MAIN FEATURE: Great expectations - Since his arrival at the Dome, visitor numbers are up, sponsors are happier and media attitudes are turning around. Kate Nicholas talks to Pierre-Yves Gerbeau

Its the start of a new week at the ’big top’ and Pierre-Yves Gerbeau, or P-Y, as he likes to be called, is walking the talk on the shop floor of one of the world’s most controversial visitor attractions. As leotard-clad nymph-ettes float between the Body and Work Zones, the Dome’s diminutive new chief executive pumps flesh, slaps backs and exudes an air of chirpy bonhomie.

Its the start of a new week at the ’big top’ and Pierre-Yves

Gerbeau, or P-Y, as he likes to be called, is walking the talk on the

shop floor of one of the world’s most controversial visitor attractions.

As leotard-clad nymph-ettes float between the Body and Work Zones, the

Dome’s diminutive new chief executive pumps flesh, slaps backs and

exudes an air of chirpy bonhomie.



The Dome is far from empty and we are heading for the Millennium Club -

a glass-walled oasis of calm above the circus below - but Gerbeau cannot

resist the urge to stop and give directions to a visitor or to pose for

a photo with a middle-aged couple.



’This is the good news about being visible,’ says Gerbeau. ’I am down

here for two hours a day. So people see that the top management of the

company cares for them and you can get instant feedback from

customers.’



That feedback indicates that word of mouth is one of the most powerful

weapons in the Dome’s PR arsenal. Polls show that 78 per cent of

visitors will recommend the attraction to their friends. And, as Gerbeau

is keen to point out, the Dome has continued to receive a steady influx

of visitors over the last couple of months, despite the flood of

negative press coverage.



He is also well aware of the effect of his ’humble’ approach on staff

who had developed a siege mentality as a result of the disastrous

opening and a controversial change of management.



Despite his seemingly irrepressible optimism, Gerbeau admits that the

attention surrounding his appointment was ’difficult’ and that ’in

certain aspects’ his arrival was overhyped. ’I was not going to defend

myself in front of the press. I am a doer, not a talker. Everyone knows

who I am; I am not Philippe Bourguignon (his mentor at Disneyland

Paris). I certainly didn’t claim to have taken the credit, I was happy

and proud to be part of Philippe’s team and of the input I had.’



Gerbeau took up the post on 7 February, having initially turned it

down.



His first move was to go to ground. His second, after 10 days, was to

hold a press conference which he opened by apologising for the media

black-out. ’It was like watching the air going out of a balloon in the

room,’ says John Mahony, managing director of Edelman, who together with

chairman Nigel Whittaker has spent the last six weeks on secondment to

Gerbeau at the Dome. ’It was the first time that they had had a real

apology.’



The new CEO then asked for two weeks’ grace and said that he would

return to outline his plans. ’It is classic crisis management,’ says

Mahony.



’Tell them what you are going to do, when you are doing it and when you

have done it.’



Brunswick handled the announcement of Gerbeau’s arrival but, until

Edelman, no other agency had been brought into address the PR fiasco of

the Dome.



Gerbeau talked to a number of agencies and practitioners but suspects

that many were reluctant to associate themselves with the brand.



The same applied to the sponsors who, dismayed at the failure to deliver

and the negative media coverage (publicly valued at pounds 2 million),

had pushed for the appointment of a new CEO. Research showed that much

of the negative commentary was emanating from sponsors. Whittaker, in

particular, was brought in to advise on sponsor communications and to

rebuild trust in the organisation.



Gerbeau talks about a ’sense of partnership’ that has developed over the

last four weeks. With the signing of Manpower’s contract last week the

sponsors are all on board. Now he says that they are now looking at ’the

kind of synergistic marketing and promotion we can do together’.



He is cheery when talking about marketing and promotion plans, such as

the proposed CD of music from the show, corporate hospitality

opportunities and talks with Cirque de Soleil. But Gerbeau is obviously

uncomfortable talking about the Dome’s appalling record of PR disasters,

and says: ’I prefer not to look at what went wrong, but to look

forward.’ But between his oft-repeated praise for the Dome as ’unique,

fantastic, exciting ... something the British should be proud of’, he

admits that the project was initially overhyped. ’New year’s eve didn’t

help at all - a number of things weren’t up to speed and we weren’t

ready to move along from project delivery to running an attraction,’ he

admits.



In addition to fixing the exhibits and reducing queuing times, Gerbeau

has also refocused the Dome’s marketing strategy, including its PR.

Mahony has assisted in restructuring the 24-strong NMEC communications

department - which came in for its own media criticism - and for

shifting the culture away from one of project delivery. ’It is like the

difference between building a hotel and running it,’ says Mahony.



Fiona Cline now heads communications, with Gez Sagar as head of media

strategy, and Deborah Oliver concentrating on internal communications

and special projects. The rest of the team is divided into

international, regional and corporate communications, plus consumer

marketing divisions, with less emphasis on crisis communications.



’If you are under siege you will be defensive and aggressive,’ says

Gerbeau, referring to the criticisms that the NMEC press office

appeared, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, obstructive when dealing

with 150 press enquiries per day. Calls to Gerbeau’s hot-line for

disgruntled journalists have now tailed off. ’We are now giving the

media the opportunity to come back,’ he says. ’My philosophy is to be

frank, honest and open. If anyone wants to talk to me, I will never say

no.’



This approach extends to the PR team, who are invited to management

meetings and have weekly meetings with Gerbeau. ’My management structure

is inverted, so that at the end of the day management is a support

function for visitors.’



His objective now is to focus media attention on the less publicised

attractions, a series of seasonal events he has planned, and the

introduction of three performances per day of the Dome show. A new

advertisement due out in April carries the strapline: ’You are minutes

from another world’, dispensing with the built-in obsolescence of ’One

amazing day’. He is also keen to get the message across that, although

February saw capacity crowds, recent changes mean that visitors needn’t

fear being turned away at the turnstile.



The communications department has also shifted its attention to new

audiences and media. In particular, Gerbeau was dismayed, on his arrival

to discover that the department was so set in reactive mode that they

had not had time to develop an international PR policy. ’Look at where

the visitors come from. Over 25 per cent of attendance is international

and many come from the regions,’ he says.



In particular, Gerbeau is determined to dump the political baggage that

encumbered his predecessor Jennie Page, and government relations has

been devolved to head of business strategy and government relations, Jan

Anderson.



’I am not into politics I have been hired to run a business. I don’t

feel that dealing with politicians is part of the role. My job is to

keep shareholders happy. Lord Faulkner is a shareholder and I treat him

as such. I am not under pressure from politicians - the minute that

happens I will go.’



Whether Gerbeau will manage to actually steer clear of the pressures of

the coming election will depend very much on his ability to deliver.



The signs look encouraging. The civil service mentality that bedevilled

the Dome has been shaken down, attendance is up, the sponsors have

signed on the dotted line and, according to Edelman, the last six weeks

have seen a 60 to 70 per cent switch in media opinion.



While this continues the Dome could possibly be viewed as an electoral

asset, but its chequered history means that it may only take one more PR

disaster to turn the Dome back into a political potato too hot for ’P-Y’

to care to handle.



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