It's Strictly business

Smuggling Darcey Bussell. Managing McBusted and coping with a crowd of Craig Revel Horwood fans. Leading Blackpool Tower when Strictly comes to town may be like no other job on earth, but the rules of business success remain the same, explains Tower boss Kate Shane.

Once again, Strictly Come Dancing has provided its own sparkling brand of Blackpool illumination on a breezy November night. Yet for Kate Shane, General Manager of the Tower, the end of the weekend hasn’t meant an end to the bizarre situations in which she finds herself whenever the BBC visits. As the final pieces of sets and lighting rigs are loaded onto waiting trucks, she is busy smuggling judge Darcey Bussell and her family 518 feet into the air.

“I’d taken Darcey, Len and Craig to the top of the Tower over the weekend to record a piece to camera,” Kate explains. “Darcey absolutely loved it and couldn’t wait to bring her family back. I invited them to pay us a visit when they were in town. What I didn’t realise was they were there!

“So the next day, on the cusp of 11.00 as we were opening to the public, we had to smuggle Darcey and her lovely family in through the staff entrance, up the Tower and back down again.”

And if that is hardly business as usual, the rest of the Strictly weekend was really something.

Giving Strictly a big Blackpool welcome

“The biggest difference between the Blackpool show and the regular one is the audience,” reveals Kate. “In Blackpool it’s significantly larger. Everybody applies for a ticket online in a free lottery and just over 800 are invited to the Tower at 2.00pm.

“I arrived on Saturday at 7.00am that morning and loads of them were already there – some of them had been there since 5.30!Everybody has to go through security and then we give everyone a seat in the Circus Arena while rehearsals continue.”

Later that afternoon there’s the small matter of Dame Shirley Bassey’s arrival to manage – followed by a rather noisier reception for McBusted. “Our biggest crowds this year have been for McBusted and [former TOWIE star and presenter] Mark Wright.”

And then Kate gets a call. She’s needed at the entrance. A 300-strong crowd has gathered on the promenade, surrounding a people carrier sent to pick up judge Craig Revel Horwood. As they haven’t even started filming yet the driver is a little premature. Kate fights her way to the car, climbs in the passenger seat and explains to the driver that he needs to move before the police start asking awkward questions.

“When I looked up people were filming us. I’ve no idea who they thought I was.”

“The VIPs are in Jungle Jim’s”

Driver removed and crowd control back on track, it’s back to the Tower. “As soon as we get the nod from the production team that rehearsals are over we take everybody up to the Ballroom and get them in their seats.” Kate’s team then collects the VIPs, who are enjoying drinks in the unconventional surroundings of Jungle Jim’s play area.

“The warm up man, who’s brilliant, gets the audience fired up. The judges come in and do a little piece to the audience. And the judges or presenters do a few pre-recorded items – then the live show starts.”

Despite the urge to stay and watch the show (Kate is a huge fan – her ideal dance partners? Iain Waite or“feisty” Brendan Cole), there are 5 floors to patrol to ensure all is as it should be. When Kate finally gets home it will be 1.30am. It’s big pressure, but Kate knows that getting the weekend right, from the moment the BBC arrives on the Thursday to the moment the last trucks roll away, matters.

The Strictly effect

“The impact the show has on the Tower, the town and the whole North West is huge,” she says. “For the BBC to bring its flagship show to Blackpool and effectively endorse us is phenomenal. It gives me the perfect shop window for the Tower, and when people see us on TV and decide to visit it’s my job to make sure they love what they see, that they tell their friends, and that they come back again.

“It’s more than an event. There are so many positives that come out of it.”

Those positives are spread wider than the Tower itself. “The BBC brings the bulk of its technical kit and team with it, but additional AV work is carried out by a local supplier. And then there are the local taxi firms, hotels, caterers and restaurants who all benefit. We even gave out I © Blackpool shirts and mugs which were provided by Visit Blackpool because they were needed for a video clip.

“The Tower is part of an international organisation (the Merlin Entertainment Group) but whenever I get the opportunity to source my own suppliers I do it. I need to spend my money in the town because that keeps the money here. We don’t work in isolation, we’re part of a local business community – and I think for any business owner it’s important to remember that.”

Making it special

Why does Strictly return to the Tower year after year? It may be the spiritual home of British dance, but bringing the show to Blackpool is a logistical and financial challenge. Kate sees her role as making the decision to return an easy one- and a pleasure.

“If I was to give advice to any business it would be this: try and predict what your customer wants. Don’t wait until they ask. Because when you deliver what they want before they realise they want it, you surprise them – then they’re automatically onside.

"For us, part of that is coming up with ideas for pre-recorded segments that make the show visually exciting – we’ll open the Tower top, the Circus, the Dungeon. No matter what your business is, put yourself in your customers’ shoes. It’s not just a question of what do they need; it’s what would they like. That’s the extra mile, the something special that makes the difference."

Finding new markets

Ah, you might say. That’s easy when you have one of the country’s most iconic buildings at your disposal. But for Kate, as with any business, success rests on reaching beyond her ‘regular’ audience.

“Of course we have visitors who come for our core offering and they’re hugely important to us. But by making ourselves about more than our core offering we broaden our appeal.

“How can I make more people notice us? How can I make people see us in a different way? I’m not thinking about today or next week – that should have been addressed a year ago. I’m thinking about what happens next year, the next 5 years. How do we get on the agendas of people who haven’t had us on their to-do list before?”

Making the PR count

A prime example of targeting a wider customer base came with this year’s 120th anniversary celebrations.

“We got our profile out there in so many different ways – the recent restoration work chimed with architecture and heritage lovers. We asked for stories and pictures of parents and grandparents who met here, giving us a rich source of personal interest stories. By asking local schools to design flags and posters to celebrate the 120th we involved the community. All of that got us ‘out there’ in a way that was far more than ‘we’re a visitor attraction, come and buy a ticket’.

“So for any business, it’s what new angles can you explore. What can you do differently?”

Strictly in Blackpool 2015?

Before the Strictly team head back to London, Kate has a final meeting with the production manager to make sure everyone’s happy with what has been another successful year. But one thing that isn’t on the agenda (yet) is next year’s show.

“The team’s priority is to get back to London to complete the current series,” Kate explains. “Then, when it’s all over, everyone takes a well-earned break. I’ll usually call the production office at the end of January/early February and we’ll have a preliminary chat about possible dates. Schedules are put together in the spring and that’s when the BBC decides whether there’ll be an outside broadcast.”

“We all love coming to Blackpool”

It’s primarily a cost-based decision, as was the case when the show took a break from the town in 2012. But do the stars really want to come to Blackpool?

“Put it this way,” says Kate, passionately, “I talk to lots of members of the production team: the lighting guys, the rigging team, wardrobe, the professional dancers, judges and celebrities – and they’re all buzzing about Blackpool. To the celebrities it’s a school trip mentality. After weeks in the same place they all board a coach and head off somewhere new with their friends.

“You have to remember where they usually film [Elstree Studios, near London] looks incredible on screen but it’s a set, it’s not real. So when they walk into the ballroom – who couldn’t be blown away by that?” The day before talking to Blackpool Unlimited, Kate was at the filming of Strictly companion show It Takes Two. Chatting to presenter Zoe Ball, Kate couldn’t resist emphasising just how big a deal the show is for the Tower and the town. The presenter didn’t need any convincing. “Look,” she said,“I’m from Cleveleys. My mum and dad met on the pier. We all love coming to Blackpool - and long may it continue.”