Simon Dabell only has to look around the walls of his office at Blackgang Chine to realise he is in his right vocation after all.
Four generations of the Dabell family stare down on him, beginning with Alexander, a self-styled Victorian entrepreneur whose idea it was to create what has become one of the Island’s most popular attractions.
Then there is great-grandfather Walter, grandfather Bruce and uncle Dick, who at 86 is still involved himself daily in the company. So it would perhaps seem inevitable that Simon would join the fifth generation of Dabells in the smooth-running family business.
But as Simon explained it was not quite that cut and dried. A keen amateur actor and formerly trainee manager with John Lewis, he actually attended an interview, conducted by the family hierarchy, before being given the go-ahead to take up his duties within the company, which now operates under the banner of Vectis Ventures Ltd.
Simon, 57 later this year, was born and grew up in the Lincoln area as his father Peter left the Island after serving in the navy because he wanted to be a mechanical engineer. Simon’s mother June was from the Grandvoinet family and her father started the Rex Cinema in Shanklin in the 1930s.
“I was born in Lincoln in 1953 and went to school locally, before, at the age of eight, I was packed off to boarding school at Woodhall Spa, which was only 20 miles from home, which I found hard. However, that was the ‘done thing’ in those days if your family could afford it. “I then went to public school in Essex until I was 18, but I was not academically bright and managed to scrape six O levels and one A level, so I was not university material,” Simon smiled.” But I was in the Poetry Society and Drama Club at school, And so maybe I saw myself as an aspiring actor!
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but because I enjoyed acting my parents suggested as I liked mixing with people I should go into retail management.” That is when, in his words he was ‘shoved out the door’ to join the John Lewis Partnership on a management training scheme. But his enthusiasm waned when it was suggested ‘you are doing really well in this scheme, so in 20 years or so you could be a department manager’.
Simon left to join Ladbrooke Holidays for 18 months as a camp management trainee, working in Cornwall and London, and having met ‘the girl of my dreams at the time’ he was married in 1978. At that time he worked for tourist attraction company ‘The Dropping Well and Mother Shipton’s Cave’ in Yorkshire – giving him his first real taste of the tourism business that has subsequently become his life. “I wanted to work in tourist attractions, but at this point in my career no one had said to me, and I had not been brought up to believe, there would be a job in the family business. The family policy was always ‘if we have a vacancy, then we will only consider a member of the family if they have the right attitude and qualifications’.”
But in late 1978 a vacancy arose and he was invited for an interview ‘in my uncle’s oak-lined study’ and was offered a position in junior management. He says: “I took it because I didn’t want a career being just a cog in a machine – I wanted to be the machine.” However, he admits: “After I moved down to the Island, the first three years were touch-and-go as to whether I would stay. Although I used to come down every year to visit my family, I was born on the mainland and we missed old friends and family. But in time Simon made new friends, the job had clicked, and he was enjoying the part he was playing in the family business, which became a limited company in 1993 and subsequently acquired the Robin Hill Adventure Park.
Simon took on the role of managing director in 1996 , whilst his Uncle is now chair of the Board of Directors which include his cousin Alec and his father Peter. He recalls: “There have been lots of challenges, like erosion. That used to be the single biggest challenge, because we only had the Blackgang site. We were constantly worried about cliff falls. “But we have changed our outlook a little now because we have Robin Hill as well, coupled with our new adult-orientated product slightly inland at Blackgang, so we feel we are well set to battle the geographical elements.” Blackgang Chine has been an Island attraction since 1843, and underwent a major modernisation programme in the 1950s. Adding new attractions regularly, Blackgang continues to be successful with 180,000 visitors in 2009, whilst Robin Hill has grown its visitor numbers to 130,000.
The company has now taken the first steps to market Blackgang Chine also as an adult attraction, rather than just one where mums and dads watch kids enjoying themselves. “Our main challenge is to not only keep up with the Island tourism market but also help the Island make sure it has a strong strategy for the future.
“So we have introduced this year The Disappearing Village, with the idea being it will persuade adults without children that Blackgang is a place which they can visit. Some adults think ‘cowboys and dinosaurs – that’s not for me’. But we felt that Blackgang could be so much more so we commissioned a design company linked with the BBC to put in Coast, which is an exhibition based on the ‘Coast’ TV programme,” he says.
“We have also refurbished the sawmill and renamed it ‘The World of Timber’ and developed a new large screen cinema where we show a 15-minute aerial film of the Island. We have also re-designed the old pub as The Ship Ashore tea rooms, a quality catering facility ideal for passing visitors.”
The total spend on this new project has been close to £500,000, but Simon firmly believes it is the right direction to go with more and more adults, rather than just families, visiting the Island. However, younger families need not despair because the Blackgang that many kids recognise is still there with all its eccentric popular attractions.
They aren’t stopping there because they are already developing Robin Hill into a more flexible, all-age complex, which the enthusiastic MD sees as playing a pivotal role in the future of the company, as Blackgang may gradually transform into a more nostalgic heritage site. The company is built on strong team foundations, from board room level, through management, retail, maintenance & catering teams. So in between helping to keep both sites running smoothly, Simon, now divorced but with two grown-up children and a South Wight resident for 30 years, still finds time to fine-tune his acting skills, as well as write and regularly visit the cinema.
Acting has been Simon’s favourite hobby, and for nearly 20 years he has run the ‘Caught Red Handed’ group who perform ‘murder-mystery’ productions around the Island, which he & his friends write. “It is great escapism, because when I leave work I like to get out and do something different, and acting is really restorative. When you work in a business like this you have to be a bit of a showman and that probably explains my love for the stage” he explains. “I also act with the Ad Lib Theatre Group, and do an outdoor production every summer which is great fun. Outdoor productions really bring a story to life and gives a totally different atmosphere.”
Simon has been closely involved with Island Tourism and is an active member of the Chamber of Commerce. He is fully supportive of the Chamber’s partnership with the IW Council and hopes this will flourish, despite the economic difficulties. So will any of the next generation of the family follow Simon into the business? He shrugged his shoulder and smiles. “We are very much aware of succession in a business like ours. However, if children, cousins or nephews are happy in the direction they are going, we are not ones to say ‘you will join us’. If we don’t have the skills within the family then there is no harm in employing non family members to manage the company – but that is still one for the future. I hope I am here for many more years to come. As I said I am nearly 57, but what is that these days – 60 is the new 40!”