Multi-award winning sound and light show, the Enchanted Forest, has become one of Scotland’s must-see autumn attractions.
At the start of the Enchanted Forest’s sell-out 2017 season, Blooloop talked to Zoë Squair, the Creative Producer and Production Manager of the magical walk-through show.
The best office in the world?
Based in Edinburgh, Squair has worked on events of all sizes, from small scale theatre to the Edinburgh International Science Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
She studied Fine Art Sculpture at university and has worked in the arts for the last 20 years. She counts the Traverse Theatre, Dance Base, Grid Iron Theatre Company and Stellar Quines among the projects with which she’s been involved.
“Right now I’m lucky enough to call Faskally Wood my office,” says Squair. It’s some office – a breath-taking area of woodland, on the shores of Dunmore Loch in Highland Perthshire.
“I’ve been involved in The Enchanted Forest for two years,” she says. “I had previously worked with Kate Bonney, one of our lighting designers, and she let me know the production manager’s role was coming up last year. This year I’m the producer.”
From three-day event to month-long award winner
The Enchanted Forest began back in 2002 as a three-day event. However, since then the event has grown considerably, both in numbers and in stature. The first year it attracted 1,500 visitors over a mere three days. “This year we’ll sell more than 70,000 tickets during the month-long show,” says Squair.
The event has racked up so many awards, it’s hard to keep track. In 2016 alone it won seven, including Best Cultural Event from the UK Event Awards. Other plaudits included a raft of awards from the Scottish Event Awards including winner of the Best Large Event, winner of the Chairman’s Award, winner of Best Marketing Campaign and finalist of Event of the Year. It also regularly wins awards at the Scottish Thistle Awards.
Extending the appeal of Pitlochry
The goal of The Enchanted Forest was twofold: to get people to step out and to look up. “The idea was to draw people outside and have them see Scotland’s woodlands in a new light (quite literally!),” says Squair.
Pitlochry was already a popular tourist destination, with around 70,000 visitors a year. However tourist numbers tended to fall off slightly during the autumn and winter seasons. “This was seen as a way to keep people visiting the area and thus extend the tourist season,” says Squair.
The setting could not be more stunning. Pitlochry is right at the heart of Highland Perthshire and the site of some of the world’s most beautiful scenery. The Enchanted Forest takes place just outside the town in Forestry Commission Scotland’s Faskally Wood.
Faskally was purchased by the Forestry Commission in 1953. The entire woodland covers 365 hectares although the Enchanted Forest only takes place in an area of around 66 hectares. The name derives from the Gaelic for ‘by the ferry’ which most likely relates to an ancient ferry crossing over the river Tummel. It’s a magical place, containing 25 recorded species of tree, including Oak, Ash, Rowan, Hazel, Common Alder and Bird Cherry. The oldest known tree is approximately 200-225 years old.
A magical walk through the forest
The Enchanted Forest takes visitors on a path through the forest, during which they are treated to a series of stunning sensory experiences. This year’s show name is Oir an Uisge (Edge of the Water), taking its inspiration from Loch Dunmore. So it’s no surprise that water features so prominently. Liquid Sunshine is a light-hearted celebration of Scotland’s famous weather – an installation of handwoven fibre optic sculptures created by LightWorks. Digital Rain, created by Chris Dodds, uses cutting edge LED technology in the natural landscape while Cascading Bridge, created by LCI Productions, summons the rhythmical magic of tumbling water.
Two major shows cycle every seven minutes. Oir an Uisge is this year’s flagship show, exploring the glory and vibrancy of water. Meanwhile Belisama is the show’s Celtic inspired finale, celebrating the majesty of the lochs, lakes and rivers of the Highlands. The show features fountains provided by LCI Productions, using high power submersible pumps and LED lighting which form an array of dancing jets.
For a change of pace, visitors can snuggle down to listen to magical folk tales. Or simply cosy up by the firepit with a mug of hot chocolate or mulled wine, and campfire staples, marshmallows.
The average visit lasts around an hour to 90 minutes with most visitors walking around more than once. Unlike many experiences, there is no time limit on visits – visitors can stay in the forest as long as they like, from its opening until the show closes at 10.30pm.
An event run for and by the community
“The Enchanted Forest is such a unique event,” says Squair. “Not just for its creative response to its beautiful surroundings but because it is truly rooted in the community of Pitlochry. It is ultimately run for and by the community.”
The Enchanted Forest Community Trust, which runs the event, is operated by a board of trustees drawn from the local business community. Its aims include promoting the cultural, social and environmental aspects of Pitlochry alongside promoting long term sustainable growth for the benefit of the community.
The Trust contributes to numerous local businesses and charities each year. Proceeds are ploughed back into the show and the local community.
“We have an annual charity night, with proceeds going to three chosen charities, which change each year,” says Squair. This year’s charities are Tayside Mountain Rescue, Alzheimer Scotland and Giraffe. “Plus each year the Trust creates a community fund which is distributed to local community projects, from Christmas markets and Scout and Girl Guide troops to gardening initiatives.”
Reinvention is the key to longevity
The event catches people’s imagination in a deep, almost visceral, way. Not only do visitors adore it, but the event team is hugely committed.
“Everyone involved in the event is really passionate about it,” says Squair. “Many have been involved for years. That means the experience and knowledge within the team grows consistently. New creative artists, technicians and operations team members add to each level every year.”
Unsurprisingly the event takes an enormous amount of planning. It involves around 100 people, from management to technicians to performers.
“One of the key things about The Enchanted Forest is that the show and theme change every year,” says Squair. “We think that that reinvention is key to its success, and the fact that we have such a healthy number of repeat visitors.”
However, that does mean that the creative team have to start from scratch each year, including putting together an original score of music.
Top operators and suppliers create consistency and charisma
That said, there is consistency each year in terms of the suppliers involved and the strong relationships the team has established with them. “They are among the top operators in Scotland’s arts scene,” says Squair.
The creative team comprises Squair herself as producer alongside lighting designers Kate Bonney and Simon Hayes; and sound design experts RJ McConnell and Jon Beales. The lighting and sound supplier is NL Productions.
No plans for further locations
Despite the success of the show, there are not currently any plans to expand to other locations. “The success of The Enchanted Forest is, we think, its magical, stunning location,” says Squair.
She also points out that it is embedded in the local community, which precludes stretching further afield. “This is truly a local community effort,” says Squair. “Community members make up The Enchanted Forest Community Members. Hotels liaise with us on competitions. Restaurants, eateries and shops also get into the Enchanted Forest spirit with all that they offer.”
It’s a lucrative boost for the local tourist industry. “We estimate that the event’s impact on the local tourism economy is in excess of £3 million a year,” says Squair.
A wide geographical spread
However, despite its deep local roots, the event is far from a parochial affair. Visitors travel from far and wide to see the event with only seven percent of visitors coming from within a 20 minute drive.
A staggering 51 percent of visitors stay overnight for at least one night, contributing to the local economy and the event’s impressive economic impact.
“Around 65 percent of our visitors travel from Scotland’s “central belt” (the stretch between Edinburgh and Glasgow),” says Squair. “With our biggest single market being from Glasgow and the surrounding area.”
One in four are repeat customers, which pays testament to the appeal of the show alongside its yearly changes.
“A wee piece of heaven in the trees”
Customer feedback is essential to planning. “Thanks to customer suggestions we’ve changed so much over the years,” says Squair. “The toilets; the route around the forest; the times of the buses; even down to how the show looks and people move around it.”
However she points out that sometimes you do have to draw a line. “The best suggestion we had was one suggesting we stage a live full orchestra on a platform in the middle of the loch,” she recalls. It would certainly be impressive. However it’s perhaps not the most practical idea to get about 100 musicians out by boat to the platform and then hope they’ll survive Scotland’s weather!
It was customer demand that led to the show being extended. In 2015, the show lasted for 24 nights; now it’s up to 32 nights.
“We carry out customer surveys online within a week of people attending the event,” says Squair. “Last year’s show, Shimmer, went down a storm. Visitor numbers were up 13 percent. More than 90 percent of visitors said The Enchanted Forest was their main reason for visiting the area in the autumn.
“We score high for being well organised and providing excellent customer service. But really the best feedback is in the unique comments we get. One of our visitors described us as ‘Like a wee piece of heaven in the trees’. You don’t get better than that!”
An increase in demand for sound and light shows
“It has far exceeded our expectations,” continues Squair. “The numbers have increased year on year, despite the fact that the marketing budget has stayed more or less the same! Clearly it’s something that has caught the public’s imagination.”
Squair puts it down to the fact that they take customer service so seriously. “Also our creatives work hard to ‘bring it’ every year with a show that’s different and memorable.”
Sound and light shows are on the increase, and certainly in Scotland.
”However none of them offer the unique location that Faskally Wood can,” says Squair. “There’s something truly magical about boarding a bus from the centre of a quaint Victorian town and then going off into the darkness to a place of utter enchantment.
“Other events have a much more urban location. They have to fight the light pollution that comes with such central locations.”
She accepts that here is a huge appetite for sound and light events. “With such a long period of darkness in winter, Scotland has plenty to offer,” she says.
Combining high and low tech in a magical mix
Technology in the events sector changes rapidly, points out Squair. “What we thought was high-end state-of- the-art content within the design can often be out of date by the following year.”
So the creative team is constantly looking for new developments in technology in the sector. In addition they keep an eye out for creative artists and producers of installations who are developing or using technology in new ways.
“We try to incorporate some new areas in the show each year,” says Squair. “Although sometimes these may not visible to the audience. We rely on our technical event companies NL Productions and DM Audio to work closely with our creative team. They help test and find new technologies, experimenting with different ways to incorporate them into the design.”
However it’s not always about the new technologies. “We try to balance the design with features that are less technology-led,” says Squair. “We also work with artists and creators who produce work with no technology at all.” She points out the example of beautiful sculpture and installations which respond to light in the forest.
“The main thing at the front of our mind when designing the show is responding to the forest itself,” Squair says in conclusion. “It changes every year, sometimes more dramatically than others. This always gives us the starting point from which the design grows.”
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