How Neil Chandler aims to put Fairfield Halls on the map


By - Friday 26th January, 2018

The new venue director takes time to tell us all about his plans


Neil Chandler.
Photo by Fluid4Sight, used with permission.

It closed to howls of protest, substantial job losses and fears that it might never open again. I’ll spare you the ‘phoenix from the ashes’ metaphors, particularly in the week that its reopening was delayed to 2019 – but under the command of its new venue director, local man Neil Chandler, Fairfield Halls looks like it could be something quite special when it re-opens.

Chandler already has a history at the Halls and worked as its operations manager for a period up to 2010. He has also worked at the Woodville in Gravesend, in the Bristol Hippodrome and, most recently, as general manager of the New Wimbledon Theatre. So, why did he want to come back to Croydon?

Quite frankly, “this job was too good an opportunity to turn down”. Committed to the region – he’s from South Croydon, but moved to Oxted a few years ago – he didn’t leave the area to take up any of his former positions but instead commuted to each job. Yes. Even to Bristol.

“The old Fairfield Halls wasn’t reaching its full potential”

The new commute is definitely easier but, as he explains, that’s probably going to be the only easy thing about the job. Everything else is a challenge. “The old Fairfield Halls was not reaching its full potential. Times change, people’s expectations change. People will know when they see the new venue why it was necessary to close it down to do what needed to be done.”

Chandler was hired by BH Live, the Bournemouth-based operator who won the new contract to operate the venue, and his new role covers the creative, strategic and practical operation of Fairfield – he’s responsible for everything from the takings in the bar to the acts on the stage. So how is he going to recapture the glory days and get bums on seats once the venue opens?

Getting the trust of promoters and producers is key, he says. “We have to show that we can sell their shows and bring audiences in.” But he also stresses the need to work with the right people within the Croydon community and earn local trust and buy-in. And, of course, provide a great service.

“People expect pleasant seating, good toilets, an attractive bar… all these things are just basics”

“If people pay £25 or over for a ticket to an event, they expect certain things – pleasant seating areas, good toilets, attractive bar and restaurant facilities, great service. All of those things are just the basics now. We’ll be offering all of this and more, and putting packages together so that people can upgrade their experience, in the same way that visitors to the O2 can enjoy a VIP box if they want one. And we will also be offering more accessible prices as well, with a range of tickets available at lower price points.”

So, what can we expect on the programme when the venue opens?

“We won’t run just one opening show, we will be celebrating the opening over the course of the entire first year with a number of events. Yes, we could just put on a big classical concert – and we will – but we’re not just a classical venue. We will also have a series of top comedy acts and we’ll have a big theatre show.”

“We’re planning to put live music back on in the Arnhem Gallery”

He confirms he is already in discussions with a production company to bring in a new musical that will open in the first month. Staging new works is one of his ambitions, as is programming regular music events.

“We want to put live music back in the Arnhem Gallery and are planning a regular programme of standing gigs. Boxpark is catering to a particular demographic and we will target this young audience as well, but also offer music for older audiences. I’m in my forties for example, so I’m aware of what this audience wants.”

He plans to start making announcements on the venue’s new programme from September/October of this year. Which is also around the time he plans to start focus groups with the Croydon community, to find what they want from their local venue. Quoted as saying he wants the venue to provide a real hub for community events, he explains his vision for what shape that might take.

“It’d be amazing to have a music school at Fairfield!”

“We will be working with schools and will have a creative learning department. We will have a youth theatre, as well as adult acting and musical theatre classes. It would be amazing to have a music school at Fairfield, where students could perform in and experience a professional concert-hall setting.”

But mainly, he says, he wants to find out what the people of Croydon want, so his team can create an arts centre in Fairfield that the community can become involved in – “I’m happy to listen to any ideas and have discussions”.

Those interested will be able to find details of how to get in touch on the website, which will be launching shortly. Over the coming months it will feature a series of videos taken inside Fairfield Halls, giving unique behind-the-scenes insights into the building’s transformation.

“We want people hanging out in the bar, working, creating the feeling of a hub”

The glass-box bar and restaurant will be, he says, a place to come and have coffee or meet for a meal. “We’re keen to have people in there on their laptops, working, hanging out, creating that feeling of a community hub.”

He is currently engaged in researching how the entertainment needs of the local population and those in the wider geographical region are being met, finding out where they go for entertainment and what they do. His next step is to hire the senior management team that will help him run the venue, explaining that he will be looking for people with extensive experience in the industry. Appointments will be made over the next two-to-six months, and the department managers will recruit their own teams afterwards.

“We will have a strong professional team with a lot of experience running the venue. That’s what’s needed and that’s what’s going to make it work.”

“I’m excited about it all… there’s no part of the job that doesn’t attract me”

And the best bit of the job for him?

“There is no best bit. I’m excited about it all, from choosing the furniture to working out the office layouts to hiring the new team members.”

“There isn’t any part of the job that doesn’t attract me. It will be very exciting when we get into the venue, I love being on site and I’m really looking forward to it opening again and starting to get feedback from the audience. Not all of it will be positive, of course, but that’s the job we do.”

Bernadette Fallon

Bernadette Fallon

Bernadette has been a journalist since the age of 7 when she devised, designed and launched ‘Fallon’s News’ – much to her family’s delight. Brought up in Ireland, she was born in Addiscombe where she now lives, though it took her several decades to find it again. She works as a journalist and broadcaster. Follow her at Twitter.com/bernibee

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  • Anne Giles

    Let’s hope they provide parking and parking for Blue Badge holders, with discounted tickets for disabled people. I also hope that when he states that he knows what older people want, he also realises that some of us like folk, trad jazz, country and folk-rock, rather than classical.

    • Bernadette Fallon

      Yes – his point about gigs in the Arnhem Gallery is that it is all types of music and he says quite clearly in the interview that Fairfields is not just a classical venue

      • Anne Giles

        Unfortunately, he did say that the gigs in the Arnhem Gallery would be standing gigs, which rules me out!

        • Bernadette Fallon

          I take your point – but I do know that he is interested in having lots of different types of events in the many spaces the new Fairfields will feature, so am sure other seated gigs will be part of the offering. Good to flag it up though

          • Anne Giles

            We shall wait and see! Thanks for the article!

  • Nick Hickson

    Well I was devastated when this venue shut but was personally always critical of the ‘safe’ repertoire turned out over and over again – a bit like Classic Fm’s output.
    However, it’s very much doubtful whether myself and partner will ever be going to the refurbished halls as someone in the stupid wisdom has decided to get rid of 2/3rd of the underground car parking facilities with the easy access upstairs to the side of the halls and replace this with a ‘trendy’ art facility.