Emerging innovation and why pre-booking is a benefit to attractions regardless of Covid. With Carly Straughan

Super excited about today’s episode of Skip the Queue! I’m speaking with the fabulous .

Carly began her career working in tourist attractions on a 3 month contract until she found a “real job” and almost 15 years later she is still here. She now works with museums, arts and heritage, and tourist attractions worldwide and is a passionate supporter of the industry.

We discuss emerging innovation and why pre-booking is a benefit to attractions regardless of Covid.

“If you can get people to pre-book, you can manage your resources internally better, because you’ll know how many people you’re going to service that day.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • Innovation in attractions
  • Pre-booking and why it’s a benefit regardless of Covid
  • Managing internal resource
  • Why guests shouldn’t remember buying a ticket
  • Travelling back in time!

To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.

The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Carly Straughan

Kelly Molson: Carly, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. It’s lovely to have you here.

Carly Straughan: You’re very welcome. It’s great to be here.

Kelly Molson: We’ve Zoom met, haven’t we?

Carly Straughan: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Because we had a Zoom chat during lockdown, which is lovely. That’s how you’re on the podcast today because I’ve dragged you on.

Carly Straughan: Happy to be dragged. Happy to be dragged.

Kelly Molson: I’m glad. I always start off with a few icebreaker questions. But even though we know each other, I don’t know the answers to these questions.

Carly Straughan: Oh gosh. I’ve got to think.

Kelly Molson: You’ll be fine. Okay. If you could travel back in time, what period would you go to?

Carly Straughan: It would be Art Deco. I would be living in Butlins with very wide trousers on playing golf really badly.

Kelly Molson: Oh, I love that.

Carly Straughan: Yeah, I love that period of people were just sort of learning to enjoy their leisure time or the upper classes is just starting to really enjoy their leisure time and suddenly the working holiday act comes in and normal people start to get holiday. And we have that real sort of period of lots of people going to the seaside and Blackpool starts growing and all these kinds of spa towns pop up and I love that, that period that people just sort of really start enjoying themselves.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Carly Straughan: …Or seemingly start to enjoy themselves. And the art from that period of all the transport is such a big thing all of a sudden. Everyone’s train traveling and yeah, just glorious.

Kelly Molson: Something about the architecture from then as well, isn’t it?

Carly Straughan: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: It’s really, really striking.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. If you’ve ever been to Elton Palace, Elton Palace in South East London, well, sort of on the outskirts of South East London-

Kelly Molson: I haven’t.

Carly Straughan: It’s really, truly stunning. That period would be mine. Absolutely.

Kelly Molson: And you mentioned playing golf badly. What is your favorite hobby? Is it golf?

Carly Straughan: Oh, god, no. No. I don’t play golf. The only thing I like about golf is that there’s a place… I think there’s one or two in England. It’s called Top Golf.

Kelly Molson: Oh yeah.

Carly Straughan: Which is kind of like golf but a bit more like bowling, so you don’t… But no, I’m terrible at that too. But I’m sort of… It’s nice to be bad at things sometimes, isn’t it?

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Carly Straughan: I’m bad at all my hobbies.

Kelly Molson: I’m equally bad at golf to be fair. Anything that’s hand-eye coordination like pool or golf or darts, I’m really bad at.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. In my spare time generally, I run quite a lot, again really badly. I’m not very good at it. I’m very slow. But I can generally run for a long time and I like it. It’s a nicer sort of in your own space activity.

Kelly Molson: It’s quite mindful, isn’t it?

Carly Straughan: Yeah, definitely. I started running in 2014. And then I thought, “Well, I’ve started running now, so I’ll run a marathon.” And so I went from never having run really, to running a marathon in a year which now I realize is a stupid thing to do.

If you’re looking for something to be mindful with… I’m not very fast at all. My first marathon, I did six and a half hours. Nothing’s going to make up in your head more than six and a half hours of running really slowly.

Kelly Molson: Had a lot to think about that day?

Carly Straughan: Yeah. A real lot.

Kelly Molson: That’s an amazing achievement to do that or of anyone that can do a marathon. So awesome. All right. Last icebreaker question. I’ve shamefully stolen this from the Greg James Breakfast Show. He has a part on there where he asks people to phone in with their unpopular opinions and I love it.

Carly Straughan: Of course.

Kelly Molson: I want you to tell me something that you think is true but hardly anyone agrees with you.

Carly Straughan: Oh, God.

Kelly Molson: Your unpopular opinion.

Carly Straughan: I’m the queen of unpopular opinions.

Kelly Molson: I like it. Great. Bring it on.

Carly Straughan: My husband has a joke, we have a running joke about the fact that I always want a tattoo and my idea for a tattoo is just the phrase, “I didn’t really think it through.” Just to have, whatever so you can see it. Because things come out of my mouth and I don’t generally mean to say them. I tried to think of something that I… I once did tell some people that I thought that Devon had no shops in it. I still stand by that fact. But whenever I sell things on eBay, especially when I used to live in London, so I have a lot of… I have a clothes addiction, it’s pretty bad.

So whenever I sold clothes, it would always be people in Devon and Cornwall that bought them and my opinion about that was just because they just don’t have shops.

Kelly Molson: How strange? That’s a really weird coincidence.

Carly Straughan: I got shouted down about it but I was like, “No. I stand by it.”

Kelly Molson: All right. I think that counts. That definitely counts as an unpopular opinion.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. You’ll be getting letters in now from people that live in Devon and Cornwall saying, “We do have shops and they’re very good.”

Kelly Molson: I am a little bit worried actually, when these podcasts air about what feedback I’m going to get. Okay. Right. 15 years in the attraction sector. That’s how long you’ve been working in it.

Carly Straughan: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Tell me what you’ve been doing and where and how you’ve got to what you’re doing now.

Carly Straughan: When people say, “Oh, how did you get started in your career?” And I say, well, I had a ski season booked. I met my husband at the end of university and I had a ski season booked. We went and did a snow season. And I needed a job between leaving University and starting this ski season. I had two jobs they offered me and one of them was a recruitment agency and I think it was £20,000 pounds a year. And the other one was Madame Tussauds in London and that was not £20,000 pounds a year. Let’s be very clear.

And it was just working in the retails shop and on photography and I thought well, I’m only going to be there for three months. I don’t really want to go and take a job that I’m going to have to train for, I was already working in retail part-time. I will just take a short job that’ll last three months. I’ll go and do something else afterward. I’ll get a real job. Do you know what? If someone had told me at some point during all the careers just you do at school and all that kind of thing, I really wish someone at some point had said to me, “You can work in tourist attractions,” because honestly, it changed my life.

Those three months were some of my best working ones. I sold Maltesers and guidebooks and whatever. This was not a career plan by any means. But I met some great people, people, I’m still friends with. My three months were up and I went off and did my ski season. And when I came back from ski season, I literally landed in London, unpacked my stuff into a shared house, and went to work the next day back at Madame Tussauds.

Kelly Molson: Oh, wow.

Carly Straughan: I just loved it. I was so excited to go back. I was really happy to be there. And then they started a graduate program and I was the second intake of that graduate program. The one before us were still before it was Merlin Entertainments when it used to be the Tussauds Group. But this is the first-ever Merlin Entertainments graduate program. There were seven of us. I’m still friends with everybody off that program. We did each other’s jobs. It was literally just a job swap for two years.

Kelly Molson: Gosh.

Carly Straughan: We went and did lots of different things. I worked in HR, I managed food and beverage. I did all sorts of jobs, events, entertainment, costuming, all kinds of stuff, and absolutely loved it. I stayed with them for seven years. I did two years on the graduate program and then five years sort of working in various attractions. I run weddings at White Castle, I managed the aquarium down in Brighton and the Sea Life Center and I then went up and ran the LEGOLAND Discovery Center up in Manchester and help the most in the Sea Life up there.

I got really involved in till projects. We had a till projects where everybody was changing their software and that you don’t see these things for what they are at the time, I guess, but looking back, it was such as a coincidence. I was a person and this pretty IT literate and they were looking for somebody in the attraction to go and train over in America. I had never really been anywhere. And they said, “Do you want to go to the back of beyond in Pennsylvania and learn this ticketing system?” And I went, “Yeah, I’ll go. Me.”

Kelly Molson: Take me.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. I went and I learned this till system and then I helped with the rollout of that till system as kind of an operations IT person, sort of translating between the two, this is what the business is doing and this is what IT needs and making that work. And then from there, I then started working for Gateway Ticketing. So Gateway was the software that I went and learned out in the States, they opened up the London office and I snapped their handoff and went to work for them. I was with Gateway then for six years. Worked all over the place.

I just had the best time working with attractions and got to see some really cool stuff. I’ve been out to Shanghai, I’ve been out to Dubai, I’ve been here there and everywhere and with our attraction partners. And then last year, the… I’m like, “What year is it?” 2020 is killing me.

Kelly Molson: Who knows?

Carly Straughan: It could be anything. In 2019, me and my husband decided we kind of weren’t that fussed about where we were living and I was commuting into London most days and we had a kind of a bit of a lifestyle kind of change discussion about we wanted to kind of do something different. I was working from home a lot when I wasn’t doing the… My commute was quite long. I was working out of our spare room and it just… We sort of thought, “Well, what are we doing? What do we want to do in the next X years of our lives?” So we upped sticks. We moved up north or sort of. As Midlandsy as the North can be, just South of Sheffield.

We bought a house that has some land on it and I left Gateway Ticketing on really good terms. They are a fantastic bunch of people, it’s just we’d grown so much in those six years that I was with them that the job I’d started doing wasn’t really the job I finished doing.

Kelly Molson: Right.

Carly Straughan: And I was ready to sort of go and do something else. I became self-employed last year and I’ve been helping people now find ticketing solutions. Yeah, it’s been… When I think about the person that went for three months at Madame Tussauds to sell guidebooks, I never imagined it would end with people calling me and asking me my opinion about tourism. Because at the time, I had no opinions about tourism. I had no idea it even existed as a career and I wish someone had told me earlier, really do.

Kelly Molson: What an amazing adventure you’ve been on though. I love how you described where you kind of started from one place and you moved all the way around. You’ve done everything in so many different attractions. You said you ran weddings and then you ran the aquarium and it’s like, wow, how varied your career possibly have been?

Carly Straughan: It’s funny because I went to university and people ask me what I did at university, I did performing arts and English. I have literally nothing to do with management or business or tourism or anything. I just loved it. I’ve always liked the kind of back of house elements of a theater. And I think that’s where the two intersect.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Carly Straughan: I’d always liked that element of sort of show business and I think… People always said to me, “Did you go and do performing arts at university because she wanted to be an actor?” Absolutely not. I have no intention of acting at all, ever. But I always had an interest in what was happening backstage that makes the show happen. I think that that’s where I see it really is that I do the stuff that nobody notices.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Carly Straughan: The stuff that you do notice is seamless. When I talk to people about ticketing, obviously all the time, and they say to me, “Well, who cares about ticketing?” No, that’s right. That’s the right thing. You shouldn’t care about when you buy a ticket, it should be absolutely seamless.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, I completely agree.

Carly Straughan: You should not remember it. I tell people all the time, lots of people will say to you, “Oh, going to Disney is expensive. Going to Universal is expensive.” When you feen, very few people can tell you actually how much it costs.

Because by the time they’ve had that experience, they don’t care. The cost is gone. And you shouldn’t remember, “Oh, yeah. I spent $100 on a ticket.” You should just remember that you bought a ticket at some point but it gave you this amazing experience.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. And once you got through the gates, everything was magic and you didn’t even care.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. Absolutely. And that your memory of that is always going to be stronger than your memory of the transactional stuff. The transactional stuff has to happen but it doesn’t need to be a part of your experience really. It should be forgettable almost instantly.

Kelly Molson: I love that. I actually really… When you said about your performing arts background, I was thinking experience the whole time because it is a show, isn’t it?

Carly Straughan: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: It’s ultimately that. From the minute that somebody turns up at an attraction, you are creating that show experience for them from start to finish. I think that having that kind of background must have played a small part in pushing you in that kind of direction.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. I just want to say that’s always been my interest. It’s just when you talk to someone about, “Oh, I want to do English and performing arts and…” People say, “Oh, great. You’re going to be a teacher or you’re going to go and work in a theater,” or whatever. No one ever thinks, “Oh, yeah. Well, how many actors or show producers do I know who work out at Disneyland Paris?” Yeah, but no one ever tells you that that’s something that you could go and do.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. What’s the best thing about the role that you now have because now you are a consultant and you work with a variety of different attractions up and down the country. What’s the best thing about what you’re doing?

Carly Straughan: It’s always been the people, I think, quite honestly. I love people. You couldn’t do this job if you didn’t. Yeah, I think for me, it’s the people that you meet because they’re always fascinating. People are always interesting and the variety of what I get to do. I have conversations with nonprofit organizations and I have conversations with totally profit-based organizations who really want to drive every penny. And they think that they’re really different. And actually, they’re not. Actually at the core of what they want is that they want to give a really good experience regardless of kind of profit, nonprofit, all that. All the other things.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Carly Straughan: And I find that really interesting. I find the reaction to the things you talk about is quite interesting in terms of if you go to a big nonprofit organization. So let’s say we go to the Victoria and Albert Museum, we go to the VNA, and we talk to them about ticketing. There’s no point saying to them, “Oh, and we also do ticketing for Disney,” or, “I also worked on this for Universal.” Because they don’t see themselves in the same space. But they’re absolutely in the same space.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. It’s funny, isn’t it?

Carly Straughan: They’re competitors and no one sees it that way.

Kelly Molson: I had the same conversation with someone a few weeks ago about this, how a lot of museums don’t see themselves as attractions. I can’t work that out in my head why would feel so differently about them or feel that they’re not the same. They don’t have the same challenges.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. And I’ve always been of the opinion that you said about oh, it seems like quite a strange career path to think weddings at White Castle versus managing an aquarium. And they are very different. But actually, all you’re doing is providing an experience to someone. What’s beyond the door is sort of irrelevant. You need to still have people come in and pay you and do the transactional stuff, whether they come in and they get, I don’t know, dinosaur exhibit or they get an aquarium or they get roller coasters is kind of irrelevant because they’re all competing against each other for a time.

The easier you can make that process or the easier you can make that judgment for someone, that choice, you’re going to be more successful because you’re competing against a PlayStation at home or you’re competing against going and sitting on the beach for free or going to the local park. But you’re also competing against people that you’ve no idea that are in your area. It’s endlessly interesting to me. I spend my leisure time doing what I do in my work a little work time. I live at Butlins Holiday. I go and I take pictures of signage and pictures of tills. It is sad but it entertains me endlessly.

Kelly Molson: I know. I love that about you and I think this is why we ended up connecting because I saw an article that you wrote for MuseumNext, which I loved and then I started stalking you on Twitter.

Carly Straughan: Oh god. If you stalk me on Twitter, it’s where you get all my real actual… That’s where my unpopular opinions live. I can tell you.

Kelly Molson: It’s the best bit though.

Carly Straughan: I love Twitter.

Kelly Molson: I kind of started following you on there and I loved what you talked about. I love the kind of personality you show on there, but I really loved what you… I loved how much you love the sector. You are the first person that I look to see what’s happening next, what opinions you’ve got about innovation and stuff. I just think it’s brilliant. There’s so much passion there for you. And I guess there’s some things I want to talk about about the future. But I kind of just want to look back quickly because I want to ask what lockdown was like for you both kind of personally and professionally because you sit in a position of…

You absolutely love attractions. That shines through in everything that you do and talk about, but you work with them as well. It must have been a really difficult time to kind of watch some of your favorite places close and not really know what was going to happen. And also not know what was going to happen for you with probably some contracts that you had in place as well.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. Like I say, the end of 2019 was a big change for me personally anyway. I became self-employed, we moved away from where we’d been living previously. We’ve kind of decided that this is a new world for us. And so I then suddenly had all these plans, not just work plans. One of my things was that I planned to spend a lot of this year traveling, which I keep saying to people, I’m like the person that buys sandals before a bank holiday and I’ve got to apologize to everyone because I had done a lot of plans to travel this year and to sort of spend a lot of time networking and really building my business.

And obviously, then, very quickly it became obvious that we weren’t going anywhere. So sorry, everyone. That was me. But yeah. Because I do a lot of work with China and I do a lot of research around construction and obviously, there’s a lot of construction going on in theme parks in China at the moment. I kind of felt like I had a bit of a heads up as to what was coming because I’m so involved in that market. And I could see things sort of creeping towards us and getting canceled. I have some contacts that I deal without in the very far end of Russia. And they very quickly were like, “This is going to be bad.” We’re closing casino construction.”

Casino construction doesn’t stop for anything, because there’s so much money in it. Sort of thinking, “Oh, god, this is going to be really difficult.” But not sort of realizing how sort of emotionally difficult it was going to be for people. In terms of we are all very passionate and sometimes I think that can be a downside as well, is that all industries are affected. Life is very hard at the moment but because we’re so attached to our jobs and the institutions that were involved in and the attractions that we deal with that actually it becomes much more personal.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Carly Straughan: I’m sure everybody feels that… Maybe not everybody feels that way about their industry, but the people that I know generally do. My husband works in Pubs for example. You can imagine. It’s very similar. People are very, very scared and very… Their personalities are wound up in what jobs they’re doing and all that kind of stuff. It can be really… And I’ve seen it with lots of people who have just… Being really emotionally difficult just even things like being furloughed, they’re still sitting at home and being paid but you’re not doing the things that you sort of feel you’re compelled to do. And feeling quite isolated, which… I said I’ve been volunteering at a local charity here. And I said to the guy, they were like, “What made you volunteer?” And I said it’s really difficult to explain to people if you’ve never worked in this but I’ve worked in jobs where I saw thousands of people every day.

I used to have a desk when I worked in Sea Life and I could open the door and look at the queue and pretty much predict how many thousands of people we would get through the door that day and be relatively close to it. You’d see maybe 3,000 people filing past my desk, just the other side of the door. And I’d say to go from being at big conferences and networking events and the stuff that I do in the industry all the time to seeing nobody for a few months was really terrifying. Because I’ve never lived like that.

And for me, I think I have a very, thought about running, a very fight or flight response to that kind of stress. But literally flight. If I’m in a position where I think okay, I’ve had a project canceled or something, what’s the thing that I’m going to do to replace that? I’d go to a big networking event. I’d get on a plane and I’d go to Orlando and I’d go and see some people out there and we’d figure something out. You can’t do that. All of a sudden, all the normal responses to this kind of personal difficult stuff become totally unavailable to you. My diary is notoriously full of networking events, conferences, whatever because that’s where I’m really comfortable. I love the people and the genius of it and to suddenly have that taken away.

Regardless of the financial implication, I was being very lucky in that… Well, unlucky in some respects because I’m so newly employed, I’m not eligible for any financial backing, which is difficult.

Kelly Molson: Right, yeah.

Carly Straughan: But also because I made this decision to go freelance last year, but actually I had a good pot of savings, it’s going to get me through it. Actually, pretty lucky in that respect. But regardless of kind of the financial situation with all the stuff that I normally do, to make that better, was suddenly unavailable. And August is always a hard month for contractors in this industry because no one wants to talk to you. Everyone’s too busy doing stuff.

Kelly Molson: Yep.

Carly Straughan: And actually, it’s rolled around to August and I can see things improving but you just don’t know at the moment. You’re sort of thinking, is this a quiet August because August is always quiet or is this kind of a sign of things to come? But I do feel more hopeful than I did in kind of March, April time, because March, April time, we were really looking at lots of places saying, “We just don’t think we’re going to be able to open.”

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Carly Straughan: And there was a real sort of panic about it. I sit on a couple of groups that do catch up calls every few weeks and sort of watching people who work in the industry going one by one, “Okay. We thought we were going to reopen. We’re not reopening.” There are still people that I deal with that aren’t going to reopen now for 2021.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Carly Straughan: I think I actually… In March, April time, you sort of were checking people off as that was happening. I feel like it’s sort of starting to go back the other way a little bit now. Hopefully, things are going in the right direction.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. It does. It feels like… It is still a difficult time, a really, really challenging time. And even with some of the attractions that we work with that are opening, we still don’t really know what the demand is going to be like, especially for indoor attractions. It’s still a very difficult time. It’s hard to plan. But it does feel more hopeful. I completely agree with you on that.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. And I think that’s a… You’re right. The stuff that feels hopeful is a feeling. We’re still not sure. And even looking at places that are outdoor and thinking about things like the National Trust, which should be super resilient to this kind of… There’s Mainely Outdoor, there are very big organization. Actually, I think in some cases, that’s not working in their favor is that they’re resilient to some change, but the stuff that you don’t see coming, the stuff that certainly blindsides you like lockdown and all the stuff that’s going on this year, is that if you don’t have an organization that can really turn very quickly and pull in lots of expertise very quickly and make changes, makes decisions really quickly, is that you just won’t survive it.

And that I think is more scary actually for the really big places than it is for the smaller ones. The smaller organizations will be able to make those changes, even if it’s very difficult financially for them. They’ll be a little bit more resilient because they’ll be able to change how they operate quite quickly. We’ve seen things like the National Trust and the really big sites, just don’t have the ability to turn stuff around. And that’s… We will see a very different landscape, I think when we come out of it. And coming out of it is another thing. We talk about returning to normal. I don’t think anybody really believes now that we’re going to return to normal suddenly.

Kelly Molson: No.

Carly Straughan: There’s never going to be the same normal again.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, I have to agree with you on that. And actually, we’ve seen that from the weekly tracker that the BDA has been sending out, that at the start of the lockdown, there was an assumption that by Christmas things would be back to normal. And now, that’s shifting further and further and further and further into 2021.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. Anyone who studies history will tell you, “Oh, it’ll all be over by Christmas,” is the worst. Let’s not start on that because 10 years later, we’ll still be doing it.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Carly Straughan: The other sort of angle on that as well is that we’re talking about people who are already in the industry, who remember what it’s like to have tourism growth every year and there’s always a market for tourism and there’s always a market for whatever it is. We’ve had lots of new tourist attractions popping up all over the world. People are moving their middle classes, much more leisure time, much more disposable income. But I have a 16-year-old niece. And I talked to her and she’s really gotten her back reference for that.

She’ll enter this job market with this… At the beginning and much in the same way when I entered the job market, we were hitting the recession. This is 100 times worse than that. And I think that will be interesting to see play out is that how does that affect really longterm, not just the people that remember when stuff was really good but we’re going to be bringing people into the industry who really don’t have any prior knowledge of what that was like. It will be interesting to see how that plays out, I think over the next 10 years of those people really mature into the job market.

Kelly Molson: What I’d like to do is just take a bit of time to look at what we think the future of attractions can actually be at the moment. Are there any positives that can come from what we’ve seen happen? And then do you think… You talked a little bit earlier about how you network and that essentially you would jump on a plane, you’d go somewhere, you’d go to a big event, you’d go to a big conference.

Obviously, none of those things can happen but there are conferences happening virtually now. So we are seeing, a shift in that sense. What kind of other things do you think that we’ll see in terms of innovation and change from attractions?

Carly Straughan: Let’s start with conferences. There’s a lot more access now, the costs are lower, I don’t have to fly, stuff is becoming more accessible and I’ll talk about that again when we get to sort of what our attraction is doing. But actually, I don’t think there’s anything that replaces face to face.

Kelly Molson: No.

Carly Straughan: And especially in an industry that is so people-focused, there’s so much that you just cannot do. It needs to be more of a conversation. And I think that is when you’re talking about online conferences and it’s much more of an output than a conversation. I love a good conference. Don’t get me wrong. I did say to someone the other day, “I’d even go to a really terrible conference right now.” I just want to say, they’re-

Kelly Molson: Just to talk to people.

Carly Straughan: Yeah, just somebody telling me something that I don’t even believe is fine. I’ll just sit there and eat sandwiches. Great. But I do think that we are an industry that really relies on face to face and really relies on people being in the same room. And I think that goes through attractions as well is that you can have an experience at home. One of the ones that I really loved actually was the Tate did Tate Lates Online, which was brilliant. And again, that kind of payoff between access versus actual experience was that I loved Tate Lates but I now live quite far away from London. If I want to go to Tate Lates, I have to stay overnight.

It’s fine. I don’t mind doing that. I’ll mix it in with some work and we’ll go do it. But actually, to be able to experience Tate Lates in my own living room was really lovely.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Carly Straughan: And actually, we haven’t been serving those communities really well. I think that that move to saving online communities really needs to be focused on more and I think that might be the article that you referenced earlier about MuseumNext was that I think we should be doing so much more to engage our online communities or our remote communities. Because your community isn’t just who’s on your doorstep, it’s not the people coming through your front door.

Actually serving your community doesn’t necessarily mean letting people in your building. You can be servicing a community online, you can be serving a community of enthusiasts who really love your mission, who really want your attraction to be successful but they don’t necessarily need to visit.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Carly Straughan: And I think there’s going to be hopefully a bit more progress in that area as well in terms of making things more accessible to people who just really can’t get to you for whatever reason and I think actually, in terms of leveling the playing field, about not feeling… The other stuff that’s going on in 2020 is really around access, the Black Lives Matter movement, and this kind of pushing for things like universal basic income, which I’m just passionate about, but that’s another thing.

It’s really about where do we serve people? At what point do we stop people from accessing something? Whether that’s because of their appearance or their disabilities or whether that’s their income level, whatever it might be, is actually when we talk about things like who’s our ideal customer and who is using our… Whether it’s a museum collection of who’s coming to a theme park or whatever it might be, is that we’re always discounting somebody because they can’t either physically get to it or they feel excluded somehow. Actually, we could be doing a lot more, I think, as an industry to be much more inclusive of that.

And I hope that seeing that we can do a lot more things online actually will push people to do more. There’s things that you can’t do online. You can’t ride roller coasters. There’s a lot of stuff that I love about this industry that you cannot replicate online, but that doesn’t mean you’re always looking to replicate. You can be just adding, you can just be giving additional content.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Carly Straughan: And I think that those people that really get on board with that and again how quickly can you turn on stuff like Tate Lates Online, how quickly can you… I’ve been talking or seeing in the industry about online escape rooms. What a brilliant idea for museums to be in your home? And I think if you can turn those types of things around, actually, you’ll be better off for it and that will make you more resilient. I had a conversation with somebody I work with recently about being a three-legged stool is that a lot of our museums we’ve seen recently and I use museums kind of loosely because I mean, kind of heritage, attractions of all kinds. Some of it that you would see as having a collection of something, whatever that collection might be, is that quite a lot of them rely quite heavily on one leg.

And that actually, we need to get that stool more legs basically. We’ve been sort of ignoring the people that don’t come to our physical space. And actually, I hope that we’ll see a little bit more of that. I’m a pretty positive human being. I think as hard as times are, there’s always been a leisure industry. There’s always been museums, there’s always been such service attractions for people to go to. We’ve had such good times the last sort of… Again, we’re sort of starting in the ’80s, really when people really started to think about international travel and all that kind of stuff, is that we’ve had real boom times. A lot of countries around the world are really pushing people into their middle classes now. And that actually, this is just going to take us back a little while. But we’ve been here before. We’ve done hard things before.

People just need to adapt and those that don’t adapt won’t survive. And that’s terrible. But I’m a big believer in if your mission is strong enough, if your proposition is good enough, there will always be a market for you. Even if it’s not having a building, you can still have somebody that is passionate about you. I think one of the things we discussed before I came on this podcast is that I’ve been working with a higher education college out in Massachusetts in the States about them developing a museum of mental health. And they’ve been discussing having a museum of mental health for a very long time.

And through similar article about virtual museums and what’s happening with lockdowns and all that kind of stuff, they got in touch with me and I’ve had a couple of conversations with them in which we’ve basically now developed a whole concept around what a virtual museum could look like because they know that they’re never going to really be able to have a physical space.

They’d like some physical collections. They’d like some loan boxes and they’d like to have some pop-up stuff going on, but they don’t really need a physical museum of mental health. We’re discussing with them, what does a virtual museum look like? Could I go and… It’s not just a website. I don’t want to go and just look at your collection and click on pictures. I want to get lost in it. I want the experience that I get some a real museum. And that would be… I could walk different galleries, I can pick up different pieces of art or design or whatever it might be and I can make links that make sense to me as an individual and not just seeing a collated web page. I think that’s where we’ve fallen down before in that sector is that we just want to serve content all the time.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. There’s no experience into it at all.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. Absolutely.

Kelly Molson: You can’t choose what you do or you can only choose what you look at.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. And I think that if you could get lost in a website in the same way as you get lost in a physical space and that might even be as much as going down the route of some sort of virtual reality experience. What does that look like for people? Could you ever create something virtual that people really truly get lost in? And it’s a great conversation to have with people who are really interested in mental health because actually a lot of it is quite cerebral anyway.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Carly Straughan: About what does this kind of experience look like? And how does that change your emotion? And how does that… Yeah. It’s fascinating. We’re having a lot of fun deciding what we’d do with it. And we’re talking to games designers and people who design physical spaces and saying, “Okay. Well, if we built it so I could walk the rooms, I could walk the galleries. Actually, would I pay to go into a different gallery like I would at a normal museum?” I think we’re going to find a lot out. I think this is a catalyst for change. And I really hope that it inspires the older, bigger museums or attractions to get on board with that.

Kelly Molson: It sounds really exciting as well, doesn’t it? An opportunity to do something that is so different. I guess in a way, you can collaborate with more people as well because it’s virtual and because it’s an online process.

Carly Straughan: Sure.

Kelly Molson: There are kind of less barriers to actually go on ahead and doing it in the first place in terms of cost.

Carly Straughan: And I think… That’s a huge thing that you could put thousands into building a gamified platform that people could walk around with avatars or whatever. And actually, you’re still not putting money into a building but you don’t have to upkeep and all that stuff that comes with it. And I think we talk about this and it seems really far fetched, but think about trying to explain something like Spotify to someone who’s just got a tape player.

I can’t imagine that something would serve me up. It would understand that I’m listening to this song and maybe I like this other song because at the moment, I literally have a tape player that plays in order. I think we’ve made those massive leaps in recent years. Attractions have always been that little bit behind. I think this is going to really accelerate that kind of change.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. I completely agree. I think it is a time for attractions that can… If attractions can be innovative now. And like you say, actually, the ones that do have their mission in place, they have a really kind of strong and solid offer. And are going to get through this. But it is the time to innovate now because they can’t assume that the way that they’ll continue to open will be the way people will continue to want to interact with them.

Carly Straughan: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: That’s my next question really, is what your thoughts are for the next, three, six, 12 months. We’ve talked quite a lot about attractions that are reopening now. Again, there’s still that level of uncertainty around how many people are going to come back depending on whether it’s an indoor and outdoor attraction. We’ve seen incredible demand for places like zoos and wildlife parks like you say, national parks again. Massive overwhelm, but we just don’t know what it’s going to be like in terms of indoor and you do have that capped capacity to think about all the time. What do you think that means for the next kind of six months from now? How does that look?

Carly Straughan: Yeah. I just want to talk actually about capped capacity before I think about that because I’ve been banging on about capped capacity for a long time. Pretty much in a previous life a long time ago, I went and spoke to Warner Brothers before they opened the Harry Potter Experience.

Kelly Molson: Right.

Carly Straughan: And I remember them saying to us at the time, “You will not be able to come to this attraction without pre-booking.” And it blowing people’s minds. Literally, people sitting there saying, “But no one will come.” Literally, no one will come if you have to pre-book. And they’ve been open a very long time. I can’t remember how many years it is but it’s long enough ago that I can’t remember, to put it that way. And just, they’re still fully booked.

Kelly Molson: The demand for it is incredible. They’re booked months in advance.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. And you sort of think well hang on a minute, we’ve been looking at that. And I also then, again, previous job before I joined Gateway and started looking at the till systems around was that I worked in an attraction where we would routinely have a six-hour queue. Well, I can tell you something. Nobody has a good experience after they have queued for six hours. Right? They just don’t. And so I was trying to work out at that time, how do we… Can we give people a space in a queue? Can we rent some sort of virtual queuing setup?

I wish it had come in a better package. But I do think that will really improve some of our experiences, is that if you have to pre-book. People will plan more. People will be more… They will say, “Oh, I’m coming on Sunday.” And they’ll come on Sunday, and if they don’t come, it’s probably because the experience isn’t exciting enough or it’s free. Which we’ve seen with a lot of attractions is that if you put free tickets out, people will snap them up and then they won’t come. That’s something to get around.

There’s ways around making that work. But yeah, I think… If you can get people to pre-book, you can manage your resources internally better. There’s lots of things you can do that will improve your business and make your business easier to run because you’ll know how many people you’re going to service that day.

Kelly Molson: Don’t you think as well, it’s about create… Warner Brothers have done it incredibly because it’s so super exciting. You’re buzzing to get that ticket and to get there, but it is about creating that excitement, isn’t it? Make your attraction. You need to book that ticket and you need to book it three months in advance because this is going to be the best experience you’ve ever had.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. And I would also say about that level of experience and demand is that it allows them to price very accurately. Because they know that they can keep a headline price, I think it’s 39 pounds at the moment off the top of my head, and you go, “Gosh, 39 pounds is a lot of money.” But actually, you don’t have to discount at that point. Because you’re booking so far out, you know that if demand starts to fall off, you can lower your price. If your demand starts to ramp up, you can increase your price, all this kind of stuff that you can really have.

If you just have people turning up at your door, I come from a Merlin background where you can get two for one ticket continuously from some outlet throughout the year. Well, then nobody’s paying full price, so what’s your yield on that ticket? And again, that whole thing about being more resilient to changes is that those are the types of things that will keep you going because you’ll be able to accurately predict what’s happening than just opening your doors and maybe seeing if people sign up and if it rains, they don’t. Those types of things. Or the total opposite. When I worked in an aquarium, is if it rains, you’d be busy. But you just don’t know.

There’s so many variables that can affect your business. Is that actually I think, as we… I would rather it came in a nicer package than the way 2020 years is to live with it, but maybe it will make us sort of better organized.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, I agree.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. In terms of sort of the three, six, 12 months, I think the next three months is really just to hold your breath and hope because I think we’ll get through the summer. If they have a bad summer and we go into winter with very lean finances for people, is that we’ll see a lot of things that don’t open next year because people… Most attractions can’t weather essentially three winters. And so if we have an okay, summer, I think we’ll be fine. And especially for those outdoor attractions. If we have a good weather summer, then those attractions will probably be okay.

But yeah, I do think next spring might just be really difficult because I think a lot of places will have to come to the conclusion that they just can’t operate. And I do have a sort of a… Again, I’m really positive about things. And then I’m like, “I’ve got a really horrible feeling about winter.” But I do think that if we have another lockdown over winter which I just think is sort of inevitable at this point, is that we will really be… Those attractions that open 365 will really be in serious trouble. Yeah, I do worry about it. I think next spring is going to be the time that we see actually it really sucked by it.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, it’s a really difficult thing to be able to predict. And I think at the moment, there’s still so much uncertainty especially around are we going to get a second, we just don’t know. It feels inevitable, but I’m hopeful that we don’t.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. It sort of seems weird, doesn’t it? Because I’m generally quite a positive person, but I’m also pretty practical about it and think, “Oh, I just don’t…” It’s not going anywhere when it’s not over and I think we have to be really careful to not sort of think, “Yes, that’s looking more positive. Oh, it’s going to be fine.” I think which at the moment, we’re just pushing that down the track and we’ll trip over at some point.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. It would be really interesting to talk to you again in another six months from now to see what is different. I’d actually really like that. I’m going to invite you back on.

Carly Straughan: Excellent. Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Because I’d like to-

Carly Straughan: I’ll get the tequila out.

Kelly Molson: No. Carly and I had a discussion off-air about alcohol smells that have a very nasty effect on you and tequila is not a smell for me. We won’t be discussing tequila again.

Carly Straughan: You’ll be fine though because if we’re not in the same room, we’ll be fine.

Kelly Molson: You can have a tequila there and I’ll have maybe a Sambuca.

Carly Straughan: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Oh, Carly.

Carly Straughan: Sounds delightful.

Kelly Molson: It does, doesn’t it? Zoom cocktails.

Carly Straughan: Yeah, definitely.

Kelly Molson: I’d like to end the podcast by asking you for a book recommendation. Maybe a book that has kind of helped shape your career in some way or just a book that you absolutely love that you’d recommend to our listeners to read.

Carly Straughan: I’m sitting in a room at the moment with more books than any human being should really own. I say, my degree is in performing arts and literature. I am a book hoarder. When you said, “Can you choose one?” I sort of went, “Well, not really.” I’d also say I’m not really a theoretical book… Or not in the industry. I tend to learn by doing. I like practical experience and I like more storytelling type of stuff. But I will say that the book that she has totally and utterly shaped my life and I quote more than anything else in the whole world is Freakonomics.

And if you haven’t read Freakonomics, go and read it. It’s just really about statistics. I like real numbers. I’m not really into sort of abstract maths and I like proof. Again, that thing about having unpopular opinions is that a lot of people will, especially in our industry, because I think so many people are into that experience is that they’ll give you anecdotes as fast. And we’re pretty bad actually at making decisions when we don’t have the facts in front of us. And Freakonomics is really about not making assumptions and looking at cause and effect and seeing where links are between data that you probably actually wouldn’t normally make links between. There’s a lot in it around just different things like why people with different names are less successful.

Which is totally off the wall and doesn’t really make much sense. But then, actually, as someone who works in HR and used to recruit thousands of people at a time, actually is it going… How many times have you looked at someone’s CV and made a really quick judgment based on their email address?

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Unconscious bias. Yeah.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. Totally. And actually, there’s a lot of discussion in it about just because it’s factually correct, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. And about really sort of taking the data and then making moral judgments with it. I just found it really, really fascinating. I’ve always really liked statistics and I’ve always really been into kind of deep maths but it has to be based in sort of real-life for me. It’s a great book. It’s a really good book.

Kelly Molson: It’s a really good book recommendation.

Carly Straughan: Yeah. And again, thinking about unpopular opinions, which is where we started. It has some really unpopular opinions in there. But it will… Yeah. It makes you think.

Kelly Molson: This is a book for me.

If you’d like to win a copy of Carly’s book, then if you head over to our Twitter account, which is Skip the Queue, or skip_the_queue and you retweet this episode announcement with the comment, “I want Carly’s book,” then you will be in with a chance of winning it.

Carly, I’ve absolutely loved talking to you today. I think that you’ve shared some really, really valuable insight and I love the story of how you’ve come to do what you do now. We’re going to put all of Carly’s details in the show notes. You’ll find a link to her LinkedIn profile, a link to her website. I might link her to Twitter if she allows me to link her on Twitter.

Carly Straughan: If you want to have some really unpopular opinions, please come and join me on Twitter. It’s mainly cat pictures or llamas or tourist attractions. Angry about things.

Kelly Molson: It’s a place for me.

Carly Straughan: Yeah, definitely.

Kelly Molson: Thanks so much for coming on today, Carly. It’s been a pleasure.

Carly Straughan: It has been really fun. Thanks.


Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.

Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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