In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, I speak with Ian McAllister, Strategic Head of Marketing and Communications at The Alnwick Garden.
Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland: “She has this really creative outlook on life, and she then pulls in the right people to kind of bring them to life. So she imagined this place where kids could just be away from technology, where they could play and actually play like we used to when we’re little.”
Ian McAllister is the Strategic Head of Marketing and Communications at The Alnwick Garden and Lilidorei. His route into attraction marketing wasn’t an obvious one – from not joining the RAF (based mainly on eyesight and petulance) he dabbled in recruitment ( based mainly on proximity to his flat) then television (based mainly on flatmate work envy). He manages a team of marketers who deliver all marketing, PR and communications to these two attractions based in Northumberland.
What will you learn from this podcast?
- The magical story behind Lilidorei
- Logistics of creating a play structure over 26 meters tall
- Free Fridays and the impact this will have on the local area and children
You can also read the full transcript below.
Your host, Kelly Molson
Our guest, Ian McAllister
Kelly Molson: Ian, I’m so excited to have you on the podcast today. Thank you for coming to join me.
Ian McAllister: No problem.
Kelly Molson: Let’s start with some icebreakers, shall we? Ian and I, we had a little pre podcast chat a few weeks ago and we established that we’re both from sunny old Essex. This could end up quite messy, really, couldn’t it? Because I tend to whenever I’m speaking to my Essex kinfolk, my accent goes, very Essex. This might get messy.
Ian McAllister: The good thing is, living up here, people don’t know my real accent, but once they hear that, I’m sure that it’ll come out.
Kelly Molson: They will after this, Ian. Right, okay, icebreakers. I want to know, topical, what’s the worst Essex nightclub that you’ve ever been in?
Ian McAllister: Tots, in Southend. But it was so bad that I used to go every Friday. It was bad for the sticky floors and for the people that were there and for the music they played and everything about it was terrible. But every Friday I would still go up there. I don’t know why.
Kelly Molson: So bad. It’s so good. I can remember driving there from my part of Essex and going out to Tots. Someone broke my big toe into Tots. Literally, like, stamped on my big toe and broke it.
Ian McAllister: Do you remember? There was a place called Ritzes, which I think was in Romford, and went there one night, and this was back in the day, where people thought if you were wearing trainers, you were going to cause trouble, so you weren’t allowed to wear trainers. And a mate of mine, Paul Mayo. I had two good friends in Essex, Paul Mayo and Ross Gherkin, so they were the three of us. But Paul Mayo went up to the club and they wouldn’t let me say trainers. So he left the queue and went around the corner, took his shoes off and took his black socks off, put his trainers back on and his black socks over his trainers, and they just let him straight in.
Kelly Molson: Wow.
Ian McAllister: Yeah. Which made Moonwalking brilliant, because he had a really good sock that he could moonwalk across the dance floor.
Kelly Molson: That is ridiculous. That’s ridiculous. So sorry, we just need to go back to your friend’s names as well. Mayo and Gherkin. Are you joking?
Ian McAllister: Mayo and Gherkin? No. So, I mean, I was always Mac. So I was always Ian Mac. Then there was Mayo and Gherkin. So they were the three of us that used to kick around together in Essex.
Kelly Molson: That is chaos already.
Ian McAllister: There you go. Opening question.
Kelly Molson: This is an ethics thing as well, right? Everybody has nicknames, don’t they? You know the Gavin and Stacy thing, where you got Smithy and what? Chinese Allen. That’s the thing. That is so Essex, it’s ridiculous.
Ian McAllister: My nickname for ages was I wasn’t a good looking chap growing up. And I had a brace, a demi wave, and I had these big reactor like glasses and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the National Lampoons European vacation, but the sun was called Rusty Griswold. So my friend Gary decided that I was just called Rusty, so he still calls me it to this day. So I’m still just Rusty.
Kelly Molson: Oh, God, that’s so weird, because my next question was going to be, if you ever been told you look like someone famous, who was it?
Ian McAllister: Yeah, but that’s not a positive thing.
Kelly Molson: No. I wasn’t expecting Rusty from National Lampoons to come up.
Ian McAllister: I mean, lots of people to try and compare themselves to you, like some Brad Pitt and George Clooney, whereas I’m going for 15 year old Rusty Griswold.
Kelly Molson: Humble. I think that’s quite humble, isn’t it? Right, final one. I feel like the ice is well and truly broken. What is your best scar story?
Ian McAllister: My best scar story is a very recent one. Last year on New Year’s Day, I took the kids for a lovely walk to our local woods with the dog. And me being me, I challenged them both to climb a tree. And it was a tree that was like one of these trees that’s too good not to climb, do you know what I mean?
It was really big branches and big trunk. So I’ve got twins, 14 year old twins, a boy and a girl. So my daughter was like a whippet and she went up the tree and then my son, with a bit of encouragement, went up the tree and he got his foot wedged in, like the V of the branch, about seven and a half, eight foot up, so he couldn’t get out.
So I climbed up behind him and I held onto a branch either side of him. I said, “Right, all you got to do is just wiggle your foot a little bit”. So he obviously didn’t hear a word I said. He yanked his foot out, so we both fell out the tree. So I grabbed onto him and he landed on me. And as he landed, I heard ankle snap.
So I’m at the top of a woods, probably a mile into the woods. So the kids that week before have been at Scouts and they learned about what three words. So we had to phone an ambulance and they did the what three words and this, that and the other.
Ian McAllister: So the ambulance had to then he couldn’t drive, so you had to push the stretcher for a mile, pretty much up an incline to get to me. Had to take a breather because it was so far up, put me on the stretcher, but then the ambulance had to drop, so it’s just me and the kids that live here with the dog.
So the ambulance then had to drop the dog and my kids at my house before they took me to hospital. So turned out I completely broken my ankle, so I had to go for an operation. And I had a metal plate pulse, ligament and wiring all around my ankle.
So I’ve got a treat of a scar on my ankle that they also cut through two nerves, so I also can’t feel from a nerve down from the little toe, from a knee down to the little toe at the minute.
Kelly Molson: I feel like we’re going to have to put a warning on this podcast episode, if anyone’s like a slightly queasy disposition. Wow. I was not expecting that.
Ian McAllister: Yeah, it’s a lovely story, isn’t it? I think I’ve learned the lesson. I made a blue plaque on photoshop about Ian fell here and I went back to the tree afterwards and pinned it on the tree.
Kelly Molson: It’s a special moment.
Ian McAllister: That tree will always be in my memory.
Kelly Molson: But well done, your children, on learning the skills to get you out of a very tricky situation.
Ian McAllister: Yeah, it was great, but they loved it because they got riding an ambulance, so their Snapchat stories were filled up that day with pictures of them and the dog in an ambulance on a muddy New Year’s Day.
Kelly Molson: Great story. Thank you for sharing. I feel like we’ve started the podcast on high.
Ian McAllister: We can’t really go any lower than this, can we?
Kelly Molson: Not really, no. Your unpopular opinion, Ian. I dread to think what this might be.
Ian McAllister: Had a few and I was trying to think which one would upset the least people. So I had a few. I was trying to think which one upset the least people. So this one’s cake. And I hate cake. And I’ve always hated cake, really dislike cake. And I think people say to me, “what is it you don’t like about cake?”.
And I think I’ve narrowed it down to the taste, the texture, the smell and the look. Because just everything about a cake, I don’t like. So when it comes to birthdays, the kids obviously get me a birthday cake because they can eat it themselves, but I just don’t like cake. I’ve got a bit of a funny not so much now, but I had a funny food thing. I’m sorry in advance. I didn’t eat yellow food for about six months.
It was anything yellow, even to the point where if I got a packet of M&Ms, I wouldn’t eat the yellow ones.
Kelly Molson: Can I just ask what age you were? Was this 30?
Ian McAllister: Probably worse than that? It’s about 35. Like my late 30s. Genuinely, developed an aversion to yellow food. So my friend Steven, who’s head of HR at work, he went through a phase of thinking to try and reeducate me. So every Friday he’d go through Steven’s adventures in food.
It was all the food that I probably should have eaten by the time I was, like, 40 years and hadn’t. So things like sushi or porridge. Every Friday he’d bring in something and it would be a chart, like a reward chart. And he’d put a little sticker on if I liked it or didn’t like it. Just because people don’t know I’m a 47 year old man with two children.
Kelly Molson: Oh, God. And have you eaten a banana since? That’s what I need to know.
Ian McAllister: Yeah, since I started re eating yellow food, I’m all over it. I like a banana, like a bit of pineapple. Cheese is great. We just have the argument because people would say to me, and this was my bugbear, and they get really irritated with this. It’s a what about chips? Chips aren’t yellow. They’re like a beige. So chips were allowed.
Kelly Molson: Okay. And pasta as well. They’re all in the beige category rather than yellow. Okay.
Ian McAllister: Yeah. So can you imagine presenting me with a yellow cake? Yellow cake? That’d be my idea of h***.
Kelly Molson: That’s your worst nightmare, isn’t it? How about Jaffa Cake. How do you sit about that? Is that a cake or a biscuit?
Ian McAllister: I have no offense with the Jaffa Cake. I can tolerate the Jaffa Cake but I wouldn’t choose one. But food of choice would always be a chocolate hobnob. No question.
Kelly Molson: Great biscuit. Yeah. In the fridge.
Ian McAllister: Great biscuit. Crunch. Good for the dunk. Always in the fridge, yeah. Chocolate. What do you think about this chocolate? Does it live in your cupboard or in your fridge?
Kelly Molson: Fridge. I like a crunch. I like it to go crunch and then I like that it then melts in your mouth. It’s like two different sensations in one. People will argue about this. This is not an unpopular popular opinion, by the way, but people will not be happy about this at all.
Ian McAllister: No, but I mean, the people that aren’t happy with it are wrong.
Kelly Molson: They are. Agreed. Oh, my goodness, what a start for this podcast. Okay, how did an Essex boy end up in Northumberland? Tell me a little bit about your background, because you’re not from attractions background at all, are you? You come from a completely different sector.
Ian McAllister: Yeah, when I got married, which since divorced, but when I got married, my best man suggested it was witness protection. That’s what kind of brought me 350 miles north. But the fact was I was working, I’m from Essex, as we’ve previously mentioned, and I then went to university in Surrey.
I went to Kingston and I was working just locally, really, just in pubs and clubs. And I went downstairs to my flat and it was a redeployment, so I thought, it’s time to get a proper job. And it was literally under my flat and I ended up working there, mainly because it was under my flat and it took about 10 seconds to commute to it. So I spent a bit of time in recruitment and at the time I was living with two flatmates weirdly, both called Marcus.
So Marcus One and Marcus Two both worked in TV. One worked, I think Channel Five and one was a BBC or ITV. And I kept telling how good their jobs were and how great their life was, and I thought, “Well, you know what, can’t beat them, got to join them”. So I did actually beat them.
So I wrote to MTV with a really cocky letter saying how much it be their big mistake if they didn’t recruit me and this and the other. So I went in for my interview and the guy said, “I’ve got you in because you’re either really good or really cocky”. And I don’t know which one it is. So eventually they gave me a job. So I worked in media in London and I think I was there for two years.
Ian McAllister: I just got sick of the rat race and it was just the commute to London. It was an hour each way and I was fed up of it, and I was fed up with the people and I was fed up of the busyness. And I met my then wife, who is from up here, but she had a flat in Edinburgh.
I just thought, “You know what, I’ve got no real commitments down here”. I don’t have any kids or pets or any of that sort of stuff. So I just chose to order and we moved to Edinburgh and I kind of flipped around in recruitment and odds and ends, moved to the north and set up a property company. So were renting properties to students.
Then I went to work for a marketing company and then I ended up working where I do now, The Alnwick Garden part time doing marketing and then just kind of worked my way up from there. I couldn’t remember what the question was. Was it your background?
Kelly Molson: Yeah, you answered it well. Yeah. Well done.
Ian McAllister: Thanks. Definitely didn’t come from tourism, but I kind of came from marketing kind of sales. And I think I’ve always been one of these people that might be clear by now that could just talk.
Kelly Molson: That’s coming across. Definitely getting that on this episode, Ian. But I like that you sound like someone who makes their own opportunities in life, which I like. You just go out and get what you want and what’s going to fit for you. Tell us a little bit about Alnwick Garden because we’re going to talk a little bit about something attached to Alnwick Garden. But Alnwick Gardens itself is quite spectacular. Think it dates back is it 1996? It dates back to is that when.
Ian McAllister: It was originally about 1890s. We can date it back to. So it was the original garden kitchen garden for the Alnwick Castle. So it was throughout the two World Wars, it was what fed all the local farmers and the local community and this, that and the other. So come the 90s is when the Duchess of Northumberland, who lives in the castle, was married to the Duke.
That’s when she took it on as a bit of a project. And she got in some designers from, I think Belgium called Vertz Design. So it’s a Vertz design garden and she took it over as a garden and she always wanted it to be she always said it was going to be a stage for people to do whatever they want in, so we can put on events.
We’ve had random things, like we’ve had mixed martial arts in the garden and then we’ve had Peppa Pig characters coming in. So it’s a real variety of things that we do in the garden. But, yeah, so it’s been open for 20 odd years now. We’re a charity, so we’re just about celebrating the 20th year of becoming a charity.
So, yeah, the Alnwick Garden itself is a garden, as you’d expect. It’s got world’s largest Taihaku cherry orchard outside of Japan, got Poison Garden, it’s got the world’s largest treehouse, which is a restaurant. It’s got all these kind of unusual things that you wouldn’t necessarily put in, like an RHS Garden or a Kew Garden type place. And it’s a great big open space that we market, people come and we do weird events in.
Kelly Molson: So it’s quite special in its own right, isn’t it? But then, about twelve years ago, Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland, she had another idea, didn’t she? And that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Do you all get a little bit worried when she says, “I’ve got this idea?”. Because this one’s been a pretty mental one, hasn’t it? Spectacularly mental one.
Ian McAllister: Yeah. It’s kind of that first glimmer of, “Oh, God, what’s it going to be now?” With the backup of the thing is that when she has an idea, she sees it through. And I say this, I know a lot of people chuck this phrase around loosely, and I don’t mean it this at all.
She’s a visionary, because she has these completely off the wall ideas, but has then got the determination and the team behind her to actually see them through. So the new project being the biggie, which has been years in the making and years in the planning, and I’m sure do you want to introduce it or do you want me to say what it is?
Kelly Molson: Well, what do you do it. The world’s biggest children’s play park.
Ian McAllister: Yeah. So it’s called Lilidorei, which every single thing in it is from her head. And she’s got this really creative outlook on life, and she’s then pulls in the right people to kind of bring them to life. So she imagined this place where kids could just be away from technology, where they could play and actually play like we used to when were little.
And we’d go out making dens and kind of making up our own stories. And it’s called Lilidorei. So the concept of the place is that it’s a Lilidorei village and there’s nine clans that live in this village and all of the clans worship Christmas. So you’ve got good clans and you’ve got bad clans.
And it’s weird talking about this in a normal way now, and I’ve seen construction staff talk about this, and it feels weird to be saying things like the elves and the fairies and the pixies. But it got to the point when were building where you’d see the big construction workers and the joiners fags in their mouth, talking about pixies houses and fairies and elves.
But the concept is that some of the clans are really good, like the fairies and the pixies, and then some are a bit more troublesome, like the goblins and the hobgoblins and the trolls. But at Christmas time, they all come together to worship Christmas. So whilst it’s Christmas themed, it’s not Christmas all year, apart from the gift shop, which is fully Christmas at every time.
Ian McAllister: They can buy a ball tomorrow if you want, but we’ve also got the world’s largest play structure. So the place structure was built by a company called MONSTROM, who are based in Denmark. And it’s one of these things that’s got to be seen to believed, which makes marketing it quite tricky because you can’t really feel it until you stood underneath it.
But local landmark, the Angel of the North is always a good point of reference. So our play structure is 6 meters taller than the Angel of the North. And there’s a slide from the top, so it’s a 26 meters high structure and there’s a slide that comes from 20 meters up.
But to get to this slide, you go around this really convoluted system of walkways and corridors and climbing up uncomfortable spaces and squeezing through things and climbing up nets, and that’s just part of it. The rest of it is all these clan houses. So it’s a really fascinating place.
Kelly Molson: It’s amazing, isn’t it, that all of this came out of her head? So I watched the ITV, did a publication on your launch, which was it was only a couple of weeks ago, wasn’t it, that it opened? The presenter of the snippet, he went up the slide and came down it and he was talking it through and he was saying, 26 meters.
And I was like, “Yeah, that’s quite high, isn’t it?”. But you can’t really grasp when someone says that to me, I couldn’t really kind of grasp what the height of 26 meters actually looked like. So when you said that comparison that you’ve just given about the Angel of the North, that’s really big.
Ian McAllister: It’s really big. But there’s no point. It’s all enclosed. So, like, you’ve got open netting and this and other but there’s nowhere that kids can actually fall off, if you like. So I think kids, it tests their bravery. It’s handy for us from an insurance point of view, health and safety, certainly, but kids like, test themselves.
So you’ll see them start the session and they’ll just be on the little swings at the bottom or on the little spinny mushrooms, and then by the end of the session, you see them at the top running around like it’s no one’s business, just testing bravery. I think that’s the big thing.
Kelly Molson: Yeah. And I love the idea that it opens your imagination. You can be any part of that story. You’ve got that underlying story of the clans and that they worship Christmas, but then you make your own part of that story to go with it, and based on where you interact and where you go and where you climb or what houses you go into and all of those kind of things. It is pure magic, isn’t it?
Ian McAllister: It is. And we’ve got a team of people that work. They’re called secret keepers. So they’re sitting in their outfits and costumes, but they’re really extravagantly dressed with feathers in their hats and all sorts. Their job is almost to facilitate the play. So it was almost a marketer’s dream when I started off because we couldn’t really talk about what it was because people didn’t understand until it was built, couldn’t see it.
So I came up with a concept, which is the most lazy marketing you’ll ever think of and the whole tagline which is carried through is, what’s your story? So really what we’re doing is we’re encouraging people to make their own narrative and to make their own story, which saves me the job for a start, but also we don’t want to dictate that.
Well, that clan looks like this because you can’t see the clans, you can see the houses and you can imagine how they are, but you can’t actually see anything. So when you get there, it’s all brought together by this immersive sound we’ve got. It’s like a million quids worth of sound system for each clan house has got its own immersive sound system that kind of gives you implications or ideas as to what that clan might be up to or what’s happening inside the house.
So you can look into their house window and you can see how it’s all set up. So it kind of starts to build this picture and then the secret keepers are there to encourage that with the kids and, “What do you think they look like? And could you hear that sort of noise?”.
And it gives this underlying narrative for every kid that comes, is obviously going to leave with a different picture of what a particular clan or a particular circumstance is like.
Kelly Molson: That’s amazing. So you don’t have the characters. They never see what the goblins look like, for instance. They have to make all of that upload in their own minds.
Ian McAllister: Yeah, I mean, we’ve got this sort of narrative in the background. We’ve got an idea of what Duchess has imagined the Clans to look like or the Clans to do, or the Clans to kind of be like. But we never tell the kids this. It’s all about provoking thought and provoking story.
There was books that I used to read when I was a kid, and they would choose your own adventure books, and it was kind of you make your own adventure. So every even if one kid came to Lilidorei, five times, they might have a completely different experience each time just because of their imagination and the sort of stuff that the secret keepers have fed them, if you like.
Kelly Molson: I love that. While we’re talking about secret keepers, you’ve got a Head of Play, haven’t you, Nathan? I don’t know any other organisations or attractions that have got a Head of Play. How did that kind of come about?
Ian McAllister: So to give me his full name, it’s Nathan Bonk.
Kelly Molson: Excellent name.
Ian McAllister: Nathan Bonk, he’s come over from America specifically to organise the play and the secret keepers and this. So that’s his kind of creation, if you like, in conjunction with the Duchess. So he was meeting with the duchess virtually daily to make sure he’s on the right lines, and she was happy with what he was doing, but to kind of put an extra element of weirdness into the story, which in case we haven’t had enough weirdness in the podcast already in the Garden going back two or three years.
I’m friends with a guy called Stewart who’s the reigning Mr. Gay World, and he’s only reigning because they disbanded the competition after he finished it. So he kept title. He’s kept that. So he got in touch to say that he wanted somewhere to host Mr. Gay England, which is like a pride initiative.
And it’s not just a catwalk, it’s education and it’s exams, and then the winner of it ends up representing the gay community to go to Parliament and lobby Parliament and speak in schools and this and the other. So, well, the best place, really, if you think of the most sort of unusual place that you could think of in a really rural town where there aren’t many people of any persuasion, would be Alnwick. So we put it in the middle of the garden.
The cat walks right down the middle of the garden, and we’ve rebranded that entire day, which we’re doing again this year, Gay Day. So what we do is we have Gay Day, and it’s everything. We’ve got market traders, LBTQ+ friendly market traders and face painters, and we do trails and all sorts of things.
So anyway, last year we had Mr. Gay Europe and Nathan’s friends with Stewart. So Nathan came over to help with the competition. Mr. Norway had COVID, so couldn’t turn up. So there were one person short. So Nathan ended up weirdly representing America in the Mr. Gay Europe competition.
Kelly Molson: Wow.
Ian McAllister: If you get to know Nathan, as you’d understand, he’s always got an outfit of two just stashed away just in case. So he came out with like, the short camouflage shorts and the face paint and waving the USA flag. Anyway, after Gay Day, he went home and he’d fallen in love with Alnwick. And it was just it wasn’t New York. He lived like a six minute walk to Central Park.
So it’s totally different. But he fell in love with the place. And he sent me an email, a bit of a video explaining why he loves Alnwick and if there’s any opportunities that came up, and this, that, and the other. And the only thing that popped in them ahead as soon as I saw his video was the head of play, and I just knew that he would be the person for this role.
Kelly Molson: But was it a role that you were looking for or did you create it?
Ian McAllister: It for the role we discussed? We always discussed that we needed someone. It was going to be it’s almost like a head of operations for Lillidorei, but that sounds far too boring. So we always knew there was going to be a role for somebody. I don’t think we quite realised to the extent of how influential this role would be in creating the entire story and the entire visit.
So Nathan, with his ideas, he’s opened theme parks before. He’s been in stunt performances in various theme parks. He opened, like, the Harry Potter experiences in Orlando. So he’s done all this stuff already. But I remember he Zoom called me one morning. He said, “You’re never going to believe it. I’ve got an interview with the Duchess at lunchtime”. Brilliant. So I gave him a few bit of background and what were working towards.
About 2 hours later, he zoomed me back. He said, you’re never going to believe it. I’ve got the job. They sort me out a house. I’m flying over next week, and I’ve got a tea at the castle with the Duchess. It’s like every American film you’ve seen where they tried to represent England in a completely fictional way. He was living it.
Kelly Molson: What a life. Wow.
Ian McAllister: And that was it. And he’s been here since. And he loves it. He’s absolutely settled. He’s incredible. He’s got this team of amazing people who do things like juggling with Diablos and teaching kids that go on balance boards and hula hoops. Their job is to interact with everybody that comes in and just create the atmosphere.
Kelly Molson: And that’s what makes the place so special, isn’t it? It’s that interaction from the people and the encouragement of the ideas that the children have to explore them that makes it a magical place.
Ian McAllister: It is. It’s incredible to sit as a construction site. All of a sudden. And now to see 600, 700 kids running around each session screaming and laughing and coming out with ruddy faces and wet trousers, it’s everything we wanted it to be come to life, all of the sudden.
Kelly Molson: It sounds magic. And I’ve seen those faces, I’ve seen the kids faces on the ITV clip, which we’ll put in the show notes, actually, so you can have a look at it if you haven’t had a chance to go up there yet. I want to talk a little bit about, because you’ve said a few times now, Alnwick want to talk a little bit about, because you’ve said a few times now, Alnwick, it’s relatively rural, a small community, there’s not a huge amount going on there other than this spectacular Alnwick Garden and Lilidorei that’s just launched. You offer Free Fridays.
And I saw the Duchess talk about this. It’s for local children, school children, to come for free on a Friday so they can experience what’s happening there. What impact do you think that Lilidorei is going to have on the local community and the children there?
Ian McAllister: I think so. Two elements to that, really, then, the creation of the attraction itself. We’ve always estimated roughly, or looking quite accurately, based on recent figures, that it’s going to bring an extra 200,000 people a year into the area. And that’s going to benefit, obviously, it’s going to benefit us, it’s going to benefit the Alnwick Garden Trust, it’s going to benefit the Alnwick Castle, which is another attraction up the road.
All the local restaurants, pubs, hotels, everyone’s going to benefit because what we’re hoping to do is turn Alnwick into a multi day destination, so people won’t just come for one of the things and go back to Newcastle, back to Edinburgh. They’ll do it as a day trip. So we’re hoping that it will really kind of drive the local economy.
So in terms of local economic benefit, I think that’s kind of nailed, really. The figures are already quite obvious. In terms of the Free Fridays, then you don’t have to go that far out of Alnwick, particularly if you went to South Northumberland and there’s quite a lot of people that are in all sorts of various situations.
There’s schools in different areas, there’s kids that just would not be able to afford to come otherwise because it’s comparable to other attractions. But it’s still not a cheap day out, it’s not three quid to go to the local soft play. So there’s a lot of kids that the Duchess particularly just didn’t think it was fair, wouldn’t be able to experience it, hence Free Fridays.
Ian McAllister: So the idea of Free Friday is that every school child in Northumberland, and then eventually, when we’ve kind of been running for a bit, we’ll widen it to Tyne and Wear into Newcastle. But at the minute, every child in Northumberland should be able to experience Lillidorei without having to pay. So we’ve opened up this application process where local schools can apply to come to one of the sessions and that’s for any Friday throughout the year.
So already the mini uptake has been phenomenal and there’s schools that you see that you think, you know, I know exactly what area that school is in and without making too many judgments, you know, that they just would not be able to afford to come, so we’re giving them the opportunity to come.
So that’s part one of Free Fridays, which is well underway at the minute, and I think we’re almost booked up for the rest of the next twelve months with Fridays.
Kelly Molson: That’s amazing.
Ian McAllister: But the next part is that the Duchess is to now do other initiatives to try and put money into a ring fenced account. So then eventually when that account builds up, we’ll also be able to start to subsidise travel. So if you’ve got a school that’s an hour’s journey away, hopefully this pot of money, they can apply to it to pay for their hiring of a school coach or a minibus or whatever it’s going to be to actually bring the kids up.
So it’s an entirely free day and there’s different things like she’s doing private tours, we’re doing packages where you can have a nice meal at the treehouse and then come into Lilidorei afterwards. So like I say, that’s all going to be ring fence specifically for transport from Free Fridays.
Kelly Molson: That’s incredible. What an opportunity. And like you say, for the kids that just would not have that opportunity to be able to go and experience it. It’s just such a wonderful thing to be able to do.
Ian McAllister: It is, it’s incredible. And I think a lot of the feedback we saw before we opened, because again, as I say, it was quite hard to explain the concept of it and what you actually got for your 15 quid entry fee. So a lot of people say you’ve outpriced us and we can’t afford it and this, that and the other.
And that’s why it was really good to then say, “Look, if you want to bring your kids, just tell your kids to speak to their teacher and get the teacher to speak to us and we can facilitate them for free”. So it’s making a difference already. It’s incredible.
Kelly Molson: Yeah. And I guess then it’s about selling what that 15 pounds gets you the benefits of that 15 pounds. Yes, it’s a relatively higher price point, but you start to break it down about the experience that they get there and the magic that can actually happen that they can’t get anywhere else, and then it starts to become slightly more appealing purchase. You can stay there for quite a long time, right? You’ve got that dwell time as well. So when you work it out, cost per hour, it actually seemed quite reasonable.
Ian McAllister: And I think having two kids myself, I think what am I going to compare this to? So you can’t compare it to going to local council run park because it’s nowhere near the same, it’s not just a climbing frame. And then I think, “Well, what else would I do for the kids for that time period on a Saturday if we’re bored?” Probably get the cinema. So the cinema is going to be 15, 20 quid to get in. And then, sweetness, you got 2 hours of sitting in silence watching a film and then you come out, go home and that’s done.
So to compare it to that, to Lilidorei, you’ve got a three hour session where you can come in, whole family can interact and it’s running free and it’s fresh air, I mean, it’s not fumbling, it’s always fresh air and by fresh I mean probably freezing most of the time. But you’ve got this it’s a completely different experience and I think where people were just looking at it as it’s a climbing frame, well, I could just go up the park.
So it’s trying to explain to people that it is different and yeah, it doesn’t work out a really cheap day if you’ve got two parents and three kids, for example. But what we have done, we’ve introduced, and we’re going to look at this after some holidays, we introduced the founder Lilidorei membership.
Ian McAllister: My idea with this is always it’s got to be for the child focused. So it’s the child that has the membership. So little Johnny could have a membership for him and an adult, or him and two adults, and that means they could bring in mum and dad or they could bring in Nanny Granddad or they could bring in whoever they want.
But it’s always for me been the child that dictates this whole thing. So we always say that well behaved adults can come in with a responsible child. So we’ve kind of flipped the narrative a little bit there. And in terms of the membership itself, I used to read the Beano when I was a kid and the only thing I ever wanted grown up was Dennis the Menace fan club membership.
And with that it cut a wallet, a membership card and a badge. And so for me, Lilidorei membership, you get a wallet, a card and a badge. So all these founder Lilidorians walk around proudly displaying their badge because there was a limited number of to be the very first people to be these members.
But it’s empowering the kids. The adults are allowed to come if the kid says they can come. I almost wanted to wake up on a Saturday morning and the child go, “Right, mom, you’ve been good, you can come with me. Dad, you got to wash the car and do the dishes”.
Kelly Molson: I love that. I love that giving them the choice of who they take and to take Granny as well. Yeah, it’s a really good point about the memberships, isn’t it? Because it is generally tied to the adult and the children that they have. But I love that you’ve empowered the kids to make that choice. Yeah. So you’ve got to be the kid. The parents have to be good all week.
Ian McAllister: Exactly. That’s to end the story points.
Kelly Molson: Yeah. Well, we’re going back to your food eating and your little sticker chart, aren’t we? That’s what you need. There you go. Sell that in the shop for the adults to buy their sticker reward chart, whether they get to come back or not on the next visit.
Ian McAllister: That’s a great idea, talking to the shop, actually, just briefly, because you may.
Kelly Molson: Segue listen, I’m on fire today, Ian. Segue into the shop.
Ian McAllister: My good friend Matthew Henderson, who anyone who listens to podcast will have heard him before. He has been incredible. He’s been absolutely amazing. It was him that put you and I in touch in the first place. We bought him in to get the shop ready. And to say it’s shop ready is the biggest understatement of the century, because I’ve never seen anything like it.
The people that work in retail, a retail manager, Tracy, to coin a phrase, and not sound corny, it’s like all the Christmases have come at once, because she’s always wanted this shop that she’s proud of, that she’s selling things that she believes in. It’s all been sourced specifically for her. And Matt has done just what a job. It’s incredible.
Kelly Molson: He is such a great guy, Matt. So Matthew came on our podcast. It was only a few episodes away, actually, ago, actually, and Matt used to work at Beamish and now he’s out on his own. He’s a consultant now and helps lots of attractions work out their special offering, the uniqueness when it comes to products. And I have seen a photograph of the shop and, oh, my God, it looks like an attraction in itself. It looks like something you’d pay to go visit in itself, like a Santa’s Grotte or say. It’s just incredible.
Ian McAllister: It’s phenomenal. And he was also fundamental in helping us with all the food and stuff that we’re doing across site, but mainly in there. You know about the ice creams?
Kelly Molson: I know about the ice cream. Tell us.
Ian McAllister: So there’s three flavours. I mean, you’ve got a vanilla, but then you’ve got the other obvious choices. You’ve got Troll Snot ice cream and you’ve got fairy dust ice cream. So fairy dust is like a raspberry ripple with popping candy. And Troll Snot is pure bright green, but it’s sour apple, which sounds vile, but it’s actually really nice.
But I’ve got pictures of him with a hair net at the ice cream facility, which I keep telling him should be his next Tinder profile. He’s got so involved in it, he’s been instrumental in the whole thing. I don’t think we’d be anywhere near where we are now without Matthew.
Kelly Molson: Oh, wow. Well, that is a massive compliment to Matthew in itself, isn’t it? No, he’s a great guy. And I think it’s something that sometimes gets a bit overlooked when it comes to shop. And you often go to places and you see the same things. Exit through the gift shop, you see the same things, and it genuinely just feels like, and I can only say this from the photos, but it just feels like you’re stepping into such a magical world as an extension of the magical world that you’ve just come out of.
Ian McAllister: It really is. It’s surreal because on Press Day, we had a launch day a couple of weeks ago, it was so hot. It was a beautiful day. I clearly have the sunglasses on all day, caught a nice tan. Apart from the work stuff, it was a really nice day. But then you do, you exit into the shop and it’s like you’ve already sudden fast forwarded six months and you’re in the middle of Christmas.
There’s Christmas trees and candy canes and balls, not to mention the ridiculous amount of old fashioned sweet jars with trolls fingers and different fudges. And it is surreal because then you’ve had this 20 minutes Christmas experience in the shop and then you’re back into 24 degree heat again. It’s bizarre.
Kelly Molson: You opened on was it the 25th of May? Is that your opening day?
Ian McAllister: Yeah. So a couple of days before half term, were supposed to have a lot more testing than we had, but because of construction issues, we ended up with two testing days. We were supposed to have at least a month or two months testing, but we had to literally do it all in two days.
So we opened a VIP date and then we opened for the public on the Thursday. We would never have predicted this, the Thursday Friday, and then the full half term, every single slot was sold out to the point where after a couple of days, we made a judgment call to up capacity and then we upped it again. And it’s been full, absolutely full.
Kelly Molson: And have you kept that capacity as well?
Ian McAllister: Because I think we didn’t want the risk of opening, saying, right, we’re going to get 800 kids in per session, and then all of a sudden there’s 800 people trying to go down a slide. So we didn’t want to ruin the visitors experience with queues and with too many people and crowds and this and the other.
So we opened with 300 capacity, which was, I mean, once 300 people are on the play structure, you kind of see it. It’s like you can’t hear them, you can’t see them, they’ve just vanished like ants. So we upped it to five and we’re looking at up in it again to, I think, 750. We’re going to maybe try and push it up to for some holidays.
Kelly Molson: Gosh, that’s incredible. So safe to say that it’s been a successful launch, then.
Ian McAllister: You know what, we couldn’t have asked for more. We’ve had the weather, we’ve had the publicity. Everything has been going so well. It’s been a really positive experience. It was touch and go for a bit where we’re all sort of walking around a few days before launch. S***, there’s a bump there. There’s a thing here.
And the construction team, I’ve never seen anyone react like it like the lighting team would pretty much work until 04:00 in the morning. So they’d work all day. But then they’d want to test their lights so they’d have to wait until it got dark. But then they’d work all night till 04:00 the next morning, go home for a few hours kip and then come back again.
And we’ve got a big thank you party tonight at Lilidorei to thank all of the staff, volunteers and construction team for everything they’ve done to a few hundred people coming tonight. And it’s been overwhelming how everybody’s got involved, even contractors that might be there for a week doing something. It’s been almost like a pride project for them.
Kelly Molson: It’s amazing. Well, but that shines through in what you’ve created, right? Everybody that’s touched it has taken some kind of ownership of it. What a lovely thing to do. Just throw the party as well to say thank you. It’s June now. The story behind Lilidorei obviously involves Christmas. I’m really intrigued as to what you might have planned for Christmas. Are you allowed to talk about any of that yet or is it embargoed?
Ian McAllister: I can talk about it a little bit because I’ve seen it. So we had a sneak peek. So for the last two years, we’ve been followed around by MGM who have been filming the documentary for Channel Four. So Channel Four documentary goes out, I think, August. So there’s a six part Saturday night documentary going out all about the Duchess. It’s called The Duchess, but it’s all about her leading up to this project. So their last filming day was VIP press day.
Kelly Molson: Wow.
Ian McAllister: About three days before that, we had a preview one night at 10:00. We would like to go onto site to get a preview of Christmas. I don’t even think I can come up with the words. And I’m quite good with words. I can’t even put together a sentence that explains quite how magical it is. It’s just the lights, the sounds, the atmosphere. And this was a summer’s night at 10:00, so I can’t even think what it would be like when it is actually Christmas. And we’ve got three Santa’s grottos. To talk, you kind of back a little bit.
You’ve probably seen the picture of the big Lilidorei entrance gate. So when you get to the gate, you’ve got sounds. You’ve got a troll talking to a pixie and who wants pixie, wants to let us in and the troll won’t let her. So you stand there and you can hear this immersive sound and they won’t open the gate. So what you have to do is kind of find a way around and go through a hidden tunnel.
At Christmas, those gates will open and it’s like, all of a sudden, Christmas is there. So you come in, every Christmas tree is going to be lit, and bear in mind, we’ve got 1400 Christmas trees. Every Christmas trees got fairy lights in. The atmosphere was just phenomenal. It sounds like a cop out, but it’s got to be seen to believed.
Kelly Molson: Well, I look forward to that, because that sounds right up my street.
Ian McAllister: You know, you’re welcome. You’re more than welcome. I’ll even treat you to some troll snot ice cream.
Kelly Molson: How could I possibly say no to that?
Ian McAllister: It’s the Essex charm, isn’t it?
Kelly Molson: Just wins me over every time Ian, thank you for coming on. So we always ask our guests to recommend a book at the end of a podcast. What have you got for us today?
Ian McAllister: This sounds ridiculous when I say this because it’s a word of fiction. And I’m not going to say that it changed my life. But it really changed my outlook in a lot of things. And it was post, COVID I read it and someone had recommended it. So I went and bought a copy and it’s got to the point now where I’ve probably funded about 90% of the book sales because I’ll keep buying copies and saying to someone, “You’ll love this”, I’ve given them a copy and it’s The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. Have you read it?
Kelly Molson: Yeah. Great book.
Ian McAllister: For me, I think I am where I am now and my career path, my life path, everything was based on decisions and sometimes it’s easy to sit and think, that’s a bad decision. If I hadn’t made that decision, I’d be much happier now. And The Midnight Library, for anyone who hasn’t read it, is all about going back and retrospectively looking at your decisions that you’ve made in life and you get a glimpse of where that decision took you. And I think for me, what it did was instead of me constantly going back, not depressed or anything, but you kind of sit and dwell sometimes instead of thinking well.
So, for example, I nearly joined the RAF when I was 17 and I wanted to be military police, but because I’ve got terrible eyesight, they said, “Well, we can’t give you a gun because you probably shoot the wrong person”. So they offered me dentistry. So, looking at the time, I was typical Essex. Toys were out, the pram, I’m not doing this, I don’t want to do it.
So I went to uni and did all that stuff. But I often think back, I think, you know what? If I’d have gone in the RFN and had paid to train me as a dentist and I’ve done the service, I could have come out and sat me in dental practice and this, that and the other.
Ian McAllister: And I often think, would I be happier had I done that and done that as a career path and been a professional, if you like, because I still don’t consider myself a professional? But then this book almost made me reframe that a little bit and think, you know what, I might not have done that.
I might have hated it or something else would have changed and I wouldn’t have had my beautiful children, my stupid dog, or wouldn’t have any of that sort of stuff now if I’d have taken that career path. So in a nutshell, for me, The Midnight Library is a really good read. It’s quite an easy read, I found, because I was really invested in it, but it made me reframe me a little bit.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, it’s a great book. I’ve read it a couple of times now and similar to you, it’s made me look back at not so much choices but events that have happened to us. Me and my partner, we’ve had a load of people this is quite public knowledge, we’ve had a load of trouble having children and we lost quite a few along the way and multiple rounds of IVF and all of that malarkey. And I think that book made me reflect on some of those things that had happened because you start to question, am I a bad person here? Or like, why are these things happening to us? We’re good people, what’s wrong?
But some of those things that have happened regardless, despite them being really difficult and quite awful, they’ve led you to other things that are magic and they’ve given you gifts of something really tragic happened. Has been able to give us the gift of being able to talk about it openly, which has then gone on and helped other people be able to talk about it or share how they are or just given someone found them, someone that they can talk to.
And I think you have to just kind of look back at those things and I don’t know, it’s a long winded way of saying I completely agree with you and it’s a really good book. If you’re feeling a bit reflective about your life, it’s definitely one to go and have a read of. So yeah, good to share.
Ian McAllister: I think it may me kind of start to think about the ways I’ve handled things and how I sort of shape things moving forward so that my best friend died when were at college and my nephew died when he was eight. And all these things in your life that at the time are the worst thing that could ever possibly happen and you could either go one way or the other and it almost explained or kind of put into context a little bit.
I think that these things happen not necessarily for a reason, but the way that you cope with it and deal with it and move on after it. That’s almost like the learning that you take from it. But this is a different podcast altogether. This is like a griefcast, so we’ll do another one.
Kelly Molson: This has ended on a complete opposite spectrum than it started, Ian. Anyway, listeners, if you want to win a copy of that book, I’d highly recommend you go and do this. So go over to this podcast announcement and retweet it with the words I want Ian’s book. And you will be put into the draw to win a copy of The Midnight Garden. Midnight Garden? Midnight Library. Midnight Garden is a whole different book, kids book Midnight Library.
Ian, thanks for coming on today. It’s been brilliant to chat to you. We will put all of the information about Lilidorei and Alnwick Gardens into the show notes so you can have a little look for yourself. But those tickets for Christmas are going to sell out quickly, people, so get yourself on the mailing list. That’s all I’m going to say.
Ian McAllister: Thank you, Kelly. It’s been so nice to talk to you. Living this far north, it’s nice to establish my roots with an Essex person again.
Kelly Molson: Well, always welcome. Six months check in, right?
Ian McAllister: Thanks, Kelly.
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