Clean Start For New Management Team

Hastings Pier reopened its gates to the public last Monday with a new management team in place and, very obviously, a fresh outlook. Owner Sheikh Gulzar has given an events company, Music First Events, free rein to conduct business on the full length of the pier for the next three months, in whatever manner its directors James Tovey and Mustafa Abdelhadi see fit within such social distancing guidelines as may persist. 

The new management team are well aware of the troubles of the past three years – the financial failure of the community trust which had overseen the restoration of the award-winning structure with over £14m of National Lottery money; the controversial sale to Gulzar in June 2018; and the widespread criticism which he has attracted in the aftermath by his failure to plan or invest in its future since then.  They have declared, however, in an official statement posted last week on the pier’s Facebook page, that “ the reset button has been pressed and we need your support!”

The post continues: “We feel it’s time to forget the past and move forward positively.  With so many exciting plans to be revealed over the coming weeks, we are confident that we will be able to breathe life back into this beloved landmark.

“Our aim is to offer the space back to the local community. If you have a group that needs space – contact us. If you have a passion you wish to share with the world – contact us. If you need a platform to showcase your talent – contact us!”

PICTURE: Dave Young

Previous incarnation

Both Tovey and Abdelhadi were raised in Hastings, and have experience of the pier’s previous incarnation as music venue – they were both involved in promoting electronic dance events in its former ballroom in the 1990s before going separate ways. Tovey went on to forge an early career as operations manager of a succession of nightclubs in Tunbridge Wells; Abdelhadi, with a family of Palestinian origin in the restaurant business, is a qualified chef but also more recently a property developer. 

At the May bank holiday weekend in 2018 Tovey, acting in a separate business venture, promoted a Music First Festival event at Hastings Oval headlined by UB40 and Alexander O’Neal. It was not a commercial success, but he remained convinced that Hastings was ripe for major music promotion. He teamed up with Abdelhadi to put another show together this year, and they negotiated terms with Gulzar to hold it on the pier at the equivalent May weekend.  Although this event succumbed to the lockdown, the aborted commercial relationship with the pier owner bore more sizeable fruit: he told them that he was looking for someone to take control of all operations on the pier for what was left of the summer season once lockdown was eased.

Open air hospitality

By mid-May, PM Boris Johnson was suggesting in his “Stay Alert” programme that, subject to continued monitoring of infection rates, some open air hospitality venues could reopen at the beginning of July, provided that they were safe and enforced social distancing. Tovey and Abdelhadi saw the opportunity – what could fit this specification better than the open air space of the pier? They agreed to take it on for an initial three-month period, with the option of continuing forward to a ‘winter wonderland’ programme in November/December.

Despite Tovey’s background in promoting concerts by major bands, he confirms that his company’s intentions for the pier, at least for this summer, are to cater for every kind of musical taste, to engage with local performers and their followers – and, above all, to offer the space to as wide a clientele as possible, generally for free. Attractions will include free open air cinema showings on Friday evenings (for adults) and Saturdays (for children); on Sundays there will be offerings of hiphop karaoke and Guitar Hero played out on a big screen. “We cannot and do not intend to be all things to all people – it’s just not possible”, Tovey says. But the aim at this stage is certainly to aim wide.  

Takings from the bar and other franchised facilities will provide the operating income. The two entrepreneurs are confident that, with reasonable weather between now and October, their ideas will pay off. 

PICTURES: Dave Young

Gold for gold

And here they are. The boards have been scrubbed clean of months of seagull droppings. Skips of rubbish have been cleared. Gone (back to Eastbourne, apparently) are the stuffed animals and gold insignia of their bling-obsessed owner. Arrived in their place is a set of 100 picnic tables with benches, also ironically coloured gold, though this was an apparently coincidental finish applied by the supplier, local carpentry business D.A. French.  

The tables are arrayed, at appropriate distance from each other, to form a beer garden for the bar at the sea end and additional seating in the foreground area, which is still flanked by the fish-and-chip bar, ice-cream kiosk and a fast food van.  All but one of the kiosk franchises have been taken for the summer, Tovey says, though some were not yet open for business last weekend.  Beach fashions, a health food bar, tarot-reading and massage services are among the trades on offer. 

An enormous, free, public platform over the sea – inspiring temporary installations and events across a variety of scales

Architect Alex de Rijke, 2017

Opening hours are now 8 am to 11pm (12 midnight on Fridays and Saturdays) seven days a week. Entry remains free, dogs welcome, fishing permitted subject to licence. Toilets are free and open to all, though the management team can’t help regretting the council’s closure of other nearby facilities that results in visitors presenting themselves for that purpose only. The only restriction, apart from the polite (though seemingly pointless) requirement to use separate gates for entry and exit, is an understandable restraint on consuming food and drink not purchased on the premises. 

Restoration architect, Alex de Rijke of dRMM, described his design for the pier in 2017  “as an enormous, free, public platform over the sea – inspiring temporary installations and events across a variety of scales. This space offered more potential than an ‘iconic’ building on the end of the pier”. Under last weekend’s blue skies, calm sea conditions and balmy air currents, visitors and locals alike were returning to bask once again in that vision.

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