Frank Trufelli, owner of Barry's, with daughters Kristina (left) and Lisa
Local schoolchildren couldn't wait to try out new ride, The Experience ... but (below) old favourites, the dodgems, are still going strong MARK JAMIESON
Published 20/07/2006 | 00:00
BARRY'S STILL RIDING HIGH
BARRY'S STILL RIDING HIGH
The business is in my blood
The mention of Barry's stirs up memories of happy summers for so many people in Northern Ireland - what's been the secret of your success?
It's hard to say exactly what has been the secret of Barry's success. I think the location by the sea helps and the fact that it's a site that has always been associated with entertainment.
The Railway Company originally encouraged my family to use the location and provide entertainment for guests at the nearby Northern Counties Railway Hotel, but even before that there had been a skating rink on the site.
Now that there's so much competition from larger amusement parks and cheap flights abroad, it really is just great that people keep coming back year after year.
When did it all start and at what point did you take up the mantle of running the business?
I've been running Barry's since 1972. My sister ran it before that and my mother and father started it about 75 years ago.
It's difficult to pinpoint the exact date because the beginnings were so small and the original 1928 attraction was temporary and built on sand. My mother, Evelyn Chipperfield, came to Ireland with her family, who worked as travelling entertainers. She met my father, Francesco Trufelli, who was in Ireland with the Royal Italian Circus. Together they looked for a place to start up a family business and decided on the site at Portrush. They named it Barry's because they felt Chipperfield's was too long. All they ever knew was the entertainment business and they ran Barry's for many years while I went off and became a civil engineer.
You weren't always going to follow in your family's footsteps then?
I studied civil engineering at Trinity College Dublin and went on to work as an engineer in London, Copenhagen and the United States, but I was always reasonably sure that I was coming back one day to work at Barry's. I grew up in Portrush and always worked for my parents in Barry's in the summer. There were only about eight or nine rides when I was growing up - the big dipper, ghost train, dodgems, kiddies rides and a café/snack bar - and I had to learn how to work them all.
There was a great buzz in the 1940s after the war and we saw a great growth in the number of visitors. There weren't many cars then but the buses and trains coming up to Portrush in the summer were all packed with people. I have very happy memories of my childhood in Barry's but I still wanted to branch out on my own. It was only when my father fell ill that I came back home to run the business. It was a big change in a way but at the same time it felt very familiar to be back working in Barry's.
Barry's is a real summer tradition for lots of families in Northern Ireland. Do the same people come back year after year?
You do get used to familiar faces, more so with the staff than the customers. We employ over 100 people in the summer and some of the names that crop up are the sons and daughters of old staff. I think it's good to have that bit of continuity with the staff and public. Last year Ronnie Langford retired after 43 years working as a ride operator. Our staff usually stay with us 20 or 30 years and are absolute experts at their jobs. They can tell by listening to a ride if something is not quite right.
When did you decide it was time to hand the family business on to the next generation?
About 10 years ago I handed over to my daughters, Kristina and Lisa. I'm still in the office and I take phone calls but they make all the major decisions and it's really them who are in control of the business. It's nice that they do it, but I think it's hard for a family business when it comes to taking over. I should really just go!
We're definitely not for sale
What's new at Barry's this summer?
Our two new rides are the big news at Barry's. The Turtle Splash is a flume water ride more suited to young people and the Experience is a great thrillseeker ride. We needed a new ride for the front of Barry's and I'd seen The Experience at a fair in Hull. It has three arms with eight seats at each end that raise and turn. It starts off quite quietly so people think it's an easy ride but when it gets faster and goes upside down, that's when the screams start!
I love when new rides come in and you see the expressions on the customers' faces trying them out for the first time.
Have you a favourite ride?
My favourite is still the Cyclone. It and the hobby horses have always been a big success with customers at Barry's. There are 14 rides in Barry's but with our limited space, we'll never compete with the big theme parks. By listening to what people want and looking at websites, we try and get rides that will appeal to everyone.
What does a typical day for you involve?
When I come in each morning I go round to check that everything is clean and that all the staff are in. I'm based in the office for most of the day and my sister Lisa is in the café. I'm always watching the security cameras to check everything is running smoothly and the customers are enjoying themselves. Each day is different, never exactly the same. Lisa enjoys the mornings whereas I'm more of an evening person. It's not just a job for us because it's a family business.
It seemed inevitable you'd end up working in the family firm.
Definitely. I didn't always know I would take on running Barry's but I kept being drawn back to it. I was born in Ballymoney but I spent my school years in Denmark where my mother's from. Every summer I came back to Portush and worked in Barry's. I studied hotel management for three years at Napier University in Edinburgh and then took a cookery course before working as a chef in a Belfast restaurant for several years. But in my late 20s I decided to come back to Barry's. I knew then what I wanted and I started working as a trainee manager, learning from my dad. I know dad says he's retired but he still does a lot here and we work together as a team. The most important lesson he's taught me is to always deal with customers calmly.
Actor James Nesbitt used to work at Barry's. Have you any other famous staff?
There aren't any more that I know of but, yes, James used to work on the Big Dipper - that was quite a few years ago now and before my time. He still comes in quite a few times during the year, though. I actually met his wife when I was on a student year out in France years ago - we shared accommodation! It really is such a small world.
There's quite a bit of kudos that goes with working at Barry's isn't there?
There's definitely a 'green jacket syndrome' that goes on with girls attracted to male ride operators - the uniform seems to be a bit of a magnet that way! We always get lots of job applications. There are 164 staff employed here this season, but over 500 people applied.
Six years ago, one of your staff was seriously injured when carrying out work on the Big Dipper. Tell us more?
We were all very shocked by it. The engineer who was injured had been working at Barry's for several years. In all the years we've been running, that's been the only serious incident we've had and the only one we'll ever have, touch wood. We have incredibly rigorous safety checks that we carry out regularly. Health and safety has to be the number one concern when you are working with machinery.
There were rumours last Christmas that Barry's was to be demolished and the site used for holiday apartments - surely not?
It is absolutely untrue that we are selling the Barry's site for development. There were very strong rumours last season that we were for sale and we thought if we just let them be they would stop. But just recently I heard Radio One DJ Colin Murray talking about his holidays at Barry's and a listener texted in to tell him we were for sale! Barry's is not for sale, and we don't have any plans to sell.
Portrush is a popular holiday spot for many people but where do you go when you want a break?
It varies. I like sun holidays and skiing. Last New Year we went to Port Aventura for three days. I've got the excuse that my daughter loves the rides so I can go to theme parks and get new ideas. Francesca's great at trying them out and giving me good honest feedback.
Is running Barry's something you'll pass on to your children?
I would definitely like it to continue as a family business but it's not something I would force them to take on if they didn't want to. My children, Francesca (11) and Max (1), and Lisa's children, Rebecca (3) and Benjamin (2), are all too young to be thinking about what they'll do when they grow up!
What does the future hold for Barry's?
I hope we can continue to provide what people want, meet current trends and that Barry's will be in Portrush for a long time to come.
Barry's is open daily until the end of August and for the first weekend in September only. Admission to the park is free. Tokens for rides can be purchased at 50p with rides costing between one and four tokens. Some rides carry height restrictions