At 39 I am just a bit too young to know what the Kursaal was really like in its heyday. My Dad told me it had one of the best ballroom floors in the country, and the amusement park was one of the biggest in Europe. What an asset to the town it must have been – today’s Kursaal is not quite the same.
Tesco is now the last business standing within the Kursaal walls as all others have gone.
McDonald’s was the first to go. At the time I had assumed that it wouldn’t be long before another franchise would take its place, it did not occur to me that the business model just did not suit that location. It relied on super-high volume which it would only get in the summer. Unfortunately this did occur to other franchisees and alas the space was never filled.
Yet it still had the bowling alley, pool tables, bars and arcades, and with around 180,000 residents in the town, that should have been enough to keep it going. There is no reason why it could not have attracted a sufficient enough audience, however, it too duly went the way of McDonald’s.
And then Rendezvous Casino closed its doors this year. It wasn’t a bad business. It looked good inside, the staff were fine, the atmosphere civilised, and food and drink were reasonable. Of course COVID would not have helped, but it just could not attract enough of a customer base to make it work. They have now gone and the Kursaal dream over.
The Echo's social media asked the public what should go in there? In the comments section lay many fantastic ideas: ice rinks, restaurants, go-karts, night clubs, food markets and museums. These would certainly find an audience – but then again, so should have the bowling.
From an outside perspective it can be a struggle to understand how the Kursaal bowling did not work. However, the answer is fairly obvious: there is an ‘in’ column and an ‘out’ column. You just have to make sure you bring in more than you spend! In this case, the equation was in the negative.
Let’s look at it a bit closer. They barely had staff so it wasn’t wages – I would say at most they had 4 staff at any one time. You could wear your own shoes so there were no shoe costs. They would have paid a one off cost for the bowling balls. Maintaining the lanes could not have been too hard because they were not played on all that frequently. So it can only be the fixed costs that did for them, and in particular rents and rates. They are the silent killer.
Very often they are in the hundreds of thousands of pounds, and only the experienced entrepreneur can sense that a particular project is doomed from the start. The problem is that you never know how many customers your business will generate before it starts. The only thing you can do is ensure that your costs base is a low as possible so the revenue requirements do not have to be too high.
I do not know the rent and rates for the bowling, but let’s say it was £300K for arguments sake. Their average price was around £10 per person. This means they needed 3000 customers per year or 57 per week. You would think that is more than achievable and the investment a no-brainer. However, there are so many other hidden business costs (NIC, VAT, holiday pay, salaries, corporation tax, repairs, depreciation, legal fees, insurance etc) that completely change the math, and by the time the project begins, it works out you need double or treble the number of customers – and this is all just to break even. To earn a living treble the numbers again.
Yes, there seemed to have been a number of operational changes that might have improved their fortunes, but it was still a bowling alley and those that enjoy bowling would have been relatively satisfied.
And this brings me to a wider point. You cannot expect small businesses to survive when the level of custom can never surpass the costs. All those wonderful ideas mentioned in the Echo feed that genuinely would improve Southend would very likely fail if the fundamental issue of high rents and rates are not addressed.
This is not pessimism, just business.
So it there a solution?
Probably. Governments lower business rates and reduce red tape. Colleges and Universities in Southend/Essex to have direct links with landlords who can facilitate cheap premises. A body of business experts funded by government to facilitate each individual starting out with basic business training: accounts, HR, marketing and operations.
Southend could be filled with unique shops full of vibrant and passionate entrepreneurs trading original music, clothes, innovations, art, or whatever their heart desires. I have met so many talented people that this is a real possibility. We just need to lay it on for them.
For the nay-sayers who can only find excuses, I say a low cost business environment will single-handedly equate to a successful local economy and we must try our best to make it happen in any way that we can.
I may be completely wrong as to why the Kursaal did not work, but the basic principle still stands either way. In this environment The Kursaal could indeed be the centrepiece of Southend once again and become a symbol for our town to take inspiration from.
We all hope it can happen, but as someone wiser than I once said: “hope is not a plan”.