Podcast

Switching from an international to domestic market. With Neil Dolan

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode I speak with Neil Dolan, Head of Operations at Madame Tussauds London.

Rather than going into a shell of, “We need to be really conservative.” It was, “We need to invest back in the experience,” because London’s one of those places that tourism will bounce back because London as a city is just such an amazing place.

Neil Dolan’s BioMy career in Visitor Attractions started at The Edinburgh Dungeon while I was at University in Edinburgh studying Chemistry when I quickly realised I was more passionate about working in attractions than working in a lab.

After graduating I stayed with Merlin Entertainments and moved to the London Eye (EDF Energy London Eye at the time) and held a couple of different operational roles before moving into the Head of Operations role at the start of 2018. Working in the Attractions and Hospitality industry had never been a specific plan but our industry is so unique in terms of the amazing people that work within it that it has become my passion area and I moved across to Madame Tussauds London in December 2020 to further grow that experience.

I believe that an attraction is only as good as the Guest Experience it delivers and I truly believe that a guest first mentality is what turns a good attraction in a world class attraction. Guests and People have been the focus at Madame Tussauds London in 2021 and the work we have done together as a team over the last 12 months is something I’m truly proud of.

Outside of work, I’m kept busy by my 3 year old son Brodie and when I can I try and keep up with my ice hockey and a bit of exercise, albeit the exercise consistency probably needs working on in 2022.

 

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • Neil’s experience of switching the attraction from a predominantly international market to a domestic
  • How they’ve heavily invested in the experience
  • What cocktail making has to do with all of this

Since recording this podcast Neil has since joined Little Lion Entertainment as their Operations Director.

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.

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The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Neil Dolan

 

 

Kelly Molson: Neil, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. It’s really lovely to see you. 

Neil Dolan: No, it’s great. Thanks for inviting me on. I was really looking forward to it.

Kelly Molson: Good. Well, you might not say that after we’ve done the icebreaker questions. Okay. Let’s go straight in. If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you choose to be?

Neil Dolan: I always have to do this comparison in my head that, because I think when I was probably 10, I got to go to Disneyland for the first time and absolutely loved it and became that sort of kid that every year, just almost like “We’re going back to Disneyland. We’re going back to Disneyland.”

And it was almost that amazing moment I remember when I was a child. And then me and my partner went again before we had a child and it was still just as amazing. So whenever me and my partner are talking about holiday, we use almost Disney as the par. It doesn’t matter if we’re going to the most luxurious resort, we always talk about the first time we get to take him to Disneyland.

Kelly Molson: Oh, my god.

Neil Dolan: Because that magic is just awesome.

Kelly Molson: How old are your… You have children?

Neil Dolan: Yes, I’ve got a son who’ll be three in April.

Kelly Molson: Okay. Right.

Neil Dolan: And so I actually spent a good three hours of my night, last night, sleeping on his bedroom floor.

Kelly Molson: Oh gosh. I’m so with you on Disney. I think it is just the most magical place. Your child is three now. What age are you like waiting until they’re ready to go?

Neil Dolan: And this is where we were a little bit selfish, because we were almost like, “How tall will he be when he’s six? How tall will he be when he’s seven? And does that mean we can go on these rights? I think it does.” So we want to have that perfect… Because, when you’re there, you see all those amazing play areas that they can play when they’re really, really young.

But we almost want that magical age where they really associate everything with films. And then when you almost walk through the gates at Magic Kingdom for the first time, they get what that is. And that amazing look on the face is what we’re aiming. So we think probably six or seven.

Kelly Molson: We have just had this same debate, but I’ve actually had it with my parents because they’re massive Disney fans as well.

Neil Dolan: Right.

Kelly Molson: And they turned 70 this year. And so Edie is nearly eight months old now. And they’re like, “Well, so we are thinking five because then we’ll be 75 and we won’t be too old that we won’t enjoy it still.” And I’m like, “Well, okay. I get it. But also that’s a bit selfish.”

Neil Dolan: We’ve got the same train of thought. Everybody absolutely got themselves at the forefront because it doesn’t matter how old you are, it’s just such a great place.

Kelly Molson: No. And I’m five 5’2 and Lee’s only about 5’8. So there’s no hope that she’s going to be a tall grower at so we’re “Yeah, I think six is all right.” Thank you for sharing that. That’s so weird that we’ve all have the same chat about that. Okay. What did you want to be when you grew up?

Neil Dolan: So I actually read through my primary school yearbook about three, four months ago. And I read, we got asked the same question and I’ve played ice hockey for about 25 years and I was really specific. There’s a team called Colorado Avalanche. And I wrote in my yearbook because I wanted to be the left defender for the Colorado Avalanche.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Neil Dolan: And I was like, “That’s a really specific position and team and everything.” So yeah, for years I wanted to be a professional ice hockey player.

Kelly Molson: Oh my goodness. But you still play? So you got to a certain point.

Neil Dolan: Yeah. I still play, I played when I was at university, played for the Edinburgh team for a year and it was significantly detrimental to my studies. I continued to play for fun when I was at university.

Then, when I moved to London, there’s not as many ice rinks and they’re more difficult to get to. And I played a little bit in Streatham, when I lived in old street and I had to get two night buses back from Streatham at half past midnight. Then I thought, “Maybe I’ll wait until I move somewhere else.”

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Neil Dolan: So I played with a team in slack which is great. It’s just a good bunch of guys having a laugh.

Kelly Molson: It is absolutely brilliant to go and watch. Yeah. And quite brutal as well. Quite like that.

Neil Dolan: Yeah, they do it and everyone always says, “Were you one of the people that was absolutely brutal?” And in my head, I want to say, “Yes.” Definitely not, as much as I would love to hold that up, I was not that guy.

Kelly Molson: Okay. It’s good that you’re still doing it, though. I love how niched that was. Okay. What show on Netflix did you binge watch embarrassingly fast?

Neil Dolan: Embarrassingly fast? It’s probably not so much embarrassing, but the one which is almost like one of those golden nuggets was, there was a show called Lilyhammer that was about six years ago, which was a dark comedy drama. About a mob boss who becomes an informant in America then goes to live in Lilyhammer because they hosted the Winter Olympics in the nineties.

And it’s the actor from The Sopranos, whose name always escapes me. But it’s one of those embarrassing things that I can never do it justice. So, whenever I try and explain it to someone, they think, “That sounds terrible. It’s an awful show.”

Kelly Molson: It’s not something that I’ve watched. I haven’t heard of it.

Neil Dolan: It’s so funny. If you’re into that kind of dark sarcastic humour, it’s honestly brilliant.

Kelly Molson: All right.

Neil Dolan: Whether or not it’s still on Netflix or not.

Kelly Molson: I’m going to add that to my list. That wasn’t as embarrassing as I was expecting it to be. Mine’s Cobra Kai, which is pretty embarrassing. I got a little bit obsessed with Cobra Kai. Okay. What is your unpopular opinion?

Neil Dolan: So, this is probably the most difficult one to think of actually, but I think it’s probably that I think that the Sunday roast is overrated.

Kelly Molson: What?

Neil Dolan: I think I would prefer to have an expertly made pizza than a Sunday roast because I think they look better. I think the product looks amazing on Instagram and there are very good Sunday roasts, but the effort to make a Sunday roast, I don’t know. I just don’t think the hype is.

Kelly Molson: I can’t agree with you on this. And I love pizza, don’t get me wrong. But a Sunday roast is my favourite meal of the whole week. It is a lot of effort, I know what you’re saying, to cook it all and it’s gone really quickly, isn’t it?

Neil Dolan: Yeah, it is.

Kelly Molson: But, no. Okay. All right, listeners, Tweet me. Let me know what you feel about that. I reckon I might get some stick about that, Neil. Okay. Neil, you began as Head of Operations at Madame Tussauds, in December 2020, which must have been quite an interesting time to start a new job, I can imagine.

Neil Dolan: Yeah, it was my first day at Madame Tussauds, it was actually the first day of lockdown three. I basically didn’t get to meet anyone. In fact, the first conversations I had with my new team was almost telling them about furlough coming back.

So it began this really weird phase where I was in the role for quite a long time, but I just hadn’t really met anyone. There was only a very small number of people who were still working. And, fortunately, we had weekly Zoom calls where I got to meet some of the team and get to know people to an extent.

But it was nowhere near as good as it is when you actually get to go in and meet people for the first time and get to understand who people are, what makes them tick and actually get to know people.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Neil Dolan: So it was a really, really, really bizarre time. But, in many ways, it was quite exciting because I almost got to look at everything. While you’re closed, you ought to look at almost the bare basics, which you don’t always get to do when you’re caught up in, I guess, the business as usual, the normal trading.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. That’s quite interesting, isn’t it? Because you’re looking at it from the perspective, “Okay, well, no one can come anyway.” So actually this is almost like a blank canvas, so to speak, to see where the pitfalls are or the challenges are, or what’s working well and what isn’t working well.

Neil Dolan: Yeah. And I’m still so fortunate here because the team I’ve got are incredible. And what I knew in the very… I mean, we’re talking days where I got to speak to some people. I guess the passion that the people who work at Madame Tussauds have for Madame Tussauds I’ve never seen anything like it.

They’re so in love with this place. It’s very difficult to get people to be passionate about something that they may not be. But that passion was already there. So when I started, I was like, “Well, I don’t have to worry about that because they’re already so far gone. They just absolutely love what they’re doing.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. So there wasn’t a lot of, you didn’t have to be really motivational for them. You didn’t have to-

Neil Dolan: Absolutely not. No, because they have that. We’ve got some people who are in my team that have been here for 30 years and they just love their job. And, when you get to sit down and speak to them about what is it that they love, they just like, “Well, I just love this place. I always worked here.” That’s so nice to hear. You don’t always get that in new establishments or I guess different sectors.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Oh, that’s really lovely, isn’t it? I guess that helped with some of the things that we are going to talk about as well, because you’ve been through some quite big changes, haven’t you?

So one of the things that you needed to do was make quite a significant switch in terms of who your audience was, because you’ve gone from predominantly having an international market to domestic because they’re international travel. Where do you even start with that?

Neil Dolan: Yeah. So we were a little bit unique, I guess, in comparison to some of the market, because just before one of the lockdowns, there had already been some plans for, I guess, some renovations and some investment. And there was probably a stop/go time where the decision was made.

Do we keep investing, given all the challenges that are going to come and cash flow being such a topic amongst our industry in particular? And what was really nice when I came was the view was, “We need to invest in the product, we need to invest in the experience.” So we almost went the opposite way.

So, rather than going into a shell of, “We need to be really conservative.” It was, “We need to invest back in the experience,” because London’s one of those places that tourism will bounce back because London as a city is just such an amazing place.

And Madame Tussauds London is such an institution that I think there is good confidence that, once the markets are back, they’ll come back when they’re back in the city. But to get that domestic side it was almost to think about, “Well, what is that maybe the domestics think? Or what is it domestics are passionate about?”

And fine tailor the investment we were going to do to ensure that we were speaking to them. So, when we reopened, we launched our new Awards Party and we’d moved Harry and Megan, which the press jumped at because originally they were with the Royals in our Royal area.

And then, when they decided to take a different step down from Senior Royals, we moved them into our new Awards Party area to be with the likes of your Leonard DiCaprios and Dwayne Johnsons. And that PR hook that we got was amazing because we were then able to speak to our domestic audience of, “Look what we’re doing at Madame Tussauds. Look what you can come and see. Come and see what’s on your doorstep.”

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Neil Dolan: And that was the first thing that we did when we reopened, that we would’ve probably done anyway. But the message we were trying to get to people is, “This attraction has always been here and now it’s probably going to be slightly quieter. So even better, come and enjoy.”

Kelly Molson: It’s funny, isn’t it? Because I guess you’ve had to go through changing the perception of what Madame Tussauds is for the domestic market, because I’ve been there, years ago, with my parents. I can remember it. I’ve got my Novelty eraser from there. I’ve got it right next to me, I got my rubber from Madame Tussauds, it’s for my collection.

But, in my head, I do see it as a tourist destination. It’s somewhere that I would love to take my daughter one day for her to experience it. But it’s changing that perception of what it is in people’s heads, isn’t it? And that’s quite a difficult thing to do.

Neil Dolan: Yeah. And it’s come with some challenges. And, going back to the benefit that I had of being able to, I guess, look under the bonnet when I started, was there was probably some things that as a team we focused on quite heavily when we reopened that have probably gone to benefit, I guess, that domestic market to maybe see a different side of us.

So, when we reopened, we were very much like, “Experience. Experience. Customer service. Customer service.” And what has been really, really nice is that we’ve probably, I guess, focused quite a lot on what our external reviews are looking like. And we don’t have to shy away from the fact that we’ve probably had a reputation for queues. You know, everyone who used to talk about Madame Tussauds would start with the queues.

So we are very much focusing on, “Let’s get that reputation down about us having queues and being crowded.” And what’s been really nice because we’ve done that focus, and ultimately, I guess, simplify it a little bit, make things a lot easier.

We’ve seen our review scores go up, we’ve seen the theme of our reviews completely change. And that’s really good because when domestics are looking at reviews, they’re rightly seeing that there are long queues and it’s over crowded. And I guess by us taking a step back, looking at, “Okay, why is that the case?”, we’ve actually been in such a better place.

And the fact that that’s now showing in our reviews is great because you can do all the marketing you want in the world, but if your advocacy’s not strong enough, or people go into Google Reviews and have a look at what people are saying and it’s all negative, people won’t go there.

Kelly Molson: Just talk us through a little bit what you did there, because the queue issue is the big issue to address. What did you put in place to make that better?

Neil Dolan: So we’ve always had almost a time ticketing system. It probably improved over 2017 to 2019. But there were some technological challenges we still had, where there were some guests who still had the old school paper voucher who then had to come to the attraction to exchange that, to then get a time ticket, to then almost come back later.

So already that guest has had this really mixed experience because it’s not their fault. They’ve already bought their ticket from someone. And then the system has then almost said, “Well, yeah. But you have to come back later and queue again.” So that already is completely confusing and it’s a bad experience.

And potentially, because we are quite an international audience, if that person doesn’t speak English particularly well, it’s even more frustrating.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Neil Dolan: So, when we reopened, we worked really hard with our partners so that everyone who books, I guess, even through a third party has a ticket that they only have to queue once, that has a time on it with very clear information.

So we almost, instead of having, I guess, the bulk of our guests turning up within, I guess, the two to three hours in the middle of the day, when everyone tends to go to attractions, just spreading them out through the day means that there’s less queues, there’s less people going into the building.

It’s just a better experience. And it sounds really simple, but the pandemic was horrible for so many reasons. But in some ways for, I guess, the technology side businesses had to adapt and we had to do things better. And that’s been a massive change for us.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, definitely. We’ve had this conversation numerous times on the podcast about pre-booking and the benefits of it and why most will want to keep it past the pandemic, as well. So, how does it work with the international audience for you? Would people predominantly buy tickets in advance or were you more a walk-up attraction?

Neil Dolan: I guess, again, that’s changed or we’ve seen it change at the moment, since the pandemic. So we used to do quite a lot of tickets from a walk-up perspective and we do a good proportion on online and, because we are quite internationally heavy in some respects.

We would do a lot through third parties and through the trade industry, what we’ve seen at the moment is there’s been a massive swing from walk-up tickets to online booking. And it’s difficult to draw conclusion from it because it’s very domestic heavy at the moment. And we are just so used to doing that, it’s almost ingrained. In fact, I pre-booked to go to the swimming pool the other day.

Kelly Molson: Oh, yeah. I have to do the same.

Neil Dolan: Which we usually just wouldn’t do. You just turn up with your arm band, or I turn up with my arm bands anyway.

Kelly Molson: Don’t we all?

Neil Dolan: Yeah, we all. Absolutely. In some ways that’s really helpful because it allows you to make sure that you’ve got the right resource in, it allows you to plan throughout the day properly, you don’t always get caught off guard.

So, again, it’s a massive benefit for us be able to actually manage the experience. Whereas walk-up is great and I don’t think it’s anything we would ever stop doing, but if you get a massive surge of people who just turn up on the day, you could be caught off guard and that, again, can be detrimental.

Kelly Molson: That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? So, how much of your market did you lose overnight? What did it go from?

Neil Dolan: Well, we’re probably the majority international and even the minority domestic that we had before, there was a good proportion of that with schools. So you almost turned off the majority of our market and then, of the domestic market, we lost the school bookings because they weren’t doing that either.

And that’s not just for us, that’s almost for London, that these people just weren’t there. In fact, I walked through Covent Garden two Fridays ago, on a Friday night, and it was dead.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Neil Dolan: And you just think that there’s, I don’t know, 6 million tourists or whatever it is that comes in a short period of time that just aren’t in the city. So we knew it was going to be challenging and we knew, in particular, it was going to be challenging in the times when schools weren’t off because you’re more reliant on, I guess, overnighter couples or families who aren’t in school. People with really young children. Just a really tough position to be in.

Kelly Molson: Thinking about what you said about the pre-booking and you are always going to welcome walk-ups as well. I think that’s the nature of where you’re located and what you do and the market that you have. How did you counter that?

For example, if you’re going to keep pre-booking and you’re still going to keep the time slots where you’ve got people, and then you get an influx of people that just want to come on that day for those times, how are you going to keep the experience as good as it is now when that market comes back and that shift happens?

Neil Dolan: Yeah. So, a big part of it is communicating. A lot of it is communicating to our guests really, really, really clearly. So the benefits of almost a high percentage pre-booked model is you can get in, in the morning, and know where your full slots are.

And what we’ve kind of got into a good position of doing now, when we know we’ve got capacity challenges and I’m hoping that you want to have capacity challenges in some instance, because it means you’re busy, is being quite honest and telling people.

So I know certainly when I was in my previous role at the London Eye, when we had a busy day and it was almost sold out, we would put that on the website, or we would maybe put it on Twitter or try and tell people in advance as best we can.

What we did, and this weekend was a good example of it, where we were really busy, was that we just made the decision that we’ll just stay open for a little bit longer and we can add additional availability after we would’ve closed.

So, for anyone who does turn up, we keep the doors open a little bit longer, because we don’t want them to go away disappointed. From a business perspective, we want to capitalise when there’s people there to buy the ticket.

And I would like to think we probably would’ve done that before, but I think certainly this post-COVID rebuilding time we’ve been trialling lots of different things and thinking probably a lot more differently than we probably would’ve. Less rigid, I suppose.

Kelly Molson: That was going to be one of my questions. And, just to go back to address that about staying open longer, that’s really surprising for me because I wouldn’t have expected that level of flexibility from such a large attraction because that’s… Okay. You make the decision, “Are we going to stay open an hour later tonight?” That’s a lot of people that you’ve got to get to agree to do that, isn’t it? That’s really great.

Neil Dolan: It is. And, again, going back to my comment about the team here, they generally just love this place and they love it when it’s really busy. And I think that’s probably anyone who’s an operator. As much as they think, “Oh, I’m really tired after that peak period,” the off peak period comes and, “Oh, wish it was peaking again.”

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Neil Dolan: The credit of that needs to go to my team of management, because they’ve got that relationship with the team that the team also know it’s more beneficial because they would rather we were open a little bit longer rather than us trying to put more people through the doors, because that could be the other way of doing it.

But then, going back to that whole point of you need to protect the experience to improve the advocacy, to make the business more appealing, we’re very honest with our team in terms of what our strategy is. And our strategy is we need to maintain the experience.

And it was one of those proud moments actually, when one of the team messages say we’re going to stay open later because we’re really busy, I was like, “That’s awesome.” And that’s almost them feeling that they’re empowered to make that decision. I was just like, “That’s great. Do it.”

Kelly Molson: That is lovely. You’ve done your job well, that’s it. Like you say, you’ve empowered them to do that and that’s the benefit of the visitors as well. That’s really fantastic. I was genuinely really surprised by that.

You mentioned doing things differently and that was one of the questions that I had for you is some of the benefits of the pandemic for organisations is that we’ve had to think really quickly and change what we do in and take chances on stuff. Are there things that you’ve tried that you previously wouldn’t have thought about?

Neil Dolan: Yeah. So, one of the phrases that I used a couple of times was, “Let’s try it because if it’s 5% wrong, it’s 5% of not a lot.”

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Neil Dolan: Whereas, if you do it in summer peak period and normal times, that could be quite massive. We tried different promotions, we tried different pricing strategies, we tried new products. So we did a product where, last year, the last hour of the day tended to be the quietest. We did a product with a gin company that it’d be almost a discounted ticket.

And someone got a free glass of this cocktail that was made. Normally you wouldn’t have been able to do it because you’d be so nervous that not too many people buy it, and we won’t be able to serve the cocktails enough, who’s going to make the cocktail? And in the end we was thought, “We’ll just make it work. It’ll be fine.” So we ended up doing a cocktail making class.

Kelly Molson: At Madame Tussauds?

Neil Dolan: Yeah, they came in, they taught us-

Kelly Molson: That’s really cool.

Neil Dolan:… How to make a cocktail. And then members of our frontline team, if they were happy to do it, the last hour of the day, it was called Fame & Fizz. And they were on the Fame & Fizz position, were they had to make cocktails for people who bought this ticket.

Kelly Molson: Nice.

Neil Dolan: And, if I’m honest, we wouldn’t have done it before because I think everybody was probably in that mindset like, “Well, it wouldn’t work,” because operationally it wouldn’t work. And no one would be able to tell you why.

And I was always guilty for it. If I went back a good few years, I probably would’ve said the same thing, but we thought, “Let’s try it. Let’s see what happens.” And it was good for what it was. And the guests obviously loved it, because who doesn’t like a cocktail?

Kelly Molson: Who doesn’t love a cocktail? And if you don’t, crazy. Like one of those crazy people that like pizza over roast dinners.

Neil Dolan: Probably gonna be the same.

Kelly Molson: So, it’s quite liberating to try new things, isn’t it? Like, “Let’s just give it a go and see what happens.” Do you feel like you can embrace that now with things going back to normal? Do you think that you’ll still have the opportunity to try different things?

Neil Dolan: Yeah. I think you have to. And I think, again, it’s one of those things that we’ve… I’m going to put enjoyed in a certain way, because for some of the team, they’ll be like, “Ah, it’s another idea. Oh, no.” But, again, it’s almost that point of, “What have you got to lose?” And, if it’s a success, then amazing. We’ll ride that success throughout.

And the important thing even with the things that don’t work, what we made a really conscious effort of is make sure that we almost document why it doesn’t work and keep that somewhere really available. Because the worst thing, if I use the example of some of the team that have been here for 30 years, they probably will have seen the same thing tried over and over again.

And it’s never fair for those people to provide almost experience of why something hasn’t worked and for someone to go, “Yeah. But it’s just being amusing.” And actually, sometimes it hasn’t worked for a very good reason, but sometimes with turnover people don’t remember why.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Neil Dolan: And if there’s anything certainly from the last year, is that just trying things and seeing what happens and, if it doesn’t work, just don’t try it again. We’ll keep doing that.

Kelly Molson: I like that idea of documenting it because you could get into that situation where you just think someone’s being a bit of a Debbie Downer, but actually no, you have tried this before.

Neil Dolan: We’ve tried it, yeah.

Kelly Molson: Let me get the book out and tell you exactly why this didn’t work. I’m intrigued to know what other crazy ideas might be up your sleeves. I bet your team is quite intrigued, as well.

Neil Dolan: Yeah. When I open my door, they’re just about their eyes.

Kelly Molson: So what about your marketing? You would’ve had to have made quite a significant switch in terms of what you were doing with your marketing, because domestic and international audiences, you would market to them in a completely different way. What was that shift? What did you change?

Neil Dolan: So, there is some similarities we would still have selling the peak periods. We still had an element of out of home, we would still do your more traditional location advertising. And it’s speaking about London here because you don’t have all of the internationals in the city, you can’t really focus on that location domination in the same way, because you’re talking to not that many people.

And that kind of marketing is just incredibly expensive. So when we were looking at, “Okay, so we’ve got an element of which are going to be day trippers.” So we need to be speaking to them either through social media, which everybody uses more than anything else in the world now, and to an extent PR.

But you also need that reach of working with the right partners, because we want to be speaking to probably people in the Northeast of England, the people in the Southwest of England, people in Scotland, because we want them to come to Madame Tussauds when they’re in London and that’s half the battle.

But the other half, which was incredibly difficult for us, wasn’t something we could do by ourself was, was getting involved in the Let’s Do London campaign, because what came out of the pandemic was this buildup of demand amongst the domestic market who couldn’t go abroad, but then the coastal areas did incredibly well.

Neil Dolan: Cornwall, I don’t think will have ever recovered from the influx of people that it had. But everything you saw on the news was, “The underground’s unsafe. There’s too many people. It’s too busy,” when actually it was the complete opposite. London was dead.

There was just no one around. So, whereas we would normally never have done it, a lot of what we were trying to say to people was, “We are safe. Here’s the measures that we’ve got in place. We know what we’re doing.” The good-to-go thing was a great initiative that we could shout out about.

So, rather than always talking about the product, we had to do an element where we were talking about, I guess, the health and safety side. And a lot of that, again, was done through PR, was, when we did have these launches, trying to caveat a bit of both like, “Come see this amazing figure. We’ve preserved the experience. It’s absolutely safe. We can’t wait to see you.”

Kelly Molson: Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? The couple of times that I went into London during the pandemic, just thought London was really lovely.

Neil Dolan: It was amazing.

Kelly Molson: It was so nice. Just walking around, no one was bumping into you. I could get a seat on the tube. It was glorious. I wasn’t in anyone’s armpit.

Neil Dolan: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: That should be the marketing campaign.

Neil Dolan: That’s the marketing campaign. Absolutely.

Kelly Molson: “Come now. You won’t be in anyone’s armpit on a tube.” So what next? International travel is resuming.

Neil Dolan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Molson: You mentioned that you were really busy this weekend, which is fantastic.

Neil Dolan: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: So what is next for Madame Tussauds? What can we see on the horizon?

Neil Dolan: A couple of things, really. So some of it is the learnings that we’ve taken from having a domestic focus, is not to lose it, because I guess what’s been really reassuring is that we’ve and if it wasn’t probably for, I guess, the Omicron variant over Christmas, we’d probably be further down a recovery in London than we are because October, half-term last year was really promising.

And we’ve learned a lot about what it is that domestics like about the product, we’ve learned a lot about what is hopefully driving domestics here. So the main thing that we’re going to do is to keep that focus, because we done to drop it. For us, that investment continues. We’re continuing to invest in the product. So we’ve got a brand new music zone, which will open for Easter, which is going to be incredibly exciting.

We had Zendaya launch in February, which has been received incredibly well. We did a documentary. That was the other thing we did last year, Madame Tussauds’ documentary where it was talked about the return of the Chamber of Horrors, will come back to Madame Tussauds.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Neil Dolan: So, that product focus is going to stay because if it there’s one thing that I think we certainly learned from the pandemic is that you can never take your experience for granted, because your market share is not guaranteed and advocacy is not guaranteed.

And we’ve been probably really proud of the fact that we’ve not been scared away from our plans because what guests are telling us, and it’s also great for the team here because they’re seeing great amounts of investment and areas of building just just looking amazing. Our new Awards Party is just so, so good.

That continued investment, that continued focus on PR that continued focus on the experience will do us absolute wonders when internationals come back. And we talk a lot about one of our, I guess, target audiences being families with younger to middle teens who come, just really getting excited about celebrities.

We talk a lot about we really want to show how amazing this is because we then want those teens to come back with their families, later on. And that continual evolution, because celebrity landscape changes all the time. That continual change at Madame Tussauds is important because we need to reflect what the landscape is. And who knows what it will look like in five or six years?

So that’s something we’re very aware of and something we’re going to have to, I guess, keep an eye on, as time goes on. Because, as we found, I think it was in 2020, there was a petition from people to not take away the One Direction figures. People are really passionate about our product, as well. So, we have to take what’s being said seriously.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Gosh. People do get really upset about things, don’t they? I hadn’t thought about it.

Neil Dolan: One Direction is a very, very passionate subject.

Kelly Molson: Are they still there or did you take them away?

Neil Dolan: One Direction, they were in a music zone just now, which we’ll launch, as I said, it’ll be for Easter. They may or may not be there when we opened, but we’ll see what’s the public saying.

Kelly Molson: They’re gone, but not forgotten.

Neil Dolan: Never forgotten.

Kelly Molson: Never forgotten. Neil, thank you so much. This has been such an enjoyable talk. Thanks for coming on and sharing everything that you’ve been through. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, I can imagine.

We’re at the end of the podcast. And I always ask our guests to share a book that they love. So something personal, something work related, just something that you really enjoy, that you think our listeners might, as well.

Neil Dolan: Particularly, when I was coming to work, I guess, during the third lockdown, lockdown has been confusing. When you’ve been at work and you always use the train journey to switch off from work. I said, my son is absolutely obsessed with dinosaurs, to the point where, by virtue, now I am obsessed with dinosaurs.

So I spent a good part of those train journey to reading Jurassic Park books because I’d never read them before. I’d watched the films hundreds of times, but I’d never read the books. And I used to do this and my partner was probably sick of me talking about it. I just basically go home and tell her about what I dread in Jurassic Park.

And it was such a good way to switch off because, particularly when you’ve got little one, you definitely need that separation of work and home. And that was almost the transition where my son, who was pretty good at talking, but was correcting me on dinosaur pronunciation, when they were years olds was bizarre.

Kelly Molson: Where does this come from? Because Edie is too young for this right now, but I really liked dinosaurs when I was a kid. But our friend’s little boy is obsessed, obsessed with dinosaurs. Knows all of the complicated words that I can’t even pronounce.

Neil Dolan: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: I have no idea where it’s come from.

Neil Dolan: No, I have no idea. I have no idea. But being corrected by a two year old was remarkable. I didn’t know what a Zuniceratops was, but when I Googled it and I was like, “He’s right. Okay. I’ll take that one away.”

Kelly Molson: Mind blown.

Neil Dolan: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Okay. So we’re recommending the Jurassic Park books. This is so great.

Neil Dolan: Absolutely.

Kelly Molson: I love this. Okay. Well, listeners, if you want to win Neil’s books, then if you head over to our Twitter account and you Retweet this episode announcement with the words, “I want Neil’s books,” then you may be lucky enough to win them. Who knows? Neil, thank you. That’s been a really lovely chat. I’ve really enjoyed it. Thank you for coming on.

Thank you to Paul Griffiths of Painshill Park, who put me in touch with you in the first place after I put my little shout out about my Novelty rubbers. And let’s try and get all of the attractions on the podcast. I’m very pleased you did because it was a really great chat. So, thank you.

Neil Dolan: No, thanks for having me on. It’s been great. It’s been really enjoyable.

Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

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

 

Paul Wright.
Author:
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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