Gulliver's Valley expansion hampered by building materials shortage
A shortage of building materials and skilled staff is hampering Gullivers Valley’s expansion plans as it prepares to celebrate its first anniversary.
But the boss of the popular theme park in Rother Valley, said it is still pushing ahead with plans to massively increase the number of attractions on site, which would see its workforce more than treble from 140 to 450.
The venue’s opening was delayed slightly until July 11 last year due to the pandemic and it has had to operate at a reduced capacity to enable social distancing, with visitor numbers initially restricted to 40 per cent of what would normally be allowed and that number since rising to 60 per cent.
Managing director of Gulliver's Theme Parks and Resorts Julie Dalton, said opening during the pandemic had proved a huge challenge but there had been ‘as many highs as there have been lows’ during the park’s first year.
“It’s one of those challenges you have to work through, as every business has done, but I don’t want to play this game again,” she said.
“There have been as many highs as there have been lows. Actually getting to open was a massive high and seeing the feedback we’ve had has been amazing but having to shut down again and send everyone home when the restrictions changed was really hard.
“It’s been a hard year but we’re still here at the end of it and we’re pushing forward.”
Ms Dalton said tickets were continuing to sell out and the reduced capacity actually made it a better experience for visitors, who have not had to put up with the queues they might otherwise have experienced, but it meant the venue was just about breaking even rather than making a profit.
She also told how restrictions on overseas travel were helping the country’s service industry bounce back quicker as more people opt for UK holidays and discover the ‘hidden gems’ closer to home.
However, finding the raw materials and workers to build new attractions, and recruiting other skilled service staff like chefs, is proving challenging.
Gulliver’s Gears, an area designed for transport-mad youngsters and including a new rollercoaster, opened at the park in May, and work is underway on new pirate and mermaid-themed accommodation.
But Ms Dalton told how planning further expansion for the year ahead was not easy due to the continuing uncertainty and the difficulty getting hold of building materials.
The shortage of building materials and skilled labour in the UK has been blamed on unprecedented demand, among other factors, with construction projects having surged since lockdown.
“Getting the raw materials we need has been the biggest challenge, because there’s a shortage of everything,” said Ms Dalton.
“Luckily, being a family business we’re more flexible and able to react quickly when things do change.
“If everything’s going well and we can get the equipment and workers we need to build the new attractions then we will push forward.
“There’s a huge growth potential for this site. That’s what this site was all always about but we have to make the money to put the money back into the business and grow it. For that we need to be open and running at full capacity.”
Ms Dalton described how another big challenge was recruiting skilled service staff, from chefs to costume designers.
She said that was something affecting the whole service industry in the UK, with many workers having left the sector during the pandemic.
“A lot of people going through the whole shutdown and furlough scheme who may never have worried about working weekends had a chance to readjust and re-evaluate their work/life balance, and as a sector we’ve lost a lot of skilled people who’ve changed their career paths,” she said.
To bridge that skills gap, Ms Dalton told how they wanted to work with Rotherham Council and other local employers to provide vital training and experience for a new generation of workers.
“We’re working with Rotherham Council to try to put together a bid for a Skills City so we can take and upskill people, especially those from the younger generation who have been disproportionately affected by what’s happened over the last 18 months, and get them back into work and give them the opportunity to start a new career,” she said.
“It’s part of the Levelling Up bid the council has put in, and I think we will know in October if that’s successful.
“We have a fabulous team working for us, including architects, designers, builders, bricklayers, mechanics and people working in personnel, accounts and finance, and that's before you even get into the operational teams.
“We have to stop people seeing service as a bit of a dirty word and the sort of work you do before you start your proper career because that’s not true.
“It’s a massive industry in the UK but so many restaurants and other businesses in this sector, ourselves included, are finding it tough to recruit the skilled staff they need because there’s such a shortage.
“We’ve had massive numbers of people applying for jobs with us but they often lack the skill sets we need and we’ve had to provide a massive amount of training.”
If there’s one positive to take from the pandemic, says Ms Dalton, it’s how it has made people value even more the chance to get out and spend quality time with the family.
“People are so thankful we’re open and they can go and experience a bit of normality here,” she said.
“If you have little ones, this is all they’ve known for a large portion of their lives, so the ability to spend some quality family time together is really critical, and that’s what we’re able to provide.”