Season five kicks off today with not one, not two, but three excellent guests! In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, I have the pleasure of speaking to Bernard Donoghue, Paul Kelly and Ken Robinson, founders of the Visitor Attractions Conference. You’ll also know Bernard as Director of ALVA and Paul as CEO of BALPPA.
“Making sure that we are as accessible in every conceivable way, economically, physically. Accessible to people and that they see their stories and themselves reflected in their collections and people and staff and volunteers and board members, I think that’s the biggest challenge of the sector as it is indeed to many other sectors.”
Bernard Donoghue OBE, Director of Association of Leading Visitor Attractions
“The biggest change for me is how we’ve broken up the afternoons into separate segments and sections where people can go along to a smaller, informal group discussing a topic that they particularly want.”
Paul Kelly, CEO of BALPPA – British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers & Attractions
“So in 2004 I wrote the briefing of the first conference. That’s where it came from. We wanted it to have at the time the lowest possible attendance fee to get the highest number of people there. We wanted to involve everybody.”
Ken Robinson CBE FTS, Co founder of The Annual National Conference of Visitor Attractions – VAC
Bernard Donoghue OBE – CEO & Director, ALVA, the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, Mayor of London’s Culture Ambassador. Co-Chair, London Tourism Recovery Board.
Bernard has been the Director of ALVA, the UK’s Association for Leading Visitor Attractions, since 2011 following a career in advocacy, communications, and lobbying, latterly at a senior level in the tourism and heritage sector. In 2017, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, appointed Bernard to be the Mayor’s Ambassador for Cultural Tourism and a member of the Mayor’s Cultural Leadership Board.
Bernard is Co-Chair of the London Tourism Recovery Board. He is also Chairman of LIFT, London International Festival of Theatre; Chairman of the Bristol Old Vic, the oldest continually operating theatre in the English-speaking world, and also of the People’s History Museum, the Museum of Democracy. He has been a member of the UK Government’s Tourism Industry Council since 2016. Bernard was named by Blooloop in 2020 as one of the world’s 50 most influential people in museums, and in July 2021 won the public vote for the COVID Special Recognition Award from the UK Museums and Heritage Awards for his service to, and leadership of the museums and heritage sector in the UK during the pandemic.
Ken Robinson CBE FTS – Founder of VAC
Ken is an independent adviser who speaks and writes on tourism topics. As a “tourism enthusiast” he aims to be a pragmatic pioneer of new initiatives, strategies and solutions to optimise the economic, cultural and social benefits of tourism. Ken’s Consultancy companies completed over 1500 assignments, mostly in the UK but also several hundred international projects, beginning over 50 years ago, before the days of mass tourism. He was a founding member of the Tourism Society and supported the formation of the Tourism Alliance, both of which organisations he has served as a board member and Chair, as he has on several other Tourism bodies.
Specialising initially in visitor attractions, Ken initiated and subsequently chaired the National Visitor Attractions Conference, VAC, and has been on its Committee ever since. In addition to many clients in the public, private and third sectors, he has advised the UN’s International Trade Centre, on national and regional Tourism strategy development. His current focus is to move the industry’s thinking from marketing to the critical need to manage future tourism for the benefit of host communities, and to optimise tourist’s experiences. Ken was appointed CBE for services to Tourism in 1997, and an Honorary Doctorate in 2014.
Paul Kelly – Chief Executive, BALPPA, Chair of VAC
Having been with BALPPA for 11 years and working with VAC for that amount of time as well, Paul started his career in the attractions sector at Thorpe Park in the 80’s and then moved on to the London Eye for its opening around the millennium. He has always been involved with visitor attractions. Several more years working within Merlin followed both in the UK and abroad, mainly on business development. Being a BALPPA member for 30 years means, being Chair of the organising committee at VAC keeps Paul in touch with all aspects of the attractions industry.
Liz Terry MBE – Managing Director, Leisure Media Group
Janet Uttley – Head of Business Transformation for VisitEngland
What will you learn from this podcast?
- VAC’s 20th anniversary this year
- Find out where the idea for the event spanned from
- How it’s changed and developed over the years
- What 2024 has in store for the attractions sector
- How you can get your ticket for the VAC conference this year
You can also read the full transcript below.
Your host, Kelly Molson
Our guests, Bernard Donoghue, Paul Kelly and Ken Robinson
Kelly Molson: Bernard, Ken, Paul, it is a treat to have you all on the podcast today. Thank you for joining me. I think this is the first time I’ve had three guests as well, so this could be interesting.
Bernard Donoghue: And three men as well. I mean, it’s like a really bad testosterone banana rama, isn’t it? Really.
Kelly Molson: I’m just a little flower in the middle of you thorns today. Yes, it’s a real shame. So, unfortunately, Janet Uttley and Liz Terry couldn’t make it along to join us today, which is a shame. But I’m sure that they will get lots of mentions as we talk through some of the things that we’re going to chat about today. But first, as ever, I want to start with a little icebreaker. I’m going to ask you all the same thing because I’m intrigued as to whether you ended up doing what you thought you might. So, Ken, I’m going to start with you first. When you were at school, what did you think that you’d grow up and be when you were older?
Ken Robinson: I didn’t know.
Kelly Molson: Had no clue at all?
Ken Robinson: No, I didn’t have a clue. I was lucky to have a good education. I didn’t work at school. And then I got into a job, which was I was very successful at it and it was very boring. So I left. And when I discovered tourism and visitor attractions, it took me over. I didn’t decide to do it. It told me that was it.
Kelly Molson: Oh, I love it. It’s like a calling.
Ken Robinson: At the time it was, I was actually sitting in a turret room which had been vacated by Lord Montague. His desk used to face in and I liked that because I didn’t have to look at the faces of the visitors going past who might complain, because in those days, buli was very expensive. And then one day I thought to myself, these people are investing their hard earned money and leisure time in making a decision to come here and it’s our job to make sure they have a good time. And I turned my desk round and I looked at them all day long and the moment I turned my desk round, everything changed.
Kelly Molson: I love that, because you could see the whites of their eyes and how they were engaging with the venue as they turned up.
Ken Robinson: Well, it’s just such a failure, isn’t it? If you’ve got somebody who makes a choice and spends their time and money, a family decision for many people, and it should be a highlight. And if it isn’t, whose fault is it? It’s probably the fault of the visitor attraction, given that the person has chosen to go there in not communicating well enough with them about what they’ve got and what they would find interesting.
Kelly Molson: This is such a brilliant story and that wasn’t where I was expecting this to go either, Ken. I love it. Paul, what about you, Paul?
Paul Kelly: Yeah, I mean, when I was at school, I was interested in sports and that was it, really, and luckily, that dragged me through the various places I went to. But what I was going to end up doing sports. I think once you get into sports quite seriously, you realise fairly quickly that actually you’re not going to make it, so you have to find something else. So, laterally, I decided that business was a good idea.
So I started doing business studies up in North Wales and for some reason were doing a sandwich course in those days, I think it was called that. One of those, I got placed at Thorpe Park. I don’t know why particularly, so there’s a group of six of us went down to Thorpe Park to work there and I actually started working on the rides.
I’m not sure what it had to do with business at the time, but I’m glad somebody thought it did. And I couldn’t believe that was a job that you could do, you could be paid for, because I came from the north at that point and there wasn’t an awful lot going on in the 80s and actually be paid. Everyone enjoyed themselves, fantastic atmosphere, parties every night. I’m sure it’s still like that. And it was just amazing. And from that moment on, regardless of what happened after that, including other colleges, other bits and pieces, effectively, I never left.
Kelly Molson: It’s always going to be in that sector.
Paul Kelly: Yes.
Kelly Molson: Excellent. Great. Bernard, same to you.
Bernard Donoghue: Well, this may come as a surprise, but my grandfather was in the Irish Guards, my father was in the Grenadier Guards, my brother was in the Royal Marines, and I had a very large collection of action men. I genuinely thought I would probably end up in the army. And actually, I got an offer after university to go into the Household Cavalry. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this before.
Anyway, it just clearly I didn’t pursue the application. It wasn’t for me at all. Got really into politics. So I started working in the House of Commons, House of Lords and the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and then I’ve just been in sort of lobbying, campaigning, political world ever since. But I still miss the uniforms. Can’t deny it.
Kelly Molson: I think we’d like to see you in that uniform, Bernard, if I’m not going to lie. So from the lobbying aspect, which is obviously a really big part of the role that you currently have, how did the attractions bit kind of slot into those? Where did the two join up?
Bernard Donoghue: It’s a really odd coincidence. I was trustee of a charity that Diana, Princess of Wales, was a patron of, and I was working full time for a charity that she was a patron of. So when she divorced Prince of Wales, now the King, she reduced her patronages down from 187 to six. And I happened to be involved with six of them. I went to work for her as a deputy private secretary, press secretary.
But of course, the moment she died, which was August 31st, I had no job. Suddenly I was unemployed. And I got contacted by a woman who Ken will certainly know, probably Paul will, too, by Sue Garland, who used to be Deputy Chief Executive of VisitBritain, who’d heard me speak at something and said, “Well, we’re just about to create this post of government affairs liaison. Would you be interested to working on the role while working on what you do next?” And that was in August 1997. And here I am still.
Ken Robinson: But also, can I add something to that? Because I was lucky enough to be sitting in the room on many occasions when Bernard would give his briefing at meetings that were held by VisitBritain. And it was always a highlight of the day because Bernard, in those days, never pulled his punches. I’m not saying he does now, but he would just explain to everybody in the room what was going on with all of the political parties, which we never understood, and explain what we ought to be doing in order to best put our case. So it was really no shock when he turned up at ALVA, because I would say this if he wasn’t here, he was the star of the show there, and that expertise that he showed has blossomed in the job that he’s doing now.
Kelly Molson: This is lovely, isn’t it? Aren’t you all nice?
Bernard Donoghue: This is love in..
Kelly Molson: Probably why you all work together, right? You will get on so well. Right, back to you, Ken. Unpopular opinion, please.
Ken Robinson: Most visitor attractions do not deliver full value for money to most of their visitors.
Kelly Molson: Okay, Paul and Bernard, do you agree with this? Will our listeners agree with this? Is this an unpopular opinion?
Paul Kelly: Did you use the word most, Ken?
Ken Robinson: I did.
Paul Kelly: I’ll go for some, not most.
Bernard Donoghue: Yeah, I’ll go for some as well. One of my favourite programmes is Yes, Minister. And whenever you’d hear something off the wall, bonkers, they would say, that’s a very brave opinion, Minister. That’s a very brave opinion, Ken.
Ken Robinson: Now’s not the time to justify it. I’ll do that on another occasion.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, we will invite you back and we can do that one on one, Ken. Paul, what about you? Unpopular opinion?
Paul Kelly: Well, I’m guessing that anybody that’s worked in a theme park will probably have the same opinion I have. So I worked at Thorpe Park, which was 450 acres, two thirds of which was water. And at the end of the day, when you were walking out, and in those days, that could be 9, 10 o’clock at night, it was beautiful. On a late summer’s evening, calm waters, walking through a park which had just been cleaned and tidied and ready for the next day. It was fantastic. And we all had the same opinion once were down the pub discussing the day. It’s just a shame we have to let people into theme parks because it’s the absolutely beautiful place without them there. So sometimes people let the parks down.
Kelly Molson: That’s a good one. That is a good one. Yeah. And you don’t want to let them in to see the beautiful bit either, do you? Because then there’d be people there. It wouldn’t be serene.
Paul Kelly: No, I mean, those evenings, if there was still time, we’d go windsurfing on the lakes, cable water ski around the back. And it was just a shame that all these people came in every day and messed it all up.
Kelly Molson: Yeah. Well, I’m pretty sure that most people who’ve worked in theme parks aren’t going to disagree with you on that one, Paul. Good one. Bernard, what about yours?
Bernard Donoghue: Even though I chair a theatre and I know how important the revenue is, I’m not a fan of selling drinks and food to people in theatres because they just make a noise. I can’t bear it. I mean, it depends. I mean, it depends if it’s a panto or something like that. Completely fine.
Ken Robinson: Oh, no, it’s not.
Bernard Donoghue: It kind of allies to what Paul was saying as well, which was I don’t know whether it’s an unpopular opinion. I think it’s probably a popular opinion. But visitor behaviour, whether it’s in a theatre, a museum, an art gallery or wherever, has completely deteriorated post lockdown. Some people’s behaviour is getting worse and it’s very difficult to know what to do about it.
Kelly Molson: Yes, agree. I don’t think that’s going to be very unpopular at all, actually, considering some of the things that we’ve seen recently. Thank you all for sharing. Okay, let’s get back to the serious bit. The Visitor Attractions Conference. It’s 20 years old this year. If you are listening and you’re not familiar with it, one, why the hell not? And two, you need to grab a ticket today. It’s the leading networking and learning event for visitor attractions across the UK.
And I first visited in October 2019 and it was the first sector specific conference that I had been to. We’d been working in the sector for probably about three or four years, had never really at that point kind of gone all out on our like, “This is what we’re going to niche and this is what we’re going to specialise in.”
So I was kind of doing a bit of a fact finding mission really, and I came along and it absolutely blew me away. I think it was one of the friendliest conferences I’ve ever been to. I think you’d created an environment where everybody was really welcome, no stupid questions. Everyone from speakers to guests where kind of felt like they were all on the same level, really happy to answer questions that you had, really happy to talk to you.
And I think that was for me. I came away from that event, I went back to my team and said, “This is where we should be. This is the event for us, this is where we should be attending, these are the people that we should be speaking to.” And I’ve absolutely loved every minute of that.
I mean, the next one I went to was a virtual one. So it was very different to the 2019 event, but still excellently organised. So firstly, thank you for making that happen. But where did the idea for the VAC come from in the first place? How did this come about?
Ken Robinson: So we have to remember that the world was very different over 20 years ago. Really, really very different. Not just a question of internet or pre COVID and all those things and pre Olympics, but just very different. And attractions in those days thought and acted and communicated in their sectoral associations. Historic houses talked to historic houses, curators of museums talked to curators, bishops talked to priests, zoologists talked to botanists, but they didn’t talk across the sectors.
There were two exceptions to that. One was that in Visit England or English Tourist Board, there’d always been a committee there which was across the sectors, but the other one was ALVA. Now, when ALVA was formed, it was a 1 million visitors plus club for attractions, with 1 million plus visitors a year.
Subsequently, groups of attractions, particularly English Heritage, National Trust, were involved originally associates, but it was a 1 million plus club and that’s only 1% of the attractions in the United Kingdom had over 1 million. And it was very London centric. And ALVA had a five objectives, four of which were about government.
Ken Robinson: And the interesting thing was that I was very good friends all through this time with Lord Lee, who know a very big part of the early success, pre Bernard of ALVA. I said to John Lee, “Look John, could you not change your name to ALVA and be involved with all the visitor attractions because they badly need something which glues everybody together and we need to get across this away from this sectoral stuff.”
And everybody was talking about historic houses, talk about the house museums, talking about the continents of the museum but they weren’t talking about visitors. They weren’t talking about how you communicated with the visitors or what they were motivated by or how you could better manage things for visitors, give them better they weren’t doing that. So John agreed with this and I’ve got the original papers here.
I looked them out that I was asked first of all by ALVA in December of 2001 to write a paper on the future of ALVA which is headed: ALVA in the Future Representing All Visitor Attractions. Then after that the conversation went on and we realised that if were going to have some kind of overall event we couldn’t do it without the National Tourist Board, we couldn’t do it without Visit Britain, Visit England. We needed their input.
Ken Robinson: We needed them to talk to DCMS and make sure it would happen. And also we wanted to do this not on a commercial basis but being by the industry, for the industry, run by the industry, not for profit. And that was a problem because we wanted to do it in the QE II Centre because we wanted to be in the centre of everything and that was going to cost an extraordinary sum of money and there wasn’t that much money that could in that first year come originally from VisitEngland.
So the partners in this, the partners being ALVA, BALPPA, Paul’s organisation, Leisure Media the wonderful Liz Terry and her magazine which has forever been behind this event for no recompense whatever and myself put up 5000 pounds each security in order that the thing would happen.
You said, “We’ll stand the risk, let’s do it.”. So in 2004 I wrote the briefing of the first conference and I found from a 2003 the government asked for a list of topics that would be discussed in order they could work out whether or not they might like it and it’s still here.
What I like about it is it would do quite well for this year’s conference. All those topics are still relevant. So that’s where it came from. That’s where it came from. We wanted it to have at the time the lowest possible attendance fee to get the highest number of people there. We wanted to involve everybody.
And the cast list for that 2004 event, my goodness me, absolutely fantastic cast list in terms of the people we had for an initial event and you can imagine when it was announced and everybody was behind it ALVA was behind it. BALPPA, I should have mentioned that Colin Dawson, Paul’s predecessor was an absolute stalwart of the conference in the early years he stood by know, when times were tough and that’s where it came from.
Kelly Molson: That is phenomenal. It was really putting your money where your mouth is, isn’t it? By all of you actually personally investing in this thing to bring it to life. You don’t hear many things happening in that way anymore, do you? It’s all about getting investment and asking other people to make the commitment to it and take the risk.
Ken Robinson: Well, we have a company now, I should say. We have a company called VAC Events, and we are all equal. The four of us are equal shareholders, that’s to say, Bernard and ALVA, BALPPA and Paul, Liz and myself, for no benefit. Martin does it for us, but we are the people that carry the can, if you like, and I don’t think we’ve ever had anything out of it apart from a nice lunch at Christmas, but apart from that, it’s a great feeling of doing something.
When you say everybody is very friendly and talks to one another. That’s why they’re all in the same business. Bishop, curator, zoologist person running a heritage railway, they’re all in the same business.
Kelly Molson: Obviously, the first event was a success. You’ve been on and you’ve done many, what, 20, 20 events since that first one. How have you seen it kind of change and develop over the years? So what did that first conference look like compared to what this year’s will look like? And how have you kind of evolved it over that time to keep it relevant to your audience?
Paul Kelly: Well, I think so. My involvement directly has been the last ten years, so I’m halfway through chairing for this one, but I was actually there at the early ones because I worked at that time. I was working at the London Eye, just across the river, and I was good friends with Colin Dawson at the time. I’d worked with him at Thorpe Park and he for some people, may well remember Colin as entertaining Princess Diana on a log flume in 92, 3 and 4.
And I was there. It’s hard to tell, but I was actually there. I’m not in any of the photos in Paris Match and all of those places. I have a couple of myself here. I didn’t get anything signed by Princess Diana and sent over to you know, bitterness takes a while to and I’ve joked with Colin over this many years.
Colin was there, but if you look closely behind the scenes, you’ll find I was there too, but so I was great friends with Colin over many years and still am. He was obviously contacting everyone he knew about this conference. He was working for BALPPA at the time. I was working for the Two Swords Group, had the operational contract for the London Eye.
Paul Kelly: So I went to the first one and I suppose my impressions of the first one was for somebody who hasn’t been there before, the QE II is extremely impressive as a conference center. I don’t go to many that look like that around the UK. Most of them normally the ones I go to are in attractions, they’re slightly different so it was hugely impressive both on its location and what was across the road and how things went and I was a little bit starstruck I suppose, for the first one. Now I get the opportunity to sit on the stage and look out at everybody and have a slightly different view on it all, but still think it’s an extremely impressive environment to do that.
And I think the biggest change for me, and I think we may cover a little bit later, is how we’ve broken up the afternoons into separate segments and sections where people can go along to a smaller, informal group discussing a topic that they particularly want. And I think the thing I also like about that is the amount of people who want to go to more than one of them that are on at the same time and are almost complaining there’s too many things to go to, which I think is hilarious, which means it’s really good.
And hopefully that means that next time they’ll really think about which one do I want to go to, obviously I want to go to more than one, but I’m going to pick my best one.
So I think for me, that’s probably the biggest change over time. But what doesn’t change for me is the team that we have putting these things together, which we’re actually relatively slick at. Everyone gets the chance to put their opinions and I’m glad we don’t record those meetings and it works out really well. And I think as a team, it’s amazing how long we’ve stuck at it and stuck together.
Kelly Molson: I’d love to be on a little fly on the wall for those meetings. Have you ever had a fallout about something?
Bernard Donoghue: Yes, we’re frequently violent. It’s a visitor experience in its own right, I think.
Kelly Molson: I’ll pay for it.
Bernard Donoghue: We reflect the madness that some of our visitors demonstrate on site so in that case I think we’re rooted in the industry. The first one that I went to was in 2011, so I just joined ALVA at that point. And the first one I spoke, it was in 2012 and I’ve been doing the same kind of slot ever since.
I do a kind of State of the Nation in the morning because ALVA obviously gets loads of data and information and we publish all of our visitor figures and all the rest of it, and actually we collect and commission much more data now than we ever used to. So I share all of that in the kind of Donoghue half hour copyright.
What’s lovely I mean, Paul’s absolutely right is that over the last twelve years I think we’ve seen a real move from people desperately wanting to speak about their successes to being really open about what hasn’t worked, which of course is far more interesting and useful. So there’s been a really lovely shift from people saying, “No, I don’t have to do the propaganda stuff.”
Bernard Donoghue: Actually, I’m going to tell you what it was like, why it was a disaster and what we learned from it. And that’s so useful. So you do get this real honesty coming from the speakers who know that’s what they find useful too. So why not share it? I think the other one is I do a presentation about, is there core behaviours of successful visitor attractions regardless of type?
And there are there’s about ten of them, but one of them is the ability to foster creative partnerships with unusual suspects. So the presentations that are most fascinating for me is where a visitor attraction, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a cathedral or whether it’s a museum or gallery or theme park, have teamed up with someone that you wouldn’t expect them to team up with to tell the story of their people and places and collections in a new, innovating, exciting way. And those are fascinating, absolutely fascinating. So I love those. There’s much more of that.
Kelly Molson: Fantastic. Well, on that note, I want to know from each of you who has been the most inspiring speaker that you’ve had at the conference over the past 20 years. Ken, let us start with you. Who do you think would be on your list for that?
Ken Robinson: I had a look through the programs going back to 2004 and came up with the following names which surprised me, actually. I think originally our first most inspiring speaker was Simon Jenkins, the columnist of the Times, who had very strong views, which didn’t necessarily agree with what government and others were doing. He did give a very inspiring presentation and then there are some people who perhaps we would expect less.
The most single most surprising speaker was somebody called Tristram Mayhew, who titles himself as the Chief Gorilla of Go Ape and in a room full of suits and quite smart dresses and trouser suits, Go Ape shambled onto the stage in a car key shirt and proceeded to explain how he’d done things differently. And frankly, it was riveting. We had a chap called Tony Berry from the National Trust who gave presentations.
His first one was just stunnning, you know, in the days when HR was less popular, Tony Berry would tell you why you should be interested and he was absolutely amazing. And Sue Wilkinson, incidentally, of the National Trust, who was the person responsible really for dragging the Trust from its sort of old form to its new marketing orientated thinking about its supporters future success? She was terrific.
Ken Robinson: And the other person I would mention another Tony, I don’t know whether or Tony’s there’s Tony Butler from the Museum of East Anglian Life, who again, when Bernard was talking about people talking about doing things differently and it inspires you. Some of those examples are very interesting, but not easy to copy.
In other attractions, we always look for things that do go across the piece, so anybody can learn from the lessons within the example that we’re talking about. And incidentally, we do have arguments in meetings, it’s about whether particular speakers and particular topics are the way of doing things. And generally speaking, when we all have a good go at it comes out better than it did when anybody said, “Well, I know what the right answer is. No, you don’t. Let’s all talk about it. So that works.” So you get these people that actually inspire and they light up the room, not because of clever graphics and not because of a forceful way, but they light up the room because of the originality of their ideas. Now, I’ll come to my number one.
I’m sorry about this, because he’s sitting on my screen down there, and that’s young Bernard, who since he joined our there you go. That’s the top half that works. You should see the bottom half doesn’t work. He’s just had pins put in it.
Kelly Molson: Just for our listeners here, Bernard is given a little muscle strong arm salute on screen here.
Ken Robinson: Bernard combines the latest immediate knowledge of talking to people across the industry with an absolutely amazing gift of the gab, with a power of communication. And he’s unstoppable. And we wouldn’t have stood him for all these years if he wasn’t. So of all the years and all the speakers, the consistent best is Bernard. But we have had other people, often surprising, who take know, you don’t expect it, you think you’re going to listen to ordinary session, all of a sudden it takes fire.
Kelly Molson: Bernard, what have you got to say to that?
Bernard Donoghue: What I say to Ken is there are packets of cash going from London to the south coast with immediate effect. Delighted. Thank you very much. It’s really lovely, actually. I’ve tried to change things every year to do partly political, but also partly about good practice and who’s doing what and who’s interesting.
I’ll tell you what, one of my favourite speakers, and it was in a conversation, one of the things that we’ve introduced is a sort of conversation with slot, which works really well, actually, because a bit like this, you’re off script, you respond to people. Liz chaired a conversation last year, so were in Birmingham last year and it was all about HR issues and of course, it know, coming out of COVID and cost of living crisis and recruitment challenges and all of those kind of stuff.
And Tina Lewis is the director of people at the National Trust. National Trust, getting great repertoire here. She came out with an idea that they’re doing at the National Trust and I’ve implemented it in the three organisations that I chair and it’s made the biggest difference. So the National Trust, they will pay the rent deposit for your flat if you need them to.
Bernard Donoghue: So if you’re going through a cost of living crisis and you can’t get up the cash to put down a rent deposit on your flat, they’ll do it for you. You can’t get up the cash to put down a rent deposit on your flat, they’ll do it for you. That was such a transformational thing to hear. You could almost hear the gasp in the room of people going, “Oh, my God. Yeah, if we can, let’s do that.”
And I’ve now introduced it. As I say in the organisations that I chair, not many people have taken it up, but the fact that we’ve said it has made such a difference to people. I mean, as it is at the Trust, actually, there’s been a relatively small number of people at the Trust who’ve taken it up, but the very policy decision, the very communication of it, just spoke volumes about an organisation that cares about its staff, and particularly those staff who are on really limited budgets.
So there’s been loads and loads of speakers over the course of the last few years, but that for me was a nugget which has changed people’s lives and has been implementable.
Kelly Molson: I think that’s the key to that part, isn’t it, is that it’s an incredible thing that they’ve done, but the fact that it can be implemented someone has listened to that talk. They can take that away, take it to their board, take it to whoever needs to okay that, and they can put that into action like that straight away. That’s the power of a really good initiative and a good speaker to be able to deliver that as well. Paul, what about you? Please don’t say Bernard. I think he’s had enough praise today.
Bernard Donoghue: No, keep going.
Kelly Molson: No.
Paul Kelly: You’re OK, Bernard? We’ll leave that one where it is, shall we? If we can squeeze Bernard into the room next. Right, so one special mention I wanted to give, actually, which is one of the years not too long ago, we invited Simon Calder to speak, the travel journalist, and I have to say I wasn’t convinced, because clearly he’s not working in one of our attractions and doesn’t necessarily know the industry pretty well.
But I have to say, he was hugely entertaining, had done his homework, was hugely knowledgeable, and so he was absolutely excellent. But I think the most important thing for me is that he left us and he said to me, “Enjoyed it so much, I’ll come back later.” And I said, “Yes, of course you will.”
So he went away and he came back at the end of the day to talk to all the people that he’d seen early in the day, because he loved the atmosphere and he wasn’t required to do that. And he came along. And for that I have to put a special mention in one for myself to actually listen to the others when they say, “This will be good”, and secondly for him, for actually doing a bit and actually coming back later.
Paul Kelly: And he was a fabulous addition and outside of our industry. So my inside the industry one is somebody I ended up working with because I was with the Two Swords group and then they were bought by Merlin with Nick Varney and his Merry Men.
So Nick and his team had obviously been in the industry a very long time at this point, dipped in and out of theme parks and attractions. But Nick didn’t actually do many talks. You wouldn’t actually hear him speak about too much. I’d heard him speak over in the IAAPA trade show held in Orlando every November, and he was absolutely brilliant. And then Ken managed to get him to speak at VAC one year.
And again, he was absolutely excellent. And this fits in nicely because now that he’s retired from Merlin, he’s speaking again this year. So I think that will be really interesting because he’s absolutely excellent.
Ken Robinson: And by the way, guys, just to show you that we know what we’re doing here, this is 2004, okay? And it says here the recipe for success. Nick Varney chief executive, will talk about the components for commercial success. And that’s before. So we’ve got him first and look what happened.
Kelly Molson: I’m really looking forward to that interview, actually, and I think it would be really interesting to see how he differs now. He’s kind of outside of the sector, and I think that the format that you’ve got him in. So that’s the interview with Liz, isn’t it? On stage? I think that’s going to be a really great format as well. I’ve seen that work really well in the past where she’s interviewed people and it just feels really comfortable and really conversational. I think that brings out the best of people.
Bernard Donoghue: Kelly, do you want to know who’s been of most variable quality?
Kelly Molson: Oh, yes.
Bernard Donoghue: Tourism Minister. I mean, without doubt. I mean, we’ve been going 20 years now, therefore we’ve had 20 tourism ministers, had one a year, like Christmas cards. And some of them have completely got the industry completely understood. It delivered a barnstorming speech, and then the next year you’ll get the annual Tourism Minister pop up and they’ll read something flat, banal, uninteresting.
And we’re so torched by the experience that we don’t invite the one next on the year. So we’re always banging on about this. Tourism is very good at job creation. In fact, we’ve created 20 Tourism Minister jobs in years, but they are of variable quality.
Ken Robinson: The best we ever had, Bernard, I think, by far, was John Penrose, when he had completed his review of the industry and got very clear views, which he put to government. Unfortunately, government didn’t do it, as they usually don’t, but he was good and people liked him and gave him a high rating. I think the next best was probably Margaret Hodge, who was very good and spoke from the heart.
But as you say, when we look at every year, we look at a rating of every speaker and the meeting after the event, we go through those ratings and decide, those that got good ratings, why did they get it? Was it intrinsic to their character, their nature, their topic? Was there something special? And those who didn’t, why was that? Was it our fault? Did we not brief them properly? Or was it never going to be any better?
And that way we managed to manage the conference. So know the attraction sector. We sometimes forget that over half of all visits to visitor attractions in the UK are free of charge. We forget that the majority of visitor attractions are medium and small businesses. We forget that there are charitable and commercial attractions. We must be able to bring this whole sector together and move our thinking forward in the way that Bernard has just explained in terms of what he does with ALVA. And the other thing that Bernard mentioned was ALVA’s research now.
20 years ago, you had to wait until the annual book came out from Thames Tower and then eventually from the centre of luck look to page 16 and there would be numbers, but very little interpretation of what those numbers meant. Now, Bernard is behind much of the work that is done now with ALVA. But the key to it is it’s not just numbers, it’s interpretation.
And because of the communication skills, when ALVA put out a message, it is interpreted. It says why it was a successful year or what was mitigating against that. And that’s so important in trying to move our case forward.
Kelly Molson: But it’s important in improving the content that you give your audience at the conferences as well, right? If something isn’t working and you’ve got a process of evaluating why that hasn’t worked and how you improve on it for the next one. Let’s just focus on why should people attend VAC this year? What is in it for them? What’s on the agenda? What have they got to look forward to and how can we get them to book a ticket?
Bernard Donoghue: I’ll happily go first and go quite niche, actually. One of the things that I do now outside of ALVA, or because of ALVA is that I co chair the advisory board for VisitLondon. So essentially chair the London tourist board. And I do that with Kate Nicholls of UKHospitality. And we created the London Tourism Recovery Group during COVID So my suggestion would be Sadiq Khan.
So we’ve managed to get the Mayor of London to come along and speak at this anniversary conference. And it’s not just because he’s the Mayor of London and it’s the 20th anniversary, but it’s because he’s the first ever Mayor of London that hazard one of his four political priorities, culture and tourism. That’s number one.
Number two is that he put his money where his mouth was and he funded the Let’s Do London Recovery campaign, which was both domestic and international with the industry. We delivered it with London and partners, but he put up the lump sum behind it. And third, he completely gets that tourism and heritage and culture is both where you grow jobs and we’re very good at it, but it’s also where you grow people.
Bernard Donoghue: It’s where you grow people in terms of their cultural literacy or their sense of community or their independence or their sense of history. And therefore knowing where you come from enables you to be a better future citizen, if you like.
So my quick blast would be we’ve got him doing a welcome, but also saying why visitor attractions and tourism are so important to him and to the economy and the politics of London. So that’s not to be missed.
Kelly Molson: That is a big draw. Absolutely a big draw. Paul, you mentioned earlier about the variety in splitting up that second session, that second part of the day with the seminars and the smaller talks that you do as well. That for me, as an attendee, is really valuable because you can kind of pick and choose what’s relevant to you and go along and see lots of different talks. What do you think is the draw for people to come to the conference this year for you?
Paul Kelly: Well, I was just jotting down, thinking about it’s a little bit. An extension of what Ken was talking about is that it’s the variety of what we do in one place is greater than anywhere else. And all the conferences I do because of the nature of what we do each end of the spectrum. So we’ve got talks about people who run charities to people who run hugely commercial operations.
We’ve got people doing talks on which are free to get into those who are quite expensive, but focus on value for money. And you’ve got those that are indoor, those that are outdoor. When I spent my time business development at Merlin, they were always focused on a balanced portfolio. And a balanced portfolio meant making sure that right across your business, you have every aspect covered.
So everything balances indoor, outdoor, UK, Europe, USA, whatever it is. And I think with our conference, that’s what we try and do, we try and balance all of those types of different types of operations so that everything is covered, not to the point where it’s too thin and you don’t learn anything. And that’s the key to it, is that we go into the depth.
And the depth, I think, is greater now because we do those breakout sessions and we’ve got time to do in fact, we double up for those three different areas just for that afternoon. So I think those are the things, if anyone asks me why they should come, it’s about the variety.
Kelly Molson: Regardless of size of your attraction as well. And actually, from my perspective as a supplier to the industry, it’s just as valuable to come along and learn and understand what’s going on in the sector. You don’t have to be an attraction to come along and take part and be educated about what’s happening in the sector. What about you, Ken?
Ken Robinson: Well, I think that those of us who have stood on the stage at the QE II Centre and looked at the people who have come can see that there aren’t any slumbering faces out there. There are people making notes, people nudging the person next to them, people looking round when we ask a question.
We now have a sort of red and green card system for, do you agree? Don’t you agree? Which we sometimes use, which is very interesting, engaging the mood of the room. And I think that the thing about VAC is don’t be lazy if we’re going to come to VAC. Don’t be lazy. If you’re coming to VAC, l And jot down what questions you might like to ask those people or what you’d like to learn from that session. Write it down, don’t think you can remember it at the time.
Bring it on a note with you when you come and then you will find, and we all know this, that the networking that happens at the end of the day and in the breaks at VAC it’s like a family wedding in a way. I mean, everybody wants to talk to everybody else and it’s so valuable.
I think everybody who goes away from VAC should have a good few things that day, which they say, “I wouldn’t have thought of that if I hadn’t been there”, or even, “I disagree with that”, but it’s made me realise what my true opinion about that is equally valuable. But don’t be a lazy attendee. Come and participate, come and enjoy, come and learn, come and take back benefit to everybody that works with you.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I think that thing about not being scared to ask questions is really valid as well, Ken, because this happened to me, actually. I went to one of the seminar sessions, and this is back in 2019 and was really inspired by one of the speakers about it was Jules Ozbek, who was at Continuum Attractions at the time, and she talked about marketing segmentation, but had a completely different perspective on it in terms of not doing it demographically, just talking about age brackets and things like that.
And it was really interesting. I didn’t get a chance to ask a question during the seminar, but I found her afterwards and she was very approachable, very happy to answer my question. And then I stalked her on Twitter and got her to come on to the podcast afterwards to talk about it.
But that’s for me, what VAC is about. It’s the openness that people are really willing to share. So don’t be afraid to go and find the speaker that you’ve been inspired by and go and ask them the question afterwards, because everyone’s really happy to talk about their topic and they’re really happy to help people. That’s my little key takeaway from it anyway. Right, so it’s going to be on Thursday, the 5th October.
This podcast episode is launching on the 20th September, so you haven’t got long to go and get your tickets, so make sure you do. It is the 5th October, the QE II Conference Centre in Westminster. The website address is vacevents.com. That’s Vacevents.com and you can get your ticket there. All of this information will be in the show notes, so don’t worry if you didn’t get time to scribble that down.
While I’ve got you all, though, because you all are in the sector and you’ve got lots of insights to share. I want to know from each of you what you think that attractions should be focusing on and what 2024 might look like for the sector. Paul, what about you? Start with you.
Paul Kelly: So I’ve been chatting to some of our operators. We have some very large operators around the UK asking them how it’s going? And unsurprisingly, you could have said the same question 20 years ago, what’s our biggest challenge? It’s the weather. It’s not actually the cost of living crisis, it’s not COVID you can put plans together for those things and you can work on it, but the weather always is a little bit of a challenge.
So this summer inverted commerce has been quite hard to focus on what we can deliver when the days have been half decent. Actually, we’ve done quite well, we always do relatively well, certainly in our sector, I’m sure the others will agree, in a recession.
So the key seems to be, and I’m going to put it out, I haven’t quite found the right words for it, but I’ll develop this once I’ve spoken to a few more. What every attraction for me has to have is an opportunity for people to downgrade what they did slightly. What they’re doing is they’re ringing it up and saying, “Can’t afford to do this, have you got something that’s almost like that?”
But whether it’s a slightly different experience, less time, one day less so whatever the packages are that people are offering, there has to be one rung lower than it was before to still encourage people to come along because they’re not able to reach the same heights at the moment that they did previously. But they still want to have that family experience that day out, create those memories.
All of those things are still relevant. And if you don’t have that opportunity, then they’ll either go elsewhere or they won’t go. So, again, it’s managing. So I’m not talking about huge discounts, I’m talking about being relatively clever in what you package and what you put together to make sure they still attend and they still get what they perceive to be value for money. But unless you have that option then I think they won’t come.
Kelly Molson: Really great advice, Paul. Thank you. Bernard, what about you?
Bernard Donoghue: Like Paul, actually, especially since Lockdown ended, but actually for about the last five or six years I’ve noticed a particular thing which is where visitor attractions have got reserves, and that’s a big if by the way, particularly in the course of the last couple of years. Actually, especially since Lockdown ended, but actually for about the last five or six years I’ve noticed a particular thing which is where visitor attractions have got reserves, and that’s a big if by the way, particularly in the course of the last couple of years.
So it comes back to Paul’s point about kind of ensuring yourself against the excesses of the weather and making sure that you’re still particularly a family attractive visitor attractions that’d be one. Second is cost of living crisis, certainly for the average customer, but also the energy costs for visitor attractions too.
Just crazy amounts of money that visitor attractions are now paying i If you’re a zoo or an aquarium you can’t turn down the temperature of your botanics you’re a living reef. So we’re going to have to find some way out of that. And that means that actually for many organisations it’s going to be as financially challenging over the next twelve months as it has been over the last two.
And then I think the third, and this is a continual for me and Kelly, you and I have talked about it before, but it forms the last session of the day at the VAC conference which is diversity and inclusivity. And my feeling is that every visitor attraction should be critically honest about who comes, who doesn’t, why they don’t come and what are you going to do about it?
Bernard Donoghue: And in particular those organisations who in receipt are government money or public money or who had COVID loans from the UK taxpayer. If their visitors don’t look like the community in which they’re housed, they have a moral question at the heart of their business. That’s it. If you want to take public money you need to have an audience that looks like the diversity of the public.
And that’s a challenge. I get that, I completely get that. But I think that making sure that we are as accessible in every conceivable way, economically, physically. Accessible to people and that they see their stories and themselves reflected in their collections and people and staff and volunteers and board members, I think that’s the biggest challenge of the sector as it is indeed to many other sectors.
But I think we’re doing some amazing things and we need to shout about it and we need to share and we need to learn from each other.
Kelly Molson: Absolutely agree. And that session is going to be a really great session. That’s one not to miss. Ken?
Ken Robinson: Well, I would say two things. First of all, as far as our visitors are concerned, I think there is a bigger polarisation now than there ever has been between those who have money and can still afford to do things and are not much impacted by the current circumstances, despite everything. And those who haven’t and those who haven’t have got to find ways of saving money, getting more for their money.
There are so many things they can do that are free and alternatives that charged attractions find it difficult. I think we have to remember that the biggest number of attractions in the United Kingdom are heritage based attractions and they weren’t purpose built like many of Paul’s members, the attractions are purpose built for entertainment. But heritage attractions have got a bigger responsibility or museums housed in historic buildings.
And all the time they’re having to cut their costs and finding life difficult. Money isn’t going into maintaining that National Heritage. And that’s a real big long term challenge, one that government can’t ignore. So government has a vested interest in the health of our businesses because the more healthy they are, the less will fall back on the state eventually. One last thing, I would like to mention Martin Evans and the tourism business.
Ken Robinson: For the last I don’t know how many years, Martin has been the person who has put together this event for us. He has to do the heavy lifting. He is backed up by our conference organisers, who are also very efficient. And the other person that I wouldn’t like to miss from this, because if she could have been here today, you would have got a different flavour, is the wonderful Liz Terry and the support that her organisation. That’s Liz’s Organisation, her hard work in Leisure Media Group. She publishes Attractions Management magazine.
She has never asked for anything from this conference and she gives it great support, without which we wouldn’t have made 20 years, as I said earlier. And also a big shout and a screen for Liz.
Kelly Molson: That is lovely. Thank you. I’m sure Liz will very much appreciate that. We won’t forget her. Don’t worry, she’ll be on the credits for this podcast. I always ask our guests to leave us with a book recommendation for our listeners. So a book that you’ve loved, a book that you’ve enjoyed as part of your career growth can be absolutely anything. So, Paul, what would you like to share with us today?
Paul Kelly: Oh, I tell you what, books are a bit highbrow for me. Yes, Bernard agrees with that. So I’m from the north, so I used to travel a lot when I was working North America. Commuting a little bit. So I did read a little bit then, but I very quickly swapped over to podcasts things that I download.
I watch Silent Witness from the 90’s, early 2000s repeatedly. I like Meet Marry Murder, which is one of the cable channels, so I’m quite simple. So I don’t really have a book recommendation. I think when I have time to read, I will look forward to reading what somebody else recommends.
Kelly Molson: Well, I will take Silent Witness as a recommendation because I love Silent Witness, Paul. Oh, so good. Never miss an episode, ever. So, OK, they go I mean, I can’t give it away as a prize, but go and check out Silent Witness if you haven’t. Bernard, what’s yours?
Bernard Donoghue: Well, I’ve been on this before and I remember my recommendation and it sounds really facile, but it was absolutely true, was Ladybird Books when I was a kid, and then that’s how I got into history and heritage and storytelling and absolutely loved them. And I’ve still got loads of them, which is a bit sad, actually. I’m currently confined to home with a broken ankle.
So I’ve been going through my big Bernard book of books, of all the ones that I haven’t got around to reading, and the one that I’ve enjoyed most and has really surprised me is Lucy Worsley’s biography of Agatha Christie. Absolutely fascinating. I thought I knew her. I thought I knew all about her. I know all of her characters, I’ve watched every conceivable film and TV program, but what a fascinating woman. So that’s the one that I’ve loved this summer.
Kelly Molson: Great recommendation. Yeah. I wondered what were going to get from you, actually, because you’ve had a lot of time on your hands to go through that book pile.
Bernard Donoghue: It was either going to be Agatha Christie or the Argos catalogue. Honestly, it could have gone.
Kelly Molson: It’s not Christmas yet. You only do the Argos catalogue at Christmas. Ken, over to you for our last recommendation.
Ken Robinson: Well, the best book quite hard to get hold of now, but I can supply copies is Action For Attractions, the National Policy Document, written in 2000. But if you want something other than that, then I have just finished reading a book which everyone else read years ago called Sapiens, which is about this thick, that’s to say two and a half inches thick.
For those of you listening. It’s by somebody, I’ve just had to look him up because I couldn’t have remembered it, by Yuval Noah Harari. And it’s entitled A Brief History of Humankind. And what’s so interesting about it is it goes through segments explaining the great moves that have happened to us humans since we appeared on this Earth.
And I found the whole thing fascinating to read in one go what took me a long time, particularly the last bit, which talks about how commerce has changed the world and what we’re all doing, and that’s, after all, what we’re doing at VAC. We are engaged in the kind of commerce that is to entertain, amuse and give enjoyment to our visitors, and at the same time keep the heritage of the country going and keep an awful lot of people employed, so I recommend Sapiens.
Kelly Molson: Ken, that’s a great book. It took me a really long time to read as well, but it is an absolutely fascinating book. I would totally back up your recommendation there. Have you read the next one as well, Homodeus?
Ken Robinson: No one a year is enough for me.
Kelly Molson: Well, I’ve got a toddler, so reading doesn’t come easy for me right now. But Homodus is next on my list to read because that’s the next one on from Sapiens and it’s supposed to be a really good read as well. Right, listeners as ever, if you want to win a copy of Ken and Bernard’s book, retweet this episode announcement with the words, I want the VAC’s books and you will be put into a prize drawer to win them.
And also, do go and watch Silent Witness, Paul’s recommendation, because it is blooming brilliant. I love it. Thank you all so much for coming on to join me today. I’ve really appreciated it. It’s been a fascinating kind of deep dive into the Visitor Attractions Conference. I genuinely love this conference. It is one absolutely not to be missed.
I mean, there might be a speaker called Kelly at this one. This is so I’ll be there. Come and see me too. But no, thank you. It’s been wonderful. As I said, we will put all of the info in the show notes. We’ll put all of the connections to Paul, Ken and Bernard too. So if you’ve got any follow up questions that you want to ask them, I’m sure they’d be really happy to help. But it’s vapevents.com. Go and grab your ticket now. Thank you, guys.
Ken Robinson: And I have to tell you, Kelly, we are going to spend our time at our next committee meeting thinking of impossible questions for you for when you’re speaking at VAC.
Kelly Molson: Oh, God. Do it. I love impossible questions. Put me on the spot, Ken. I’ll enjoy it.
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