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Will Live Nation’s acquisition of Dreamland hit the wrong note for live music at Margate’s Winter Gardens?

In the week before Christmas and with no official announcement, there was a potentially seismic shift in the relationship between two Kent attractions just half a mile apart.

Here, Chris Britcher looks at whether an entertainment giant’s takeover of Dreamland in Margate could set in on a collision course with the iconic – but currently mothballed - Winter Gardens…

What has Live Nation in store for Margate’s popular concert space? Picture: Dreamland
What has Live Nation in store for Margate’s popular concert space? Picture: Dreamland

When Dreamland reopened in 2015 – to great fanfare – nostalgia fans were delighted. Everyone else couldn’t help but scratch their heads and ponder how a, at the time, rather underwhelming ‘vintage theme park’ concept was going to be commercially successful in this modern age.

Almost 10 years and much financial pain later, the park’s future is looking very different indeed. Economic reality has kicked in. The rides continue, but many thousands now head to the park not for a rollercoaster but rock ‘n’ roll.

Because Dreamland has quietly established itself as perhaps Kent’s most prominent live music venue – capable of pulling in huge crowds for some of the biggest names in the industry. This summer alone, the likes of Madness, Bryan Adams, Simple Minds, Limp Bizkit and Craig David will all headline shows. And they’re only the tip of the iceberg.

And its growth is only set to continue after Live Nation – a global powerhouse in the entertainment world – last month snapped up a controlling stake in its owners. It will, effectively, now be calling the shots.

All very exciting, but a little more than half a mile down the coast road is the Winter Gardens – Margate’s historic venue which has played host to everyone from The Beatles to Blur over the decades.

Dreamland opened as a vintage theme park – but has repositioned itself as Kent’s leading live music venue for big outdoor shows
Dreamland opened as a vintage theme park – but has repositioned itself as Kent’s leading live music venue for big outdoor shows

Yet in contrast to the colour and lights of Dreamland, the Winter Gardens looks rather forlorn. It is currently boarded up, with steel cages protecting its entrances.

Shut since the summer of 2022, it will reopen – owner Thanet District Council (TDC) vows – but in what guise is far from clear. Which means Dreamland’s musical shift raises a significant question. Can two venues in such close proximity realistically both offer live music and make the sums add up?

Live Nation’s move – via one of its joint ventures – was out of the blue. An unheralded, unexpected development. And lips have been kept tightly shut as to what its plans are ever since.

Some on social media have speculated it could see a decline in rides in order to increase capacity and options for live events. Others fear, should the venture fail, the site could eventually be turned into housing.

The Winter Gardens has been closed since August 2022
The Winter Gardens has been closed since August 2022

But while both options seem unlikely, it perhaps raises a bigger question mark over the future of the Winter Gardens.

While far more than a live music venue, such shows were a reliable revenue stream. Given it was losing money hand over fist before its closure, could the loss of a key attraction change its future direction?

A spokesperson for TDC said: “The authority was not involved in the discussions between Live Nation and Dreamland regarding ownership, but was not expected to be.

“We are hopeful that Live Nation will work alongside the council to improve Margate and we look forward to hearing about their proposals for the future improvement of Dreamland.

“We will publish an evening and nighttime economy study for Thanet shortly. Within the report, it explores how Dreamland and the Winter Gardens can operate in a way that is complementary to each other. It also provides a wider leisure and entertainment offer for Margate.”

The Winter Gardens was shuttered in August 2022 following a bruising number of years, financially, which came to a peak with the enforced closure during the pandemic. The council decided rather than continuing to haemorrhage money, it should temporarily shut. Since then it initiated an examination of all options as to its future and restoration.

In November, the council’s Labour leader, Rick Everitt, said “there’s no chance whatsoever” of the council selling the venue. Instead, it has brought in consultants to consider the best future use of the Gardens. Any fears it could be turned into housing – an oft-repeated fear on social media – had also been dismissed by the previous Conservative administration.

Thanet District Council leader Rick Everitt
Thanet District Council leader Rick Everitt

As for Dreamland’s future, there should be considerable optimism – despite the scant details revealed as to its new owner’s plans so far.

For all the perennial – and not unreasonable given its recent history – concerns over its future, its effective acquisition by one of the biggest names in the entertainment industry should be met with considerable excitement

What we do know for sure is that Sands Heritage – the company that owns and runs Dreamland – is now at least 75% owned by an entity known as LN-Gaiety. More of the newcomer in a moment.

Sands Heritage paid £2.3m for Dreamland in December 2020, plus a further £4.7m for a neighbouring council-owned car park. It was given a 99-year lease on the site.

Sands Heritage had been operating the site since the park reopened in 2015 as a 'heritage amusement park’. Initially, the land was owned by the council. It had acquired it in a well-publicised compulsory purchase order served on the site's former owners.

Dreamland’s USP is its blend of concert space and fairground rides
Dreamland’s USP is its blend of concert space and fairground rides

However, despite its historic appeal and around £10m of investment, the park failed to make the sums add up. A little over a year after opening, Sands Heritage went into administration after debts hit £5m and the future of the park appeared to be up in the air.

A year later, however, and its future was looking very different. With new investment - it ploughed £25m into the park – its master stroke was shifting its focus from just selling it as a destination for retro rides to creating a live music offering alongside the rollercoasters.

After 15,000 tickets for a show by Gorillaz sold out in the space of an hour, it underlined that its future needed a healthy dose of star appeal to ensure it had a financially sustainable future ahead of it.

All of which brings us to December 2023 and the introduction of LN-Gaiety.

LN-Gaiety is a joint venture between Live Nation and Irish music promoter and events owner Gaiety Investments. It has been in operation since 2005. And it is certainly not short of a bob or two. In its latest financial figures, it had a turnover in 2021 of close to £206m – consolidated profit after tax was just shy of £19m.

The Winter Gardens has been a key part of Margate’s line-up of attractions for decades
The Winter Gardens has been a key part of Margate’s line-up of attractions for decades

In what is a rather complex ownership framework, sat under the LN-Gaiety umbrella is, among others, Festival Republic.

Festival Republic was once the Mean Fiddler Group – a live music powerhouse of a company set up by Vince Power, a man known better to Kent audiences as the promoter of the Hop Farm Festival’s star-studded heyday at Paddock Wood.

When Power sold up, it changed its name. Today it operates the likes of the Reading and Leeds Festival.

Live Nation, in case you need reminding, also owns Ticketmaster and, for a number of years, operated Wembley Arena. Its portfolio of venues – many of which are run under subsidiary or joint-venture companies – include the likes of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and the Forum in London.

It is a company which will seek to make its investment a success. Not that it is telling anyone just yet how it intends to do just that.

Canadian chart-topper Bryan Adams will be playing the Scenic Stage in 2024
Canadian chart-topper Bryan Adams will be playing the Scenic Stage in 2024

Its only statement on the move so far has been to say: “LN-Gaiety confirms it has acquired Dreamland in Margate. Working with [Dreamland’s] chief executive Eddie Kemsley, the team will enhance its offer at this much-loved resort.

“Dreamland is the ultimate seaside destination for music, rides, and entertainment, with great artists in 2024 including Status Quo, Madness, Richard Ashcroft, Becky Hill, Limp Bizkit, Craig David and many more.”

What can we read into the statement? Well, Dreamland’s unique selling proposition is that it offers an impressive stage set within the fairground rides it is historically most famous for. Losing the rides in pursuit of bigger crowds would undermine its appeal.

And as Margate does not have 360-degree access, given it is surrounded by the sea, it needs to retain that romantic seaside appeal.

The park’s 6,500-plus capacity Scenic Stage – the large outdoor space in the centre of the site – is the jewel in the crown of its performance spaces, but it also has a number of other event areas, making it a rather flexible friend to touring bands and singers.

Sir Tom Jones on stage at Margate's Dreamland
Sir Tom Jones on stage at Margate's Dreamland

There’s the indoor Hall By The Sea – once performed in by the Rolling Stones – which offers 1,400-standing capacity. There’s also the Ballroom, offering a more intimate 500-standing space.

All of which puts the Dreamland site on a collision course with the Winter Gardens. The mothballed site offered a 2,150-person capacity standing space main arena – slightly less if seated – and 600-capacity side room. It does, however, come with an all-important roof.

Realistically, the Winter Gardens’ concert credentials are likely to go head-to-head with the Hall By The Sea venue.

A spokesperson for Dreamland said: “We are delighted LN-Gaiety has become the new owner of Dreamland.

“The acquisition ensures the legendary venue can carry on providing world-class entertainment for people of all ages. It is very much business as usual for Dreamland. We look forward to reopening our historic amusement park at Easter for another summer season, as well as welcoming some of the very best live bands and acts both in our indoor spaces and in the summer on the amazing Scenic Stage.”

Thanet District Council offices
Thanet District Council offices

When pushed on what its new owners were likely to do, Dreamland bosses simply said “we don’t have anything further to add”.

Playing devil’s advocate, though, just what if things don’t work out? What of all the whispers that failure could see Dreamland turned into a sprawling housing site?

Well, when TDC sold the site in 2020, it trumpeted that “any sale would include a restrictive covenant on use of the land, and there are also planning policy restrictions to control future use and retain this for leisure”.

While it is certainly still allocated as a leisure site, the ‘restrictive covenant’ appears to not be as comprehensive as many probably hoped.

In council documents outlining the terms of the sale to Sands Heritage, it says: “As a failsafe, the council has secured in the sale agreement a clause to disallow any residential development on the site for 10 years”.

Dreamland has been given a dramatic overhaul since it reopened to the public in 2015
Dreamland has been given a dramatic overhaul since it reopened to the public in 2015

Nor, for that matter, can it reduce the number of car parking spaces it offers for the same period.

All of which, of course, is now just six years away.

It isn’t as simple, of course, as Dreamland failing one day and houses going up the next. But it is a potential risk. The likes of the Scenic Railway rollercoaster is Grade-II* listed and thus cannot just be demolished (or, as previously attempted, reduced to ash).

In addition, Margate’s revival has been built around the twin attractions of the Turner Contemporary and Dreamland. Both pull in the crowds. Both are now well-established and well-loved. Both bring money into the local economy.

The loss of Dreamland over the next decade seems highly unlikely for a town now back on the up.

The Winter Gardens has hosted a vast array of performances over the years including The Beatles and Laurel and Hardy
The Winter Gardens has hosted a vast array of performances over the years including The Beatles and Laurel and Hardy

All of which leads us back to the Winter Gardens question. How will it fit in?

Last summer, the council appointed real estate firm Colliers to promote the venue to potential new operators and investors. In November, it started its search in earnest.

Paul Bugeja, from Colliers, explains: “The council is seeking a partner which can honour the history of this venue, while also bringing it up to date and making it inviting to residents as well as visitors to Margate.

“We have seen how exciting regeneration plans for landmark buildings such as the Eastbourne Winter Gardens and De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill have revitalised coastal towns. We’re looking to secure a partnership which has a vision to reignite the entertainment offering in Margate and deliver on the expectations of the local community.”

Get it right, and it becomes the third key cog in the town’s renaissance.

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