Facing the music: why Brunel Rooms failed
Updated 9:21am Friday 7th February 2014 in By Dominic Gilbert
The former directors of the Brunel Rooms have blamed a flawed business plan, poor marketing and escalating security costs for the failure of the club and the loss of their £250,000 investment.
Jason Ranford, 27, of Victoria Road, and sisters Helene Simpkins, 35, of Broad Hinton, and Paula Harris, 34, of Hinton Parva relaunched the iconic club in a blaze of glory last August after an appeal to restore it gained huge backing on social media.
But eight months on they are left with a huge tax bill, staff are unpaid and there is a long list of creditors.
They say their problems began when Jason was jailed for fraud and assault in September.
The three directors, talking candidly for the first time about the club’s collapse, said they had not anticipated the huge financial pressure of the terms of their licence and lease.
“The terms of the licence crippled us,” said Helene. After expressing concern around the application for a licence at the club, Wiltshire Police imposed conditions which the directors say contributed to their problems, including a high number of door staff and a restriction on their opening hours.
“From the point of view of the police they could not afford to have us open. We had a huge coverage of security staff built into our licence because the police did not want to have to deal with it.”
“The fact we only had a licence until 1.30am some nights meant we could not attract enough people. They would go somewhere open later and stay there all night.”
The licence of the club had been due for review this month and the building managers revoked the lease in January after the directors went into arrears.
They were in talks for months about a cheaper lease, but said they gave up after a higher offer was made by someone else.
“We owed the leaseholders £1,500 altogether,” added Helene. “After Jason went to prison they said they were no longer happy for him to be on the lease, which is when we started looking to renegotiate it.
“We put in a new offer for the lease, but someone came in with a higher bid.”
Helene and Paula, whose grandfather William Oscar Heyne was chairman of Plessey, which owned Swindon turntable makers Garrard, recieve a yearly income from their inheritance.
“All the money we put in to the club was completely legitimate, and was from our annual income from the trust fund,” added Helene.
“Because it came from Swindon we wanted to give it back to Swindon. The amount we have invested has been in excess of £250,000. Whenever we made any money we put it straight back into the club.
“We tried to do something and it didn’t work. We marketed it wrong, because the business plan was to have two separate nights, the big names in the main room and more regular events at the smaller Amphi room. We concentrated too much on big events, and people only came to us when there was a big name coming.”
Jason said his arrest damaged the business, and staff morale dropped in the following weeks.
“When I got arrested it wasn’t fair on the staff,” he said. “A big part of the problem the police had with the venue was me. They didn’t want me there from the start, and the assault involving me outside the club didn’t help. I had been drinking, but after that I never drank at the end of work again.
“Businesses fail, and there is not much we can do about that now. It happened because the business model did not do very well from the start.
“The first five or six nights we had 1,200 people through the doors and only one incident, but the police picked on us for that. In comparison to the number of people inside the building, that is not bad at all.”
Debts remain outstanding, and the former directors could not guarantee the exact amount or when it could be paid.
“None of us took a wage from September until the day it closed,” added Jason. “The majority of what we owe now is to HMRC, and about 85 per cent of all our debts are to them. That could cause a problem for us down the line.”
After club closed a marketing campaign for a relaunch on February 15 began. It has now been cancelled.
The relaunch of the club was dedicated to Jack Savage, who died on the A419 last May. The former directors have made a donation to the Wiltshire Air Ambulance.
Wiltshire Police have responded to the claims made by the club's management, stating it was their duty to make sure licensed premises are run responsibly.
Gavin Williams, Superintendent for Wiltshire Police, said: “Essentially we support the responsible sale of alcohol.
"Clearly, from our perspective, we need to ensure that those who go out in Swindon or anywhere else are safe, but that where we have concerns about either the irresponsible sale of alcohol or the irresponsible running of premises then we will bring them to the attention of the relevant authorities.
"Overall, my view is that we are walking a fine line, we can’t and won’t tolerate violence.
"Where adults go into clubs and drink too much alcohol, or premises are poorly run, it can have a detrimental impact on the surrounding community and surrounding businesses, and in fact, I don’t think there’s anybody in Swindon who wants that to happen."
‘It was a losing battle’
THE task of bringing the biggest and best acts back to Swindon fell to former events manager at the Brunel Rooms, Aaron Woolford.
The 35-year-old quit his position in January after wages were not paid and has spoken out for the first time.
The former directors of the club said they had put in place an experienced team around them, including Aaron and general manager, Nathan Hatter.
Helene Simpkins said: “We had Aaron, who was supposed to be an amazing promoter. He was running all our events, and he should have known how to get people in there.
“We have had great support from most of our staff along the way.”
Jason Ranford added: “We thought the people we had put in place as staff were good enough to make it work.”
Aaron, above, said he felt restricted in what he could do at the club, and he had been determined to make it a success. “I was misled from the start about expectations and wants of the owners, but it became clear early on that they had a set budget to open and get them through the first month of trading,” he said.
“It was apparent that they thought by opening the doors people would simply come flooding back with minimal marketing.
“I constantly expressed my concern about the lack of marketing in any national media, the use of trainee staff who had never promoted before and the general lack of funds to push the club in the right direction.
“I personally went out of my way to promote the club but it’s simply not a one-man job. We were fighting a losing battle from the get go.
“I believe the failure of the club is down to poor management and lack of budgets for cash flow as it killed the club not being able to do things way in advance as the first month had started.
“If the club would have been marketed right, and certain events didn’t happen that gave us all the bad press, the club would still be open today.
“I do not feel the failures of the club were my responsibility as I was mollycoddled through every decision.
“I wanted to bring back genres of music and culture that this town lacked from a big venue.”
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