RONNIE O’SULLIVAN will be returning to Tunbridge Wells in May to play at the Victoria Snooker Hall, but a question mark hangs over the future of the club.
Owner Graham Martin fears 2017 could prove make or break for the popular venue as the £70million expansion plans for the neighbouring Royal Victoria Place shopping centre go ahead.
Having taken over the Camden Road premises six years ago, Mr Martin and his son Liam have turned round a loss-making enterprise with 86 members into a viable business with nearly 400.
The hall, which also has around 1,800 visitors each year, is the only tournament-ready snooker venue between Petts Wood and Bexhill, hosting three large events each year.
But Mr Martin is not going down without a fight and says he will have to be ‘forced out’.
The hall attracts the biggest names in the sport, including Stephen Hendry, Jimmy White and Steve Davis, and five-time world champion O’Sullivan actually asked if he could come back.
“His visit was a massive success last year, and this year it was his agents Snooker Legends that approached us and said ‘we want to come back to your place’,” he says. “Now we have been given exclusivity to host him in Kent.”
In order to make the Victoria Snooker Hall commercially viable, the Martins tried to make the place more attractive to non-members.
Mr Martin said: “We introduced a social membership, so people can just hang out at the bar, play pool or darts and have a drink. That boosted our beer sales by around 40 per cent.
“We had to get the right balance between it being a snooker club and a business.”
He added that the idea of a social membership is to avoid it becoming too much like a pub and having a ‘Wetherspoons mentality’ – and the agitation that it may cause full members.
They also introduced a corporate membership scheme to encourage work colleagues to come along – AXA holds four events there every year.
Mr Martin admits snooker is an ‘older person’s game’ and can be resistant to change. But he is keen to introduce younger people to the sport.
One idea to encourage fresh blood was to set up a snooker school, but this had to be put on hold after the shopping centre plans were unveiled.
But other projects, such as inviting professional darts players to attend and hosting exhibitions on the venue’s stage, are still going ahead.
Mr Martin said: “I could stop making plans now and say let’s wait to see but we lose thousands by waiting. We have to remain positive, but I know in the back of my head there is a massive question mark as to what will happen.”
The venue is on a leasehold until 2019, and
Mr Martin bemoans a lack of communication from those behind the redevelopment. “I have never had anyone get in contact with me or send me a letter telling me what’s happening.
“All we got was a set of plans come through from the council like every other unit nearby. Before that, I learned everything from what my customers were saying.”
He stressed: “We are still a viable business with our membership growing and I wonder why there is no room for us in their redesign.
“I am not just going to walk out of the door. I will fight to save this club, whatever it takes.”