Martin Barratt

Martin has worked in the attractions industry for over 40 years. During his career he has developed, operated and advised theme parks and museums, stately homes and dungeons, castles and cathedrals, aquaria and safari parks, funfairs and factory tours. He has picked up litter and paced for miles on ride turntables, led projects and managed major attractions.

He is just as enthusiastic and passionate about the attractions industry as on the day he started at age 12 and is looking forward to giving something back to the industry which has given him so much.

Theme Parks, the Golden Baby … and In-Park Fine Dining

La Masia del Tibadabo restaurant

I recently wrote a blog about EE charging extra to skip the call centre wait line. Well it occurred to me that the blog could be seen as a bit negative, you know, criticising parks providing poorer service for those who don’t choose to buy express tickets.

I’d like to redress that by suggesting something positive that would both help the standard visitors to get a bit of value back and at the same time address a problem that seems endemic to UK theme parks.

This idea occurred to me when I was visiting Tibidabo Park near Barcelona last week with the fine folks from the TEA. Tibidabo is an historic place, some say the second
oldest amusement park in Europe, in fact the introductory film in the park says it, but I can think of several European parks who might disagree. It’s owned by the City Council and like a lot of council owned attractions it needs a bit of care and attention.

But the lunch was really good. The food was delicious and nicely presented; the restaurant was well looked after and had great views; ok, the staff could have been a little more attentive, but overall it was a very good quality experience for an amusement park.

Looking around European parks, nearly everyone has a good quality waiter service restaurant. Some, such as de Efteling, Europa Park and Port Aventura have several. In fact the only ones that don’t all seem to be in the UK; that’s maybe a historic thing, the British used to care less about food than they do now.

So here’s the idea. Give a reasonable discount to the waiter service restaurants to the fast pass holders between say, midday and 3pm. They are likely to take advantage of the offer, after all they have already shown that they don’t mind spending money, and the other thing they have lots of is time because they don’t have to queue.

Then for three hours a good proportion of them can take advantage of the offer, leaving the rides freer for standard riders, as well as increasing occupancy in the high end restaurants. That’s a big advantage for European parks outside the UK, but UK parks would have an additional benefit, since just maybe they could make a success of in-park fine dining at last.

Theme Parks and the Golden Baby

queue in communist poland

The mobile phone company EE has introduced a charge for jumping the queue on customer calls.

Maybe they are following the lead of theme parks world-wide with their express tickets; just like visitors to theme parks their customers are likely to feel cheated. EE is already the most complained about mobile company in the UK and the response to this initiative from its customers is indicating that this is unlikely to logo

For EE the charge is an admission that the response time is too long and that the only way to obtain adequate service is to pay extra. Meanwhile those that choose to wait in the queue must have the feeling that they will have to wait even longer.

Sound familiar? For theme parks the queues can be so long on busy days that some visitors will pay significantly more than their price of entry to avoid them. When express tickets were introduced the wait for those who chose not to buy them certainly became longer, but the price of admission didn’t fall. Those who buy express tickets now experience acceptable wait times (although sometimes even express lines can be 30 minutes long). For those who don’t pay the extra, the wait times are longer and the experience is poorer. It didn’t have to be this way.

Look at Disney parks, where a free system gives everyone a chance to skip the long queues and where single riders can virtually walk on to most rides. They chose not to charge extra for better service. For those parks which did there is no turning back. The express ticket systems provide an important source of income, as one Orlando park chief said to me, “It’s a golden baby which we can’t give back.” Along with charging for car parks, express tickets represent a reduction in value to our customers, paying the same price for a worse experience.

No wonder the number of articles criticising the cost of theme parks continues to rise.

Battersea Power Station: Preserving an Eyesore?

No big surprises there; someone had to start redevelopment sometime, but the bit that caught my attention was that the chimneys will be knocked down and replaced with replicas.

Related: What’s the Big Idea? Looking at the Legacy of the Millennium Commission/ What is more important, recruitment or training?

Martin Barratt

By Martin Barratt

When John Broome had the site, intending to build a theme park, he demolished the roof and the west wall, before he realised that the building had virtually no foundations, and the economic downturn forced him to sell up. Since then numerous other developers have tried to put a scheme together, but the constraints applied by English Heritage have made every one fail from a financial perspective.

When it was built in 1933 Londoners said that it was an eyesore that Battersea Power Stationspewed pollution. Phase 2 was opened in 1952, but then the plant was decommissioned in 1983, only 50 years after phase 1 was completed.

It has appeared in films and as the backdrop for some giant inflatable pigs, but does that justify its protection? It was ugly when it was built and it is ugly now. When the redevelopment is complete less than half of it will be original and we can safely assume that the development will cost its new owners far more than if it was an empty site, increasing the risk that the project will fail. So what exactly are English Heritage trying to protect?

Why are we preserving an ugly, poorly built hulk when we could knock it down and allow the building of a well designed development, built for purpose?

What’s the Big Idea? Looking at the Legacy of the Millennium Commission

Just to remind you, in their words “The Millennium Commission assisted communities in marking the close of the second millennium and celebrating the start of the third. The Commission used money raised by the National Lottery to encourage projects throughout the nation which enjoyed public support and would be lasting monuments to the achievements and aspirations of the people of the United Kingdom.”

Related:   Should National Museums allow Free Entry? / What is more important, recruitment or training? 

By Martin Barratt

The website has a searchable database that gives access to all the projects they supported… but hang on a bit, some of them are missing! The Millennium Commission website exhorts us to “…Search the Millennium Project database to find out about all the different types of project the Commission has funded.”, but try typing in ‘Earth Centre’ or ‘Big Idea’ and there are no results.

The website was abandoned in 2007 so it’s no surprise that it still lists Wildwalk and the Imax theatre as part of At-Bristol, although these closed four years ago. Do you remember the rather touching innocent surprise of management, when the sponsorship and public funding that bridged the gap between its costs of £6m a year and its revenues of £4.5m dried up? One of the buildings so expensively restored as part of the Millennium project is now an aquarium run by a commercial operator who I suppose are the ultimate beneficiaries of the lottery funding.

Every year that passes the abandoned website will get more out of date; already it’s a rather poignant corner of the internet, a bit like the unchanging face of Dorian Grey it will never age while the attractions it represents fade and die.

And that of course is the tragedy, not the abandoned website. Last month we learned about the demise of Ceramica in Stoke on Trent. The £3.5 million pottery museum was closed by trustees in March after Stoke-on-Trent City Council pulled the Burslem venue’s £150,000-a-year funding. Now it has been placed into receivership and the locals are all in favour of its conversion into a Wetherspoons, but the old town hall that housed the exhibition is owned by the Town Council and the rather horrid extension by the Big Lottery Fund, so who knows what they will allow to happen. What is certain is that the money used to develop it will be largely wasted and whatever benefit still remains from the investment will likely be enjoyed by a commercial company.

Similar to the Earth Centre (see images) then, which cost nearly £64m and received a Millennium Commission Grant of £36m. After it closed Doncaster Council got fed up with paying £200,000 a year to maintain it and they sold it for an undisclosed sum to a company planning to develop a commercially focussed activity centre for school children expected to open in 2012.

Are we seeing the start of a trend here? How bad does our economy have to get before more local councils pull the plug on their Millennium white elephants?

The Commission was quick to shout about any of its attractions which beat their visitor targets, but do any of the Millennium projects even approach their visitor targets now? How many are truly commercially viable and wouldn’t have to close if their public funding was pulled?

I suspect that the answer would be very few, if any, and that should be no surprise. After all The Millennium Commission itself admitted that it had “…taken some calculated risks. It would have been easy to invest in the  traditional tourist honeypots, but the aim was to get a UK-wide spread of projects and schemes. The Commission invested in some deprived areas because we believe this attracts new investment and raises the level of the local economy.”  In other words they invested in attractions built in places where no commercial attraction would work.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if more Millennium projects followed Ceramica into oblivion, leaving their expensively developed sites to be exploited by commercial operators.  Am I alone in thinking that the whole Millennium fiasco was a scandalous misuse of money raised from what is ultimately a tax on the poor? According to a Theos study in 2009, their research adds to a growing body of evidence which shows that Lottery players come from poorer backgrounds. They also spend significantly more, as a proportion of their household income, than more affluent players. The poor tax they gambled on the Lottery was used to create visitor attractions that could never pay their way and which would have to be supported from their council tax, until the point when they can be supported no more and they are sold off cheap.

Maybe it’s time for someone, anyone, to revisit the Millennium Commission website and try to express just a little humility for the mistakes they made.

Should National Museums allow Free Entry?

assyrian royal lion hunt british museumRelatedWhat is more important, recruitment or training?Smithsonian’s attendance tops record year and Tate outgrow galleries  /   Whisky and High Ropes in Bonnie Scotland / Chicago’s World Class Museums drawing the crowds

martin barratt attractions consultantBy Martin Barratt, CEO BALPPA

With the advent of the Coalition, a review seemed much further away. The message came that even mentioning the subject in front of a Minister would damage credibility and cause further delays, and that it wouldn’t be worth mentioning this again for at least four years.

The Coalition was clearly as committed to the issue as Labour who had introduced the bill in December 2001, so it was a surprise when the attack on free entry came from a Labour MP known for his interest in culture and the arts.

Tristram Hunt (below right) is the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central and a well known historian, broadcaster, columnist and author. He called for an end to free museums not because he doesn’t believe in them, but because he resents museums and galleries in London continuing to enjoy free entry while outside London many will have to start charging again.

In what he calls an “…assault on the region’s arts”, the government has “…cut Renaissance in the tristram huntRegions funding, slashed the Arts Council budget and wound down all central support for non-national museums.” This means the reintroduction of admission fees to well known collections such as the People’s History Museum in Manchester and the Museums in Tyne and Wear, as well as the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hunt’s own constituency.

Notwithstanding his motives Munira Mirza(below left), cultural advisor to Boris Johnson the Mayor of London, writing in the London Evening Standard this month, called it alarming that Hunt would call for an end to free museums in London or anywhere else. For a start, she points out, many of the London Museums and Galleries have spawned outposts in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool and they’re all free. Lucky they are. Many were built before free entry was re-introduced and, because they received lottery funding, they had business plans which said they had to be self supporting. Does anyone believe that developments such as the Imperial War Museum in Manchester and the Royal Armouries in Leeds would still be open if they had to cover their costs?

She chose to ignore Hunt’s point that the real benefit from free entry came not from broadening the audience for art and culture, which was its intention. Instead “…working with schools, a proper outreach strategy and well-funded inclusion programmes” brought the museums to their target munira mirzaaudiences and encouraged some of them to visit. According to a study by Mori, "While the number of people coming through the door might have dramatically increased, the profile of a typical ‘population’ of museum or gallery visitors has remained relatively stable and firmly biased in favour of the ‘traditional’ visitor groups."

With that justification gone all that is left is Mirza’s view that the London Museums should remain free to all so that foreign tourists can see objects that may have come from abroad in the first place. Apparently this may stop the Greeks clamouring for the return of the Elgin Marbles and the Egyptians militating for the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone.

For this reason alone we in the commercial attractions sector are being asked to put up with unfair competition. In a time of unprecedented economic hardship, free museums will remain free only to hold off demands to return the treasures bought or stolen from foreign nations to their rightful owners.

With the cultural elite squabbling amongst themselves this could be just the time to push the Coalition to accept that free entry to National Museums failed in its objective to widen the audience for culture and the arts and that it is a system supported only by those who can well afford to pay for their pleasure. To encourage them to look again at a new pricing regime; one that charges tourists a fair amount for their visit but promotes multiple visits to locals and UK tourists.

It was noticeable that when David Cameron made his famous speech on Tourism in July (see:  Is the UK Government doing enough for Tourism? ) there was one thing that connected all the attractions he namechecked. They were all free entry and they were all heavily subsidised. Re-evaluating free entry to National Museums is a chance for the Coalition to prove to us in the Commercial Visitor Attractions sector that we are valued too.

What is more important, recruitment or training?

By Martin Barratt, CEO BALPPA

RelatedMerlin Entertainments: Rocking around the World  /  Whisky and High Ropes in Bonnie Scotland  /  Interview with Colin Dawson, BALPPA

I once knew a bluff spoken Yorkshireman who would dismiss customer service training with the phrase “You can’t polish a turd”. We can all deplore his choice of words, but the more I examine the difference between attractions who provide good service and those who don’t, the more I must reluctantly admit that he was right.

Like most service businesses the attractions industry pays the least to those who interact most with customers, so we’re not going to give much time to recruiting such low paid employees are we? Similarly, how many of us check that the managers we recruit have good interpersonal skills or work well in teams? Instead we recruit those who do well in an interview. And how do you get good at interviews? That’s right; you do a lot of it…

How do US basketball teams recruit players? They start by looking for tall kids – after all you might be able to teach some of those kids to play basketball well, but you can’t teach a good ball player to get tall. So in our industry we have to start by recruiting people who are naturally helpful, who like talking to their customers, who like to work in teams. Recruiting people who have experience of pushing the right buttons and hoping to train them to be friendly is like trying to teach a basketball player to grow taller.

So good interpersonal skills should be seen as a basic requirement, but how do you check for them?

The only way is to take every potential employee through a process where they must express themselves, where they must work in teams and be seen to react well to pressure. It doesn’t have to take long; I’ve seen effective programmes working in theme parks, museums and other attractions that take no more time than conducting simple interviews.

Great customer service is no longer a nice to have. It’s a basic requirement of our customers who rightly feel they deserve it. If you’re leaving it to chance you run the risk of being left behind.