Style of Wight interviews – Alec Dabell, Managing Director, Vectis Ventures.
No theme park in the world can match the longevity of Blackgang Chine. Alec Dabell, whose great, great grandfather founded the popular family destination in 1843 knows, however, that no business can live on its history. After all, look what happened to the dinosaurs.
“I met some senior executives from Disney recently who would give their hind teeth to have the strength of tradition that we have here,” Alec said. “Whilst this is important, it isn’t everything. When I came back to the family business two years ago, I wanted to recapture the spirit of the company. We are all about stimulating imaginations, and I wanted us to use ours more.”
Alec is MD of Vectis Ventures, which runs Blackgang Chine and Robin Hill, both of which attract thousands of visitors every year: visitors which are not just important for the business, but for the Island as a whole, which is why Vectis Ventures plays an active part in the Island’s destination management organisation.(DMO)
He took over management of the business after leaving the Island to gain experience in different environments, spending time in the Army, before doing an MBA at Manchester Business School. He then embarked on what became a world tour as a management consultant, dealing with, among other things, the separation of Debenhams from Burtons, managing major change at CISCO, and the commercialisation of the International Space Station on behalf of the European Space Agency.
Returning was, for Alec, an opportunity to put into practice all he had learned. “We have been around for 170 years, and generations of people visit us and work for us,” he said. “We have always tried to develop imaginations, but as an organisation we weren’t living by that same principle. I want us to do what we say on the tin, so that all of us use our imaginations to give our visitors a better experience, and our staff the opportunity to develop. If a visitor has had a good day, it will be because the staff have made it so. They are the ambassadors for Vectis Ventures, but also for the Isle of Wight.”
Alec’s aim is to empower employees to improve, and one of his proudest moments was when both Blackgang Chine and Robin Hill won TripAdvisor gold standard status last year, as voted by customers, placing Vectis Ventures in the top ten per cent of businesses worldwide that consistently earn high praise from their customers. Now he wants to recapture what he calls ‘the spirit of the place’ to create an experience that people will always remember.
The introduction of Electric Woods at Robin Hill was a major initiative in 2012 extending the season and at the same time giving the Island a new family attraction, not just for visitors, but for residents too. There is nothing else like it in the South of England, as five acres of woodland are lit with magical effects, accompanied by ambient music, and it has proved to be a big success. This year, Blackgang Chine is literally going to make big news when it unveils its new zone … Restricted Area 5. It will feature the largest animatronic dinosaurs in the whole of the UK and is a major part of a recent multi-million pound investment into the business, and therefore in Isle of Wight tourism. Made to Alec’s specification in China, and lowered into position on the steep slopes of Blackgang by giant cranes, this new feature is set to make the jaw drop.
It is a major reinvention of Blackgang Chine’s Dinosaur Land, which has provided fun and memories for generations for 42 years. The ‘Restricted Area 5’ enclosure will house a mix of the old dinosaurs with the new generation of dinosaurs in an adventure style setting. Due to open at Easter, it will include an Argentinosaurus, bigger than a double decker bus, and the biggest animatronic T-Rex in the country.
It is the biggest new attraction to be introduced at Blackgang Chine since the roller coaster ride in 2005. As Alec explained: “What we wanted to do was take a fun experience to another level and introduce the next generation of dinosaurs for our next generation of visitors to enjoy. I believe we have achieved that with ‘Restricted Area 5’, a high security enclosure which contains the most colossal and incredible life-size moving dinosaurs. A visit is a must – but only if you’re brave enough!”
Blackgang has visitors who come back year after year, and one example is generations of the Craig family who have been visiting Blackgang Chine every year since 1977, making their visit in 2013 their 40th anniversary! Alec said: “We have always tried to generate excitement, and give people memories. This is part of that tradition. We have families who come here year after year, generation after generation, because we are quirky and a bit wacky, and we don’t want to lose that. One of the best bits about working here is seeing whole families, from toddlers to grandparents, chatting away as they head back to the car park or bus stop, having had a great day.”
“Our challenge is to maintain the tradition, to preserve what people love about the place, but to keep making improvements: preserving the past, but looking to the future. The basic story is the same, we need new ways to tell it. But we have to accept that we haven’t got the massive budgets of a corporation like Disney. We have to concentrate on making careful, steady progress. I remember at the European Space Agency, there was a big debate about how we could tackle the problem of writing notes in the micro-gravity of space where there isn’t enough pressure to enable you to write with a normal pen. NASA Technicians began working on new designs for pens that had pumps inside them. The Russians just held up a pencil! The lesson is that this doesn’t have to be complicated. If we just work as a team, encourage ideas, and use our imagination, we can give people more and more every year.”
Alec has already introduced improvements to the amazingly popular summer evening fireworks displays at Blackgang; is working on new features for next year; as well as promising something very special for Blackgang’s 175th anniversary in four years’ time. “What we are doing here is investing in tourism,” he explained, “creating experiences for people on an Island that has inspired everyone from writers to scientists, and is still the most beautiful place to visit in England, in my humble opinion.”
“We are investing in the infrastructure at Blackgang and Robin Hill, and in the staffing. We are backing the teams with more training and development because we want them to take ownership of their own parts of the business, to feel that they, too, can use their imagination to come up with new ideas that make coming here a special event.”
The financial investment this year has been the most significant for around eight years, and Vectis Ventures believes Restricted Area 5 will take the dinosaur experience to new levels, on the back of the latest 3D movie and the release of another in the series of Jurassic Park movies. The dinosaurs became extinct a long time ago, but they are certainly making a big comeback now: proof that past, present and future definitely can live together, Vectis Ventures style.