I’m A Celebrity, Get Me In Here! Translating big brand IPs into commercial ventures. With James Penfold

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode we speak with James Penfold, Controller of Partnerships at ITV.

James Penfold is the Controller of Partnerships over at ITV and the name behind some of the prolific IP attraction, tour experiences and event ventures – including Coronation Street The Tour, Emmerdale Village Tour and the brand new (for 2021) I’m A Celebrity Jungle Challenge.

James has garnered an indisputable reputation during his 20+ year career at the forefront of leading British media and entertainment branded content formats.

An instrumental and respected figure within the industry, James has directly influenced some of the most pioneering live events, UK visitor attractions and big-brand agency collaborations of recent times.

His strategic vision, creative energy and unequivocal commercial drive have captured the essence of Intellectual Property (IP) immersive content as he continues to push the boundaries with trailblazing concepts for the biggest players within the media landscape today.

With business development disciplines stretching across mergers and acquisitions, brand licencing, IP visitor attractions and participation services, cross platform content distribution, media strategy and commercial partnerships, James has carved out an illustrious career when it comes to brand experiential.

Now, a distinguished and well-networked figurehead for immersive experiences and visitor attractions, James’ name is associated with new-format arena tours, big-brand visitor experiences, digital cinema trials, TV channel launches and live entertainment events.

“I’m A Celebrity Jungle Challenge: I can tell you that based on current government guidelines and what we know of the roadmap, we’re absolutely opening this summer. This one is all about the Jungle Challenge and getting stars because, at the heart of the show, you get those stars, and it is for the more physical aspects of it.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • Translating big brand IPs into commercial ventures
  • What the most successful formats are
  • The brand new I’m A Celebrity Jungle Challenge opening later this year

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.

James Penfold Blog large

The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, James Penfold


Kelly Molson: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. It’s such a pleasure to see you again.

James Penfold: Thank you. It’s great to see you today.

Kelly Molson: Well, I mean, you say that now, you might not say that after the questions that I’m about to ask you.

James Penfold: No, no. Listen, I’m a regular listener and I don’t know what’s going to be thrown at me, so yeah, I’ve taken my Xanax and I’m ready.

Kelly Molson: I had a lot of fun putting these together. I’ve gone for a theme. You might notice what the theme is. Okay, let’s begin. Would you rather eat a fish eye or drink blended fermented duck eggs?

James Penfold: The duck eggs, definitely.

Kelly Molson: Oh, really? You’d go for the duck eggs? But the smell though?

James Penfold: Yeah. But that’s the eye thing, and I always say, the eyeballs or anything, it’s that kind of crunch moment, I suppose. Mind you, a fish eye is quite small, isn’t it? I was kind of thinking … Yeah, no, I’ll have to stick with my answer, sadly.

Kelly Molson: All right. Blended duck eggs, okay. I was not expecting that. Right, who’s funnier; Ant or Dec?

James Penfold: Oh my god. Well, listen, I love them both, but it’s got to be Dec.

Kelly Molson: I agree, but then I had a bit of a crush on Dec when I was younger, so he’s always been my fave.

James Penfold: Yeah, I’m not going to say who my crush is with, but they’re both lovely.

Kelly Molson: Maybe we’ll find out later when you’ve relaxed a little bit. If you could be any Coronation Street character, who would you be?

James Penfold: William Roach. Ken Barlow. Because who doesn’t want to work for 40, 50 years in the industry and get so many great storylines?

Kelly Molson: He’s been a bit of rogue as well though, hasn’t he?

James Penfold: Absolutely.

Kelly Molson: He’s been a hit with the ladies.

James Penfold: Completely. And a returning hit with the ladies. And he gets great one-liners, he’s been involved in amazingly iconic plots. So whenever I ask colleagues within the industry, if any actor can have anything, it’s longevity within the industry, isn’t it? So yeah, I’ll go that road.

Kelly Molson: Great. Thank you for answering those. Right, tell me what your unpopular opinion is?

James Penfold: My unpopular opinion? Well, let’s just say that this is formed off the back of a big reunion. It was controversial, certainly then at the time, certainly on the trips, it was simply that the live recording of any single is 99% of the time not as good as the single recorded in the studio. And obviously, I used to say things like, “Well it’s not as good as in the studio,” and yeah, it didn’t go down that well.

Kelly Molson: I think you’re probably right though, aren’t you?

James Penfold: Yeah. I mean Adam Rickitt took it personally, but I think we’d all have to agree. I Breath Again, sitting in the fish tank, needs to be done in the studio.

Kelly Molson: I cannot wait to talk to you about this. So James and I had a kind of pre-interview chat a few weeks ago, and I did share my huge love … I mean, who doesn’t love Ant and Dec really? I mean, maybe that will come up as someone’s unpopular opinion someday, that they detest them. But I’ve been such a massive fan, I kind of grew up with them over the years as well, and when they came back a few years ago and brought out Ready to Rumble again, I lost my shit watching that episode. I can remember my friends texting me, it was like, “What is happening? This is amazing.” And then for that to kind of expand into the whole big reunion thing was just phenomenal. But we will come to that.

James, at the moment, you’re Controller of Partnerships at ITV, which sounds like a very grand title. What about your background? How did you get to where you are today, and what big highlights have you had in your career?

James Penfold: So, like anyone, I think career is all about a bit of a zigzag. Not many people go straight to the end role they hope to achieve. So, left school not knowing at all what I wanted to do, always absolutely loved television. I mean, was an avid fan of Multi-Coloured Swap Shop every Saturday morning. But how did I, therefore, end up in a BT technical apprenticeship at the age of 16, having just done the first year of GCSEs? So we were kind of guinea pigs on that front. Ageing myself here. But BT ran an amazing classic apprenticeship scheme.

Three years, going across, two months at a time, every facet in the business. So you could be on estates one week, you’d be on customer residential services and installations, you’d be on externals, so working in the man-holes and those sorts of things and learning about that aspect, marketing, sales, customer service in the sense of operator services. It was a great induction, and all the while being able to go on block release, again, doesn’t happen very often, paid for by the company during the day, three months at a time, to colleges and that to get a technical qualification. And then I was very grateful when they offered me, “Did I want to go to university and do a degree?”

So I do those three years later than most, probably, at 21 rather than 18. But that meant that I was absolutely ready for it, I knew what I wanted to do, I loved commerce and commercial and the marketing sales. And so I went to Birmingham University, studied B-Comm there, Bachelor of Commerce. Again, coming back into BT in the summer holidays. The internet was just kicking off and so I was fortunate enough to have the choice of, “Which division do you want to go back to in those holidays?” And I went into a division that was just a startup division called the Internet and Multimedia Services.

That was actually the precursor days of BT becoming an internet service provider, it was all about the narrow band, but we quickly learned, or the company quickly learned, like everyone, that whether you’re an AOL operator or anybody else, that once the people had logged on, what were they going to go to? Because it was the early days of search engines. There wasn’t a great lot of content.

So I just opted to be a content development manager, which was basically business classic, business development. So looking to acquire content fees. So, in the day, you’d go to BT’s various partners and obviously think to what you personally liked, whether it was Top of the Pops, the music, Bloomberg for financial services, and you’d pick off these various brands and go and do deals to acquire that. That moved into broadband services, then worked on a number of trials that were pioneering, I suppose, towards all the things we use now. Multimedia payphones. So they were a whole trial of payphones across Cardiff and Central London for people coming when not many people had email, and certainly, not many people had laptops at home and computers at home, but they did want to be able to send email messages or check their messages when they were between stations or travelling between offices.

And then the early precursor to BT TV, which was an ADSL trial, so again using copper wire to send TV signals down it. Well, again, where’s the content there. So I was lucky enough to … again, all hands to the pump really when you’re launching these trials, so I opted to talk to the music companies. So EMI, Sony BMG, [inaudible 00:07:33], to provide a variety of content to prove. And then we were really just looking to the customer to say what they wanted. These were only closed user group trials, two or three thousand people in Ipswich and those sorts of things.

James Penfold: My boss then got snapped up by Sky. Sky was really taking off as a digital satellite broadcaster, and that inherently launched something called Interactive Services, or the Red Button services, which many of us might have used. He stayed very briefly at Sky, I should say, because he didn’t get famously on with James Murdoch, but quickly learned that there was a real desire with multi-choice TV. The reason we had those 200, 300 channels, it’s obviously refined itself now as technology has moved on, there are other ways of accessing content. But we settled on a company called the Interactive TV Group.

I’m fortunate for Adam Faith, the singer, he’d set up a financial TV group based out of Wapping. Sadly, three weeks into operating that, he passed away. But the facility was available, and my then boss at the time, John [inaudible 00:08:37], picked it up at an absolute song, and we went in. And he’d reformed a team from people he’d worked with at BT and Sky to become an Interactive TV Group, so launching TV channels for other parties here in the UK, and some further afield.

I was a business development manager at first, looking after studio facilities and winning clients to use those. And then also looking then into interactive services, which is, again, taking back, I suppose, the internet skillsets, some red buttons. We used to provide those red button services. If Sky didn’t develop them for you and do all the coding and the content, then probably the Interactive TV Group did at the time. So BBC, all the Children In Need apps, the multi-screen sports, the Glastonbury multi-screen sports. Not all of it was just developed in-house at the BBC.

That took me then to a company called Interaction TV because brands and branded content was becoming very much niche, but certainly a fad at the time, and obviously it’s come back in many facets now. I was a commercial director at that company for about four years, which took me to 10, 11 years ago when a colleague, and now my boss, William Van Rest who had joined ITV, picked up the phone and said, “Do you want to come in for a conversation?” And I was lucky enough to literally join ITV.

So, probably 20 years after starting my career, always having wanted to work in television, never thinking, “What’s my route to being that?” Sadly I’m never going to be in front of a camera, not while Ant and Dec are around and other greats on like that. And there the role, it wasn’t defined, which is always, again, a great opportunity where I thrive from. It was about classic business development or sales, looking at what the opportunities are, “Where aren’t we making use of the assets that ITV might have?” ITV was absolutely just coming off the back of a transformation where the regions, all the various regions, Granada, HTV, Meridian, London Carbon, LWT, were all combining in to become under one brand for once.

And so that journey began. And the team at first was called Brand Extension, which I think was really simple, did what it said on the tin, which was literally, if there’s a brand that would have intellectual property that ITV has, owns or makes, what could we be doing with it that isn’t the core show itself? And that took me into actually working with all the producers who make all of our shows, whether they’re in-house or in the ITV Studios group or third parties, to see where there are opportunities. And often there aren’t, but every now and again you strike lucky and there is.

Kelly Molson: That’s such a crazy path to get to where you really wanted to get to. I love hearing how people have got there. And that must be such an exciting thing to do, to have that opportunity to say, “We have this amazing brand that people love; what more do we do with it? How do we make that even more immersive for people? How do we build this into an experience?” What a fantastic role.

James Penfold: Yeah, no, I mean I’m one of a great team, and it’s been and is an incredible train set to play with. And you don’t take any opportunity for granted, and the show must come first, and absolutely respect the IP in that sense. But sometimes it’s not always necessarily the show itself, but there’s something that happens off the back of that show. Or you feel, “Right, okay, a tour is warranted off the back of this.” Whether that’s a theatrical tour, whether it’s an arena tour, whether there’s obviously a set tour opportunity as we change buildings that we own and opportunities present themselves. Or, increasingly now, again with colleagues, the whole app generation, and games and gaming, and the natural brand extension that you might have to the very successful quiz shows that we produce.

Kelly Molson: Well, this is one of my first questions really, because essentially, breaking down what you do is you translate big brand IPs into commercial ventures. So it’s taking something and making it more than just a TV show.

James Penfold: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: What qualities does a brand need to have for it to succeed beyond the telly? What are you looking for?

James Penfold: Let’s see. It helps if it’s got a super fan base. I mean, there is always one … not one rule, something that we certainly began to find over the years. Again, because ITV’s been around for 65 years, and it’s a commercial broadcaster, but really this notion of brand extension beyond just simple merchandising is something that’s only probably looked at in the last 10, 12 years. A super fan base is great. A show that’s certainly finding its feet, so second, the third series, so you don’t jump at the opportunity too quickly. That’s not always the rule, and I’ll come back to the big reunion.

Broad appeal, longevity, again, that helps because you’ve got the fan base and it’s really aligned itself with that fan base, viewer engagement. Repeatability is obviously a great commercial opportunity because one-offs tend to be expensive, and that’s again a very good learning point. And sometimes we do things that are more celebratory about a show, and they’re commercial, but ultimately they’ve not got the rerun factor or the repeat factor.

And then a decent amount of context. I think that’s another important thing. So with context, that could be timing in the sense of an anniversary. A talent anniversary, a show anniversary, or related events, so a season in the year where it’s just summer festivals, or even just like the exhibitions field where certain things happen in spring and Easter and you think, “Do you know, God, that really resonates with what we do as a show?” And that was a really good example when we took This Morning to the NEC for three years running because as a show it lends itself, it is live, it lends itself to an audience.

And you think of nature as a news and consumer affairs show, if you think of what the subject matter is, the broad base of it all, then God, you don’t even need to think what the floor plan of the exhibition is, and you don’t even really need to change from what people already do for exhibitions. You’re just layering our IP onto it. So that’s an easy one.

Kelly Molson: Some of the things we’re talking about today are what you’re involved in terms of TV shows and real-life visitor experience. So we’ve got Coronation Street The Tour, we’ve got the Emmerdale Village Tour, and again, we’ll mention the Big Reunion, there’s been various tours and live experiences that have spun out of existing TV shows as well. But then you’ve also got something brand new that’s launching this year, which I’m not going to mention just yet, we’re going to keep the suspense, we’ll talk about that a little bit later. What are the most successful formats that you find translate from the telly to real-life experiences?

James Penfold: So I suppose the obvious ones, and this isn’t unique to ITV, but certainly, it’s about Mass Market big entertainment, stuff that appeals to the broadest audience; so with Syco and Fremantle, X Factor was an obvious tour in its day, at the height of unknown people becoming music talents, celebrities, recording artists, and then going on tour. You have it with the BBC, and they still do it with Strictly. With ourselves again, BGT, Britain’s Got Talent, absolutely lends itself to scalability, and scalability leads to commercial success, and it leads itself to repetition.

But everything has a life cycle. For ourselves, purely on your own, Saturday Night Takeaway. I’ve talked about anniversaries; Ant and Dec. What are we? Five or six years ago now it was their 20th anniversary in the industry, they wanted to do something, we’d actually spotted the opportunity; why are Ant and Dec not on tour? Well, there are many reasons. They’re very busy and not everybody wants to be on tour the whole time.

But the Saturday Night Takeaway show, it’s just mass-market entertainment, and it’s a show that’s so professionally produced that when it airs as a live TV show if you arrived as an audience member, you don’t have to arrive hours and hours and hours beforehand. You’re slotted into your seats. There might be a few hits done to record some interim piece, some inter-show pieces that play out in the ads or links to that, but then you’re straight onto the show. And the 90 minutes you see in the TV audience is the 90 minutes you get at home. God, if you’re in that audience, there’s a live buzz to it.

So, taking that to an arena tour, 30 dates, matinees and evenings, 15, 16 days with the boys on tour around the country, absolutely lent itself. And hats off to colleagues in my team who helped to deliver that. The production company, ITV Entertainment and ITV Studios Entertainment, and of course working with Live Nation as a promoter. So there’s a great marry of partnerships.

Big Reunion, again, that’s the one, I would say, where it didn’t need to be into its 10th series, it didn’t need to be coming back like Saturday Night Takeaway was doing after a bit of a hiatus. That was, “Okay, it’s been certainly 10 years since we’ve seen a lot of these acts in arenas or in larger-scale theatres. What have they gone on to do?” Michael Kelpie and Potato, one of the ITV labels, had had success with bringing back Steps for Sky, and they’ve made that format. I’ve looked at that format and there was an obvious journey there. And then it was, “Okay, how does ITV do that?” Well, we do it on the scale, so why bring back just one band? Why not let’s bring back five every series?

And we did two series because basically, there were about 15 real acts that when we thought about it and looked at chart successes and also their back story, what they’ve gone on to do and where they all are now, we didn’t even have to air the first episode. And Twitter was really a thing by then and it was like, “Well, obviously there’s going to be a tour.” I can assure you there wasn’t going to be a tour.

Kelly Molson: Oh, so the public requested that? It wasn’t the plan to start with?

James Penfold: Well, there was a kind of concept. When you work with that many artists and that much talent and its confusing schedules, you think, “Okay, this could lend itself to be but let’s be ready, waiting in the wings,” but consumer demand, instant feedback. And then, by picking the right partnerships, you’ve got to be able to move quickly on those sorts of opportunities. And they don’t often come along in that way.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, it’s fabulous. I mean, that show, for me, was really like reliving my childhood, because I’m of a certain age.

James Penfold: Much younger than me.

Kelly Molson: Thank you. I doubt that very much though. But I was into a lot of those bands at the time, in some level, and it just brilliant watching what they’d gone on and done, and then trying to get them back into shape to do the routines and stuff. It was so funny and so interesting.

James Penfold: Kelly, I’m in the exact same situation as you. Don’t think I’m not. As somebody in an 18-year-old apprenticeship, or working in and around Soho as I did, because that was where my apprenticeship was based, it was based in the West End of London, love pop music; if you’d ever said you’d then be working with those individuals, sitting on a couch, sometimes on short journeys, sometimes on long journeys, and sometimes in the craziest situations. Well, the show was playing itself out, and of course, the stories were, and then we were getting to take them on tour at the time. So yeah, no, you don’t get many opportunities like that, and I’m ever so grateful.

Kelly Molson: Fantastic experience for you. So, with the TV, what’s interesting is you’ve obviously got a captive audience with the TV, and it was really interesting to hear how that audience demand kind of spurred … there was obviously a little idea about the tour, but it really spurred it. How do you strike that balance between developing products to reach new audiences? How do you get that right?

James Penfold: So I think, importantly for us, and this is done by trial by error, is you’ve got to, I suppose, look at does it feel right? Is it a natural extension for us, ITV, to be taking? Because we’re not a theme park operator, we don’t do reparatory theatre, those sorts of things, and there are other parties out there. And one of the principal roles, I suppose what my role’s evolved into now, is looking at the licensing side, where there are many entities who might choose to look at something from a slightly less obvious position and take the thought.

But from our perspective, it’s really looking at ratings, it’s looking at social media and how that talent engages with their audience. Do they engage with their audience? Don’t they? Are there natural wins? Because of course, people can always involve them and move their careers forward. A really good example is Gino D’Acampo. So I think we did three tours with him. So Gino, incredible talent, was iconic from his season when he was on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, he was obviously becoming a prominent TV chef, he was on This Morning pretty much every week or every other week.

And then he starts getting his own show, and that’s the test for the commissioners. They’re almost like a litmus test; they spot these opportunities and take some of the pain out of it for us. And it was Gino … I think was Italian Escapes, and that was where he’d go to a different part of Italy.

And then we were talking again to a promoter, I think it was clean and Gyro, could he live, who also looked at Ed Sheeran, so talk about different ends of the spectrum for them. And they were talking about theatre shows and the successes they have, and they’d said, “Would Gino be interested?” And there was a quick conversation to be had, “If the talents are interested, then great.” Of course, he was. And for him, it suits his purpose, because there he is, having done I’m a Celebrity, having done some TV chef shows, having done This Morning, and now with his own Italian Escapes, but what does he actually stand for? And he wants to evolve his career and put himself differently.

So I’d like to think three sellout tours in theatres, 1500, 2000 seats a night, which we were told we were doing well at because we’re doing 14 nights a run. And it wasn’t just Gino who goes on stage and cooks, because that would have been obvious. It’s Gino who goes on stage and does what he does best, which is to engage with the audience. The cooking almost becomes auxiliary to the evening. 

And then, quickly really, we learned that the audience … it becomes almost a 50/50 divide. 50% of them were there because they wanted some cooking advice or to hear his anecdotes about Italian Escapes and what it’s like to be on the road and cooking the food of his homeland, and 50%, of course, enjoy him because he was suddenly an overnight success in Celebrity Juice. And that audience wanted quite a different thing.

And of course, Gino being Gino, he would play to the Celebrity Juice audience, and it made for an unpredictable but incredibly entertaining show. The first tour, it was fairly locked down in what they produced and what it would be and what the format would be. Number two and three, “You go for it. You know what you want to do. As long as you pitch it correctly to the audience as to what they’re going to be getting,” so Live and Unplugged was tour number two, “Then you’ve got success.”

Another good example is, I suppose, This Morning Live. So there we’d been approached by Media 10, the guys who deliver Grand Designs and the Ideal Home Show for a number of years. In fact, for probably nearly about eight or nine years. And they hit us when it was right to have a conversation, because I’d thought, “This is madness?” I’d be challenged; “Why aren’t we doing festivals? Why isn’t ITV more involved with festivals?” Because you had the Good Food Program for the BBC, you had The Clothes Show historically being such a success.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, it is.

James Penfold: And in truth, we have always been very successful in the daytime, and I think with This Morning, it was really … well, we looked at all the shows, so Good Morning Britain, Lorraine, This Morning, and Loose Women, and could you take them all on the road, and would there be an exhibition? And then you start getting into the realities of cost, of logistics, of actually the quite disparate audiences that do come across those four different shows and what they want to engage with.

And we quickly settled on This Morning, and then just simply This Morning Live, in that it has cooking in it, it has health issues, it does fashion, it does entertainment. And ultimately, at the heart of it are Phil and Holly, or Eamonn and Ruth at the time. And we learned very quickly that we were taking the show on the road whilst we had a replacement presenter team in London. So you’d have Phil and Holly in Birmingham and Eamonn and Ruth in the studio, or vice versa. They’d hand to each other. Great segments of the show were able to be done from the NEC.

Yes, there were costs involved, but to us, that was more of a marketing vehicle. It worked really well for Media 10, because they absolutely know how to deliver a live exhibition. And from a Stand’s perspective, and from all those consumer brands that want to sell to our audiences who would normally take advertising slots in those shows anyway, it was a no brainer for them to want to attend. And it was on for four days a week every year, 40 to 50,000 people attending over those four days.

And then you get into the great hurdles of, “Oh my God, it’s almost too successful in terms of capacities.” And fans being more than just, I suppose, the typical ticket buyer and visitor. Everyone wants to meet the talent. And so meet and greets, I think that became a whole performance item in itself.

Kelly Molson: So, a huge success. You can see that the formats work, you’ve got huge engagement from people, and then a global pandemic comes along and kind of smashes us all in the face. I mean, it’s affected obviously your plans and things that you’ve got in fruition quite extensively; how has it affected you and how have you tried to overcome some of those challenges this year?

James Penfold: Yeah. So if we look back to this time this year, or actually go back a further two, three weeks, when the UK government was still slightly in denial of the nature of this pandemic-

Kelly Molson: I think we all were, weren’t we? Because I think we were watching the news going, “Oh, it’s all happening in Italy, isn’t it? Oh yeah, that looks bad.”

James Penfold: Yes, the broad public were, but don’t forget, ITV is a stakeholder in ITN, so we produce Channel Four News, Channel Five News and ITN News, the three variants, different editorial flavours. So I don’t think you could avoid it from that point of view. And I’m based in Gray’s Inn Road. Well, I was based in Gray’s Inn Road, which is where the news studios are, so I think there was a real feeling there, most importantly about just hand sanitisers introducing themselves.

But the thing came to was three weeks out of not even lockdown, us beginning to talk about it, so probably we’re talking the back end of February. I was approached by my then division director to say, “At a board level, we think we need to curtail or stop set tours.” So the set tours of Coronation Street and the Emmerdale Village Tour. Both were external sets, although there were some interiors to be seen, as in interior sets on the Coronation Street set. And that is principal because, first and foremost, we’re a broadcaster and a producer of content, a producer of successful TV shows. These serial dramas have been going last year, 60 years for Corrie, and this year we’re celebrating 45 years for Emmerdale.

And so hearts and minds, which is a phrase that’s very well known now within the business, is looking after staff wellbeing. And staff wellbeing is, therefore, the actors, the talent, all the production staff, all those many people that come on board. So, quickly the sets began to lockdown, and a wrapper was put around the productions to enable them to come on production for as long as they could. That wasn’t feasible from the moment the national lockdown happened, and we had to then wait and work with health and safety committees and other people, and with the government, to work out what the safe way through production was.

So from my perspective, it was, “Please turn off tours.” And we were just starting the season. And we had loads of pre-bookings across Emmerdale, and we had loads of booking across Coronation Street. And of course, we’d just recruited our seasonal workers in the sense of our tour guides for that year, many who come back each year and have other roles when the tours aren’t operated at weekends. So I think it was straight away onto the phones with Emmerdale, our partner, Continuum Group, Continuum Attractions, who will work with on many tours and attractions.

And obviously, from their perspective, there was a quite rightful debate, “Are we jumping the gun and doing this too soon?” Because they weren’t seeing that advice in the tourism market for their attractions. But ours was, “No, this is what we need to do.” And we didn’t want to let consumers down at the last minute, because with Corrie certainly, people travel quite a distance across the country to come to those weekends. They book hotels in advance, they book transport in advance, and so then it really is about you’re just going into a situation of customer management.

James Penfold: So there it was a case of, “Listen, sorry, we need to cancel down tours. Obviously, refunds were immediately available if you wanted them, or you can basically move to hold a voucher and we’ll contact you as soon as.” So that’s a complete curtailment of that business, and it became then a reality that even with unlock-down, lockdown, over the backend of summer, that again the situation was even just worse. Think of where we are now in winter. So autumn and the end of summer last year, everyone was feeling great in the UK, and around most of the world.

Some had fitted in summer holidays or done stay-cations and things like this. So again, from a consumer point of view, it’s all about proactively managing the comms to them.

But at the same time, for us, because we don’t have a lot to say on this because we’re not a true classic digital attraction, just enough communication where you’re engaging, giving the consumers what they need to know. Of course, at all opportunities, offering refunds. When we began to realise, “Do you know what? We aren’t going to be opening these in autumn, because if anything the pandemic’s getting worse,” and this was even before new variants, it was, “Okay, well we hope to be able to bring this back in in 2021.” That’s a realisation now that probably that isn’t even a reality.

And of course, it’s incredibly disappointing to the team. Thank God in the early days, when the furlough opportunity was there, we absolutely used it. From a customer point of view, social media, thank God we’ve got decent outlets to be able to contact customers. And from being a broadcaster with viewer services, we were able to really talk about it’s a business for them to help us to get in contact with as many consumers as possible.

And even now it’s a difficult one because we look to the advice from ALVA, we keep across Blooloop, we listen to your podcast, we talk to experts, we’re talking with Continuum every day, and we have health and safety advisers from the tourist market as well. But from a set tours point of view, it just isn’t realistic. There is nobody in any of our offices, we all work remotely. All the editing of the shows is pretty much done remotely, incredibly. In the early days of the pandemic, every show was produced remotely. The galleries all became laptops, so editors and directors were sitting at home.

And the two teams that make the soaps have done an incredible job of creating cohorts where nobody overlaps, you’re in your cohort group, and you move through, based on your plotline, through those cohorts so that you always stay safe. And then you have the people who go on sets, their costumes are already hung out for them, and their makeup they do themselves.

And so I suppose the thought on the ITV Studios drama and production side, the thought of even entertaining us being able to welcome the members of the public onto those sets currently is still untenable. So the good news is very exciting plans for next year. What this has given, I suppose, the pandemic, let me come to the positives, is it’s given us a time to reflect. We were very lucky six years ago when the old set became available, Coronation Street. The Granada building was sold quite quickly after 55 years of ownership by ITV. It would have just been quickly demolished, but I was like, “No, that can’t happen. Let’s think about this.”

Kelly Molson: Sacrilege.

James Penfold: Yeah. Well, and also, to the developer who bought it, “When do you need the building by? You’ve got planning to do, you’ve got plans to put into council; when do you need it by?” “We need it probably in about 24 months time.” So for 18 months, we were able to open that set, and 900,000 people came through that set tour in that period of time. And that’s a success. And that felt completely natural.

But now when we’re working in a different environment, we’re part of a living breathing production, a production community, so we’re looking at it from a filming perspective and from that visitor perspective. The exciting thing is we are able to look at now how do we make the tours more accessible? Is there technology that can almost enhance them?

We’ve worked with groups like Antenna. We’ve long resisted audio guides because we love the interpersonal nature of the tour guide, but actually, if you think of the amount of content and archive and things like that, it can actually bring sets to life, and everybody’s got a different character they like on those shows, and different memory of the storylines.

Some people like the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s. Some people remember Emmerdale, and I’m going to say ITV sacrilege when it was called Emmerdale Farm. And so there are those angles to it. And it’s given us time to reflect.

Completely exclusive to you, where we’re building a new building next to Coronation Street in Manchester. The pilings underway. The intention is to have it open by next Easter. What’s it going to serve? It’s multifaceted because it addresses multiple problems. The scriptwriters and there are about 200 in Corrie, normally meet in hotels and go to conference centres to marry all the plot lines together and to do the timelines. Again, with the cast, with all the principal production team, they’ll now be able to haggle on the top floor of this almost event space building.

The middle floor will have an exhibition space, which will be used by us from a Coronation Street perspective. And the ground floor will have a 70 seat theatre for those, like me, who believe that people will come back in some form to a similar environment. And we’ll have a café and we’ll have a retail outlet.

So I’m going to call it a visitor reception area, as opposed to them just meeting somewhere in Media City and then we walk them over to the set and take them on the set there. That will allow us to be seven days a week from an experience point of view as people engage with the brand. It really plays for Peel, the landowner of Media City, because there’s a brand new tramline that opened … it was pretty much all whilst we’ve been in lockdown, that serves the Trafford side of Manchester and is a much faster link into Manchester.

There’s a stop right by ourselves and the Imperial War Museum, so there’ll be that stop. There’ll be a café there that which I say will provide to. So that’s playing to an opportunity, that if we’d not had the pandemic, would have taken quite a lot longer because we’ve been able to do stuff when the set’s been closed, when the filming hasn’t happened, and it’s a great positive.

Something similar is happening with the village for Emmerdale for hopefully the backend of 2022 so that we can get more people into the village and really celebrate the sets and do Q and As and audience with cast and things like that. So yeah, so positives.

Kelly Molson: Oh, I love that you’ve come on and dropped a few little exclusives for us, James. Thank you for sharing that. I mean, many of our listeners are in the attractions world, and they will be completely sympathising with the situation you’ve been in terms of having to shut down the sets, but it’s such a different challenge that you have. I mean, the attractions now, they’re planning for their reopening in May time, and are incredibly excited about that and what that looks like, that roadmap.

But your roadmap is so much longer because of the logistics of filming, and I hadn’t really taken that into consideration at all, how difficult that would be because obviously, you can’t have the general public on the sets when you’ve got to protect the people that are on the sets recording each day. It’s a huge challenge.

James Penfold: I mean, they’re such substantial principle revenue streams, and the most important audience drivers for ITV. The soaps still regularly get between six and eight million, depending on where we are in the storylines, five days a week. And that’s incredible in the streaming platform and non-linear broadcast era that we all live within. That said, colleagues within my team who look after our Ninja Warrior brand, in lockdown we started last year with eight licensees and eight sites.

By the time we get to the backend of summer, there will be 15 sites, because people are proactively taking and opening sites because they’ve seen properties becoming available. Previous guests of yours have talked about the nature of retail and leisure finally beginning to merge, which we haven’t seen in the UK.

It’s been prevalent in Asia, very strong in the USA, and to some extent mainland Europe. But that’s created a real opportunity. And so there’s a real opportunity in that, and obviously those, they’re nothing to do with show production, and so they can open, as you’re talking about, with these May time scales, and I hope they go on to have really successful years. And whatever sort of restrictions we have in 2021, let’s hope 2022 then gives them a full run.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. And there’s going to be a huge resurgence in people wanting to do things. We’re all desperate to get back out and have new experiences because we’ve been stuck between our four walls for so long. But this brings me to something very exciting, which is the I’m A Celebrity Jungle Challenge. Is it opening this year? Maybe this year? Who knows at the moment? Tell us a little bit about it.

James Penfold: I can tell you that based on current government guidelines and what we know of the roadmap, we’re absolutely opening this summer. I mean, for me it’s very exciting. It’s the fruition of a three-year project in a sense, from talking with Peel Holdings, the landowner, to then working with various design companies and settling with Scruffy Dog Productions, and then the exciting part, which we started right back at the start of this podcast, working with the producers of the show.

And Richard Cowles, Tom Gould and that ITV entertainment team are genius. I’m A Celebrity is his format, Saturday Night Takeaway is his co-format, Love Island is his format. That team know how to do live programming. And being able to look under the bonnet of what is the essence of I’m A Celebrity if we were going to make it an attraction, has been really exciting. So yeah, Media City, or Quayside Media City I should say, what was the Lowry Outlet, will be opening this summer.

Kelly Molson: Oh, I’m so excited. You know, the team, we’ve already started planning that we’ll come and do it as one of our Christmas do adventures because our Christmas do is always a thing. We go and have an experience somewhere. We went and did the Crystal Maze challenge, and then we’ll go for dinner and drinks and stuff. And as soon as I mentioned this, they were like, “That’s it. That’s the Christmas do.”

James Penfold: I know, Kelly, I need you there soon. We need those guinea pigs for early summer, so I’ll be calling you up.

Kelly Molson: All right, we’ll bring our Christmas to do forward. That’s right, we missed out on one last year, so we’ll be there.

James Penfold: There are no restrictions on tinsel, so you’re welcome.

Kelly Molson: Fabulous, because I do love a bit of tinsel. Has COVID changed how you will deliver that visitor experience for that attraction, though? Because I think one of the things that we’ve been talking about quite a lot with attractions are actually some of the positives, of the visitor experience is better when the capacity has been reduced.

So, for example, you want to go and visit the Mona Lisa. Well, on a normal day, if you go and visit the Mona Lisa, there are thousands of people that are doing it with you at the same time, and so that experience is just not what you might have hoped for. But actually, if you did it … well, not now, but when they’re open and you’ve got that reduced capacity, it’s a nicer experience. It’s more engaging for you. Maybe people will pay a slightly higher price for that as well. So how has that changed how you open and your strategy?

James Penfold: So, obviously, when you design any of these attractions, and again, we work with good partners, and we’re not experts. We hold people to flame as to how we want it to look and we want it to be delivered 100% to be true to the format, but you’ve designed it for this sort of flow, for this capacity, and people use it in this manner. And of course, only when we start getting to the customer testing, which we’re pretty much just approaching now, will we see how that happens.

=Now we layer on the COVID factor, and the COVID factor is exactly what you’ve said. Probably a little more time in that attraction, yes, reviewing the price for that, but the capacity is being reduced, but then the experience is so much better.

I think also all leisure attractions are getting price-sensitive, but I do think, and I hope when you see it … the layering over the IP of the Jungle Challenge, and whether it’s the thematic, and even a safety video from Ant and Dec, through to the gameplay we’ve put on what would traditionally be a rope and swinging course and a bit of Ninja Warrior in the middle, really does bring value to it. So I think we’ve got to, and we are, reviewing what that customer experience is.

Similarly, on the tours side of things, it’s absolutely about capacity. Less people maybe in tour groups, certainly fast-tracking this notion of pre-flow that colleagues have had, which is, “Okay, tour guides are wonderful and they give the as scripted and in the tone of a show version of events,” but we know, especially as we look to the younger audiences, that it absolutely is all about the selfie moment, the racing to the bit of the set that you know most.

Again, I mentioned characters earlier, so we’ve got to look at that. And then that looks at, “Okay, well how do we then convey some of the knowledge and depth and years of plot lines, characters, and why things look the way they do? Why the houses aren’t as big as real houses would be and all those sorts of things.” Then we’re looking at the audio guide, or certainly the interactive guide, and how smartphones, that again really have got pretty much mass market penetration now across all age brackets, how we can use those. I think last week somebody raised a really … so the podcast that aired last week, and I can’t recall the chap’s name, but oh my God, never did I think we’d be looking back at QR codes. And-

Kelly Molson: QR codes; 2020 was the year of the resurgence for them. Who knew that was going to happen?

James Penfold: Absolutely. It’s like the spectrum of tourism, it’s suddenly back.

Kelly Molson: I was going to say Atari, but that would super age me.

James Penfold: Yeah, no, that was 10 years before me.

Kelly Molson: So we’re coming to the end of the podcast, but one more question to ask you. But can you let us know what kind of things that we might find in this new attraction? Are there going to be any disgusting eating challenges? Because I feel like that is up there with what people really want to do.

James Penfold: Listen, I’m A Celebrity just had its 20th season, even in an amazing cast in Wales, did record audiences, and I know we’ve got pandemic viewers and that people can’t go out, and there are many facets to the show. And so I think this is the first iteration of what you’re going to see and what we’d like to do with the I’m A Celebrity brand, working with not just property partners, but also with operator partners that we’re currently engaged with. This one is all about the Jungle Challenge and getting stars because, at the heart of the show, you get those stars, and it is for the more physical aspects of it.

So you’ve got to climb 15-meter rock-faces, you’ve got to zip line across the venue, you’ve got to do a treetop trail that doesn’t have much to support you other than the harness you’re clipped to, and so that’ll test your heights. There’s a spy ride, if you so wish, that you can strap yourself into and travel 20 miles an hour around the rooftop. There’s Escape the Jungle, which is our variant on Ninja Warrior. So we’ve packed a lot into this. And if you want to test, again, your test of heights, there’s Leap of Faith, where you go and you jump, you hang onto a cushion for as long as you can before you drop to the ground. Yeah, but don’t worry, you’re in a safe be like.

Kelly Molson: Oh, it’s going to be great. I feel super excited about it already, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of our listeners will be booking up tickets as soon as they can. Thank you so much for coming on and sharing that, James.

James Penfold: Pleasure.

Kelly Molson: We always ask our guests for a book that they would recommend to us, and it can be anything really. I used to always ask … it was a book that had shaped someone’s career, but I think actually just a book that you really love, or one that you would just like to share with our audience would be great.

James Penfold: Okey-dokey. Well, I’ve changed my choice as of this morning, and it’s courtesy, because of course, working from home, or even when I work in the office, I’ve always got ITV on, playing in the background. And a book that I found absolutely charming, and not a lifesaver, but just really resonated with me in this lockdown, being single, working on my own, working on a project quite distanced with a team that’s quite disparate around the country, has been The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse. Charlie Mackesy.

Kelly Molson: Oh gosh.

James Penfold: And it comes into mind today because I saw him over my shoulder just because we came on the call because he was on This Morning and it’s being made into a movie, which is incredible. An animated movie using his beautiful artwork. And as I understand it, it’s going to extend the characters and give some background to those four wonderful subjects. And I just feel, with all that’s going on, whether it’s headlines in the news this week on any level, whether it regards ITV or not, that you put a bit of love out there and we’ll all be good, and we’ll get through this storm, as he likes to put it.

Kelly Molson: Oh, do you know what? That book has given me so much comfort over the years, and I’m so glad that somebody … nobody has recommended that book yet, I’m so glad that you chose that one today because it really does sum up what we all need right now. And like I said, for me, it’s been a huge comfort on many different levels, and I think it has been a huge comfort for a lot of people through the lockdown as well.

James Penfold: Absolutely. And yeah, you can turn to any page of it and there’s a quote or a phrase that you can draw something from it. And I think there have been many books prior to that, and I’m not going to bankrupt you as others do, so that’s my book.

Kelly Molson: Thank you, just the one book. Just remember, I ask for one book, people.

James Penfold: Yeah guys, just listen, one book, please. That’s all Kelly wants.

Kelly Molson: Costs me so much money. Oh, thank you so much, that’s a great recommendation. As ever, if you want to win a copy of that book, if you head over to our Twitter account and you retweet this episode announcement with the words, “I want James’s book,” then you will be in with a chance of winning a copy. And you should do that because it is a really lovely book. I’m so glad that there’s going to be a film as well, that’s really nice.

James Penfold: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: James, thank you.

James Penfold: Can I say thank you, by the way? Because I listen to your podcast every week; fascinating insights helps all of us, and yeah, so I’m really pleased that I was invited on. Thank you.

Kelly Molson: Aw, that’s very kind. All of our guests have said very lovely things about the podcast and I feel super humbled by it. I actually felt really humbled that you put us in the bracket of ALVA and Blooloop there, who are phenomenal organisations that have been doing brilliant things for attractions throughout this. Thank you, James, it’s been an absolute pleasure to have you today. It’s been wonderful, so thank you so much for your time.

James Penfold: You’re very welcome, you take care.


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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