© Nigel Lockley July 2008
I joined the management staff of Butlins Clacton at the tender age of 21 as a management trainee. As I was younger than most trainees (who generally undertook a nine month "in at the deep end" induction and then moved on to become an assistant departmental manager at any site of the company’s choosing) I undertook two years training solely at Clacton.
In that short space of time I learned more about good and bad management than anywhere else I have ever worked. I began with a month in each of the main departments, then spent the remainder in "Camp Management" (even then everyone but senior management understood the dubious nature of the title).
At that time the camp opened for 18 weeks in the summer and for five days or so at Christmas. While there were around 1,000 staff employed during the open season, a small team of admin and maintenance staff were retained full time. Most of my time during the close season was spent on deep cleaning thousands of square feet of floor tiles, counting the number of spoons in the self catering chalets, and repairing broken plastic ceilings. None of the buildings I worked in were heated, so it was not unusual to work in three layers of clothing – although my two winters there were the only ones of my life when I didn’t catch a cold. Two days which I’ll never forget were spent up to my knees in the freezing waters of the North Sea holding the end of a tape measure for a surveyor after part of the camp slipped into the sea during a February storm.
During the season I generally worked 6 days from around 8am to midnight – except the couple of nights a week when there was a "Midnight Cabaret" when I stayed on to around 2am. My first year’s salary was £1,250, but to acknowledge the extra hours worked during the season we were paid 7/12ths of our salary, compared to 5/12ths during the winter!!! I’d love to know if this is unique: it’s certainly rare, but does tie-in with Sir Billy’s much quoted statement of "Call him a manager and pay him ten bob less"
Saturdays were spent on Reception booking in new campers. As I was a presentable young man I was left to deal with complaints. At this time the company had re-branded itself in its advertising (Butlinland is like a fantasy....) partly in an unsuccessful attempt to fight off a takeover from the Rank Organisation. However only a small proportion of the accommodation had actually been updated to the standards shown in the adverts. The actual experience therefore fell well short of the level of expectation. My favourite memory is the camper who reported to me: "My dungeon’s dirty". I wasn’t sure if his complaint was about the standard of accommodation or the quality of cleaning! I was once approached by a lovely old couple who had booked a two week holiday and wondered, after there first week if they could apply for a pass to get out of the main gate. They were amazed when I explained that the gates and fences were designed to keep non customers out, not to keep paying campers in!
One of the most traumatic jobs I had was to clear the blood off the outside walls of a chalet where a member of staff had been murdered. A couple of day visitors had not checked out by the deadline so Chas, the security guard went to see if he could apprehend them. As he walked round the corner of an accommodation block he was jumped by the visitors who had outstayed their welcome and fatally stabbed him. Senseless stabbings are much talked about today. It’s difficult to think that any of them can be anymore senseless than killing a man because they were afraid of being removed from a holiday camp. They were later convicted of manslaughter and given seven years. (Denise Shoult remembers this event too, click here to read her memories.)
The over-riding management ethos was one of saving money in the short-term. So it was normal practice to patch repair annually rather than fully replace. So chalet roofs, for example would be patched ever year which, of course cost far more in the long-term than a one-off replacement. Head Office was the ruler of all things. Visits from directors were dreaded rather than welcolmed. HQ certainly controlled more than policy. One example was a "heated debate" between the General Manager and the Assistant General Manager about the colour skirking boards should be painted during a winter paint contact. The older General Manager felt that good old fashioned black should be used, while the younger Assistant felt that a more modern white should be used. The debate was settled the next day when HQ sent an instruction to all camps: skirting boards should be painted gray!
Another example of hitting the bottom-line were the use of one water filter plant for the two swimming pools. The outdoor pool would be filtered during the day, providing the much photographed outdoor pool fountain. The plant would be switched to the indoor pool overnight, so that no matter how much use the pools endured, they only ever got 12 hours filtration.
At the end of my two year’s traineeship I made it clear that I was interested in a career in general management, and as my wife had a relatively well paid job locally (certainly compared with mine) if possible we wanted to stay at Clacton. I was promptly offered the post of assistant accommodation manager at Bognor.
Fortunately I soon found a job in one of the new local authority leisure departments and bade farewell to the company.
So what did I make of my two years? Firstly, given the pressure we were under, the degree of camaraderie was something I have never come close to experiencing before or since. I have never known such intensity of work, exhaustion, fun, friendliness combined with a unique sense of "belonging". The tricks I learnt meant that I would be better placed to deal with dodgy barmen, stagehands, receptionists and customers during the rest of my career.
On the down side, given the long hours and the general environment of the camp, it severely tested my, then, new marriage. However we partly overcame this when my wife worked part time in the bars after she finished her day job, mainly so she could keep an eye on me!
I think it would be fair to say that by the time I left I felt I had been there for ten years rather than two, and overall: I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!