Eastbourne Christmas Market – My thoughts

It is sad to hear that the Eastbourne Christmas Market (which has just had its 4th year) may not take place next year.  It is also a shame that it has not been able to become what it was always intended to be.

Let’s recap on how it was born.  It was literally born out of ashes.  Out of the ashes of the Eastbourne Pier Fire that is.  I was Chairman of the Eastbourne Hospitality Association (EHA) at the time.  Some may recall that David Cameron as Prime Minister announced a £2million tourism fund for the town.  The town had to put forward proposals as to what the money was to be spent on.  As major stakeholders the EHA were asked to contribute ideas.  A Christmas Market was actually the EHA’s idea.  It was based in fact on a proposal that Annie Wills, EBC Tourism Guru, had always had many years before.  Its why it was suggested that it be held at the Bandstand.  The idea being that it would serve to connect the seafront with the town as a huge celebration of Christmas merriment.   Our proposal included an Ice Rink (cost £65k) in the middle of the Bandstand and that it be a huge attraction.  The Bandstand stage there ready for entertainment too.  The Chamber of Commerce also put forward the request for funds for the Christmas lights and Neon Noel.   It was decided (by the council) to merge the two projects and award £137k for both.  The Chamber would be the lead on the project.  This decision was made around May 2015.

We urged the council and the Chamber to not rush into organising anything.  The idea was always to help TOURISM and accordingly in order to make the Market (Wonderland?) an attraction –  time was needed to market the thing and of course Christmas schedules and itineraries had already been settled by May 2015.  We wanted to build it up and get it right and launch big in 2016.  The leader of the council and the Chamber wanted to press ahead in 2015.   Because of the purchase of the new lights and Neon Noel and the purchase of the huts (yes they are owned by the town), it meant there was not enough money for an iconic ice rink and so that was abandoned.

Rather than focus on trying to make the new attraction a success outside of Eastbourne, and bring in Christmas tourists (which after all was the point of the fund) – the market became a ‘local’ thing.  Although the idea was sound initially the execution in the first year was not the best with the area in the middle of the bandstand devoid of activity (for example).  Sadly the reputation deteriorated and as the funding from the tourism money was only for 2 years – the market has become what it has become.   What it has become is a matter of opinion and one that I won’t comment on.  However, what I will say is that in terms of achieving what it should have done – namely an increase in tourism – that it certainly has not achieved.

I hope that the spark of the idea has not gone completely and that something of this amazing idea can be re-vitalised.

As for what else the £2million was supposed to go on to increase tourism.  Perhaps our journalists of the town should look into that one.  Have they increased tourism?  I suggest not.

Darren Weir – Former Chair and Vice President of the EHA

Congress Theatre & Welcome Building

Regular visitors to Eastbourne will know that we are very lucky to have not one but FOUR amazing theatre venues in this town (population 100,000).  Since December 2016, the largest, The Congress Theatre (seating capacity 1647) has been closed for a refit.  The Site is undergoing a £54million transformation with a new “Welcome Building” being built to house new and exciting exhibition, break out and café space for the Devonshire Park Complex.  Also part of the £54million spend is the updating transformation of the Grade II* listed Congress Theatre and refurbishment of the Winter Garden.  This will provide state of the art entertainment and conference facilities for the town.  The 4 Star Gold Mowbray is on the doorstep of this fantastic site.

I, along with fellow hoteliers, got a backstage look at the progress of the building project today.  A lot of headway has now been made and the Welcome Building is really taking shape with refit works going on at the Congress Theatre.  A word though to the wise.  Although the public will see the results of the Welcome Building work and the public realm landscaping, there is a real risk that they will not see the fruits of labour when it comes to the Congress.

What the public must be made to understand is that a lot of the regeneration work to the Congress is happening behind the scenes.  New ventilation, new lighting rigs, whole new electrics, new lifts, new boilers, and new seating yes.  But apart from that seating the “look” is quite deliberately going to stay the same.   I will bet you any money that come local election time in May 2019, there will be cries from some quarters of “You can’t tell the difference”, “What a waste of money” blah blah blah.  I bet you some cash right now that within a week of it opening there will be one or two letters into the Herald saying exactly that.   It is imperative and incumbent on the officers of the council to get the message out there as to what exactly is happening and what the money is being spent on.  That will mean making wiring and boilers and new lighting rigs sound sexy.

What this means economically for Eastbourne is higher end spending conferences and (hopefully) the bigger West End shows coming to this town and pulling in the crowds.  That means people in conferencing, tourism and theatres working together and getting that message (and the bookings) out there now!  Get local ambassadors in to relay the message far and wide.  We as businesses need to know so we can help with the messaging.  No offence Ann-Marie, but a couple of press releases in the Herald is  just not  going to cut it!   Paul Quantstrom and his team are working hard to deliver the First Class venue the Devonshire Quarter can be with the money available.  It is up to the rest of the council machine to pull their fingers out, get the product in there and get the message out.  We are behind you guys – but get on with starting to get the narrative out there before the naysayers get a chance to begin!