Troubled Harrogate venue: 'We can turn it around' says new boss

Confident: Harrogate Convention Centre's new director Paula Lorimer who helped turn G-Mex in Manchester around.
Confident: Harrogate Convention Centre's new director Paula Lorimer who helped turn G-Mex in Manchester around.

When Harrogate hosted the Eurovision Song Contest for the one and only time in 1982, it was won by a little-known German 17-year-old called Nicole.

It was the first big event held in the main 2000-seat auditorium of the recently-built Harrogate International Centre and the winning song was called Ein bißchen Frieden.
It translates as A Little Peace but there’s been precious little of that for the troubled giant of the town’s conference trade since then.

"A 1970s ELO album cover" - The still futuristic Harrogate Convention Centre.

"A 1970s ELO album cover" - The still futuristic Harrogate Convention Centre.

Despite welcoming hundreds of thousands of visitors over the last four decades, Harrogate Convention Centre, as it was recently rebranded, has posed a financial headache for its owners Harrogate Borough Council for much of that time.

Its role in an overspend of £373,000 on general funds last year, led to calls from some councillors for it to be taken out of the hands of the council and be floated as a commercial company.

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But the convention centre’s recently-appointed new director Paula Lorimer appears to have all the credentials to end the financial strife and effect a major change of its fortunes.

As well as an immediate freshen-up of facilities costing £1.1 million, further down the line there may even be a major redevelopment of the entire infrastructure of Harrogate Convention Centre.

Speaking to her in the heart of this modern-looking building once described as “a 70s ELO album cover” or “a spaceship from the Close Encounters movie,” the positive and plain speaking Ms Lorimer is totally confident she can help turn Harrogate Convention Centre round for the benefit of the whole town.

She said: “The way I operate is to give honest, candid answers. We didn’t have our best year, last year, but this year is going to be better.
“The landscape has changed. Trade exhibitions have been in decline for some years in the UK, never mind Harrogate. Even the Ideal Home Show just doesn’t happen to the same extent anymore.
“Standing still is not an option. We need to be out and about competing more. I’m really excited about it. We’ve already got a better order book than this time 12 months ago.”
If anyone knows how to bring success in the conference trade, it’s Harrogate’s bright and bold new director.

Afterall, she’s done it before, arriving at the G-Mex Centre in Manchester in 2007 in what were dark days for the former railway station and, to an extent, the city itself.
Despite being Sussex born-and-bred, she has a passion for the north’s cultural and economic revival and her seven years as sales director and deputy chief executive saw a stunning revival.

She said: “It was a leaky old place but all it needed was some TLC and a concerted effort on the business side for it to become the success story it is today.
“I took some time to reinvigorate it as Manchester Central and shift its product mix.
“That’s what I intend to do here.”

Harrogate’s original position as one of the top three conference destinations in Britain may have been ended by the dominance of bigger rivals such as London, Edinburgh and Manchester, as well as more recent newcomers as Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and, even, Hull, but Ms Lorimer aims to take the town back into the top five.

And, after less than three months in the role, she has a strategy mapped out, including:

Top 5 ideas to revive Harrogate Convention Centre
1. Short term investment in a light refurbishment of facilties.
2. Investing in the sales team for a more pro-active approach.
3. Protecting Harrogate Convention Centre’s existing ‘crown jewels’ such as the Home & Gift Fair which has been coming to town for more than 50 years.
4. Enticing large association conferences back to the town and introducing a better mix of events.
5. Looking at the best configuration of the existing conference halls with a view to a possible flexible open space redevelopment.

The hugely experienced, hands-on Ms Lorimer, who started at the very bottom of the industry and worked for where she’s got, seems fully aware of the politics of the situation she finds herself in and the weight of responsibility which now rests on her shoulders.

She said: “Manchester Central was set up as a commercial company and I am a commercial person.
“I like the fact Harrogate Convention Centre has a close-knit relationship with the council. It has always stood by it and invested in it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t run it like a commercial venue.”
She’s particularly excited about one event that Harrogate has already ‘captured’ from Leeds already - Thought Bubble, the comic art convention coming in November.

She sees what was once regarded as a ‘white elephant’ as a fantastic space with an exciting future.
And Ms Lorimer wants to share it with the town.
“The conference trade in Harrogate generates around £60 million a year for the local economy, including hotels and restaurants,” she said.
“My job is to help protect the prosperity of the Harrogate area. But I also want Harrogate Convention Centre to reconnect with the town and its people.”

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