Chance in a millennium

Fierce criticism of the Greenwich Dome started well before its doors opened to the public, so why should anyone want to inherit the troubled attraction?

Peter Mandelson was obviously optimistic about the prospects of the proposed Millennium Dome when, in June 1997, he said: “The whole exhibition must give an unforgettable thrill to those who visit. It will provide a window to the future, who we are, how we live and what the future holds for us.”

However, a series of failures which have plagued the Greenwich attraction, both while it was in development and since it opened, tell another story entirely.

Whether Dome Europe, the next owner of the Millennium Dome, will be able to achieve what it proposes to do, shedding the past problems experienced by the Greenwich site, is yet to be seen. Dome Europe’s current optimism echoes that of the organisers when the project was established several years ago.

“We will create a spectacular venue that will, over the next few years, provide a first class urban entertainment resort serving Great Britain and Europe,” says Guy Hands, managing director of Nomura International’s Principal Finance Group, a partner in Dome Europe.

The question is, will this confidence be justified once the group takes control next January? Having already developed major visitor attractions in San Francisco, Tokyo, and Berlin during the past seven years, Hyper Entertainment – Dome Europe’s creative partner – brings a wealth of experience to the new project, in which the consortium is investing £800m.

“We will revitalise the Dome with our partner Dome Europe and provide enthralling European-based interactive attractions that will celebrate the best of Europe and entertain people, regardless of their age or background,” claims Hyper Entertainment chief executive Michael Swinney.

Much uncertainty remains over the existing zones and which of them will be retained or ditched by Dome Europe. Design consultancies are yet to be appointed. “We are seeking to revamp the Dome and its contents and are evolving our content at the moment, but it really is at an early stage,” says a spokeswoman for the Dome Europe consortium.

“We want to get the best in every field and we are very happy for companies, including design groups, to get in touch with us pretty soon. Initially, we’ll be looking at the UK, but would look further afield if necessary,” she says, adding that several consultancies may be employed.

There is also speculation about current commercial partnerships and whether they will be continued under the new owner. Boots the Chemists, British Airways, Ford, Tesco, Marks & Spencer and BT are among those who sponsor individual Dome zones at the moment.

But under plans for the redeveloped Dome, visitors are set to experience a variety of new attractions, including “a bustling hawker’s market” showcasing arts and crafts from across the continent, restaurants serving European food and drink, and shows and cultural events both around the Dome and in a new amphitheatre. A series of areas celebrating art, literature, history and culture from Europe during the past, present and future will also be featured, as well as gadgets and futuristic science focusing on European technology.

Externally, there are plans to build several hotel developments, ranging from luxury to budget accommodation, plus housing and hi-tech offices. A Greenwich beach complex has also been proposed, which features restaurants, music, performance areas and retail space on the surrounding land.

However, Stephen Bayley, who resigned as the Dome’s creative director amid a blaze of controversy in January 1998, when he predicted that the Greenwich site could be “crap”, is shocked by Nomura’s decision to buy the Dome. “I’m surprised the Japanese – traditionally so concerned with matters of face – would want to be involved with a project whose image is so irredeemably mired,” he says.

However, two exhibition design specialists involved in the original planning of the Dome would welcome the chance to work with the new owners. Hodges Associates initially worked on the Home Planet Zone and was subsequently appointed by the New Millennium Experience Company in March to make adjustments to the Work, Self-Portrait, Learning, Shared Ground and Money Zones (DW 10 March).

The London group’s director, Jon Hodges, says Dome Europe should be viewed as “an entirely new project. We’d be very excited to be involved and other designers shouldn’t be too swayed by what’s happened before.”

This is echoed by HP:ICM sales and marketing director David Tarsh, who says the Dome has been subjected to “unfair criticism”. The consultancy was responsible for the planning of the Body Zone, but saw its internal designs for the zone ditched “at the eleventh hour”, according to Tarsh, who remains confident that the Body Zone can be revamped and rejuvenated, along with other areas. “The Body Zone has lots of public recognition and to take it away would be a real mistake. I’d scrap the inside and resurface and enhance our original plans,” he says.

Overall, Tarsh says the fact that the new venture is a commercial one is a huge bonus. “There are lots of retail and sponsorship opportunities which as a commercial company it could pursue. Why shouldn’t the Dome play the same game as Disneyland Paris, where McDonald’s and Coca-Cola reinforce each other as brands?” he adds.

Much of the media may have savaged the Dome at every opportunity and still see it as “irredeemably mired”, as Bayley claims. But whether this will remain the case is yet to be seen.

Tarsh does not believe it is. “Dome Europe has made a great purchase of a fabulous brand that has real recognition,” he says.

“I’m proud to have been involved and would be happy to consider working on any or many parts of the Dome in the future. With some fresh designs and a new creative eye overlooking it, it could be very successful.”

Main financial aspects of Dome Europe’s takeover of the Millennium Dome

  • £400m investment in the core Dome site over the next five years, including a downpayment of £105m
  • £400m expenditure on the surrounding site
  • Total – £800m investment in the Dome, backed by Nomura International

    Dome Europe’s partners

    Financial backer Nomura International is Japan’s biggest securities group and a leading international finance house, with assets of £80bn, according to the Wall Street Journal last September. It employs 25 000 people globally and generates an annual turnover of more than £10bn.

    Creative partner – Hyper Entertainment – a division of Sony Corporation America which has an international portfolio of interactive attractions, specialising in the use of cutting edge technology to bring popular arts and literature to life. These include projects in San Francisco, Tokyo and Berlin.

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