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
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
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
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
’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
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
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
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
’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.