How an icon of Island tourism continues to invest and grow – as well as regenerating Sandham Grounds

Say “Isle of Wight” to many people and one of the first snapshots that will come to mind is of the three chalk stacks at the westernmost point of the Island. The Needles rocks aren’t just an iconic image – they’re also a hub for leisure activity and in 2017 they’re still a huge draw for visiting holidaymakers. It’s estimated that half of all the Island’s tourists each year will take a look, as part of a visit to the Needles Landmark Attraction. The park has its roots in its Victorian past but it is moving with the times, with investments of hundreds of thousands of pounds in recent years.

“I think that with all of our investment in the last decade, the Needles as an attraction is national level and national quality. You can pick this attraction up now and put it anywhere in Europe and it will do well.”

That’s the view of general manager Marino Zanti, who knows more about the park than most. He’s been working here for more than 25 years. The attraction has been owned by Heritage Great Britain since 1999, where it sits as part of a portfolio that also includes John O’Groats, Land’s End, Lightwater Valley and Snowdon Mountain Railway. The Needles pulls in around 430,000 visitors during the tourist season and in excess of half a million each year.

“2016 was a very good year,” Marino says, “particularly considering what has been happening on the high street and with the changing value of the pound. Spends were very good here and we have continued to invest.”

In 2015 the park opened a 4D cinema experience, a traditional fairground carousel and a shop showcasing Isle of Wight produce. That £350,000 investment was followed last year by a further £100,000 spent in the sweet factory and the restaurant, which has been completely overhauled and renamed in tribute to Guglielmo Marconi’s pioneering radio work. The attraction plans to honour the Italian engineer’s achievement with a special event during the summer. That occasion will be just one part of a long list of reasons to visit the park, including the Magic In The Skies August fireworks which provide the biggest attendances of the year.

“They are long, fantastic days,” Marino says, when almost 150 people will be working on site, many of whom will still be employed in January. “We’re extending the season longer than ever but I’m really trying to get rid of the whole idea of ‘the season’. By the time we finish the October half term we’re preparing for the Christmas grotto. We carry on and we still get coaches in January and February. The restaurant, the glass factory, the sweet factory and the retail outlets don’t shut. The only thing that doesn’t operate is the ice cream kiosk…”

The numbers are big. Marino estimates that half of the Island’s tourists visit the park each year. It’s not just a visitor attraction either as one third of the annual audience will be Islanders. Like all attractions, the challenge for Marino’s team is to continue to draw visitors back, year after year.

“You have to invest to keep things fresh and we’re working 52 weeks a year. Quality and value for money are hugely important. Maintenance is a huge cost for this site and we invest in our staff and their training. We purchase their uniforms and pay for their bus passes. We have in house trainers providing full inductions to deliver top quality customer care. People definitely expect quality and the industry needs to raise its game. The people who shut up shop and go away to Tenerife for the winter and then expect to put their A-boards out end up complaining about why they don’t have visitors. They aren’t going to be here for much longer.”

Evolving the Island’s tourism offering is firmly on the agenda right now. The Heritage Great Britain team are also working together with Sandown Town Council, to take on and develop the Sandham Grounds site.

“We’ll develop it as tastefully as we have the Needles,” Marino says. “It’s a 48 year lease so it is definitely a partnership with Sandown Town Council. It needs developing. That end of Sandown town has fallen miles behind Shanklin and Ryde. The Bandstand Restaurant has already set a standard and with the Wight City site being redeveloped we’ll see a big change in the area.

“For Sandham Gardens our vision is to develop the area including the addition of beach huts from the Bandstand down to the lake, in keeping with the 1920s and 30s feel. We want to zone the area and bring in pop-up shops and kiosks. Really nice adventure golf facilities will be key. We might bring in a few rides but it won’t be a theme park. We will be looking for partners, including bringing in quality brands. We’re going to offer the attraction to local businesses and entrepreneurs first and if they’re not interested then we can bring in other people with a clear conscience. We will continue to work closely with the council, the planning department and of course the public and local business community on further developing this project.”

At The Needles Landmark Attraction it will be business as usual this year, building on their continual investment.

“The park is Victorian and we’ll be sticking to that,” Marino says. “It’s a large site but the commercial aspect is relatively small. We’ve toned down our branding and our new green and white colours and logos are everywhere.”

No longer simply the Needles Park or – whisper it – The Needles Pleasure Park – the site was rebranded last year and that new name is here to stay too.

“I was always jealous of Land’s End Landmark Attraction’,” Marino laughs. “We’re an iconic landmark, we’ve got the battery, the rocks and the world famous coloured sands so that’s why we changed it to The Needles Landmark Attraction. It was my idea and we’re sticking to it.”

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