Continuum Attractions, the Yorkshire-based leisure company, has been a part of the UK attractions industry for almost four decades, establishing itself as one of the leading operators in the country.
In the wake of the pandemic, blooloop spoke to CEO Juliana Delaney about the company’s journey so far, what makes a successful attraction, and why she believes working in the leisure and tourism industry is a career to be proud of.
Continuum Attractions’ portfolio includes The Real Mary King’s Close, York’s Chocolate Story, Oxford Castle & Prison, the Spinnaker Tower and GreenWood Family Park.
This summer, the company also signed a 10-year agreement with ITV to become the operator of ITV visitor attractions across the UK, including I’m a Celebrity… Jungle Challenge. ITV’s current portfolio includes I’m a Celebrity… Jungle Challenge, Coronation Street The Tour, and weekend tours of the Emmerdale Village.
It all started with a hole in the ground
The Continuum story dates back to 1984 with ‘a hole in the ground in York’, explains Delaney, when it created the ground-breaking Jorvik Viking Centre, under its previous name of Heritage Projects:
“Our company has grown up out of that hole in the ground in York, to be a company that has dipped its toes in every part of the attractions business. From designing to doing multimedia to consultancy and marketing. But now we’ve got a very clear position in that we are operators.
“We operate in three different ways. Firstly, we invest in, and we own visitor attractions. Secondly, we operate for other people, so we are like a higher-end facility management company. And then thirdly, we are in partnership with successful brands. In this case, they have the IP, and we have the expertise as visitor attraction operators.”
Our approach has been to have fun, to make money, and to do it that way round. It’s about getting the balance right
The company’s success, according to Delaney, is down to having a very clear philosophy.
“This is in three parts,” she says. “We, as the people who work within the company, want to have fun. Enjoying yourself and having fun is important. But then the second part is, we also want to make money. And the third and most important part is to do it in that order. Right from the outset, our approach has been to have fun, to make money, and to do it that way round. It’s about getting the balance right, and I think that that’s what we’ve achieved.”
The Jorvik Viking Centre
Revisiting the first project, the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, Delaney says:
“This all began as a wild idea, where an archaeologist came together with an entrepreneur. This archaeologist was digging in the hole in the ground in York, and when he was introduced to a successful businessman, he was trying to explain archaeology and the excitement of finding things.
“He explained that it’s never the object, it’s always the human story around the object. It’s who made it, who used it, how did it get left here, and what can we find out about the people?”
“This entrepreneur was taken by the idea of transforming museums and heritage centres, of taking complex subjects like archaeology and Viking history and presenting them in an interesting way, to a much wider and less of a traditional museum audience. So, out of that conversation came the idea for the Jorvik Viking Centre. This was a museum but never presented itself as a museum.
“It always was somewhere where everybody felt comfortable coming and enjoyed themselves. As the very best teachers know, when you enjoy your lesson, you learn so much more.”
The development of the Jorvik Viking Centre was hugely significant.
“Soon people were saying, ‘we want a Jorvik here’. As a result, a separate company was set up by the entrepreneur, with a group of other people, to serve that quest for a different way of presenting historical stories. That was our origin.”
Continuum Attractions and the importance of authenticity
One thing that Continuum Attractions aims to put first is authenticity. As Delaney says:
“You cannot tell the story of Romans in a city where the Romans have never been. You can’t tell the story of Coronation Street unless it’s in Manchester. And you can’t tell the story of the social history of Edinburgh unless it’s in the very spot where those stories happened.”
“The word that runs through our company, as Blackpool runs through a stick of rock, is authenticity. And that’s what we’ve tried to hold on to. Over the years, we did lots of museums and lots of interpretations, designing them and building them. But the one thing that we were the best at was running them, as well as marketing, presenting, and promoting them.”
How to create a successful attraction
There are three key ingredients to a successful attraction.
“Firstly, you need a great location,” says Delaney, “And it needs to be one where the story that you’re telling is linked to. So, that way you get the authenticity. Then, as long as it’s an exciting subject that you can promote and market, you’ve got the three things that give you a great business opportunity. That’s what we, as a company, have done.
“Continuum Attractions has got stories in different locations that are very different and make us a rather unique company, because of the diversity of our portfolio.”
“We’ve got everything from a 170-metre-high viewing platform tower with a great cafe at the top and bottom, through to a hole in the ground in Edinburgh on the Royal Mile, which is hugely successful as a heritage attraction, via a chocolate-themed attraction in York, a green theme park in north Wales, and also our partnership with ITV, which brings us Coronation Street, Emmerdale and I’m a Celebrity Jungle Challenge.
“That ability to invest where we see a good story and a good project, such as the Royal Mint visitor attraction, through to operating the Emirates Airline cable car as a tourist attraction, means we’ve been able to pick those things up and have fun and make money along the way.”
A magical world
Delaney started her career as a trainee journalist in Yorkshire, where she says that picked up some of the best experiences and lessons. She then joined a marketing and design company, which coincidentally had the original contract for the Jorvik Viking Centre.
After leaving to have her first son and then re-entering the workplace, via a couple of years of owning her own restaurant business, Delaney then took over the marketing of the Viking Centre. She was part of the founding team at Continuum, which was called Heritage Projects at the time.
“In my early career, I was involved in marketing all kinds of products and services,” she says. “Then, to suddenly step into the world of leisure tourism heritage, it seemed like a magical world. This is the world that most people pay to go into in their leisure time.
“I realised it was a serious industry and one that I could enjoy. So, I moved quite quickly through the business because I tried to make it fun for the people I worked with and for the clients that we worked with. And, ultimately, if we did that, we made it fun for the guests too.
“I came into an industry that felt a bit too good to be true. Then, when I got my head around the fact that it was a worthwhile career, it’s something that I’ve been passionate about ever since.”
A worthwhile career
Delaney feels that the attractions industry does not do enough to promote the fact that this is a serious, worthwhile and enjoyable career, with good progression opportunities:
“It is a career that should attract people, and we need to act together to continue to attract real talent. One of the things I have tried to do is build a company that is based not on putting the customer first, but on putting the team who work with you first. It might seem like a bit of a bizarre philosophy, but it’s 100% right.”
“I can’t be at every door, welcoming every visitor. The people who are more important in the business, for me, are the ones who are at those doors. And the people who are doing the marketing jobs, and the general managers.
“We need to look after them and recognise the value that they bring to the business. When they are the best, these people who are looking after the guests, then we make money.
“Over the years, we’ve had the careers of so many people go through our hands. There are so many successful people now working elsewhere in the industry who started with us, and I’m really proud of that.”
Continuum Attractions has a diverse portfolio
Speaking about the company’s diverse portfolio of visitor attractions, Delaney says she finds it hard to pick a favourite:
“I always love the attraction that I’m visiting the most. So, it depends entirely on where I’m standing! For instance, I am visiting Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh tomorrow and I am so proud of what we have done there. It was the basement of a council building, where people were let in by janitors, who would show them around and tell them about spooky stories. The council had the foresight to see that it could be more than this.”
“We took over the development of the visitor attraction on the Royal Mile. And what we’ve done with it since is a testament to our company. The anticipation was maybe about 50,000 people a year would go into this basement. In fact, pre-pandemic, we were getting about 250,000 visitors a year.
“It’s not high tech, it’s not filled with virtual reality. It’s just a really good story told in a really good way and in an authentic and genuine location. People come out having been moved and having learned something.”
Continuum Attractions and sustainability
On the importance of sustainability in the attractions industry, Delaney says that Continuum has been able to take lessons from GreenWood, its theme park in north Wales:
“We bought it because it’s a great family day out in a natural environment. But it’s also underpinned by green and sustainable principles. And that’s influenced a lot of the things that we do across the company now. At Greenwood, we have toilets that flush off into the reed beds. We also have a people-powered roller coaster, we have solar power.”
“So, we have a set of principles that we’re trying to bring across the rest of the business. But the other thing I think that you can underestimate in our business is how much investment you must make to sustain a business, to make it sustainable commercially.
“You must keep reinvesting, and it’s one of the things that’s least understood about our industry. You have to have a robust reinvestment plan. One that allows you to still be opening and running visitor attractions 15, 20 years after they open.”
The impact of COVID-19
While the pandemic has had a huge impact on the sector, Delaney says that she has tried to look for the positives:
“Any crisis presents you with as many opportunities as it presents you with challenges. The opportunities for us at Continuum Attractions are that we’ve been able to run a leaner business. We have been able to be far more efficient and to prioritise those things that are important.”
“There have also been some great results as well, in terms guests pre-booking. Now, people are pre-booking all our visitor attractions. The UK market has been really enjoying its own country and buying souvenirs. So, I think we’re far more open to welcoming UK guests because we’ve realised that they enjoy what we do.”
A moment of change
Of course, there are negatives too:
“We have a good fighting fund with which we were going to build a couple of new attractions at the beginning of 2020. We reacted to the pandemic very quickly, stopping our investments, stopping any of our CapEx and pulling everything in. And we’ve had to use some of that money to continue to keep the business going.
“We are very grateful for the furlough and all the support that we’ve had. However, it has cost us money that we would have invested in new attractions, which is a high price.”
Many feel that now is the time to look forward and build something better than ever:
“A lot of people in the industry are saying the same thing. You’ve got to look at the positives and the lessons that we can take forward. We’re not going to go back to just doing the same as we did before.
“There were some huge changes in terms of destinations. For example, our marketing has moved online in a hugely significant way. People are making decisions about what they do in advance of getting there, in a way that they never did before. There are some shifts that will move tectonic plates in our industry.”
Looking ahead for Continuum Attractions
Finally, speaking about what is next for Continuum Attractions, Delaney says:
“We had some really exciting plans in 2019 and we have not forgotten those plans. We’ve just had to push them back a little bit. Our business has never been one that has leapt into things. We’re resilient, but we’re also cautious. So, for me, it is remembering the things that we wanted to do, the exciting opportunities that we had, and finding a way to still do them, but in a slightly different way.”
“We have still been adding to our portfolio. We’re operating ITV’s I’m a Celebrity Jungle Challenge, and we are also operating a Netflix Army of the Dead zombie apocalyptic VR pop up in London. Those are things that make me confident about the future.”