Getting Dreamland Out Of Neverland

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Image: BBC

The news that Dreamland, the reimagined amusement park in reawakening Margate, is seeking a company voluntary arrangement (CVA) in a bid to avoid going into administration, is disappointing to say the least.

Ever since Wayne Hemingway unveiled plans to reopen what was once a magnet for seaside thrill-seekers, but more recently a derelict site at risk of being turned into a housing development, there has been a buzz of anticipation around this genuinely bold and inspirational project. Promising that  “It is going to be a success because it is a great idea in the right time and right place,” Hemingway could see the opportunity to tap into the “vintage” zeitgeist and create a multilayered experience, appealing to old and young alike.

As he has explained, “If you look at what is happening in the world at the moment, the best places in terms of regeneration are places which have fallen on their backsides and then been picked up by the young creative community who decided there is an opportunity there.” Deploying the creative expertise of his own company, Hemingway Design, and assembling a vibrant, experienced management team, Hemingway has overseen the creation of something that is simultaneously familiar – to the thousands who visited Dreamland in its heyday, but also to those who are living the vintage dream today – and yet innovative and undeniably modern in its approach.

So, what has gone wrong? Without wishing to join the inevitable band of sceptics who have predicted disaster from the outset, it is hard to deny that something has gone wrong: the CVA relates to almost £3m of unpaid debts. On top of that, Dreamland’s operating  company seems to have fallen out with the local (Thanet) council, not least because the council apparently only found out about the CVA via the media.

I’ve observed Margate’s palpable regeneration at close quarters over the past three years – including the huge impact of the Turner Contemporary art gallery, the rather less impactful “Portas Pilot” initiative, and the springing-up  of new, creative businesses in the Old Town – and I remain convinced that the Dreamland project is right for Margate. Nonetheless, it has a problem, and I’d suggest that the causes (and the solutions) are fairly obvious – and by no means unique to this project. So here’s my checklist of the issues – and the solutions – as I see them:

  1. If you are ahead of your time, build a bridge to the present: Dreamland is a reimagining of the traditional seaside funfair. That means it looks familiar, but it is also different: more knowing, more sophisticated. With his customary brilliant timing, Seth Godin posted a blog today that puts it perfectly: “While you’re busy not being pigeonholed, don’t forget that we pigeonhole for a reason. And if it’s too difficult to figure out how to pay attention to you, we’ll decide to ignore you instead. Make your magic, and make it easy for us to figure out…”
  2. Value is in the eye of the beholder: a new attraction with which I was recently involved, commissioned research to ascertain the headline admission charge they should set (£8) but decided to ignore the answer, and set a price of £10. Result? – a great deal of grief, in the form of negative publicity and reviews; and a disastrous shortfall in target visitor numbers. I remember, as a child, visiting Dreamland for £5 (that’s not true, but my point is that most people who visited Dreamland in the past will remember it as a “cheap and cheerful” day out.) The new Dreamland opened with a headline price of £17.95. I rest my case.
  3. The value of marketing is in the eye of the finance director: OK, I’d often argue this differently; however in this case I’d suggest that Dreamland needs to focus its marketing on building that bridge to the present. Hemingway has pointed out that the total budget for this project has been equivalent to the marketing budget for Blackpool Pleasure Beach; consequently the amount of free publicity generated has been both necessary, and impressive. Talking of Margate, Hemingway has said: It’s had a photo shoot in Vogue, four pages in the Observer, it had another shoot that was featured in the New York Times. The marketing of Dreamland will also be very important, and so far it has been done very well. You don’t just get into Vogue.” The issue here is, most of the people who currently visit Margate may not read Vogue – and they almost certainly don’t read the New York Times.
  4. The value of your brand is in the eye of the Customer: in other words, love your brand, but don’t be blinded to reality. In my opinion, a brand should never describe itself as cool – as Dreamland does. Let others do that for you. During its first summer season, Dreamland “owned” the lamppost banners running the length of the seafront. So what did it do with them? It simply made each banner plain, using a different colour from its brand pallette for each one. In its mind, Dreamland now “owned” the seafront: in reality, however, a vital opportunity to introduce itself to visitors and communicate its offer was lost.
  5. Get down and dirty: whilst having a coherent strategy to engage a very wide audience (“One of the things that is a challenge is that we’re targeting such a vast demographic. It is possible. Your grandma can like McDonald’s and so can a six year-old.”), it is obvious that Dreamland has focused strongly on the “world where vintage cool holds hands with modern design, and goes for a lovely beachside stroll.” The problem is, there currently aren’t enough of “the young creative community” to make a project of Dreamland’s scale viable. On two summer Saturdays in 2015, I saw Margate beach rammed with the sort of audience that might have embraced Dreamland at any time in its history: here was an opportunity to have a team of Dreamland marketers getting amongst them, offering them half price tickets or “2 for 1″s  – anything to make them aware, create a desire to visit and make it worth their while to take action. On another Saturday, during the Oyster Festival in nearby, deeply trendy Whitstable, I watched a packed, 12-carriage, London-to- Margate train literally empty out at Whitstable. Here were the “young creatives” – yet Dreamland’s brand, let alone a guerilla marketing team, was nowhere to be seen.

So where does Dreamland go from here? I have huge respect for the project and the team behind it, and I sincerely hope that it will get over this hurdle and go on to consolidate its role in the regeneration of Margate. To do so, I’d suggest it needs to take a step back, subject its strategy (and more importantly, its implementation of the strategy thus far) to a no-holds-barred review, and work out how to start making more money, fast.

I’d also suggest that its priority must be to raise awareness with the right people in the right way, and not to allow price to be a barrier to getting them through its doors and turning them into ambassadors for its brand.

And finally, I’d suggest that everyone reading this article should commit to visiting Dreamland soon, in order to support a project that deserves to succeed, and in doing so, demonstrate a convincing, compelling argument for “bottom-up” regeneration.

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