful. “It didn’t have the numbers it needed,” Warner admits. “The ski slope was 3 months late in opening, people were coming with huge expectations and were going away disappointed. It was doing about 2.5 million visitors a year and tenants were queuing to leave the building. Then PY and I came in to turn around the consumer experience. We turned it around very quickly. It opened with a very niche, extreme sports advertising campaign. It was aimed at the urban snowboarder and skiers. So my mum, who’s a big spender, would never have gone there with her grandchildren and bought anything in the shops, as there were no children’s clothing. It was not a family destination. It’s now the most successful leisure scheme in the UK, last year we brought in 6.3 million visitors at Milton Keynes. We managed to get those visitor numbers up by softening the brand, making it much more accessible to families and letting people know what Xscape was, that it’s more than just a ski slope. Of the visitors at Milton Keynes, 380,000 came to use the ski slope, the others were using all the other facilities.”
Each of the centres has snow slopes, but also have supplementary entertainment such as cinema screens, bowling lanes and climbing walls. Milton Keynes boasts a 3000 capacity nightclub. There are also the required restaurants and ‘urban lifestyle’ shops. Warner believes the key to the centres’ success is a focus on the core entertainment. “The whole experience at Milton Keynes was dramatically changed,” he says. “We changed the look of the place, we looked at the customer service, we looked at the pricing structure. One thing I learnt at The Dome was you never dilute what the experience is. If people have a fantastic first-time experience when they come to your venue or a good meal in your restaurant, they will recommend it to four or five people. If they have a bad experience, they’ll tell twenty. So we ringfenced that quality of that experience.
“We have agencies to get us open and take us through the opening period, then we buy in as and when we need it,” he says. “We don’t do retainers. It’s not music to the ears of agencies but we looked at all the money that was going out to agencies and there are a lot of very poor agencies that just get lazy and take the money. We’ll appoint people to very specific projects. If they do a great job, then we’ll get them back.”
Warner has a close relationship with Gerbeau. “PY has a real interest in the area that I cover, as he’s got the expertise in marketing and PR,” he says. “We scream at each other and have arguments like you would never believe. But it’s really healthy as we work great together. What I don’t do is put very much to paper as it’s always in my head. There’s that usual tension between creative and the chief executive.”
One of the events which has been a success in Milton Keynes is naked skiing. Warner’s not convinced the Scots will get into that. “We’ll get the place open first,” he laughs. “I’m not sure people in Scotland would take their clothes off, they’re very modest.” But it is Glasgow......
Tell you what, you get a lot of mag for your money with @TheDrum - worth a read this morning - and they didn't even pay me to say that...