Dorset venue operator to be given £180m Fairfield contract

A social enterprise company which manages the Bournemouth International Centre on the south coast is set to be announced as the new operator for Croydon’s Fairfield Halls later this week.

Bournemouth International Centre: it’s good, but it’s hardly the South Bank

A council report revealed that the deal, which could last up to 15 years, may be worth as much as £180million to the operator.

But for legal reasons the council, which owns the Fairfield Halls arts complex, has withheld the identity of the winning bidder. They will be signing what amounts to a pretty chunky concessions contract, with the new management team retaining the money made from staging shows, plays, conferences and concerts in the Croydon venue.

Industry sources have indicated that Dorset-based BH Live, the operators of nearly 20 halls, arts venues and sports centres along the south coast, is to be revealed on Friday as the winning bidder.

Fairfield Halls would be by far the most significant venue BH Live has yet managed.

BH Live’s company website states that it has 3 million visitors per year and £35million turnover. Fairfield Halls could increase that latter figure by one-third.

BH Live manages the Bournemouth International Centre, the Pavilion Theatre and Ballroom with the town’s borough council. Among the notable events staged there recently have been concerts by Barry Manilow and Kylie Minogue, Premier League darts and the 2015 Liberal Democrat party conference.

Last year, venues run by BH Live hosted more than 500 events and welcomed 118,000 conference and exhibition delegates. Indeed, BH Live’s business appears to be stronger in conferences than in staging international calibre classical music, opera or ballet, and that may give some indication of the direction the Fairfield Halls may go, with income from conferences helping to subsidise a more community-based arts programme.

It is notable that Croydon’s council leader Tony Newman has not repeated his earlier boasts that the refurbished Fairfield “will rival the South Bank”.

Such an overblown claim was ridiculous at the time; with BH Live chosen ahead of London-based theatre operators such as ATG, who run the successful arts programme at the Wimbledon Theatre, and who are also understood to have been among early Fairfield bidders, it seems likely to be hard for Newman to live down his remarks in future.

“Bournemouth?” one council figure said when contacted by Inside Croydon. “That’s so very Terry and June. But then, given the Fairfield’s twee reputation in recent years, maybe it is a neat fit. “

The Fairfield Halls include a concert hall, Ashcroft Theatre and Arnhem Gallery. They all “went dark” last July for the first time since the complex was opened in 1962, so that they can undergo a much-needed £30million refurbishment. The closure also marked the winding up of the Fairfield Croydon Ltd, which had been managing the venues.

The successful bidders to run the Fairfield, which is expected to re-open in late 2018, have agreed to comply with the Labour-run council’s London Living Wage policy for all those employed at the Halls.

The Save Our Fairfield campaign wasn’t a front for Croydon Tories and vested interests. Honestly it wasn’t…

The value of the contract, which is estimated to be worth between £90million to £180million over the course of the 10-year term and a possible additional five-year option, is contained entirely within ticket sales and hall hires to be arranged by the operator. For Croydon Council, the deal represents a saving of at least £1million per year, as they will no longer be providing a subsidy to the venue out of Council Tax.

The closure of the Halls, instead of a more costly phased redevelopment, met hostile opposition from an organisation that called itself “Save Our Fairfield”. This campaign was readily identified as a bunch of vested interests and Tory stooges from the moment that the previous chief executive of the Fairfield Halls, Simon Thomsett, helped to put out chairs for its meetings and they set up a pretty shabby rendition of “Land of Hope and Glory” sung by a choir that included local Conservative leader Tim Pollard and Tory Assembly Member Steve O’Connell.

Over the weekend, Pollard published a 400-word rant about the Fairfield Halls operator selection process which contained not a single word about the quality of opera, classical music or drama which the new management might bring to the Halls.

“For eight years, Pollard and Croydon Tories allowed the Fairfield Halls to rot, without any of the investment which they desperately needed, both for the buildings and for the cultural programme,” a Town Hall source said.

Peter Gunn: CEO of BH LIve

“It’s just pretty clueless, opposition-for-opposition’s sake stuff. Pollard’s statement showed that he’s more concerned about trying to score political points than having any genuine interest in Croydon’s cultural offer and future.

“A successful charitable trust would surely be the result that would guarantee the community and cultural outcomes that we all want?”

Peter Gunn, BH Live’s chief executive, declined to speak to Inside Croydon when approached about the imminent announcement, but his office directed us to call a member of Croydon Council’s press office staff.

Which we did.

“Can I get back to you on that?” was all the council press officer said before ending the call. Since when, they have not called us back to deny that BH Live is to be the new operator of the Fairfield Halls.

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3 Responses to Dorset venue operator to be given £180m Fairfield contract

  1. When I think of all the amazing bands and acts that used to be on at the Fairfield Halls practically every week in the late 60’s and 70’s, it was a cutting edge music venue with all the soul and tamla motown acts plus rock bands, it was exciting and it offered something to young people! What is wrong with you all? Why can’t you make it cool again, it sounds pretty dull if Bournemouth putting on Kylie Minogue is the height of expectations.

  2. Jonathan Law says:

    Think the most exciting or cutting edge thing Fairfield booked in recent years was a Max Bygraves tribute act. Don’t know who was doing the bookings in recent years but their musical tastes seemed to end before Elvis became a thing.
    The Fairfield had a great sound and could have continued to host a variety of modern and contemporary acts. If Wimbledon theatre could do it, then why not Fairfield. Maybe the venue needed to be updated so it could cope with a more rock and roll audience passing through it, but with Croydons oh so easy transport links to London, and so many venues disappearing in London itself due to Crossrail and redevelopment into expensive apartments etc, the venue could do well.
    Also make it so all live events could be filmed by a network of cameras and make it so bands could have their official video shoots from Fairfield halls like great rock bands like Free used to in the past. Then Fairfield can become a legendary venue that bands are keen to play like Hammersmith (Odeon) Apollo is.

  3. Lewis White says:

    I really hope that it all works out, for everyone’s sake and the sake of Croydon. A lot is being invested here, money and hope.

    As a 60 something I feel very worried about the future of classical music, when, at classical concert at Fairfield, over the last few years, I am one of the youngest in the audience! Will the new operator has the skills needed to “grow” a younger audience for the classical offering?
    To improve the accessibility and attractiveness of the Fairfield as a classical music venue, the halls will need to have some smaller, more intimate venues within the building. Going to , for example, a recital by a non-famous single pianist with a small audience in the huge space of the concert hall is akin to sitting in an empty pub or dining in an empty restaurant–a soulless experience, and not one to repeat.

    The restored Fairfield promises to be an architectural gem. The real thing. Does the new operator have the skills to keep the renewed Fairfield up to the mark, design wise?
    Looking at the picture of the Bournemouth hall, my heart sinks. If that is culture, I can do without it. Naff conferences in naff buildings with gold-legged red or blue banqueting chairs and pump-dispensed coffee. Yuk!

    It would be fantastic to see up and coming artists , bands and acts appearing in Croydon. It begs a difficult question– do the 02 or the Royal Festival hall host tribute acts?

    A municipal entertainment venue outside of central London can’t afford to be elitist, and needs to fulfill the current demands from the host community. Tribute acts must be loved by quite a large number of “locals”, willing to pay the price, otherwise the old Fairfield would not have booked them.

    The 1960’s Fairfield seemed to manage to attract the best classical orchestras, top pop artists and acts, and also have all star wrestling with top international performers. It managed to do the trick.

    I can’t help thinking that the audience aged with the hall, with new acts falling away, and the tribute acts and tours from aging “real” performers replacing them. But is that just a natural progression of the way that out of central London venues pan out? Can the venue be cool to all?

    Also, will the text generation actually want to go and pay money and put down their mobiles for a whole hour or two?

    That forces one last thought. Is the marketing going to call the venue London Fairfield Halls, or Fairfeld Hall Croydon? Watch this space.

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