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Eastbourne feels the crunch

Gary Parsons looks at Eastbourne's financial woes after a less than successful Airbourne 2008. Pictures by Bob Franklin

Despite better than forecast weather, spectacular air displays and entertaining arena attractions, Eastbourne Borough Council is in the process of counting the cost of a poorly attended Airbourne 2008 with a £170k operational loss.

Due to mounting costs to set up the show, and no response from any major potential sponsor, Eastbourne Borough Council had no choice but to levy a £5 spectator charge for the first time in 2008. Having never charged before, exact attendance figures prior to 2008 can't be accurate, but estimates have been in the order of six-figures - the attendance figure this year in the charged zone stood at just 48,000, well short of predicted numbers, and bucking the trend of many airshows across the UK that have seen gates actually increase despite the 'credit crunch'.

Life's a Beachy (Head)

Eastbourne Borough Council Spokesperson for Tourism, Cllr Steve Wallis, said "Airbourne is a world renowned event and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe. This was its sixteenth year and with the cost of securing top flying displays rising and becoming harder every year, a small admission charge was thought to be the best way to help us secure the long term future of this popular event." The charged area ran from the Beachy Head side of Eastbourne Pier to the end of the Western Lawns with a fence marking the area. However, most people were happy enough to stand behind the fence to watch the show, much to the frustration of the traders who were simply segregated from their potential customers.

The Leader of Eastbourne Borough Council, Councillor David Tutt, has ordered a top-to-tail review of the charging policy. "Airbourne is an extremely important event for Eastbourne with wide media coverage. However, local council tax payers do not want to pay for Airbourne, either by increases in Council Tax or by charging. We will be investigating what went right, what went wrong and looking very seriously at ways of ensuring the event for future years."

Councillors are set to conclude that both visitors and residents did not sufficiently value the show enough to pay to visit it. With high set up costs set to stay, serious questions will be raised about the structure of the event in the future. "Although nothing can be ruled out, Airbourne fans can be assured that this administration will do all that it can to ensure that there is an event for 2009", said Tutt. "I would like to pass my sincere thanks on to the sponsors, the staff who worked on the event, the traders and all the paying spectators who supported the show."

Costs for running this year's event included £10k on fencing plus a significant fee from Sussex Police at £100k for policing Airbourne. These costs, together with the Council's underachieved income target, means that the Council is looking at a significant shortfall. Both the fencing and policing costs were a direct result of the charging policy, and wouldn't have been incurred with a free show.

The decision to bring in a spectator charge was made earlier this year as all other avenues of generating income to cover the mounting costs had been exhausted, including trade stands being commercially tested, programme sales scrutinised to maximise advertising and income opportunities, and over 1,000 sponsorship leads explored. Organisers had to factor in the rising costs of fuel and the increase in RAF fees, resulting in a £42k additional spend on displays for this year's event.

The deficit for this year's Airbourne will be met through the Council's existing budgets, made up by a number of elements with some budgets exceeding expectations whilst other budgets fall short. There will be no need to cut expenditure or ask council tax payers to meet the shortfall.

Next year's Airbourne has been pencilled in from 13-16 August and Eastbourne Borough Council will be consulting with various partners and traders involved in the show to ensure that lessons are learnt from this year's event. A return to a free event is the only sensible way to go, but this may restrict the acts that can be booked - the event's future is currently under one of the clouds that were a frustrating feature of 2008's summer.


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