Neil Chandler outside the Fairfield Halls worksite. Photo by Craig Sugden
It is only now, nine weeks until practical completion of the Fairfield Halls (even typing that makes me feel sick!), that I realise that since November 2017 I have been on the biggest journey of my career to date.
When I first joined BH Live my first few months were spent grappling with plans – DWGs or PDF’s (You need to specify I’ve learned). Then there was the family holiday to Gozo which, to the dismay of Mrs C, I spent revising for my Construction Skills Certification Scheme card (to allow me on site unaccompanied – very important if you don’t want to upset the site team every time you need to take visitors around the project). It was only after I passed that I was told I only needed to do the ‘Site Visitor’ course and not the ‘Manager and Supervisor’ Course…no wonder it was so difficult! Anyone that knows me will know I’m more of an ideas man so the prospect of Neil Chandler learning about supervising a construction site was comedy gold – and thank goodness for the levity…it was needed.
For the first twelve months I managed a venue of one...it was just me located in Croydon. With head office a fair few miles away in Bournemouth I was responsible for fulfilling the BH Live ambition, to make our tender document a reality. Sitting in meetings with the talented team of people from BH Live that had led the tender to operate Fairfield Halls and the project team it was clear that since the time of writing our tender bid the project had evolved greatly and my ideas for the future of the venue needed realignment (I’ll come back to that point). I joined the project at a key moment in time, a time when operational challenges to the design were needed, were given and were accepted. I have certainly honed my negotiation and diplomacy skills.
On such a large capital project there are many stakeholders. From the Client to the Developer to the project management team, the Principal Contractor, the architects, the M&E specialists and, for a project like this, the acousticians and technical contractors… the list goes on. The importance of getting everyone aligned and on side isn’t lost on me. This project is huge for many reasons, not least because of the positive cultural investment being made by a local authority and the total change shift required across several areas to make the venue a success. It takes time to effect change and if not managed correctly it can become difficult to know who is challenging the suggested change. If you aren’t on top of this – and it is a learning curve – you can waste many valuable hours (both work and social…and sleep). Only now have I begun to tell myself “What will be will be, wait until handover and we’ll deal with whatever needs to be done”. On the one hand I want everything perfect but on the other I have a plethora of other things to do. BH Live are operators and not venue designers – I must leave that to the project team. As Artistic Director I have just closed the book on the first season (Sept-Mar 2020) which includes 292 performances and over 100 private hire events. I have also just recruited and put in place my Senior Leadership Team, have chosen brand colours, uniforms, furniture (all in keeping with the architects fit out guide), way finding, worked on hospitality initiatives with the very experienced BH Live hospitality team and ordered interior plants! I have also had to align myself strategically with the Borough; I have become Chair of the town centre BID (Business Improvement District), I sit on various other local boards and panels, present at public events and importantly for any operator, I have established a close and honest relationship with key stakeholders. There is so much to be done that I have to let the project team crack on with the refurbishment and distance myself and that is tough. If you were renting a new unit to run a business you would turn up on the handover date, collect the keys and off you go – there are times in the project where I’ve thought that mentally that would be an easier route but I know that it wouldn’t give us the end result and strong business plan that we have.
The business plan is the heart of this project. As a social enterprise with a team of experts at managing large scale events and hospitality, BH Live is perfectly suited to the challenge of managing South London’s largest arts centre. Our combined knowledge, passion and commitment alongside partnerships with key industry specialists at AKA, TRG Arts and Purple Seven gives us the strong foundation needed for such an important project.
I started this project with very clear ideas on how to make Fairfield work. After spending over a year, without an office, perched in coffee shops across Croydon meeting with the local community and in the members lounge of our older sister venue (in design terms), the glorious South Bank Centre, watching how the leading arts centre in the UK operates, my plan and ideas changed. BH Live is a social enterprise with the vision to attract higher audiences through a diverse range of cultural artistic and community events and to deliver economic benefit to the locations in which we operate by hosting major conferences, exhibitions and events. In all of my previous roles I have been adamant that the community had to be at the heart of the venues I lead - but only after spending real time in Croydon have I been able to pitch this at the right level. We aren’t a community centre, we are south London’s largest (and arguably one of the UK’s largest) arts centres. Our program needs to inspire and give audiences something to aspire to. Had I not joined the project as early as I did I don’t believe I would’ve got our business plan to the mature stage it is now at. My ideas have had time to float amongst the community, be challenged and be changed accordingly.
We are eleven months behind schedule, but despite still carrying the mental scars of being told of three separate delays to the opening date (and the ramifications that brings with producers, promoters, community groups) I am pleased the delays happened. Everything happens for a reason and no matter how dark the situation seems, once you take a step back and remove the personal connection (and forget the fear of the impending phone calls you have to make to the afore mentioned!) it is the most sensible option. Delays will happen, designs will not make operational sense, there will always be a fight for who is paying the bill and the great British public will always offer an opinion that differs to your most dearly held position…that my friends is the thrill of a capital project.