Giving the camel some more legs

It’s no great surprise to find stories circulating in the national press about a palace coup by sponsors of the Dome.

All right, the putsch has been categorically denied by the protagonist in this supposed conspiracy, the Tussauds Group (not itself a sponsor, but big in theme park management). Yet the air of treason and plot surrounding the stricken millennium project is only too credible. And for good reason.

Unless the miracle of Easter attendances materialises, it’s a safe bet the Dome will never reach its target revenue. And from the perspective of three months away, those attendance figures look pretty elusive. Whether the Dome was a good or bad idea scarcely matters any longer. The fact is it has become a helpless hostage to media-led opinion. Every small misfortune and example of incompetence – the latest being the government estate agency failing to buy the plot next door – is being relentlessly magnified into the ‘Curse of Dome’. Which member of the public could fail to be negatively affected by that?

The point is, what are the sponsors going to do about it? Nothing doesn’t seem a very attractive option. Every minute that ticks by makes Boots, McDonald’s, British Airways, BSkyB, Tesco, Mars and the rest look increasingly foolish for committing their money, and more importantly their name, to the project. It’s a question of judgement really.

Ordinarily, a radical relaunch would be in order. Admit the mistakes. Reposition the product, perhaps as a more exciting theme park destination; overhaul crowd control mechanisms to improve customer service; lower prices to rid the Dome of its perceived image as expensive; and engage in a promotion blitz to drown out negative media comment.

The trouble is, this is no ordinary commercial decision. Who would take charge of the planning and implementation? Lord Falconer, the government minister in charge? The millennium commissioners? NMEC chief executive Jenny Page – a career civil servant? Michael Grade? Bill Muirhead? One thing is for sure, it couldn’t be the sponsors: not with a sensitive public project of this stripe.

The Dome’s biggest problem has always been that it is a horse designed by a committee: there are too many stakeholders and no overarching idea to guide it. But, for a hobbled camel, it’s done pretty well in not falling flat on its face. It would do better still if the various parties acted on advice they must have received from sponsors. One useful idea would be to appoint an experienced operations director from their number and – here’s the important part – vest him or her with some real power to get things done.

Otherwise the Dome risks being remembered as a sad and insipid blancmange somewhere on the south bank of the Thames.

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