Pierre-Yves Gerbeau, the former Disneyland manager who was brought over to the UK to run the Millennium Dome three years ago, has big plans for the future of leisure in Britain.
Within a few years, he envisages millions of us spending our free time parachuting through wind tunnels, swinging tarzan-like in harnesses around 30 metre-high “air parks”, skiing indoors on real snow, playing in crystal mazes, swimming with fish in giant aquaria and hauling ourselves up icy climbing walls.
This week the irrepressible Frenchman is unveiling a his X-Space brand for 16 leisure parks around the UK that were acquired by property company Capital & Regional last year. They include the O2 Centre in North London and Star City in Birmingham (MW last week).
Capital & Regional is creating a new division called X-Leisure to hold these new centres, and has put Gerbeau in charge as chief executive. He joined the company two years ago to buy and take control of the Xscape leisure park in Milton Keynes, which features a real snow ski slope. He is overseeing the construction of two more Xscapes, in Braehead and Castleford.
The rebranded complexes will operate alongside these. They will feature an array of attractions, many of which have never been seen before.
But plans to get us spending more time in leisure parks have not met much success in the past. People have been put off by unwelcoming, grimy and unsafe leisure parks which have sprouted up over the past ten years in out-of-town locations, dubbed “first generation” complexes. They are the leisure equivalent of retail parks, the last places most people would want to spend their spare time.
Gerbeau says all this will change with the relaunched centres. “I think there’s a great opportunity. The first generation leisure parks are gone and we’ve got some innovative ideas based on what we have done at Xscape.We are not going to do the déjÃÂ vu stuff – if you look at Xscape in Castleford, it is going to have an ice climbing wall, a roller coaster, an air park – things that have never been seen in any destination before,” he says.
Some observers believe that the concept is fine, but wonder how far leisure complexes will be able to extend across the UK. David Pope, leisure analyst at Brewin Dolphin Securities, is doubtful about the possible success of multiple activities. “It is the experience you go there for, but you can’t have two or three all at the same time in the same complex. It is lower cost for the owner, but it isn’t added value for the customer.”
Gerbeau disagrees. “The average stay at Xscape is between three and six hours. If you’ve got the critical mass of traditional leisure, such as bowling and cinema, and then add some very specific offers, I think you’ve got a winner.”
He faced scepticism from investors and marketing people over his plans to rescue the Milton Keynes Xscape, which collapsed under its former owners. But he says it has been turned around, and has attracted 450,000 visits over the past 18 months. Last year it made a profit of over £2m. And he is introducing a “try and buy” concept for retailers at the relaunched complexes. If you want to buy a bike, you can try it out on a special track, and try out skis and climbing equipment before buying.
One former colleague from the Dome days says that if anyone can make a success of leisure complexes in the UK, it is Gerbeau. “He has unparalleled levels of motivational ability to make things work. He is the most committed person I have ever known,” he says. The source adds that Gerbeau has a good eye for detail gleaned from his years at Disneyland Paris.
Gerbeau certainly looks the part of fun-time ringmaster. His beaming Gallic features and cheery Disneyesque demeanour could be just what the downbeat “rosbifs” – as he calls us Brits – need to bring out their jolly side. A former French Olympic ice hockey player, he was once injured in an accident and spent months in a wheelchair. His sporting days are over, though he plays golf whenever possible. So he will be vicariously enjoying the sporting activities he provides for others.
Gerbeau believes – and has persuaded starchy fund managers and City investors of it – that the time has come for a leisure park revolution, not just in the UK but across Europe. He has been carrying out a survey every year for the past decade asking what people want from leisure activities.
At first, they just said they wanted to be “entertained”, says Gerbeau. “Then about seven years ago there was a major shift in consumer trends: people were saying ‘I want something I can interact with’. I think the new trend in the past two years is that they want to be participating in the experience.”
One potential problem is the British love affair with getting drunk as a leisure activity, which rules out driving to leisure parks. Gerbeau, who doesn’t drink, says: “You can have a beer without getting hammered. The drinking culture comes from the fact that people have nothing else to do. I’m a big fan of saying that you can have fun without getting drunk.”
If Gerbeau ever does manage to turn the British into a nation of teetotalling, parachuting, indoor skiing Tarzans, he really will have changed the way we live.