'As the Millennium Dome opened its doors to the public this week, its corporate sponsors were among those waiting eagerly for the country's reaction.' So wrote Marketing in its first issue of the year. As 2000 draws to a close, do we really know what that reaction has been?
It has been one amazing year - even for the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC). If that sounds a rather bizarre statement, consider the facts: almost 6.5 million people will have visited the Millennium Dome by the time it closes its doors for the last time next week. And that makes it the biggest visitor attraction in the UK by far.
The Dome has an extraordinary approval rating - at least outside political circles - as more than 80% of visitors gave it the thumbs-up.
What's more, in two of the past three months, the Dome will have made a profit. Even EuroDisney had been open three years before it registered a cash surplus.
So why, instead of being celebrated, is it seen as a disaster? NMEC sales and marketing director Sholto Douglas-Home says the Dome's image has been marred throughout its year of operation by the political agenda that has dogged the project at every step.
'The management team has had to concentrate on running the Dome as an attraction, but at times that has been very difficult,' he says. 'We have never tried to fight the media coverage, because doing so would have been impossible.'
Too true. It was not until July's sheep ads, which urged the public to check out the Dome for themselves, that the NMEC decided to play the media at its own game.
Early warning signs
A project member at one sponsor suggests that the ad should have come earlier in the year, saying: 'Generally, the marketing team has done a terrific job with its budget. My only reservation would be that it should have been quicker on its feet. It was obvious by the end of January that the Dome was taking a trouncing.'
But negative publicity was not the Dome's only problem. As last month's National Audit Office report pointed out, the NMEC had relied far too heavily on word-of-mouth to sell tickets.
That belief was a factor in the original allocation of just pounds 7m to market an attraction which would need more than 30,000 people coming through the doors each day if it was going to meet its target. 'The report highlighted the fact that marketing had never been an NMEC priority,' says Douglas-Home.
'The Dome's cashflow problems made it difficult for the marketing budget to be raised. That is why the Millennium Commission ring-fenced an additional pounds 3m to go toward marketing activity.'
But Douglas-Home is not using that as an excuse. As he points out, 'a lot of marketing directors have to put up with budgets that are lower than they would like.What has made the marketing of the Dome unique is that we were initially trying to sell something that did not exist.
'We couldn't talk about the Dome's content until we opened, and then any noise we could make was drowned out by that of the media.'
Among the Dome's sponsors, the prevailing mood has been of positive fatalism, encapsulated by Francis Thomas, a member of the Boots Dome project team.
'It wasn't the success that everyone had hoped,' he says. 'But the marketing team did what it could with the money. The Dome's problem was in PR - the NMEC had the wrong strategy in the wrong place at the wrong time.
'As a sponsor, you can never have a guarantee of success, but we had the Dome's best exhibit - the Body Zone - associated with our brand, and we are pleased to have taken the opportunity to be involved with a national celebration.'
From Ford through to BT, the reaction is similar. But would the sponsors take the decision to invest their pounds 12m again, knowing what they know now? Not surprisingly, few of them commit to an answer.
'The Journey Zone had 92% awareness, so we can safely say that it has helped Ford to be part of the Dome,' says Ford's manager of business strategy, Steve Parker. 'I guess we would take the decision to be involved again.'
LANDMARKS IN THE LIFE OF THE DOME
- May 1999 NMEC hit by departure of commercial director of Kevin Johnson.
- September 1999 Tickets go on sale to the public.
- November 1999 Dome marketing and sales chief Sholto Douglas-Home hits back at claims that the NMEC's marketing is elitist.
- January 2000 The Dome opens amid a barrage of bad publicity. Douglas-Home insists that the negative press could boost ticket sales. Visitor targets scaled down from 12 million to ten million.
- February 2000 NMEC chief Jennie Page is ousted and replaced by Euro-Disney 'saviour' Pierre-Yves Gerbeau.
- March 2000 Number of paying visitors since Dome's opening reaches one million.
- May 2000 Paying visitor forecast halved to six million. The government shortlists Legacy and Nomura-backed Dome Europe to buy the attraction.
- July 2000 Dome Europe chosen as preferred bidder. The Millennium Commission earmarks an additional pounds 3m for marketing, taking total spend for the year to pounds 10m.
- August 2000 Douglas-Home extends stay at the Dome until the year end. The NMEC reports record visitor levels for July but revises paying visitor forecast to 4.5 million.
- September 2000 Dome Europe abandons plans due to uncertainty about the attraction's financial status.
- October 2000 The Dome records a monthly profit for the first time.
- November 2000 Douglas-Home attacks NMEC marketing budget as 'inadequate' following National Audit Office report saying marketing strategy was based on the Dome selling itself. Legacy selected as preferred bidder.
- December 2000 The Dome closes, having attracted just over half the original visitor target.
MARKETING THE DOME
Ad: Easter Island
First aired: December 1998
The first attempt by the New Millennium Experience Company to communicate the wonder and excitement that the Dome was intended to embody, this ad was supposed to show what humanity had achieved in the past 1000 years. The statues on Easter Island formed the focal point as a day passed. A voiceover by Jeremy Irons highlighted the importance of the past at the dawn of a new age, which the Dome would symbolise.
Ad: Night Stars
First aired: September 1999
This ad used images of stars over a range of settings, including a fishing harbour and a village. A boy is seen next to a tower block, expressing his hopes for the new millennium. Numerous voiceovers cut in with what they want to see in the Dome. With less than four months to go until the opening of the Dome, the ad aimed to communicate a sense of anticipation and desire to visit the attraction. It introduced the 'One Amazing Day' strapline.
Ad: Jaw Dropping
First aired: January 2000
The first ad to air after the opening of the Dome, this aimed to communicate the range of experiences to be found in the Dome. A fast-paced creative execution, it featured a young boy whose jaw drops as he walks into the Dome. Shots of Dome exhibits and the Millennium Show filled the screen in a bid to attract families to the site, as early figures were showing that original visitor estimates had been hopelessly optimistic.
First aired: July 2000
This ad featured three executions, the most notable of which showed a group of people dressed as sheep who had made up their minds not to go to the Dome because of what they had heard about it. The other executions showed a man dismissing Cuba as a potential holiday destination despite never having been there, and a couple in a restaurant who dismiss the waiter's suggestion despite never having tried it.