Before moving to Brighton last year, Steve Bax had spent the previous decade at English Heritage. Now he is the Executive Director at British Airways i360, the striking, glistening viewing tower that boldly stands in front of the traditional seaside architecture. PBM asked Steve about his dramatic switch from the preserved world of historic stately homes to the modern and shiny i360.
Meeting Steve Bax in the stylish, new-look West Beach Bar & Kitchen, overlooking the sea, he appears to be very happy with life at the BA i360, and I start by asking him how it contrasts from his previous life at English Heritage. “You could say it is a move from something old and a bit crumbly to something new and shiny,” says Steve. “Part of my role at English Heritage was conservation, ensuring our heritage assets are handed on to future generations. The challenge was to maintain those buildings and when you’ve got ruins they naturally don’t want to stand up. They are in a ruinous state, so it costs a lot of money to keep them in that way.
“Even here there is respect for the past, as the architects and engineers worked hard to copy the original West Pier toll booths. It’s fantastic that they did, and they used the same kind of building materials as used in Victorian times.
“I think that British Airways i360 fits in well, and it carries on that grandeur of Victorian seaside towns and of the West Pier itself.”
One thing for sure is that BA i360 has already become an instantly recognisable landmark for Brighton, just as the Shard and the London Eye have become icons for the capital. “We are the must-see attraction in Brighton. When you come to Brighton the best place to see it is from above. And then once you’ve seen it from above, go and explore all the fantastic other attractions: the Pier, the Lanes, the Pavilion – there is so much to do in Brighton. But you have to see it from above to really appreciate it, both in the day and in the evening.
“It’s a completely different experience at night, absolutely stunning and beautiful. And standing at 450’ up in the air with a glass of Nyetimber in your hand, with your loved one or whoever you choose to be with that night, is an absolutely fantastic experience. We are probably one of the most unique venues in Brighton.”
Perhaps part of the attraction for Steve is the opportunity to get hands-on. At English Heritage Steve started out selling tickets in a little wooden hut at the gate of Framlingham Castle in Suffolk, and he progressed up the organisation. He took on the Devon, Somerset and Gloucestershire region, then managed the West Midlands region, before being promoted to Director for the East and London. His remit was to look after 96 properties. But you get the feeling that Steve missed the day-to-day active involvement in a bustling attraction.
Steve says, “What attracted me to British Airways i360 was that it is new, and that I could help to shape it. And part of the attraction was that it had a slightly bumpy start because that just makes it more interesting. You think: ‘How do I make it better? How do I get over those hurdles? How do I get the people of Brighton to appreciate what it brings to the city?’ I needed that fresh challenge, and this was a big challenge to take on.”
As Steve quite rightly reports, the BA i360 has not been without controversy. Even before it was built there were rumours of precious public money being thrown at the project.
Steve counters these rumours firmly: “The biggest misconception was about the funding. It was a commercial loan from the Public Works Loan Board that was brokered by the local council. It’s a fantastic opportunity for the council to benefit from the return on that investment. We paid over £2m to the council during the first year, and that is money that is reinvested. We can see it around us. We’re very fortunate that they’ve chosen to use the areas around us for that initial investment to make the whole area look fantastic – and it really does.
“Around British Airways i360, there are the little boutique shops, the pier columns that have been used as public art; on the other side of them is a fantastic event space that can be leased out and used for public exhibitions. Again, that’s money that’s going back into the council.”
But still there’s the nagging question - what if the BA i360 becomes a commercial failure - would there not be liabilities for the council? Steve fends off such suggestions: “Visitor numbers would have to drop to such a low level for there to be any risk. To get the plans through, the business plan had to be very robust.
“There was a backlash from people who thought it was inappropriate. They didn’t like the aesthetics of it, they didn’t like where it was. They would much rather have the pier rebuilt. But this always happens when there is change.”
Another battle for Steve is getting local people to revisit the bar and restaurant. “Initially, the public spaces did not look as welcoming as they could have been. Now the rest of the venue is complete and we have a beautiful space. The West Beach Bar & Kitchen probably has one of the best views in Brighton; it is literally on the beach.
“Last summer, it was really, really popular with people sitting outside with a beer or a glass of wine, watching the sunset go down over the West Pier ruin – it’s just stunning. The first year to 18 months was all about the ride experience. Part of our marketing plan going forward is to concentrate on all the other areas and the benefits that this site gives to people.
“We have flexible event spaces for up to 1,100 people, we have a private beach terrace overlooking the West Pier, and you will not find a nicer, more attractive, stunning place to entertain your guests. And you can even get married here.”
Now Steve has had time to settle into the job, I asked him what was his vision for the coming years? “The most important priority is to ensure it remains commercially sound and viable - and for it to grow and become even more popular in Brighton – and that’s happening - it’s fantastic to hear people talk fondly about it, whether that’s tongue-in-cheek because they don’t like the style of it or whether that’s because they actually love it.
Elevate your corporate event or private dining experience by hosting it on a futuristic glass viewing pod, which can accommodate up to 175 people for an exclusive drinks reception.
The Nyetimber Sky Bar on board the pod serves a range of locally produced drinks, including Nyetimber, an award-winning English sparkling wine. A flight on the pod is the perfect way to end your event or conference, and is included in all Day Delegate Rates.
There are nine events rooms and the two largest, Attenborough and Birch, open out onto private seafront terraces. Flexible spaces can accommodate anything from intimate meetings to major product launches, awards ceremonies, conferences or exclusive hire for up to 1,100 guests.
Special April Rates
BN1 Boardroom Offer
DDR @ £20.00+VAT Per Person
Exclusively for BN1 businesses - between 9am – 5pm.
(Groups of 8 -16)
DDR @ £40.00+VAT Per Person
Additional serving of tea & coffee with ‘Fools’ treats
(Groups of 20-50 people)
DDR with drinks reception
@ £54.00+VAT Per Person
One hour drinks reception in West Beach Bar & Kitchen.
Includes 2 glasses of Prosecco per person, served from 5pm.
(Groups of 50-100)