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Rebecca Kane: reviving Ally Pally

First opened as ‘The People’s Palace’ in 1873, north London’s capacious Alexandra Palace has served many roles: as a music venue, broadcasting hub, exhibition centre and a tourist attraction. Now, with Rebecca Kane (pictured third from left) at the helm, it is attempting to regain past glories, writes Jim Evans.

First opened as ‘The People’s Palace’ in 1873, north London’s capacious Alexandra Palace has served many roles: as a music venue, broadcasting hub, exhibition centre and a tourist attraction, writes Jim Evans. Over the years, acts including Jay-Z, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Morrissey, Kings of Leon, The Who, White Stripes and the Stone Roses have performed at ‘Ally Pally’.

It is now attempting to regain former glories and at the helm is Rebecca Kane (pictured third from left) who joined Alexandra Palace Trading as managing director in December 2008. Kane’s key aim is “to maximise profitability by being customer focused and modernise the business to put the Palace back at the heart of the events and leisure industry”. She’s also determined to raise its music industry profile.

Your background is with English Heritage – what did you achieve there?
I was with English Heritage for 11 years during which time I undertook a number of roles. One of the first was opening up properties to the public, putting places like Eltham Palace in Greenwich and Darwin’s Down House – where he did most of his writing and microscope work – on the map. At one stage, as operations director, I was responsible for nine gorgeous historic houses open to the public in London.

As to achievements, I would mention three. First, improving the bottom line by £1 million per year. Secondly, I was responsible – after an 18-month campaign – for restoring the Kenwood Concerts, which are now an annual fixture in the outdoor summer season. Thirdly, winning £12 million of National Lottery funding.

I learnt a lot with English Heritage and believe I made a considerable impact while there. I enjoyed it, but thought it was time to pass the baton to a fresh pair of eyes – and ears.

Why did you take the Ally Pally job on?
Ally Pally intrigued me. I had lived in Muswell Hill for a year and didn’t come here once, which told me a lot about how people perceived the place. The real reason for taking this job was the absolute challenge that it presents. For the past 20 or 30 years the long-term solution for the place has never been achieved. It has such great potential. Currently, we only trade in 60% of the complex. The other 40% is dilapidated or derelict. There is a 2,500-seat Victorian theatre and basement running the length of the building that could be developed. There’s also the whole BBC wing. In 1935, the BBC leased the eastern part of the building from which the first public television transmissions were made in 1936. Alexandra Palace was the main transmitting centre for the BBC until 1956, when it was used exclusively for news broadcasts. That said, it is the theatre that I am most keen to develop.

It’s a huge project – how we bring back the 40% into the fold. Ally Pally hasn’t had the level of investment it could or should have had over many years. It’s time for change and we’re on the way.

Is it still a charitable trust?
In autumn 2009, the Trustees of Alexandra Palace and Park launched a governance and future vision review process to consider how the palace and park should develop and how it should be managed in the future. The review has involved consultation with many of our local stakeholders and others with an interest in Alexandra Palace.

The palace and park are managed by a Trust created in 1900 by an Act of Parliament. In 1980, sole trusteeship was transferred to Haringey Council and in 1999, Alexandra Palace Trading Limited was established to manage the commercial activities of the palace.

As we move into the next stage of the building’s history and development, it is clear that a new governance structure is needed to ensure the palace and park receive the necessary investment and direction they need to meet the challenges of the 21st century. A number of structural models for future governance have been considered by the Trustees and other stakeholders.

Which market sectors are you looking at – live sound concerts/conferences/exhibitions?
A lot of people would refer to us as a conference and exhibition centre, but we are so much more than that. You can add to the list awards ceremonies and product launches, and we’re regularly used for location filming. We are investing £2.3 million into refurbishing the ice rink which will re-open in January 2011 with a major launch programme.

The palace is surrounded by 196 acres of beautiful parkland, and grounds that boast a pub and restaurant, boating lake, pitch and putt course, 1,500 free parking spaces and much, much more. Add to that the best panoramic views of London and I think we can fairly call ourselves a destination venue!

Why should acts play Alexandra Palace rather than the other large London venues?
We offer the largest standing capacity in London – 10,400. It can also be adapted to cater for smaller capacity concerts and events. The character and heritage of the building are all part of the mix. It’s a different kind of place to play and it does have a certain magic. Watching Jay-Z on stage, for example, was electric, the place was jumping!

How is business right now?
Very exciting, especially on the music side. December kicks off with Vampire Weekend playing two nights. We have 10 major name concerts planned for the coming year and the first four go on sale this month. The Flaming Lips are already scheduled for July 2011.

We are now offering promoters a complete package, including staging, acoustic drapes and a handbook outlining how to get the best out of the venue. In the past we didn’t help the promoters enough. Acoustically it’s much improved too.

Any major upcoming events we can mention?
Aside from the music, there’s the World Darts Championship. In February we host the London International Custom Bike Show. On the exhibition front, despite the recession we haven’t had any cancellations. And the corporate side of things is starting to take off again.

You had some problems with the recent LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip concert? [Indeed, the performances were outstanding but queuing for a drink was a tedious chore – Ed]
We had some issues with that concert which has meant we have made some operational changes to the way we handle the bar at the venue. It has saddened everyone at Alexandra Palace involved with the concert that the two great performances were tarnished. While the majority of feedback about the gig was really positive – especially concerning the acoustics and sound quality – we are deeply concerned that a significant proportion of the audience did not have the best experience of our venue. With the venue running at capacity, unforeseeable technical problems with the bar at a peak time had a serious knock-on effect. We have identified the nature of the problem and have doubled the bar capacity and changed systems for the Vampire Weekend gig in December, so we can assure gig goers that this problem will never be repeated.

Good to know. Finally, what are your own musical tastes?

Eclectic. My current favourite contemporary act is Rufus Wainwright; while CDs in the car just now include Florence & The Machine and Vampire Weekend. A university favourite was the Stone Roses – I wish I’d seen them here – and as part of my history degree, I studied Wagner. No, not The X Factor version.