After helping Skegness’ Fantasy Island realise its potential in 2016, Ben Wiles, MD of Duff & Phelps, was the obvious candidate to rescue Dreamland in Margate from financial difficulties. Not only did he have the restructuring nous, but he knew the value of landmark seaside attractions. In discussion with Business Quarter, he talks about the challenge of dreaming big.
When Ben Wiles, managing director of global finance firm Duff & Phelps, received a hug from a burly Margate builder, he knew he had not only done his job – but saved many others.
Specialising in restructuring, bankruptcy and insolvency litigation, an enthusiastic embrace is not a normal part of his working day, but this was a special one. He had just led the turnaround of Margate’s landmark attraction and, after a failed attempt in 2015, Dreamland was finally back in business.
Indeed, for residents of Margate and Thanet District Council, the park was simply too important to fail, and Thanet District Council had already demonstrated their commitment with a compulsory purchase order many years earlier.
What the council needed, however, was someone with experience in restructuring British amusement parks, and Wiles’ work at Fantasy Island in Skegness a year previous put him top of the list.
“Fantasy Island was a very different attraction because it had been there a long time and needed a bit of work in terms of getting some systems in place and cutting out unnecessary costs,” he said. “By doing that we doubled the value of the place over the 19 months I was there and then sold it on to the Mellors Group, a trade buyer.
“That experience and the success we had meant we had a positive message to pass on and the case study came across the desk of Lloyds Bank, which had some lending into Dreamland, which was at that stage only one year on from reopening after a joint development between the Heritage Lottery Fund, the local council and private company Sands Heritage.
“It became obvious to me as soon as I got there that it needed a fresh direction and some diversification in terms of what it was offering. I think with businesses across the board they all need something unique that will keep bringing people back and although the Dreamland concept was good for a year, it needed more.
“This is the UK and you can’t just have a summer theme park, you also need an event to bring people from outside Thanet, so you need good food for them to eat and you need something for them to watch. From that point, we looked at the season already underway, which gave us a chance to understand the customer and what they wanted and were willing to pay for.”
Wiles had three Grade-II listed attractions to work with: the scenic railway, cinema complex and menagerie cages. But as well as celebrating years gone by, he knew it was imperative that the park offered futuristic entertainment in order to attract the family audience that would make Dreamland a success.
“At Dreamland there were stakeholders who wanted to maintain a theme park for the family and celebrate purely the historic elements of that, but the reality is that you have to be able to diversify and bring in something current in terms of entertainment and festivals. We had to come up with some fresh ideas of what we could do for them for an appropriate investment,” Wiles commented.
“I pitched the concept to Arrowgrass, a fund that had been interested in the project and its willingness to let us develop it was very important to its success. We were able to give the place one hell of a facelift and create spaces that were rentable and desirable for the visitors, but also celebrating Dreamland’s heritage by having the old rides restored and create somewhere people wanted to spend time and dwell while the kids were going off and having fun.”
Installing an outdoor event space for up to 15,000 people was one key strategy when it came to tieing the park’s many aims together. It was an ideal time to capitalise on Margate’s new reputation as a hip, upcoming town, and when it brought in the sold-out Demon Dayz Festival headlined by Gorillaz in the summer, Dreamland landed on the music venue map.
“The thing about Margate is that while it was on the up, the failure of Dreamland would have set it back five years, so having brought the investment into that site and the surrounding sites we acquired there is the opportunity for ongoing investment into the whole area – which gives us quite a buzz,” Wiles concluded. “Brighton wouldn’t be the same without the pier and Blackpool needs its pleasure beach – all those are landmarks and it was so fulfilling to be able to turn round another key place at Dreamland and make the locals proud of it.”