Pierre-Yves Gerbeau, the newly-installed chief executive of the Millennium Dome, has the task of staging one of the most impressive relaunches the world of marketing has ever seen.
Last week’s sacking of Dome chief Jennie Page and her replacement by former Disneyland Paris manager Gerbeau has sent shockwaves through the New Millennium Experience Company. Amidst the chaos, the NMEC is unable to say whether Gerbeau has any marketing experience, or a track record of attracting punters to visitor attractions.
But it is clear that Page’s dismissal reflected deep worries among the organisers – namely chairman Bob Ayling, who sacked her – about the Dome’s performance as an attraction.
The NMEC says Gerbeau has only been in the job for two days, and has yet to decide the exact nature of the changes and improvements he will put in place. He says he will consider cutting ticket prices, and look at every aspect of the Dome’s organisation.
A quick glance at the figures should assure the 34-year-old Frenchman he has a mammoth task ahead. The Dome attracted 360,000 visitors in its first month, or 12,000 a day, which is just under a third of the number needed if it is to meet the 10 million required for the project to break even.
Always eager to help a struggling product, Marketing Week has canvassed industry opinion and done what the NMEC has so far failed to do – listen to the experts. Specialists in marketing, tourism and leisure are already beating a path to Gerbeau’s door with suggestions for how the Dome can be relaunched, the negative press coverage turned around, and Blair’s flagship election platform saved.
Gerbeau has a lot to build on. A survey of 1,000 Dome visitors released by MORI last week showed that 75 per cent would recommend it to their friends and 16 per cent would return again later that year.
John Sorrell, an adviser to the NMEC and chairman of branding agency Interbrand Newell & Sorrell, says: “I think the Dome is a brilliant piece of work and so does almost everyone who has been. The problem is that it has had a lot of negative press coverage, which has turned a lot of people off going. This has generated further bad press, so that it has created a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Stephen Bayley, a design consultant who was creative director of the Dome before he stormed out, says: “So many of the problems of the Dome go back to the incompetence of the NMEC’s press office. It has no idea how to communicate a story in an interesting manner and you won’t find a single journalist with anything good to say about it.” True to form, the NMEC press office was unavailable to answer this criticism. One of Gerbeau’s first moves in the job was to transfer head of press Gez Segar to the new position of head of media strategy.
Even Sorrell concedes that an extremely effective marketing and public relations campaign is needed to counter the bad press.
Andrew Robertson, chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO, the agency which lost out to M&C Saatchi in pitching for the Dome ad account, says there needs to be a much clearer idea of exactly what the Dome represents and who it is targeted at.
Sorrell adds: “The marketing needs to communicate the idea that visitors have had a really good time. It needs to weave in a word-of-mouth element, both in advertising and through newspaper articles. It needs to focus on the experiences that visitors have had and why they have liked it.” Such vox pops only appear in radio ads but need to be extended to television ads too.
Another observer recommends spearheading an advertising campaign about the content of the shows and zones because little is known about them.
She says: “People need to be excited and intrigued to make the journey, and a lack of knowledge makes that impossible.”
Henley Centre director of consumer consultancy Martin Hayward says: “The Dome really needs to dissociate itself from Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson. Who wants to go to something set up by figureheads like that? It would be a good idea to make a popular figure the face of the Dome, perhaps someone such as pop singer and former Eastenders star Martine McCutcheon.”
A little celebrity help
Indeed, celebrity endorsement – essential to many a product launch these days – has been curiously absent from the Dome’s marketing. Where are Posh and Becks when you need them? Where is the Manchester United football team, or even George Michael?
Legoland Windsor sales and marketing director Wendy Neal-Smith is even more scathing. She says: “It should be given a new name. Dome is a very downbeat word and ‘doom’-like. The Millennium Big Top is much more fun and conjures up images of lots of live shows and bright colours. You could also paint the exterior.”
Neal-Smith says the NMEC should make more of the ticket distribution channels. “You can buy a Dome ticket anywhere you can buy a lottery ticket. That’s a lot of retailers who could work hard on the Dome’s behalf, so some kind of incentive scheme for them would be valuable – perhaps a retailers’ trip to experience the Dome for themselves.”
Another important factor would be to improve the experience of the Dome and thus the quality of word of mouth.
The first issue many felt needed to be addressed was actually getting to the Dome. Jeremy Aspinall, business development director at Senior King, an advertising agency specialising in the leisure industry, says: “The Government has not helped access by putting the Dome in a place that is only accessible by public transport. It is extremely expensive for families to take the train and adds a lot to the already high cost of the Dome tickets. Families should be given free or reduced-price tube tickets.”
One observer says: “It has not been very well explained how to get to the Dome and what travel packages are available. It’s confusing, and the NMEC needs to communicate exactly where you can pick up travel information.
Hayward says: “If you say to people that they can’t drive somewhere, then they will just say: ‘OK, I won’t go then’.” He also recommends the Dome improves access by opening 24 hours a day.
When you arrive at the Dome, you are likely to have to queue before you get into some of the zones.
Robin Kadrnka, European marketing director of branding consultancy Fitch, says: “The Dome wants about 35,000 customers a day but provides a handful of windows where you can buy or collect tickets. This leads to enormous queues at peak times. Customers are asked to pay in cash to speed the process up, but how many people are going to have the &£100 or so you need for a family?”
Fitch is considering approaching the new chief executive with its proposals to turn the Dome around.
Kadrnka adds: “When you pay you are given a beautiful ticket, which would make a nice souvenir. You then proceed to a turnstile where you exchange it for a very ordinary piece of card.”
Once inside the Dome, the queuing is likely to continue, at least in peak times.
LegoLand’s Neal-Smith says: “The Dome needs to install more exhibits to spread people out. It could also provide direction by theming zones or flagging different directions on entry to pull visitors into one of the main areas.
She adds: “People in the queue should be entertained using themed characters providing a taster of what is to come.”
While Walt Disney Attractions would not comment on the Dome, it says it has created a new queuing system – based on the system used in supermarket delicatessens – which it is rolling out to its attractions around the world. When guests approach an attraction, they insert their theme park admission ticket into a dedicated turnstile and are given a designated return time. They can then go off and do something else.
Navigating the Dome has also proved to be a problem. Some teachers Marketing Week spoke to said they would have valued a guide to help them take 30 children around the Dome, but none were available.
Kadrnka says visitors can find themselves bewildered because the Dome lacks coherence and clear signposting.
She says: “What is needed is an overall, coherent experience, starting from the moment you begin your journey to the Dome. At the moment, the zones are disjointed which means there are big gaps in the experience. One solution would be to have things going on between the zones linking them together.”
Paul Twivey, a partner in agency Circus, which was closely involved in the early stages of the project, says: “You have got to put on a show. We are world leaders in theatre and, although there is a show in the centre of the Dome, there needs to be a sense of live, human interaction going on throughout it.”
Neal-Smith agrees: “There seems to be a concoction of different attractions without any real theme. You could develop characters to reflect different themes and carry them through the overall experience.”
Other experts criticise the Dome for trying to be all things to all people.
Hayward says the Dome should take the same approach as the BBC, offering different experiences to different target groups.
He says: “You could have, say, a red route journey which would take you through the educational aspects of the Dome, and a pink route for people who just want a day’s light entertainment. You could also market it differently at different times, possibly as a late-night venue with drinks and music aimed at the youth market on weekends.”
Lastly, our panel believes some of the existing content of the Dome could be changed.
Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters creative partner Dave Waters says more exciting rides are needed. Waters designed the inside of the Body zone, the Dome’s most successful exhibit. He suggests building an escalator ride to the top of the Dome so visitors could take in impressive views of London.
Neal-Smith says: “The content is too worthy and not interactive or fun enough. They could buy in a ready-made entertainment show, such as a Eureka-style display of interactive gadgets which actually do something and develop a children’s and an adults’ version of this attraction.”
Kadrnka adds: “There needs to be more imagination put into the zones. Take the Talk Zone, sponsored by BT. It gives you the opportunity to e-mail a friend – except that you actually don’t and all you receive is a generic message inviting you to a party that doesn’t exist. If you could really send an e-mail to a friend to say ‘I’m here at the Millennium Dome’, that would be fun and a great way to advertise it. It is an example of a squandered opportunity that could be put right quite quickly.”
Gerbeau may like to consider a few of these suggestions as he contemplates how he will approach one of the most challenging marketing jobs in the world – one which many
Marketing Week readers would jump at the chance to take on.