CROYDON IN CRISIS: BHLive, the under-fire operators of the council-owned arts complex, have been accused of costing one of the borough’s top arts groups thousands of pounds because of their poor management of the prestige venue. By our arts correspondent, BELLA BARTOCK
Potentially hundreds of pounds in lost ticket sales, an unstaffed box office, closed toilets, lifts not operating, thousands of pounds extra spent to get a grand piano not provided by the venue, and not even the promised access to the in-house café for hard-working musicians to get a cup of tea during rehearsals.
Those are just a few of the complaints following what was supposed to be a gala concert given by the Croydon Philharmonic Choir, guest orchestras and around 120 performers in total at the Fairfield Halls earlier this month.
The Halls, owned by Croydon Council, are already the subject of a fraud investigation over the spending of £67million for a refurbishment that was incomplete and never finished.
But since the Halls reopened in September 2019 and got back into business following the covid lockdowns, there has been mounting criticism of the venue’s operators, BHLive, its skeleton staffing of the prestige venue and tissue-thin artistic offering.
Inside Croydon has obtained a copy of a long letter of criticism from officials at the Croydon Philharmonic Choir following what was supposed to be a triumphant return to the venue after two years covid-enforced absence, which followed the controversial three-year closure of the Halls for refurbishment.
The frustration of Croydon culture lovers is clear from some of the comments of those who attended the Croydon Philharmonic’s gala concert at the start of this month.
And according to the letter to BHLive, “It’s so disappointing that the venue is closed so much of the time, making it impractical for passers-by to wander in and pick up brochures, buy tickets or look at the posters for forthcoming attractions.
“The Fairfield Halls is supposed to be a cultural centre, but no one can get near any culture!”
The Croydon Philharmonic is understood to be seeking compensation from BHLive for the extra costs they incurred (like having to bring their own grand piano), but also for lost ticket sales because of the non-existent marketing by the venue and lack of box office.
The mismanagement of the Fairfield Halls has become a local election issue, with Mayoral candidates Andrew Pelling and Peter Underwood both calling for inept BHLive to be replaced by a Croydon-based trust whose expertise is in the arts, rather than in managing swimming pools and conference venues, which is Bournemouth-based BHLive’s main line of business.
Only Val Shawcross, the Labour Mayoral candidate, has demurred from demanding that BHLive should be sacked; it was Shawcross’s Labour colleagues who appointed BHLive.
With their status under scrutiny and their contract under threat, BHLive has recently appointed a new general manager at the Fairfield Halls, after the venue has gone more than two years with no artistic director. Jonathan Higgins joins from Rochdale and has quickly made conciliatory noises: “It’s Croydon’s venue, a community venue and everything else comes after that.”
And BHLive has responded to the Philharmonic’s letter of complaint by seeking an urgent meeting with the choir’s disappointed officials.
They seem likely to have much to discuss, and to address.
In the Philharmonic’s letter, they highlighted how BHLive’s own website promised that the venue box office would be open from 5.30pm on the day of the concert. But it wasn’t.
This deprived the concert producers of around one-fifth of their normal audience, many who arrive as “walk-ups”: people who turn up on the night ready to buy their tickets without messing around with online bookings or additional booking fees.
“Almost 20per cent of our ticket sales are taken in this way,” according to the Philharmonic.
“We tend to attract a mature audience and, given the covid situation, making a last-minute decision to come could be seen as more likely this time.” After all, who wants to pay for tickets for a concert and then get landed with a positive LFT on the morning?
Instead of a functioning box office, as you might expect at any top-flight concert venue, BHLive had a member of staff equipped with a tablet offering to make last-minute online bookings in the cloakroom.
“We queued for 20 minutes to buy tickets and had to deal with a cloakroom attendant who’d been told to sell tickets via an iPad,” according to one customer.
They said of the cloakroom attendant, “He had absolutely no customer service skills and very little knowledge of the seating layout but, to be fair to him, I doubt he was doing the job he’d been recruited for.
“Everyone in the queue was shocked to find they were being charged a booking fee at the door and weren’t even able to select their own seats. I am used to buying tickets on the door at major venues and it’s unusual to be charged a booking fee.”
The customer said that when the payment machine stopped working, they received no receipt. “We still don’t know if we paid for our tickets.” And instead of tickets with an allocated seat number, they were given a Post-It note with numbers hurriedly scribbled on it just before the concert started.
That didn’t work too smoothly, either.
“The seats we were allocated were already occupied, so we just sat elsewhere.”
There were also lengthy delays to enter the venue as venue security scanned concert-goers on arrival, leaving many to shiver outside on a chilly evening.
BHLive’s ticket sales policy, restricting the public’s choice of seats, also came in for criticism, as did the venue’s lack of any promotion of the concert through posters or the modern, digital screens positioned outside the Halls that were installed for the purpose during the refurb.
Some of the issues at the venue centre on the controversial refurbishment and the failures to carry out modernisation and up-grades that were promised and remain necessary, and which are largely outside BHLive’s control.
They are issues that remain nearly three years after building works, and Brick by Brick, handed over the building after “finishing” their refurbishment.
The Docklands Sinfonia’s double bass player happened to be a young, small woman. With no stage door lift operating – the refurb failed to replace the original, 60-year-old back-of-house lift – she was faced with the task of lugging her instrument up three flights of stairs.
As one of the performers on the night told Inside Croydon: “This is a cherished venue for south Londoners, which had a long-held reputation for musical excellence. The current managers have priced out many other community-based music groups and companies from performing there.
“It’s been a tough few years, but if we want the Fairfield Halls to be once again a venue that Croydon, and London, can be proud of, then BHLive need to up their game considerably, and quickly, or make way for others who know the arts and know what they are doing.”
Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture in 2023. And no, that’s not one of the jokes from Jimmy Carr’s latest racist set.
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