Podcast

The Making of Harry Potter. With Geoff Spooner

In today’s Skip the Queue podcast episode, I speak with Geoff Spooner, the Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Warner Bros. Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter.

We discuss the tour’s phenomenal success, and yeah, you guessed it, the motivation for launching with pre-booking only.

“I think if you could combine pre-booking with timed entry, you can really create a really fantastic experience because it’s much more sustainable to deliver, and you can deliver it probably more efficiently than if everyone just rocks up on the day.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • The tour’s phenomenal success
  • The motivation for launching with pre-booking only

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

The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Geoff Spooner

Kelly Molson: Geoff, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. I’m excited to talk about you. We’ve got lots to get through today. But as ever, I start with my icebreaker questions.

Geoff Spooner: Okay.

Kelly Molson: So first one for you. Are you a believer in having a very regimented morning routine? Are you a 4:00am start kind of guy?

Geoff Spooner: I can’t think why anyone would want to start at 4:00 AM. I can’t think of anything worse than that. I am fairly regimented because I have children and I think that necessitates that in order to actually get them out of the house at a certain time which I’ve done a lot more of during lockdowns. And my wife broke her foot, unfortunately, so-

Kelly Molson: Oh, God.

Geoff Spooner: Having to do a lot of that, and appreciating all that she does normally. I think routine is good, but you know, you read it in these things and they say, “Tell us about your daily routine.” And they’re like, “Oh, I wake up at 2:00 am and I go for a swim,” and you think, “Oh, you’re absolutely mental.”

Kelly Molson: No, you don’t! You’re a crazy fool if you do that.

Geoff Spooner: Absolutely mad. Why would you do that?

Kelly Molson: It’s the middle of the night. I’m totally with you on that. I just don’t get it, and I think it’s part of that really horrible hustle culture that we have at the moment where every waking minute you should be pushing yourself and pushing yourself, and actually, you should be getting up earlier for your morning routine as well. No, it’s not for me. We’ve got dogs, so again, I have a very regimented set routine.

Geoff Spooner: Same thing, same thing.

Kelly Molson: But it definitely doesn’t start at four o’clock in the morning.

Geoff Spooner: Kids are just more expensive versions of dogs, really, aren’t they?

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Probably less messy as well.

Geoff Spooner: Yeah. Well, I don’t know. I don’t know.

Kelly Molson: Okay. All right. Next one. If you could bring back any fashion trend from your youth, what would it be?

Geoff Spooner: Well, I’m a child of the ’80s, so I certainly wouldn’t recommend bringing anything back. The stuff that my mum used to make us wear, I just think is… It’s harrowing images in my head when I see it, so yeah. I think my wife would disagree with you, but I try to sort of block the ’80s out of my memory, really.

Kelly Molson: See, I’m a big nostalgia person and the ’80s is my era as well. That’s where I grew up, so I have a real fondness for it. Not so much the fashion. It wasn’t cool, was it?

Geoff Spooner: No, it wasn’t. It’s not one we look back on and go, “I looked damn good then.”

Kelly Molson: Actually, I don’t think there’s any year that I look back on and think that-

Geoff Spooner: I look at what my 10-year-old wear and I think, “Look what I had to wear when I was 10. Oh my God.”

Kelly Molson: So, can you tell me your unpopular opinion? Something that you believe to be true, but almost nobody else agrees with you on.

Geoff Spooner: Probably a bit controversial for the company that I work in, but my preference really is I think that film trailers are too long.

Kelly Molson: Oh.

Geoff Spooner: I don’t know. I think less is more, less is more. There’s a point where you’re telling a bit too much of the story, and I think I want to be surprised when I go to the cinema, and I love going to the cinema. So that would be my probably quite unpopular opinion.

Kelly Molson: Well, no. I’m with you on that. I love a trailer, so I get really excited at the cinema when the trailers come on, because I think, “This is a great buildup.” But yeah, you’re right. Sometimes you think, “Have I just watched all of the best bits from that film? Probably.”

Geoff Spooner: It’s tricky.

Kelly Molson: Well, let’s see what our listeners think, whether that’s controversial or not. I’m sure they’ll let me know. Thank you for answering those silly questions.

Geoff Spooner: No worries.

Kelly Molson: I want to start with your background because you’ve got a really impressive career in the travel and leisure industry. You’ve worked at Warwick Castle, LEGOLAND Windsor, London Eye. Can you tell us a little bit about it? Was it always a sector that you were really passionate about and wanted to work in?

Geoff Spooner: No, not really. I look at my kids today. My daughter’s headmaster, she’s only 10, asked if I’d do a careers talk for her school, and I thought, “Gosh, isn’t that fantastic?” No one ever used to tell you these things. You’d do your certificate of achievement and things like that at school, and you’d do your test and they’d say you’d have some completely random job that you never even thought you’d be interested in.

So I don’t think I had a massive career plan when I was a child, but once I went into university and things like that, I was really interested in animals. So I thought I would end up working with that really because I have a Zoology degree.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Geoff Spooner: So I’d be like Newt Scamander from the Fantastic Beasts. That was before my time. So I was working in a zoo, at Chessington, actually, in their zoo team there. I used to do that during the holidays, and while I was doing my degree and I thought… I tell you what. Working in a zoo is such fun. It is really, really great fun.

Kelly Molson: Aw, I bet.

Geoff Spooner: And I loved that so much. Randomly one year I ended up, rather than being in the zoo, ended up going to work in guest services at the park, which is… In a theme park, guest services can be quite a fun place to work as well, for lots of different reasons, and I really enjoyed doing that. Then I worked in admissions with the admissions team as well, just the year that I was graduating. That was 2000, and Tussauds, who owned Chessington at the time, had just opened the London Eye.

I think probably, looking at all the parks and then looking at… It’s essentially a Ferris wheel. What can go wrong? Then we opened the London Eye and found out, what could go wrong? So then there was a lot of emphasis on, “Okay, we’ve got to get this back quickly because so many people want to come and experience it.” So I ended up joining them as the front of house visitor service manager with the team there, putting together a team. They didn’t have a visitor service team at the time, randomly. Just let anyone go behind the information desk and give out-

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Geoff Spooner: Give out any old random sort of information, which sounds absolutely crazy now, but that’s kind of the way it was. So I had lots of fun with that, working there for five years, and then I moved to manage admissions and that was a massively, massively… I mean, still is a massively popular attraction. But you know, having 12,000 pre-booked visitors and 12,000 people on the day coming to the attraction is, if you’ve been… I’m sure probably everyone who’s listening has been to the London Eye. That is a tiny little footprint of an attraction. But when we were duty director or duty manager and you’re walking around that attraction, you’re easily doing 7,000 meters, or 7k, on your Fitbit or whatever it was

So yeah, that was really good fun. Then not a lot was happening, really, at Tussauds, and I’d thought I’d really enjoyed the London Eye, and I was sort of looking at, “What else should I do? Maybe I should go and work in a different industry,” and maybe looked at ticketing, that sort of thing.

An opportunity came to go and join National Express, which is a very different industry to visitor attractions. Travel has many more challenges, mainly because lots of people arrive at you very angry for [crosstalk 00:07:51] no fault of anything that you’ve done, particularly, because their plane’s been seven hours later or something like that, and then they’re amazed that at 2:00 in the morning, you haven’t got a coach that’s going to wherever it is they live. So that was a really different experience. Worked with their teams there, worked all of their airport sites. You know, very, very busy, and a really, really demanding kind of job. I think the thing you find there is that when you work at an airport, there’s nothing worse than going to an airport every day and not going on holiday.

Kelly Molson: Oh, gosh! Yeah, that must be really soul-destroying.

Geoff Spooner: So I did that for about five years, and then I was really missing visitor attractions, though, and so wanted to get back into that. An opportunity came up at LEGOLAND, and I joined there as Operations Director, and had lots of fun working there. LEGO’s a great brand, LEGOLAND’s a great brand, and it’s a really fun attraction. During my time, we were really lucky. We put in things like the Star Wars Miniland that they had. We were sort of fine-tuning the Atlantis Submarine ride and the sea life that went with that.

Everyone thought we were absolutely mad, because we decided to open an open-air outdoor water park in DUPLO Valley, and we just ended up opening it on the summer when there was the biggest heatwave ever. So from April till about September, it was one of those ones where it was like 80 degrees every day, and we looked like complete geniuses after that, to be honest.

Kelly Molson: Perfectly timed.

Geoff Spooner: Yeah, it was good. But sort of halfway through that, unexpectedly, really, the role at Warwick came up, to be GM for that, and it’s just such a fantastic attraction. It’s so beautiful and an incredible place to work. I thought, “Well, I’ll give that a go.” I was allowed to go and do that, and so we moved up to Warwick, where we still live, and I had a lot of fun there putting in lots of different combination offerings and things like that. Literally very happy doing all of that, but got a call asking if I’d be interested about coming over to Warner Bros. Probably the only other attraction that I would have considered doing.

Yeah, so then I came over to work with a really amazing team here, and a really equally special kind of brand, with Harry Potter and the filmmaking and everything that goes along with that.

Kelly Molson: I mean, it is, isn’t it? It is a hugely iconic brand. It must’ve been a really tough decision, because Warwick Castle, like you say, it is, again, iconic, and absolutely incredibly beautiful. All of the attraction places that you’ve worked at, actually, have a really huge draw for people, for very, very different reasons. So with the Making of Harry Potter tour, have you been there from the start? Were you there when it first opened?

Geoff Spooner: No. So I joined in 2016, and the tour opened in 2012. And you know, if you walk around our building, there’s lots of pictures of the opening and William and Kate attending, and Jo, and all of that, and there’s a lot of our team actually here today who were here in 2012 for the opening, or were here while we were building it. A couple of our duty managers were in the films. So you know, there’s that huge kind of love for it, really.

One of the things, I suppose, that really appealed to me, and sort of convinced me to come over and drive an hour and a half to work every day is that Warner Bros. just have a really amazing approach to the way that they work. They have this incredible, I suppose, expectation of quality, and they want everything to be done to a very, very, very high standard, and also to invest to deliver that as well. So it’s not unattainable. They very much very consider what they want to do. What is the experience we’re trying to deliver? What is the service levels going to be like?

I suppose the opportunity to come and work in that environment, knowing also that we were going to be building, if I came along, that I’d be working on an expansion that was massive, which is the one that we’ve just opened in 2019. So there was a lot to be doing, lots to going on, another expansion that we’d be opening in 2017 in the meantime. A really amazing brand.

Geoff Spooner: It’s a bit irresistible, I suppose, is probably the best way to… You know, you wouldn’t really get that opportunity. I think people couldn’t quite understand it in 2016. They couldn’t understand, why would you go there? It’s sort of over now. It’s a bit done. Harry Potter’s a bit done. What’s happening? But I did know that, obviously, the Fantastic Beasts films were in development, so that was going to bring the whole Harry and the wizarding world back to the people’s front of mind. And also, we had the Cursed Child play opening, and all of those things kind of happened at the same time. So the brand was very, very resurgent, people still really, really want to do it.

Also, from my point of view, part of the challenge is, in some respects, it’s not easy. But if you go to attraction and you’re going there to make it much better, that’s can be very exciting, and gives you all sorts of opportunity to try.

If you’re going to an attraction that’s got 25,000 five-star TripAdvisor reviews, and has a five-star trip about, you can mess that up, I suppose. So the challenge for me, I think, was to come in and really maintain that, but knowing that we were going to have to get bigger, knowing that we were going to have to grow our numbers, knowing that we probably have to grow our price and do all of those things, and make that all sort of successful and be profitable at the same time. So it was a very unique challenge to find yourself presented with as an opportunity, but I’m really pleased that I did it, because it’s been absolutely huge fun for since 2016. It’s kind of flown by really.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, and an opportunity that you just couldn’t have missed out on at all. It was interesting what you said there about an attraction that has such a highly rated, been so highly rated by people because a couple of stats here. I think I read that since it opened to the public in 2012, it’s welcomed up to 6,000 visitors a day during peak times, and TripAdvisor report that it’s been the highest-rated attraction worldwide every year since the tour opened. I mean, it’s really peak, isn’t it? To maintain that is something else, but to build on it is a whole other story.

Geoff Spooner: Yeah. And even when we opened, we weren’t open at the levels that we were out in 2013 or 2014, so we ramped up to about 5,000. When I joined in 2016, our top day was 6,000. We looked at the operation and tweaked that to six and a half quite quickly before we had the expansion, and with the expansion now, we’re up to seven and a half thousand people a day. And you know, like you say, we’ve got sort of 40,000-odd TripAdvisor reviews now, and our average day is 96%.

It’s amazing to do that, because I think people come based, I think, on word of mouth, based on that sort of reputation, but their expectation because of that is set really, really high, and our team have this mission to exceed the expectation. But they, all credit to them. They manage to do that really consistently, and the experience is really consistent. We see that not just on TripAdvisor. We see it on Google reviews, we see it on Facebook.

So it’s lovely to be in the role that I’m in, because people say, “Ooh, I went to Harry Potter World yesterday.” No one ever gets the name of the attraction right. And suddenly, “Okay.” And then they say, “And I had a fantastic time.” You can walk around the attraction and someone say, “Are you the manager?” And you sort of think, “Oh yes. How can I help you?” And they go, “We’re having such a great time!” So-

Kelly Molson: Oh, that’s nice!

Geoff Spooner: Yes, you know, if you walk around the bus station and someone says, “Are you the manager?” You know what’s coming. So yeah, it’s great.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, completely different story.

Geoff Spooner: It’s a lovely change.

Kelly Molson: Oh, that’s really nice. I loved what you said earlier, actually, about having to re-engage people with the brand. You knew that the new films were coming out and new things were happening. But I think that with Harry Potter, the story is ingrained in so many of us from such a young age that I now see that progression where… You know, I read all of the books when I was younger, and I’ve watched all of the films, and I’ve been to see the play, and I’ve been to the attraction. And now I can see, like, my friend’s children are growing up. My friend’s eight year old is Harry Potter obsessed. She’s loving the books. As soon as the attraction opened up after lockdown, they went, and it’s really lovely to see that progression.

I guess one of my questions for you was going to be, how do you keep the magic alive for repeat visitors? Because people will come back time and time again. But I guess they bring small people with them, and they bring different people with them over the years as well.

Geoff Spooner: Yeah. I think we have a real range of audience as well. It’s not just sort of one type. It’s not just families. Yes, we have lots of families, but we have lots of couples. Today there’s a lot of couples in the tour. It’s mid-week and it’s in December. We have also grandparents bringing kids. And like you say, there’s the original generation that watched the films, grew up with the books, and they’re transferring that. I think good stories, good storytelling, stands the test of time.

My oldest daughter, for some reason, not into the books. Likes Harry Potter a lot. Just, I think, a bit scared by the books. She’s 10. My youngest daughter, who’s seven, absolutely loves everything. Wants the books read to them, wants all the characters’ accents done properly. You know, everything. So for us, that’s great, and that gives you the demand, and we have to create the pull to make people want to come in the first place and visit again.

Now, fundamentally, we’ve got a really good attraction. The sets, the props, the costumes that you see… Most people have that mental image of what does the Great Hall at Hogwarts look like. They have what they’ve watched on the television. And when you walk through the doors and you’re in the Great Hall, you are standing on that set, and it has become a kind of Mecca for Harry Potter fans. So that is absolutely a massive plus to start off with. But how do you get them to come a second time, or a fourth or fifth time?

We’ve taken the approach of doing two things. One is expansions, and the other one is kind of seasonal features. The expansions we’ve done three of. Our first one was in 2015. We built out one of our stages, and knocked a wall down, and then all of a sudden you were standing in King’s Cross station, and you have the actual Hogwarts Express train stood in front of you, and people absolutely love that. Then in 2017, we moved all of our on-site warehousing and things like that, and we moved all our photography around. A very big internal move in an attraction that’s open. We introduced the Forbidden Forest, so you can meet enormous acromantulas and Aragog, and they all come down from the ceiling. There’s lots of ghostly fog, and you can see centaurs, and you can see Buckbeak and bow to him. And that’s been really… People absolutely love that, and that’s helped to keep people coming back.

Geoff Spooner: Then with the expansion we had last year, Gringotts bank has just been…. It’s a huge, huge expansion, but it really, really delivers, and I think we had lots of secrets in that as well. So we told people that you could see the bank. We told people, “You’ll see the Lestrange vault.” We told people that you would see goblins, and how they’re made, and people are really interested in how you make somebody into a goblin. But they didn’t know that when you leave Gringotts, you walk through destroyed Gringotts bank and you see this huge dragon coming at you, and I think that’s a real surprise element that I’ve now ruined, but I think most people really, really love.

So those are some of the things that we do. And then we have features where it’s more like touring exhibitions, where we focus on a particular aspect of the story and the filmmaking process. So we might have a feature like Wizarding Wardrobes, which we did, which is all about costume. We might have a feature about, specifically, the Goblet of Fire. This year, we launched our new Celebration of Slytherin, and we were just about to open that before the first lockdown, so we actually ended up opening on the 20th of August. So slightly delayed. With that, we try to bring in… For example, you come into the Great Hall, all the Slytherin banners are there. If you are a Slytherin, it’s a big wow. If you’re not, it’s a big wow, but you sort of wish maybe it was your house.

Then we introduced the new… We basically took the Slytherin common room set, and we recreated that and put that into our stage. I think the great thing about where it is is that you would never know it hadn’t been there forever. So we’re always kind of mixing up what the inside of the tour looks like, and trying to re-present that in different ways. We’ve just launched, because it’s December, Hogwarts In the Snow. So very Christmassy, lots of trees at the moment. If you go into Diagon Alley, that’s all snowed at the moment. So a really beautiful time here. Lots of people come back for that. Lots of people come back for our Dark Arts season at Halloween, where we have floating pumpkins everywhere, and you can meet lots of Death Eaters and duel with them.

So lots of those things keep coming back. We have lots of event dinners. They’re timed with some of those features, Valentines, things like that. So yes, lots and lots of things just to keep that presence there, and keep noise around the attraction. And all of that is backed up, I think, with some really amazing work that our marketing and our PR teams do to deliver that in a very eye-catching and very memorable way. So yeah, it’s a great brand to work with from that perspective, because you’ve got eight films to work with, plus Fantastic Beasts in the future.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, absolutely. It feels like because of the additional films as well, it feels like there’s always going to be something else that could be added, and something more exciting that can come along and on. I mean, I’m smiling the whole way through listening to this, because I am a huge Harry Potter fan, and just the way that you talk about it, it just paints such a magical picture as well. It makes me want to go back.

I kind of want to go back to the start of when it opened, and I know that you weren’t there from 2012, but I mean, it’s a hugely hot topic at the moment, and it has been throughout the whole of this year, is pre-booking. It’s controversial to some. Some love it, some hate it. But when the studio tour opened, it opened with pre-booking and Carly, a good friend of mine, Carly Straughan, who was a recent guest on the podcast. She said that when the decision was made that that was going to happen, everybody was up in arms about it and said, “Well, it’s not going to work. You know? People won’t come.” It’s very clear that that was completely and utterly wrong, and people did come. They come in their thousands.

I mean, I don’t know how many of these questions you can ask, but I kind of wanted to understand what the motivation was for launching with that model, and then really what the kind of main benefits were, as well.

Geoff Spooner: Well, it was actually, I think, at the time when the studio tour… And we’ve obviously got a huge film studio at Leavesden Studios next to us. When all that was going through planning, I think there was this sort of, however much you said it wasn’t a theme park, there was this perception, I think, or concern, that the tour would be like a theme park. And there is an association, I think, thereof there’s peak flows into and out of theme parks from a traffic point of view. So actually the reason that we are a pre-book only attraction, it is actually, and timed as well, is because of our planning conditions basically. So it was actually sort of something that was thrust upon us to prevent traffic congestion in the local area.

Like you say, I think at the time, there were a lot of people who were concerned that maybe that’d be a bit of an Achilles heel for the success of an attraction, but actually, it’s turned out to be probably one of our best positives as a visitor attraction. I think I’ve been on lots of calls in lockdown, and it’s interesting to see lots of other attractions saying, “Oh, it’s great. We know who’s coming now. It’s amazing!” You know, and you’re sort of saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

But I guess the main benefits are, firstly, it is really helpful to know who’s coming, and how many people are gonna turn up on… Lots of times in different attractions, you’ve staffed up for 3000 people, you’ve no reason to expect there to be more than 3000 people coming, and 12,000 people turn up, and the experience is terrible, and you can’t cope and you just get completely overwhelmed. So by knowing who’s coming, you’ve got the best chance of preserving a really fantastic visitor experience.

Geoff Spooner: It means that you can design your attraction to a maximum. So you know that you can operate it at that maximum, and actually the maximum is designed to work as a visitor experience. So rather than there not being an infinite capacity, but, you know, where everything’s creaking and it’s difficult and there’s loads and loads of queuing, and all those sorts of things. You can avoid that if you design the attraction to cope with it. And particularly again, if you have the timed element, you can stagger people through the day. That really helps. It just makes sure that the attraction doesn’t get overwhelmed. You’ve got an opportunity to manage yields really well.

Also, I think when you have limited capacity and you have to pre-book, I think by managing that, you can actually create demand in the quieter periods. So in the non-school, non-weekend periods, I mean, you have to do that. You have to ensure that what you’re doing is good and people want to come on the really high-demand days, but then if it then starts to become quite tricky to book a ticket, then people will generally… Suddenly people want to come to you on what would traditionally be a quieter day, which is really helpful, and that’s a great balance, I think.

Then I think if you could combine pre-booking with timed entry, you can really create a really fantastic experience, because it’s much more sustainable to deliver, and you can deliver it probably more efficiently than if everyone just rocks up on the day. Because if you allow people to choose when they come to you, okay, you’ve made them pre-book and you know that sort of, let’s say, 10,000 people are going to come to you. If you say, “You can come whenever you want,” they’re all going to pretty much come within the same three- or four-hour window. They’ll come between 10:00 and 1:00. So you then have to gear up your admissions area to deal with all processing all those people at the same time, or in that really short period, and you have to process everybody through your rides, or your experience, or your interactives, or your show, or your restaurants. We have toilets. All those things have to be scaled up so much more to be able to cope with that peak demand that actually, if you can phase it all so that there’s a constant number through the day, you don’t have that, so you don’t need to have 27 restaurants and 4,000 different toilets, you know? It’s much more manageable.

So we have two big restaurants, a cafe and toilets dotted about, but all of that is able to make sure that none of that ever gets overwhelmed. You’re not queuing for ages anywhere. If you look at our reviews online, that’s not what people say about our experience. So it just makes it feel, I suppose, smooth, slick, all the things that you would want the attraction to be. So definitely pre-booking, and particularly combining that, if you can, with with a timed element, it helps you to avoid that. Helps you to know who’s coming and manage a sort of constant demand through the day.

Kelly Molson: It’s really nice that you mention the two different sides of that, because obviously it is a real benefit to the attraction itself, in terms of operational processes. But visitor experience ultimately is improved because of it, because nobody’s having to queue. Like you said, there’s not an over-demand for toilets, or they can’t get seated in the cafeteria or the restaurant that they want to eat in. So it just has a huge, hugely positive effect on the visitor as well as the attraction itself. What about downsides? Can you see any downsides, or are there any downsides that you’ve come across?

Geoff Spooner: Yeah. I mean, normally when people say, “What are the downsides?” There’s if you’re sold out three months in advance, there’s not massive, massive downsides there. But you have to have, obviously, the product’s got to be right, and it’s got to be compelling, and all those things. But certainly, the downside of being sold out three months in advance comes along when you have a lockdown, and you have to refund all those people.

Kelly Molson: Of course.

Geoff Spooner: That can be quite eventful. But we managed to do that really well. And the team, particularly, obviously, service team, did a fabulous job of getting all those refunds processed really quickly and doing it in a way that’s automated, so no one had to call us to get the refund, which was great, and we did be very clear that we would do that. So that’s worked very well. So there’s that element to it, I suppose. I mean, hopefully, we won’t have lots of COVID-related things going forwards, but it’s something to bear in mind, I suppose.

I think if you’re highly weather-dependent, I think it’s always going to be a challenge to compel people to come out when it’s wet or freezing, so you know. But then I think maybe some of your experience is as a seasonal experience, then maybe you don’t open at those times anyway.

I think probably the challenge that we found the most is when you design an attraction to a maximum of X, and then you see that actually, the demand is there so that you could actually do probably a bit more, or that you want to expand it, well. How are you going to do that? When you want to move it to Y, there’s quite a lot of things you need to tweak all around the place to make sure that it still works as you originally intended it to. So you know, routes. Maybe you have to move something. Maybe you have to put some extra toilets in. We’ve just built an expansion on our cafe to help in the back lot there. So that can be a challenge, mainly because you might be quite space-constrained, so sometimes you have got to put an expansion on a building, and maybe you can’t do that. So those are the sorts of things I think are the biggest downsides to it. But for us, it works extremely well.

Kelly Molson: Do you ever get people turn up? Do you ever have instances where people turn up where they haven’t known it’s pre-book, or they’ve just decided to take a chance anyway?

Geoff Spooner: We don’t really. I mean, it amazes me, if you think how many people come to us, we have hardly anybody. If we do get people coming, they’d normally come to Watford Junction and spoken to our security team, who are helping people onto the shuttle buses there to come to the tour, they’ll have told them, and then they’ll probably have got a cab anyway, up to the tour, and then we’ll tell them the same thing. So we get hardly anyone. We try to make sure no one leaves crying, particularly if they’re children, but really, I mean, it is a handful of people that come a week, so it’s not a big problem. Particularly during this lockdown period, it’s not really been a problem at all.

But our marketing is very clear, and I think that’s what helps us to ram that message home, really, is that we say everywhere, advance book only, and that’s what everyone will tell you. So people know that it’s difficult. So much so that I saw a BBC article, and the headline was “Getting a COVID test is harder than getting tickets for Harry Potter,” or something like that. So I don’t know if that’s a positive or not, but it did make me chuckle, so.

Kelly Molson: It’s probably true. So this is quite a big question, and obviously, pre-booking is something that’s been kind of forced on attractions at the moment. My personal opinion is, I have no idea why an attraction would want to go back to not having pre-booking. I think people’s behaviour has changed. It’s an accepted part of the process now. I’ve always found it quite unusual that attractions don’t need you to do that. It’s not a requirement. Do you think that UK attractions should continue to offer pre-booking post-COVID, once we are back to a form of normality?

Geoff Spooner: I think it depends on their model, and certainly if you are something which is a… Let’s say you’re limited capacity, but you’re high membership. People will be able to think of the different organizations that fit into that category. That can be a challenge for them, because unless you… It’s very easy to go, “Well, I’m going to come every day in the summer,” and I’ll actually only turn up when it’s sunny. I think definitely, people with memberships have found that quite challenging to overcome, and you do need people to commit to come. So that’s the sort of area where I think it can be a little bit tricky.

But I think it’s a very positive thing to do. I can’t see why people would completely come away from it. I think there maybe will be a bit of flexibility. I think certainly for the really peak times, it’s a great way to… If you know that there’s not going to be huge demand in your park, and your attraction is not going to be at capacity, then on certain days, maybe you could turn it off. But for the days when you know you’re going to be busy, you want it to be there. And also there’s an element of, might what if people, that helps to drive demand. It helps to make you this hot ticket that people want, feel they need to book months in advance. I spoke to somebody in the tour yesterday, and it was their daughter’s birthday. I said, “Oh, when did you get the tickets?” And she said, “February.”

Kelly Molson: Oh, gosh. Wow.

Geoff Spooner: So if that’s what you want to achieve, if you can… I think people have learned a lot from it. One-way flows and things like that. But I think if they’re thinking about it now, they also need to think about, what is the visitor flow, and how you manage that as well. Theme parks are like a big ecosystem. There’s lots of little things. Anyone little tweak in one area can have quite a big effect on something else.

So yeah. I think many of them will continue, and some will probably change a bit, but people seem to talk very positively about it when you’re on attraction calls at the moment, and people seem to have found this, like, “Oh my gosh, if you, if you just make people one-way through the experience, they see everything, and the experience is so much better.” You know, if you walk through some of these cavernous places that are like mazes and you feel, “Did we see everything? I don’t know.”

It’s been a really interesting time, and I think that lockdown and COVID has really forced attractions to really think about their experience and how they deliver that. I think a lot of attractions got into thinking, “Well, gosh. This is going to be really challenging. It’s not going to be as good.” But actually, if you’re doing it right, the end result seems to be, the visitor experience is better at the moment. Even better in our case. We were really clear we didn’t want to open if the experience wasn’t going to be as good as it was normally, and we’ve been really pleased with the feedback that we’ve got from that. So I think there’s lots of learnings that attractions will take, and lots of different variables that need to be considered, and each attraction will think of what its makeup on who’s coming is, and that will influence their decisions a lot, I think.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, absolutely.

Geoff Spooner: We’ll still be pre-book, definitely.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. I can’t see that changing any time soon.

Geoff Spooner: No.

Kelly Molson: And so as we start to enter this exciting new year of 2021, which I think everyone just can’t wait for, do you have any advice that you could share with the sector? Any pearls of wisdom as we start this new year?

Geoff Spooner: Well, hopefully, 2021 has to be better than 2020. It’d be pretty impressive if it was worse, but… Zombie mutant bees or something next year, but…

Kelly Molson: It could happen. Don’t even say it, Geoff.

Geoff Spooner: It’s a good opportunity to reflect, and to really look at what’s worked well, what hasn’t worked well. I think if you’ve been a popular attraction pre-COVID, you’ll still be a popular attraction post-COVID, and you just need to look at what you’re carrying through from the learnings that you’ve made. I do definitely feel that the industry will come back, that demand will come back. People want escapism and they want different experiences a huge amount at the moment, because they’re missing that. Not to interact with other people, but just to get away from everything that we’ve had this year. You see that talking to people in the tour, and from the comments that they leave, it was just fantastic to be somewhere magical for three hours, and not talk about COVID. I think that that applies to lots of attractions across the country.

So it has definitely been very difficult and challenging, and attractions have had to think on their feet, and it’s been a bit of a battle. I think most attractions have come through that battle, and that’s a real positive, and they’ll learn a lot from it. I think organizationally, they’ll be a lot stronger from that going forward. So yeah. I think we just need to see the demand starts to increase. Maybe capacity will increase. I think some of the limits in demand that we have at the moment are slightly offset by the fact that you’ve got lower capacity. Not completely. And we’ll just have to see really.

I think it’s a case of keeping calm. Everybody knows what business they’re in and they know who they’re talking to and who wants to come to them, and those people, I think, will still be there. I think the one thing that maybe it will change from a business’s point of view is visitor’s perception of what is an acceptable level of busy. Whilst I think there’s a proportion of people who are quite sort of COVID cavalier and don’t mind sitting on your shoulder kind of thing, at the minute. But there will be people who just think, actually, if your attendance was 10,000 before, say, and all those people were in the attraction, nobody would have minded that before. But perhaps there’ll be more people now who, if you ask questions in your exit surveys about, “Was the attraction crowded?” Going back to normal, I think I would probably expect that percentage who thought it was crowded to be a bit higher. Maybe not massively, but I think that that is something that everyone’s got to really think about, and we won’t suddenly all just throw our masks away and go back to normal. I think it’s going to be quite gradual.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, I completely agree. It’s interesting what you say. I mean, this is not an attraction, but we have a Saturday market in our local town, and even at the moment, that feels busy, because you’re not used to that many people being around you. So I can completely understand how people would feel about coming to a really busy attraction, and suddenly feeling quite overwhelmed by it, actually. It’s a really good point.

I think that the demand will definitely be there as well. I agree with you. As a consumer, we’ve missed out on a whole year of making memories, and I think that that’s what we want to get back to doing. It’s fun experiences and doing things, like you said, you know? Doing things that are magical experiences and remembering them. Thank you, Geoff.

I have one last question for you that I ask all of our guests that come on and it’s if you have a book that you’d recommend. So a book that you either really love, or something that’s helped shape your career in some way over the years that you could recommend to our listeners.

Geoff Spooner: I don’t. I mean, it’s shocking, really. I really like reading, but I don’t get much time to read generally. So probably the last book I read was about the Battle of Waterloo. I’ve read a couple of a couple of books on that, and that is a really interesting book to read from a point of view of clutching victory from the jaws of defeat, and also the importance of really clear communication and trust. I think it’s a really, really interesting book to read because it’s sort of, you know, the allied forces probably shouldn’t have won that battle. But it’s a very interesting book to read, but not everyone’s into military history, I’m sure.

So I mean, the one thing that I am able to do at the minute is read to my kids, and my youngest daughter is very keen on Harry Potter, and I think really, it is a great book to read. We’re kind of… Where are we on? We’re doing Goblet of Fire at the minute, and it’s been nice to read them all. Just what impresses me the most, knowing, having seen everything in the films… And I came to Harry Potter, my experience of Harry Potter originally was not reading the books. It was seeing all the films in the cinema. So I was literally the only person who wasn’t expecting what had just happened on the screen to happen. And I think what’s really clever about that, it is just all the backstories in there that you don’t necessarily see the films, and it is really great. But also you just see how clever Jo was, planting all the things early in the books that are then really important later in the [inaudible 00:41:48]. To have thought that through and planned that through at the very beginning, I just think is really, really clever. I think they’re equally enjoyable books to read as an adult and as a child. So it’s maybe a bit obvious that I’d say Harry Potter, but I think that’s the ones that I’m reading at the minute.

Kelly Molson: I mean, maybe it is, but I’m really glad that you did, because I think they’re wonderful books, and I love them dearly. So listeners, as ever if you want to win a copy of… I think we’ll give away a copy of the first Harry Potter book, where the journey started. So if you do want to win that book, then if you head over to our Twitter account and you retweet this episode announcement with the words, “I want Geoff’s book…”

Geoff Spooner: Don’t call it Geoff’s book.

Kelly Molson: I mean, JK Rowling might have something to say about that. However, if you-

Geoff Spooner: Her lawyers will go mad.

Kelly Molson: For the purpose of this, if you want Geoff’s book, then just retweet it, and then you’ll be in with a chance of winning. Geoff, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. I really appreciate it. I think that the pre-booking saga and topic is something that’s going to continue long into 2021, and maybe we’ll get you back on at the end of 2021 and see how that’s all gone, and see what exciting plans that you’ve got for the tour.

Geoff Spooner: Great. Really nice to speak to you. Thank you for having me.

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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