The Annual Attraction Operator’s Conference for the people who own, run and operate zoos, theme parks, museums and other attractions run by UK based consultancy Vision XS took place on Wednesday the 7th July in the Orangerie at one of the country’s most splendid country houses, Blenheim Palace.
By Charles Read (14th July ’09)
Now in its fifth year, the conference is designed as both a formal (ish) conference in which speakers address delegates on key issues affecting the industry and a unique networking event, bringing together executives from across the UK’s attractions industry and allowing them an opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with fellow operators. (I understand this is called “shmoozing” in the US.)
The organiser, Vision XS, is a UK based, international consultancy set up 8 years ago by CEO Tony Sefton, who leveraged his experience in the theme park industry (he was a roller coaster tester among other things) to create the company. Vision XS helps operators, using experience modelling software, to analyse in a methodical way their visitors – profile, behaviour etc. – and then adapt and develop their attractions accordingly.
This year’s conference was the fifth (and my third time attending) and each one is better organised and more professional than the last. The first had been a tad self promotional, with operators standing up and telling us how Vision XS had helped them, rather in the way that a string of skinny people might line up to speak at a Weighwatcher’s conference. This year though, the tone was perfectly pitched and executives from many of the country’s leading attractions attended, including The London Eye, The London Aquarium, Marwell Wildlife Park, Drayton Manor Theme Park, BeWilderwood and many other theme parks , Zoos, museums, heritage attractions and farm parks.
Blenheim Palace is one of England’s greatest stately homes. Built in the early 18th century in the Cotswolds region of England, a place of genteel village greens, afternoon teas and chocolate box villages, the palace is set in over 2, 000 acres of “Capability” Brown landscaped parkland, home to the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. A lavish, historical setting in which to buckle down and talk business.
Not so much a recession…
The conference began with an introduction from John Hoy, Chief Executive, Blenheim Palace in which he formally welcomed us to Blenheim and directed a few choice words at the UK government’s lack of support for Visit Britain, the country’s tourism agency. This was followed by the keynote address, which came from Juliana Delaney (right), CEO at Continuum. Delaney delivered an excellent speech in which she discussed both how her company’s own 5 attractions – including Spinnaker Tower, Oxford castle and The Canterbury Tales– were faring in the recession and also how the business as whole was coping with these troubled times. It was poignant, she remarked, that her predecessor as keynote speaker at the conference, ( Tatweer/Dubailand’s Ahmed Taj Edeen) was no longer in the attractions industry, as the troubles in the market have been perhaps felt most forcibly in the Middle East. Illustrating her points with Churchillian quotes, though she didn’t recommend we fight anyone on beaches, Delaney’s was an energetic and thought provoking start to the day. Challenging times she allowed, but the UK’s attractions industry was experiencing a “recalibration” rather than a “recession”.
Two speakers followed, each of whom focussed on how their own specific brands were faring and what steps they were taking to drive business forward. Paramount’s Mike Bartok explained how the company manages both the umbrella brand – Paramount Studios – and the myriad sub-brands, with each major film the studio produces having its distinct own brand identity. With his calm, languid delivery, Californian locks and tan, Bartok contrasted dramatically with the pasty faced Englishmen in his audience. He showed us a montage of the Paramount brands – snippets of a hundred films accompanied by uplifting music and each with its own potential, each to be marketed and promoted differently.
Pick a card, any card
Barbara Smith from Edinburgh Castle then spoke about how this heritage attraction had transformed both its brand and, more prosaically, its entrance. A photograph of hundreds of people milling around aimlessly outside the castle gates was the “before”, a sleek new ticketing and arrival centre the “after”. The website and the attraction’s literature were now clearly branded with a red lion and they had instigated online ticketing which is proving a great success.
After lunch, industry consultants Martin Barratt and Yael Coifman (with the one glamorously assisting the other) carried off with aplomb the difficult task of making a potentially dry subject both interactive and engaging. Talking visitor yields and ratios became fun as we played “Top Trumps”- a British children’s card game – and learnt a little about repeatability, how to maximise secondary revenue streams and how to play Top Trumps…
Ill met by moonlight
The conference was neatly wrapped up by Chris Webster, a Director at Visit England. Vision’s Tony Sefton had asked Chris to finish proceedings on a upbeat, and so if Juliana’s keynote address had been all Titania, sage advice and wise counsel delivered with an engaging smile, then this was more Henry the Fifth at Agincourt, a rousing call to arms. A reminder also, that whilst times are tough, the attractions industry in the UK is resilient and with careful planning and foresight attractions can not just weather the storm but safely navigate through it.
Delegates then enjoyed a social at the pub in Woostock, the quaint village by the palace. Ceilidh dancing took place, which was rather like a Scottish version of the Morris dance, though without bells on your feet, and the evening ended on a high note as your humble correspondent was unable to sing Strangers in the Night as the karaoke machine had broken.
Images: Top: Blenheim Palace. Above right: Juliana Delaney (kind courtesy Blue Zebra PR). Bottom left: Chris Webster explains the importance of maximising your visitor yield ratio to a delegate.