Arriving at Scarborough South Bay is spectacular. Coming down the steep hill you have a sweeping view of the sea as you go under the Victorian Cliff Bridge with the Cliff Tram and the imposing presence of the Grand Hotel – like the Carlton at Cannes, only Yorkshire-style – to the left of you. At the bottom of the hill, you come to a roundabout that faces straight onto the beach front. A great many people arriving (once they have parked their car in the underground car park) would then probably take a turn to the left, to access the amusement arcades and donkey rides that Scarborough is famous for – not to mention Lunar Park at the end of the beach and imposing Scarborough Castle beyond it.
This year, however, a fair few people in the town and in the council are hoping that instead, increasing numbers will turn to the right. Because there, after a walk of a hundred yards or so, you come to a building that in many ways was the start of what Scarborough is all about. After many years of dilapidation, the Scarborough Spa, as the building is called, has had a £6.5m facelift.
It’s part of a programme of redevelopment that has also seen £3.5m going to the newly-opened Open Air Theatre. Only unlike that venue, the Spa is hoping to attract the conference trade as well as entertainment acts – and all around the year, not just for six weeks in the summer. If the current team behind the plan is successful, it will certainly bring a new lease of life to a complex that is already steeped in history. The reason why the Spa can claim to be the foundation of the town is that it was here in the 1620s, long before the town became a seaside resort, that a certain Mrs Farrer first discovered a natural spring whose waters were said to be medicinal.
People flocked to take the waters, even if at the time that involved climbing down the cliff, and even as the town opened up as a seaside resort as well (the first bathing machines appeared in the 1730s), the waters remained an attraction. By the 19th century the Spa had gained a reputation for music as well. The present Grand Hall opened in 1886 after the previous version designed by Joseph Paxton, the man responsible for London’s Crystal Palace, had burned down in a fire. Sadly, as with many English seaside resorts, things began to change in the 1960s.
People stopped taking the waters, and in fact the only evidence of there ever having been an actual spa on the site today is a well underneath the shops on the Spa frontage. Sadly, current health and safety rules prohibit the general public going to see that. But even as recently as the 1980s Nick Taylor, who then worked at the Crown Spa Hotel up above the Spa itself, remembers older people coming to the hotel and staying for a fortnight to go and listen to the then legendary Max Jaffa and his Palm Court Orchestra playing in the Sun Court, a sheltered terrace at the Spa that looks straight out onto the sea. Jaffa died in 1991, although music at the Spa lives on. The permanent orchestra there is now the longest-surviving seaside orchestra in the country, celebrating its 99th birthday this year. But as far as the building went, in the years that followed, even on the conference side, things took a turn for the worse.
A lack of investment and more competition from other destinations meant fewer people came. In the end, what had been a dedicated Scarborough only conference desk merged with a more diffuse organisation covering York and Scarborough.
“I would say that in the 1980s, 35% of our business was Spa business,” says Taylor. “That went down to 10% as short breaks and day breaks took over. The level of investment was poor.” Richard Frank, who bought the Crown Spa Hotel with his brother in February 2000 when it had just been downgraded to two-star, remembers the old days too. “The Spa certainly had its heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s when Maggie Thatcher came for the Tory conference,” he says.
“She stayed at the Crown Spa when it was then owned by Trusthouse Forte.” It is to redress this decline that the investment in the Spa as a conference centre has been made. The £6.5m is considerably less than the £20.5m that Yorkshire Forward, the European Regional Development Fund and East Riding Council spent on refurbishing a similar venue in Bridlington just down the coast, confusingly also called the Spa. It opened in 2008. But Frank thinks the Spa Bridlington benefited from an opportunity that is unlikely to be repeated.
“By the time we were applying for money that kind of largesse was drying out,” he says. He still thinks it is wise of Scarborough Council to have spent the money on more than one venue. In any case, says Jo Ager, sales development manager for the Scarborough Spa, the Bridlington project was to all intents and purposes a rebuild. In Scarborough, the team – including Swanky Haden Connell Architects, engineering companies Charles Andrew and Scott Hughes Design, and led by Drivers Jonas Deloitte – has just modified the building. Chief among the alterations were excavations beneath the floor. This has opened space out in the basement to allow for more rehearsal and break-out rooms. A former caretaker’s flat, abandoned since the 1950s, has also been converted to serve a similar purpose. But the excavations also mean that the stalls seats in the Grand Hall, which now benefits from a new floor, can be rolled forward and into the orchestra pit to clear the space if it is needed, for example, for a banquet.
“Clearing the chairs used to take the best part of a day,” says Ager. “Now this area can be transformed in two hours.” The hall itself, a grand Victorian affair, can sit 1,700 people, or around 700 for a banquet. The Spa also benefits from an in-house catering team. Elsewhere, the renovations have eased access to a smaller Victorian theatre upstairs in the building – the perfect place for a small seminar while the main conference is going on. In an unusual move, the Spa has opted not to have a permanent bar, but to have different areas where a temporary bar can be set up instead. Ager says this allows for maximum flexibility. Investment hasn’t just gone into the structure either. Before Ager – who worked in events for local printers Pindar – arrived two years ago, the Spa had no dedicated sales team. Things had been allowed to run down that much. “It was very much repeat business,” she says. Now the team behind her is 10-strong. Despite the improvements, she is not sure yet whether Scarborough as a conference destination is ready to compete with the likes of Blackpool. She prefers to compare the town with Southport, and is tentatively exploring the possibility of partnering with the Merseyside resort to go out and offer a package to conference organisers of one venue one year, the other venue the next.
“We would be a good destination for sub-groups, and for associations,” she says. “It would be good to get a political conference, but of course they are much bigger these days. We would probably try to go for something like the Tory Spring Conference.” But Frank says she is being unnecessarily modest. He himself has managed to fund all the improvements at his hotel to bring it back to four-star status out of revenue earned.
“I now think Scarborough is definitely better than Southport,” he says. “And as for the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, the last time I went there I thought they were in dire need of investment. We are fortunate in that the hotels here are clustered around the conference centre. In Southport everything is under ground, whereas in the Spa you are looking straight out at the sea.” That may not be a totally unmixed blessing. Ager says that even in the time she has been here, during winter conferences the waves from the turbulent North Sea have been known to crash in right over the terrace, spraying the windows. Exhilarating for some, unnerving for others. In fact Frank, who sees Scarborough as the natural end of a line of prime conference locations based along what he loosely definesas the M62 corridor, believes the trend in recent years for some inland towns to poach the conference trade away from traditional seaside resorts may be coming to an end.
“A lot of those councils have been subsidising conferences,” he says, “and now the public sector funding is being cut back, that might change.” As it happens, the first organisation to have held a conference at Scarborough Spa following its refurbishment was a political party – although not the Conservatives or Labour. UKIP held its national conference at the Spa in March, and organiser Emma Lund says that, although some scaffolding was still up, it was an impressive achievement.
“I had only ever been to the Spa before for a for a hunt ball,” says Lund, who lives on a farm near Malton. “But the theatre was wonderful. It was super, a really idyllic setting. It can take 700 people and we were nearly full. People didn’t have a bad word to say, although to be fair I don’t actually think they had too many preconceptions about Scarborough. I would book again.” It has to be said, however, that in trying to attract new conferences, the Scarborough Spa is bound to be competing in some people’s eyes with its counterpart just 20 miles down the road in Bridlington. Andrew Aldis, general manager of the Spa Bridlington, says the two are not rivals.
“There would be no point in our two towns competing,” he says. He says he is in regular consultation with Jeremy Harthill, the general manager at the Scarborough Spa, who previously worked at the Spa Bridlington, to make sure they do not put on conflicting events. And the Spa Bridlington’s diary is mainly full of entertainment acts. Nevertheless, in June this year the Spa Bridlington held the eastern half of the Yorkshire International Business Convention, one of the biggest events on the Yorkshire conference calendar. Aldis says his venue has the edge over Scarborough in that it can hold up to 3,800 – as long as they are standing. No wonder Alexandra Burke chose to play there. In return, Ager says what Scarborough can offer that Bridlington cannot is four-star hotel accommodation – not just the Crown Spa, but for example, the five-star Sands Resort on the North Bay too. That can often be the clincher for large conferences.
Aldis agrees that accommodation in Bridlington has been an issue. “It’s not so much the quality of accommodation as the size,” he says. “Conference organisers frequently want everybody in one hotel. But we do have a venue desk which can arrange bookings, and if they want to eat together we can arrange that at the Spa.” He is also looking forward to a long-term plan East Riding council is putting forward to demolish a swathe of buildings to make way for a marina and retail park that, once sold, will in turn pay for a hotel.
But that, of course, is some way off. And the public funding environment has changed. So what can the likes of Scarborough and Bridlington do to boost what they have even further? Frank thinks interested parties in Scarborough should revisit Kissing Sleeping Beauty, a programme Scarborough put together under Yorkshire Forward’s Renaissance programme that did lead to a number of improvements, including the refurbishment and reopening of Scarborough’s Rotunda Museum.
“We need to look back over the 10 years, work out what we have done and what still needs to be done,” he says. Taylor was actually responsible for implementing Kissing Sleeping Beauty as renaissance manager, and following Yorkshire Forward’s demise, is now employed full-time by Scarborough Borough Council as an investment manager. He sees possibilities for the town in the growth of offshore windfarms and mining company Sirius’s plans to explore the potential of mining potash between Scarborough and Whitby.
Going out to the community is also something Aldis is keen to do in Bridlington. “When we first opened the community loved the building and were proud of it,” he says. “But now they want to know what is happening inside, so we are doing more things like offering free venue tours.” It’s a sign of the times, however, that these tours are being conducted by himself and two colleagues as volunteers. Just as 15 staff are coming in on a voluntary basis later this month to put together garden packs to send out to local schoolchildren to promote Jack and the Beanstalk, the Christmas panto, starring Charlie Dimmock. After so much funding, a little volunteering seems necessary.
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