Hopton-on-Sea: Bowls success leaves Potters Leisure Resort on a roll

Brian Potter, chairman of Potters Leisure Resort

Brian Potter, chairman of Potters Leisure Resort - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2013

IT HAS become the home of indoor bowls in the same way that The Crucible in Sheffield has become synonymous with snooker. With the World Indoor Bowls Championships again having brought Potters Leisure Resort at Hopton-on-Sea, between Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, to national televised attention last month, STEPHEN PULLINGER reports on a smooth-rolling business success story.

THE forecast snowfall had yet to arrive but earlier deposits were still blanketing the ground and, as the sky over the North Sea assumed ever darker shades of grey, a cutting north wind had begun racing down the east coast.

A well-wrapped Brian Potter entered his domain ,with golden Labrador in tow, and was immediately quizzed on the weather by guests in the packed coffee lounge. “You are definitely better off staying in the warm,” he reported.

The sight of this five-star resort heaving with holidaymakers in January when nearby centres are in winter shutdown is truly remarkable – an achievement Mr Potter puts down to his “Archimedes moment”.

Recalling it with satisfaction, he said: “The only difference is that I was not in the bath when I had my brainwave, I was shaving when inspiration came to me about how to fill our beds in winter.

“I thought: ‘Who is going to come to the cold east coast in winter?’, a vision my father, who died in 1983, thought would never be achievable.”

Identifying indoor bowls as the growing leisure market of the early 1980s, he initially experimented with two rinks. They immediately became oversubscribed six more were added the following year.

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Having secured his captive winter market of bowls holidaymakers, it was in the 1990s that he pursued his vision of attracting the World Indoor Bowls Championships from Preston Guildhall.

He said: “My first contact with the World Bowls Tour was unsuccessful when they told me they were happy with Preston and that Hopton was hardly the epicentre of the country.”

Undaunted, he took the “£2.5million gamble” of building a bowls arena suitable for an international tournament and the following year, 1998, it paid off when world bowls finally moved down from Preston.

While the introduction of indoor bowls quickly achieved his goal of finding Monday-to-Friday work during the winter for the 250 staff he employed in the early 1980s, Mr Potter confessed he could not have foreseen the scale of its success.

He said: “The World Indoor Bowls Championships have generated £100m in turnover over 15 years and the weeks of the event have added up to 1.2m bed nights.”

But despite investing £48m over the past 30 years, with the turnover graph going up annually to its present £20m level, Mr Potter insisted this was no time for them to rest on their laurels.

He confessed that, paradoxically, the success of world bowls had created a marketing hurdle – how to convince the younger family audience that there was far more to Potters.

He said: “This year, because we don’t want to confuse the market and we feared we might be, we are introducing separate brochures for midweek leisure breaks, specific bowls breaks and activity family breaks. When someone rings up they will be sent a brochure specific to their inquiry.”

Mr Potter said while they were weathering the recession well and maintaining impressive occupancy they were having to be far more pro-active in their marketing.

“A few years ago we would wait for business to come to us, but now we have to be far more aggressive in our marketing. To create awareness of our product, we have just undertaken door-drop marketing in our catchment area in Essex to a million homes,” he said.

He said his son John had taken over as managing director and it was now his turn to realise his ideas and put his stamp on the product. He added: “He is very adventurous and entrepreneurial and some of his ideas scare me in the same way that my plans scared my parents.”

Reluctant to go into detail about multi-million pound plans currently on the drawing board, he said they were seeking to increase the capacity of Potters – presently 750 guests – through extra hotel accommodation.

“It is expensive to operate the business at the level we want to with costs rising all the time. We pay £1,058 a day in rates and energy costs amount to more than £1,000 a day.

“The plans we are working on aim to ensure we can still offer the same value for money without changing the character of the place that guests love,” he said.

Mr Potter said they were also exploring the viability of building a new arena to “attract the biggest names in entertainment”.

He said: “The biggest names take a percentage of the ticket revenue so it is very difficult for smaller venues to compete. The question we are asking is whether there is room for a new venue large enough to attract the big names.”

But for now, the focus is on cheerfully sailing through their busiest period – the one time of year when staff cannot ordinarily take annual leave.

With accommodation full, numbers are increased still further by the 22,000 day visitors who visit Potters for the bowls in January.

And the tournament comes on top of the hectic Christmas and New Year period – this year enhanced by a spectacular Christmas show bringing 70 people on stage – when Potters expects to turn over £1m.

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