The Dreamland theme park in Margate was a hugely-valuable asset for the region – but it was in trouble. Restructuring expert Ben Wiles gives Mike Hughes a unique insight into one of the sector’s most-unusual rescues.
When Ben Wiles got a hug from a Margate builder, he knew he had done a good job. As a managing director specialising in restructuring, bankruptcy and insolvency litigation for global financial advice giant Duff & Phelps, an enthusiastic hug from anyone is not normally on his radar, but this one was special.
Wiles had just led the turnaround of Dreamland, a much-treasured theme park that was one of the UK’s oldest, dating back to the 1860s, but which was heading downward on the rollercoaster rather than riding high after a failed 2015 revamp. Such was the affection the locals had for the place – even Thanet District Council had put its neck on the line with a compulsory purchase order to try to save it – that tradesmen all over the place breathed sighs of relief that Margate once again had a goose that was laying golden eggs. Getting a hug as soon as he was recognised was an instinctive thanks for Wiles having saved more than one business that day.
In its heyday, Dreamland was listed as one of the UK’s top-ten visitor attractions, with its 16 acres including a zoo, miniature railway, 2,200-seat cinema and a 2,000-capacity ballroom that had hosted the likes of The Who and The Rolling Stones. But times were changing and, at one stage, even housing seemed a better bet.
But Margate was becoming a capital of retro cool, so £18m was raised to redraw the plans for the 20th century, a plan that quickly started failing, scuppered by an entrance fee and unreliable rides. The park was too important a part of Margate’s renaissance, so the call went out to Wiles at Duff & Phelps.
Why Wiles? Well, remarkably, this wasn’t his first theme park turnaround. The previous year he had resolved similar problems at Fantasy Island in Skegness; Wiles – the 38 year old who was putting the fun back into funding – was on his way.
“Fantasy Island was a very different attraction because it had been there a long time and needed a bit of work in terms of getting some systems in place and cutting out unnecessary costs,” he says. “By doing that we doubled the value of the place over the 19 months I was there and then sold it on to the Mellors Group, a trade buyer.
“That experience and the success we had meant we had a positive message to pass on and the case study came across the desk of Lloyds Bank, which had some lending into Dreamland, which was at that stage only one year on from reopening after a joint development between the Heritage Lottery Fund, the local council and private company Sands Heritage.
“It became obvious to me as soon as I got there that it needed a fresh direction and some diversification in terms of what it was offering. I think with businesses across the board they all need something unique that will keep bringing people back and although the Dreamland concept was good for a year, it needed more.
“This is the UK and you can’t just have a summer theme park, you also need an event to bring people from outside Thanet, so you need good food for them to eat and you need something for them to watch. From that point, we looked at the season already underway, which gave us a chance to understand the customer and what they wanted and were willing to pay for.”
The assets certainly seemed attractive, including three Grade-II listed jewels in the crown: the scenic railway, cinema complex and menagerie cages. But as well as celebrating the past, Wiles knew that there had to be enough of a future to bring in a family audience from grandson to son to dad to granddad. One of the challenges of this fresh approach was that it had to be presented in the right way to the original team that thought what they were doing was the only way forward.
Wiles has to be a diplomat as well, which shows in his reply to my question about that aspect of the work. “Look, there are certainly times in our line of work when you are not always the most popular in terms of your views, but sometimes people need to appreciate change and what it will take for something to be a success,” he says.
“At Dreamland there were stakeholders who wanted to maintain a theme park for the family and celebrate purely the historic elements of that, but the reality is that you have to be able to diversify and bring in something current in terms of entertainment and festivals. We had to come up with some fresh ideas of what we could do for them for an appropriate investment.
“I pitched the concept to Arrowgrass, a fund that had been interested in the project and its willingness to let us develop it was very important to its success. We were able to give the place one hell of a facelift and create spaces that were rentable and desirable for the visitors, but also celebrating Dreamland’s heritage by having the old rides restored and create somewhere people wanted to spend time and dwell while the kids were going off and having fun.
“We also created quite a beautiful landscaped area, planting 60,000 trees and shrubs in a very short space of time and to get the whole thing up and running in time was quite an achievement.”
One key development last year to bridge the visitor age gap was an outdoor event space for up to 15,000 people. It’s timing was perfect to capitalise on Margate’s hip new reputation and when it landed the sold-out Demon Dayz Festival headlined by Gorillaz in the summer, Dreamland had landed on the music venue map, with visitors also able to take advantage of the restored 1930s Cinque Ports pub alongside the park – all part of Wiles’ package of changes – and the town’s first rooftop bar.
The scale of this impact was not lost on Wiles, who was born further along the coast in Southampton. Dreamland was a key asset for a region trying to establish a 21st century unique selling point and the “builder’s hug effect” was simple evidence of how one keystone project has the potential to revitalise so many sectors.
“The encounter with that builder on Margate High Street meant a lot, when he thanked me for helping him make a success of his own business and I know that in those regions in particular it is so important for key businesses in whatever sector to stay open and attract further investment,” Wiles tells me.
“The thing about Margate is that while it was on the up the failure of Dreamland would have set it back five years, so having brought the investment into that site and the surrounding sites we acquired there is the opportunity for ongoing investment into the whole area – which gives us quite a buzz.
“There are a lot of towns and cities around the UK that have businesses entrenched within them that are equally important, and years ago I handled the administration of Axminster Carpets, which was very much at the heart of the town itself and employed fathers, sons, mothers and sisters right through the generations. To save that business and sell it on to someone who could keep manufacturing in Axminster was a great pleasure.
“Brighton wouldn’t be the same without the pier and Blackpool needs its pleasure beach – all those are landmarks and it was so fulfilling to be able to turn round another key place at Dreamland and make the locals proud of it.”
His next project could land on his desk from any quarter, with Duff & Phelps keeping a close eye on the retail sector, where it has needed to do a lot of work in recent years, including Wiles leading on challenges such as BHS. Restaurants and casual dining are another area where there is some concern and, while the automotive sector is considered fairly robust, it is still likely to attract the attention of Wiles and his colleagues as the market changes here, in Europe and further afield.
For him, Dreamland was also an opportunity to redefine what the administration process was. “At Margate, it was the rebirth of the business and that is what Duff & Phelps is all about, giving the business the protection it required to sort itself out,” he explains.
“In that case – and I hope in more cases in the future – we are able to return a business to new shareholders or new directors and back to normal trading. The key principle around what we do is early engagement to find a better solution before the situation becomes a fait accompli for the business – and its employees – because we never forget that while we have a duty to advise the board as to how they should proceed, there will always be a very human aspect to it all, from employees to a director who might have put their life savings into the company.
“If we can help put together a strong business plan that will look after the workers who have also invested their time, then we know everyone involved can be aligned in that one objective – to make a business succeed.”
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