The £1.5 million Mattel Play! family entertainment centre at Liverpool’s Albert Dock has proved both a hit with families and a boost to surrounding attractions.

Developed and maintained by Heritage Great Britain PLC, the venue joins the company’s roster of iconic landmark attractions including Land’s End, John O’Groats and the Snowdon Mountain Railway.

Blooloop spoke with CEO, Allan Leech, about the company’s role as custodian and its decision to create a division of indoor, all-weather venues to counterbalance its seasonal attractions.

“I grew up and matured in the construction and development industry, ” says Leech who, having served in HM’s Royal Engineers, returned to university and attained a first class BSc and a Masters.

Originally from Manchester, he became involved in construction and development in London:

“We used to do special unique contracts where you were working in Soho or W1, and we used to build new builds, new developments, everything for the leisure industry.”

In 2002, he started his own London-based development company, working on projects all over the country. But, a phone call from his father changed everything:

“I was hanging on the side of a building with the surveyor inspecting a building, and I got a phone call from my father, who was the director of a group of companies and Heritage GB was part of them, saying ‘we might need your help’.

“We came down from the building, got in the car, and I never went back to my company.”

Landmark Attractions Not Just Tourist Destinations

Heritage Great Britain, formed in 1999, was an amalgamation of three companies that had been bought by the Leech family trust: Land’s End and John O’Groats, and Snowden Mountain Railway. Heritage GB as a body then acquired the Needles Park, comprising the Isle of Wight’s famous lighthouse and Needles rocks, and another site in Cornwall, just outside St. Ives, which was redeveloped and then sold.

The Lightwater Valley company, a theme park and shopping village set in 175 acres of the North Yorkshire countryside, was also added to the group.

“I joined in 2002 to help look at the management and development of the assets. I’m the poacher come gamekeeper, ” says Leech.

Leech quickly concluded that the company’s assets needed to be developed as landmark attractions as opposed to tourist destinations:

“We, as Heritage GB, are the custodians of some of the UK’s most unique landmarks, ” he says. “To put it in perspective, Land’s End was first established in the 1400s. As the custodians, it has been our job to protect, redevelop, promote, and restore them from mere tourist attractions to landmarks that are part of our culture and heritage.

“They need to be a landmark, an attraction, and a place to visit and stay, while retaining their true sense of place. So, we needed to look at their true, core values and core USPs, and, whilst developing them forward in terms of their assets and their real estate, actually send them back to a time before plastic signs and anything we would deem 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s, and make them wonderful for all and make them of the highest quality.”

Snowdon Mountain Railway

“I think that the best example of that can really be seen at Snowdon Mountain Railway, this year enjoying its 120th anniversary, where we now have bespoke hand built timber carriages which are an exact replica of the original Snowdon carriages pushed by steam engines. We have completely refurbished steam engines up the mountains, and a diesel service that backs that up, that is a pastiche of the original.”

Snowdon Mountain Railway takes passengers from Llanberis, in Snowdonia National Park, to the summit of the highest mountain in England and Wales. Their journey ends at the award-winning Hafod Eryri (below), the summit building that opened in 2008, a joint venture with the National Parks and Welsh Assembly, and made possible by EU funding.

“Through 15 years of hard work, Snowdon Mountain Railway is now in the top 5 visitor attractions in Wales, ” says Leech.

“Snowdon Mountain itself has become the busiest mountain in the world, with well over 2 million visitors – walkers, climbers, general hikers – every year. We’ll carry 140, 000 people up on our train service. But as a true destination, we’ve completely re-imagined it. And, general exposure, not just us, has made the whole region one of the busiest mountains in the world.

“So, that’s our mantra, that’s what we try and do with all our landmarks.”

Land’s End encompasses 100 acres of spectacular Cornish scenery and attracts half a million visitors annually. John O’Groats is a partnership with Natural Retreats and features mainly 5 star accommodation, as well as wildlife watching, sea tours, and a focus on the great outdoors. The Needles, back to landmark status, is the Isle of Wight’s number one attraction.

2.5 Million Visitors a Year

Altogether, Heritage GB’s attractions welcome around 2.5 million visitors a year.

“The majority of that is seasonal, as outdoors attractions in the UK always are, so we’ve always wanted to build a division of indoor, all weather attractions, which actually become busier in the wet months than the summer months, as a counterbalance to our normal business.”

He points to the success of Merlin’s Midway attractions, adding:

“Most businesses of size realise and understand this. A lot of them – zoos and big theme parks – have indoor accommodation. So, we’re always in the market to try and make some new acquisitions.”

He’s quick to point out that this isn’t as straightforward as it seems:

“There aren’t that many strong, indoor attractions in private ownership. The majority are in public ownership – museums, and galleries, and so on.”

Lappset CreativeLappset

The chance to develop a brand new FEC from scratch on the company’s home turf was a too-good-to-miss opportunity.

Heritage GB had already signed a pre-deal with Mattel to develop the Mattel Play! concept when they were approached by Europe’s leading manufacturer of playground equipment, Lappset.

“We already had a strong relationship with Lappset because we designed and installed the Angry Birds activity park at Lightwater Valley with them.”

“So my mate Rob [Rob Hetherington, Head of International Business Development at Lappsett] knocked on our door and said ‘we know you guys are very dynamic, we know you are privately owned, we know you can move quickly, and we also know you have aspirations to develop a range of indoor attractions, so how would you feel about this?’.”

Heritage GB, Lappset and partners drove the project forward at pace.

“Our first meeting was on the first of March 2015 and we opened the doors to the public on March the 18th 2016, ” says Leech.

Starting out with the basic design assets of the brand, Thomas the Tank Engine, Bob the Builder and Fireman Sam, Heritage GB created the technical and manufacturer design with Lappset.

There was also the marketing and media to be put in place, not to mention the negotiation of the lease on the Albert Dock.

“So, all this was built up from a blank sheet of paper and a conversation, and it was achievable because of the true partnership with Lappset Creative, the investors, Mattel/Hit Entertainment’s support, understanding and constant work. And, the City of Liverpool and the Albert Dock Company are what we call our third partner. Without their support, it wouldn’t have happened.”

The first of its kind in Europe (there is a Mattel Play! Town in Dubai), The Mattel Play! Liverpool family entertainment centre features more than 13, 000 ft² of interactive adventure play across three uniquely themed zones. There is plenty of scope for imaginative and active play and creativity, with activities including wall building, mini diggers, trains powered by children, firefighting and lots of interactive features to keep kids immersed and entertained.

There is also catering and retail, green-screening rooms so children can be photographed ‘with’ any of the characters from any of the worlds, and party and group rooms.

Exceptional Customer Feedback

“We budgeted as a break-even around 80 thousand in our first year; our target was 100, and we think we’ll end up at 120 thousand plus, ” says Leech.

“That brought its own problems. In this very first Mattel Play! we found some fantastic news across the board, but then we found some things that we’ll have to change. But, like any business, you recognise that, and you change accordingly.”

“We had designed things that we imagined visitors would interact with in one way, when in reality, we found that 25% of them go the other way. We found our buggy park needs to be three times the size because parents dump the buggies.

“We’ve got character costumes out all the time now, and there’s nothing like seeing a child meet Bob for the first time.”

The Albert Dock itself has also benefited:

Sue Grindrod, Albert Dock’s Chief Executive, has said that all her other businesses have seen a marked increase in the number of families visiting the docks. It really has worked exceptionally well for them; it’s heightened their exposure and started changing their demographic.”

“It’s our corporate home, and they have supported us incredibly strongly. As a destination, the Albert Dock has always been fantastic; it has great museums, galleries and so forth, but didn’t have a true, family-aimed attraction or activity. So, they were very keen to have us.”

“The City of Liverpool has also been absolutely fantastic. And, that goes right to the top: to the Mayor and his office, and all his team, who have welcomed us into the city and given massive support and encouragement, and to Marketing Liverpool [the city’s destination marketing organisation] who have promoted us and exposed us to a wider UK audience, but most importantly the people of Liverpool, the general public.”

“They see it as a bit of a coup, because something with such exposure would normally go to London or Manchester. So, the people of Liverpool have been massively positive. And – you’re speaking to a boy from Manchester here – I will say that Liverpool is exceptional, and if there is one destination for tourism and leisure and for culture and ‘things to do’, there is nowhere that’s got a bigger aspiration than Liverpool. It really truly is open for business.”

“From the public and the public sector, to the city council and the mayor’s office, to all organisations and authorities, they are huge supporters of the private sector. It’s a case of ‘the door is open’. It’s a positive investment.”

More Mattel Play! Venues Planned

Heritage GB is looking at the potential acquisition of more traditional heritage-style indoor attractions although Leech can’t disclose any details at this point. He is clear, however, that having been the successful pioneers for Mattel Play!, Heritage GB is now looking for further territories.

“We are actually looking for our next two destinations. The North and the West are rather good because it rains more there. Indoor attractions always have a stronger time if the weather’s indifferent. We are looking at other northern cities and Scotland, and, of course, Wales. We will grow the division that will hold Mattel Play! organically, because now it’s been designed, the media has been designed, and all the groundwork’s been done, it’s simply a case of applying that to other locations.”

These territories can afford to be some distance apart, because it is clear that Mattel Play! attractions draw visitors from a wider radius than was initially predicted.

Leech considered incorporating a girl-oriented headline brand in Liverpool but says that the three core brands all have strong female characters and appeal to boys and girls.  

“The brands we have are kind of unisex. Children under the age of six will play with any brands.

“We will, no doubt, add additional brands to our next attractions.  This one has three, and in Mattel Play! 2 and 3, we’ll definitely put a fourth, possibly a fifth brand in, and perhaps one will be a girl-facing brand. But, at the moment, we’re just exploring the feasibility of other territories.

“It really is a massively inspirational place for kids. They go in and they are fully immersed in Thomas and Friends’ world, or Bob and Wendy’s world or Sam and Penny’s world.”

MattelPlay!Liverpool brands

And, the worse the weather, the better the visitor numbers.

“We like wet days, ” observes Leech. “Never thought I’d say that.”

Images unless specified kind courtesy Heritage GB and Lappset.