P-Y Gerbeau knew what he was doing when he invited journalists to the Millennium Dome on Tuesday last week. The boss of the New Millennium Experience Company was not only announcing that there would be a New Year’s Eve party at the venue after all (albeit one organised by the Ministry of Sound rather than the Department of Culture).
He was also making sure the media witnessed the fact the place was full of people.
Given that, in the cartoonists’ and gag-writers’ lexicons, the word Dome is now synonymous with Marie Celeste, you might have thought this remarkable turnaround in the attraction’s popularity would have been worthy of press comment. But you would have been hard pressed to find a word about it in the following day’s newspapers, most of which preferred to regurgitate the old news that, to save money and ministers’ blushes, the Dome was to shut its doors at 6pm on New Year’s Eve.
“Dome goes out with a whimper” ran the Daily Mail’s headline, for once in agreement with The Guardian, which proclaimed on its front page: “Dome’s not-so-amazing last day”. But Gerbeau did get his photograph on the front page of The Daily Telegraph, which found itself unable to resist a picture of five skimpily-clad lovelies from the Ministry of Sound.
The fact that more than 100,000 people had been to the Dome during the previous three days, including a record 38,000 on the Monday, remained unreported by the press until The Independent caught up with the news later in the week. To its credit, it devoted half a page to the story under the headline “One amazing day: A record crowd of 38,000 goes into the disaster zone”. In fact the week ended up as easily the Dome’s best ever, with the final figure expected to top 250,000.
So why did all these people decide to spend a day at a venue which the massed ranks of the media and politicians have written off as a waste of time, money and space?
It was school half-term week, of course, but that alone doesn’t make families stream to an attraction that has been made to sound marginally less appealing than a derelict gas site, which is what it used to be.
Particularly when even the Dome’s new executive chairman, David James, has been telling journalists the place is hard to get to and that many people don’t go there because families like to travel everywhere by car.
This is one of the great myths, put about mainly by people who have never been to the Dome or who never travel by public transport. No one suggests that families take their cars to the London Eye, Harrods or the Tower of London. They go by train and tube – as they can to the Dome.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Sholto Douglas-Home, the Dome’s sales and marketing director, who for the past year has been battling against the negative publicity with a promotional budget that would have been inadequate even without the unprecedented barrage of hostile media coverage. “The people above me had assumed it would be sold by word of mouth,” he says ruefully.
But last week was one that he and the Dome’s long-suffering staff will look back on with pride. The key to last week’s boom was a “Trick or Treat” marketing campaign to tie in with Halloween. “The tricks were conjuring tricks – we had magicians and illusionists performing in the Dome – and every child who came last week got a treat, such as a Dome calculator-key-ring or poster for the show,” says Douglas-Home.
The event was promoted with a &£300,000 radio campaign and leaflets, which also pointed out that the Dome would only be open for another two months. Picking up on the summer ad theme, “You’ve got a mind of your own – bring it to the Dome”, it used the endline “If you don’t go, you’ll never know”.
Douglas-Home is pleased with the results his travel trade team has achieved. A million tickets have been sold through the trade. “We’ve got some really good numbers from Japan, which is the result of two years’ work with the Japanese tourist trade. And we’ve had more than our fair share of American visitors.”
He says a lot has been achieved through the unglamorous areas of marketing – brochures, ads in overseas magazines and on maps, and ticket deals with the Dome sponsors. “We’ve sold half a million tickets through the half-price offers for regular card customers at Boots, Tesco and Marks & Spencer.”
And though press coverage has been a disaster area, newspaper promotions have been successful. A Mail on Sunday pull-out recouped three-and-a-half times in revenue what it cost to produce. But another newspaper gave Douglas-Home one of his most frustrating moments of the year, when at the last minute it pulled out of a week-long scratchcard promotion – including half-price travel deals – because it didn’t want to be seen to be boosting the Dome.
One night last week, he was with Gerbeau on the gate as people left, asking for comments. “I’ve got a complaint,” said one man with a grin. “The media told me it was going to be empty and I wasn’t prepared for all these people.”
Douglas-Home knows November will be quieter but is confident the crowds will be back in December. “The Dome will be fantastic at Christmas,” he says.
Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News