One Thursday in July, the tabloids announced a tidal wave had engulfed half the pier at Blackpool. It didn't bode well for trade, but then bad weather has been just one of Blackpool's many problems this year.
Along with the rain and wind, the stay-at-home World Cup tendency has hit the English tourist industry. "There was a very slow start to the season," admits Josie Hammond, head of the Blackpool Hotel and Guesthouse Association.
New Labour's announcement of plans to abandon the town as its regular conference home in 2000, in favour of the South, created its own storm of bad publicity. Labour complained Blackpool's rooms were "shabby" and "too small". It later apologised, saying it was the conference facilities at the Winter Gardens, not the accommodation, that was the problem, says Hammond. Nevertheless, as one Blackpool taxi driver says, pointing at a fat man wearing comedy breasts and suspenders: "New Labour doesn't want to be associated with that."
The home of kiss-me-quick hats, candy-floss and saucy seaside postcards has certainly seen brighter days. A gloomy June also hit last year's tourist figures - 17.5 million visitors tripped past the lights fantastic and rock sellers in 1997, compared with 19 million in 1996. It might seem to be thriving by the Pleasure Beach, but, as locals say: "Blackpool is only busy if you can't see the pavement for people."
This year nearly every local trader, including 3,000 hoteliers and guesthouse owners, report that 1998 is the quietest year for some time. Smaller hospitality operators estimate trade is down as much as 20%.
But Blackpool is not on its last legs yet. It attracts a dedicated, perennial crowd. For many people in the North-west, Blackpool is the perfect weekend break venue. It's Las Vegas up north, a slice of escapism, a feast of fun for everyone - as long as you ignore the litter.
The Pleasure Beach is popular all year round. The autumn illuminations stop the post-summer lull biting the hospitality industry too hard. Blackpool is also favoured for hen parties and stag nights. Stories are rife of prospective grooms found clingfilmed naked to lampposts, pints still in hand. The town attracts old and young alike: families with children, teens on a Friday night and retired people.
But Blackpool must face up to national changes in British tourism. Says Hammond: "There is a tendency in recent years for people to go abroad. Last year there were the building society payouts. This year there is the strong pound. That also means fewer foreign visitors are coming here."
Blackpool, despite what you'd expect, does lure overseas visitors, especially Irish holiday-makers. And it's a myth that most visitors are from the North of England - a significant number make the journey from the more affluent South-east.
But it's true that the public is seeking foreign sun at cut prices - booking a holiday abroad is often far cheaper than going somewhere rainy at home. But John Mawdsley of Ambassador Associates, consultant to Blackpool Pleasure Beach, says there is hope for Blackpool: "I don't think the type of people who go to Blackpool are necessarily the people who go to the Continent."
The people who do go to Blackpool, though, now book at shorter notice, giving themselves a chance to size up the weather. This can be nerve-racking for hoteliers. Hammond says: "People used to book in advance, year on year, but now it's no longer than a couple of weeks beforehand."
The good news is that people are taking more holidays in general, so a family might make a trip to Blackpool as well as having a holiday abroad. But there is also a trend towards shorter breaks. Mawdsley says: "Blackpool is no longer a week-long holiday destination. The local authority needs to stimulate marketing and get the private sector involved."
Bill Gosling is marketing director of De Vere Hotels, which runs the plushest hotel in town, two miles outside Blackpool and boasting a championship golf course. He says room occupancy has been quite healthy for De Vere because it's outside the traditional Blackpool market. But he agrees that the town's hoteliers have had to be "flexible" with midweek room rates.
Short and sweet
Blackpool is responding to trends, but not fast enough for Mawdsley. He believes that if it's harnessed properly, short holiday spend is lucrative: people spend more per day than on longer trips.
The Pleasure Beach is pushing hard what it calls "Pleasure Breaks" - spend the night in a hotel, catch a scantily-clad show, gawp at the illuminations (if it's autumn) and have a stomach-churning ride on the Pepsi-sponsored Big One roller coaster.
Blackpool's tacky image, many would argue, is really a major part of its appeal. But it has other problems. One worker at a sea-front store claims that "seasonal, organised gangs of beggars" are putting off visitors and dragging the town's image down further.
Mawdsley believes there should be investment throughout the resort - maybe giving hotels free paint to smarten their appearance or getting guesthouses to plant window boxes with flowers. He argues that there should be more big events to draw people in, such as an off-season beer festival.
Inevitably, the conference trade remains important. The National Union of Teachers, National Union of Students and National Union of Journalists have already been this year, and the TUC is coming in September. But the Labour Party conference's departure will make its mark: it brings in revenue of about £5m each year out of a total of £50m from conference trade, along with 220,000 delegates. But the Labour local government conference and the Tory party are still coming.
Margaret Rossie, conference officer at Blackpool borough council, says: "It doesn't mean Labour won't come in 2002." She points out that the town's 120,000 beds constitute a huge range of accommodation, costing from £15 a night to £150. This is a big advantage for conference organisers hosting people on different budgets.
But Hammond admits Labour's withdrawal will have negative effects: "Obviously, it doesn't send out a strong message to other businesses. Blackpool is working towards trying to rectify that."
Blackpool, like anywhere, will have to ensure it matches up to the competition. Mawdsley says: "The conference business is competitive at the moment. Too many new centres are being built around the country." He adds that the conference facilities at the Winter Gardens need a lot more investment. But he doesn't think the conference and leisure trades necessarily cross over much in Blackpool. Others point out that the security side of hosting political conferences is actually bad for the tourist trade.
Blackpool may be having a bad year, but life will go on. Catherine O'Connor of the council's tourism office says: "We are doing quite well. We are holding our own against other resorts in Lancashire. We have not seen any decline."
At the end of the day, De Vere's Gosling believes: "Blackpool is always coming in for a bit of stick, on and off. It doesn't seem to affect it in the long run. It will weather the storm."
Next week: Torbay