We discuss what can attractions can learn from the Covid-19 situation and the positives to come from it.
Blooloop has been a wealth of information for anyone working in the attractions industry throughout the last few months and the first place we look for news, views and advice for the sector.
“I think there’s a kind of cautious optimism. It is a resilient industry.”
What will you learn from this podcast?
- What can attractions can learn from the Covid-19 situation
- Positives to come from the situation
- What attractions in the UK learn from overseas attractions
- What’s next for Blooloop (spoiler alert, there’s an very exciting expo on the way)
You can also read the full transcript below.
Your host, Kelly Molson
Our guest, Charles Read
Kelly Molson: Charlie, thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast. It’s really lovely to have you.
Charlie Read: You too, thanks for inviting me along.
Kelly Molson: Very welcome. I always start off these interviews by asking you a few icebreaker questions just to get to know the real you. And we haven’t spoken before, so this will be a quite nice insight into what the real Charlie is like. I hope you’re prepared. Okay. Can you tell me, what’s at the top of your bucket list?
Charlie Read: Oh, the top of my bucket list. I think my main passion in life is probably wildlife. I’ve never been on a safari to East Africa. That’s something I’d like to do.
Kelly Molson: Ah, that would be pretty incredible, wouldn’t it?
Charlie Read: I want to see the wildebeests and the crocodiles and the lions and so on.
Kelly Molson: Lovely, good bucket list. Can you tell me, what’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
Charlie Read: Oh my. I had a job once where I had to ring up people from a very, very long list and ask if they wanted to speak to someone to sell pensions to them. I wasn’t the guy selling the pensions, I was the guy trying to make appointments. The percentage of people who told me to get lost was very high, in more flowery language than that. Yeah, I found that quite dispiriting, but I didn’t do it for very long.
Kelly Molson: It’s quite soul-destroying, isn’t it? You have to be really thick-skinned for all of the negative nerves that you’re going to get from it.
Charlie Read: Yeah, exactly. As a part of that, part of the thing I’ve learned is I’m always really nice to people who cold-call me, because I’ve done that job and it’s not a lot of fun and they’re just doing their job.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, that’s true. Well, that’s nice. That’s a good learning thing to take away from that. Okay. Cats or dogs? It’s an important question.
Charlie Read: Probably dogs. We’ve got two of each, but I’m definitely a dog person.
Kelly Molson: Right, and last question. Can you tell me something that is true to you? So you believe that you completely agree on, but nobody else agrees with you on, your unpopular opinion?
Charlie Read: I’ve got to be honest. I’ll say, I’ve never been a fan of Star Wars.
Kelly Molson: Wow.
Charlie Read: I don’t get it, really. I like Empire Strikes Back, I think that’s a good film. But I’ve never really bought into Star Wars.
Kelly Molson: That’s quite a big one. That’s quite controversial as well, I think.
Charlie Read: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: My partner is exactly the same. He’s never ever watched a single Star Wars film, never. I don’t even know how he’s got through life having avoided them.
Charlie Read: Yeah. There’s a film… I’m pretty obsessed with trees, which we might talk about later. But there’s one of those films that takes place in the Redwood Forest in California, which I love.
Kelly Molson: That’s the one with the Ewoks?
Charlie Read: Yeah. But I never got Star Wars.
Kelly Molson: All right. I feel like you’re going to get some comeback to that, Charlie, when this airs. Thank you for answering those questions. I mean, for people that don’t know, Charlie is the Managing Director of Blooloop, which is the world’s leading online resource for professionals working in the visitor attraction sector.
I have to just start by saying that throughout the last three or four months, Blooloop has been absolutely invaluable to anybody working in the profession and in this sector. It has been an absolute fountain of knowledge about what’s happening in the UK, what’s happening globally. It has been the one place that I have turned to on a daily basis actually, to see what is going on and how people are coping.
Firstly, thank you for all of the hard work that’s gone into that. I’d really love to hear a little bit about what your background is, and how you ended up as Managing Director of Blooloop.
Charlie Read: Yeah, sure. I am going way back. My degree was from a poly. They don’t exist anymore, I think they’re all universities. I did Law, so I was a Lawyer for a while. Then I sort of drifted into publishing. By the time we came down to Devon, where I live now… we live in the middle of nowhere, I needed a job I could do from home. I had always been really, really keen on zoos, aquariums attractions. I knew the publishing world which I had worked in was gradually moving online. That’s when I came up with the idea.
I very purposely decided to make it about attractions as a whole rather than just museums or just theme parks. Because right then, I recognized this is dreadful awful management were the commonalities between all these kinds of attractions. I saw that there were a few sites that were just about specific sectors, and companies that marketed themselves as just being about working in a specific vertical market.
To be frank, most design companies, for example, they don’t really care if the call comes in from an aquarium or a zoo or a museum. And also, museums specifically more and more are becoming much more interactive, much more immersive. They’re understanding even if they’re not for profit, commercial organizations need to drive people through the gates. They need to get people to stay there, they need to help them have memorable experiences. All visitor attractions are about creating experiences, so I thought it would work to have a site that covered all kinds of experiences and attractions.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, I completely agree. You see museums in a slightly different segment quite a lot of the time. I’ve never really understood that because they do have the same challenges as a theme park for example, in terms of getting those customers through the door and that experience part of the process. Yeah, I completely agree with you on that. How has it developed over the years? Was it just yourself when you started it, and then how has it grown?
Charlie Read: Yeah, it was just me. I started on my own. My wife who runs the business with me, Rachel, she was an accountant for a long time. She was earning very well. It took me a good few years until we got our revenue up enough that she could leave that job and work with Blooloop. Since then, it’s progressed and grown very well every year since then. Yeah, but we’ve just gradually built up what we offer and developed a website, made it better. Yeah, just really, really worked hard to provide a good service to our readers and to our clients.
Kelly Molson: How has lockdown been for you? Because I guess you’re quite used to working from home, so that obviously hasn’t been a huge change. But how has it been for you, personally? And also as an organization, what kinds of things have you been doing to support your audience through all of this?
Charlie Read: Yeah. I think first, personally in terms of my experience, I do work from home. The day-to-day life is much the same. We live in quite a rural area, so it’s been okay to go outside and walk around and running or whatever. That’s all fine. And so, the main change to me personally is not traveling. I normally go to London probably once a week. I tend to fly somewhere once a month, I would say. Not traveling anywhere has been a change, but it’s not been about change. I’ve quite enjoyed being at home, and focusing on the garden and walking and dogs and stuff like that.
As a business, we decided early on that we wanted to maintain and continue to give as good a service as we could. We thought it was important to provide as much useful coverage as we could about coronavirus and its impact. Fortunately, there’s been some great resources online. Including you, Kelly, the work you’ve done putting together sources. For example as well, Alliance of American Museums. There’s a lot of great resources out there, and we thought that we were one of them in terms of just putting information out there and reporting what’s happening. We decided to do that.
Yeah, and business has been fine, to be honest. It’s been impacted a little bit, but our traffic has continued to grow which has been great. And so I think we’re at a good position to continue through to the new normal, whatever that will be.
Kelly Molson: Yeah. Who knows? There’s a long way to go, isn’t there? We’ll ask you about that in a little while. What kind of things have you been doing to support your audience? I mean, you have been so constant, like a constant source of resource and a constant source of knowledge throughout it. You obviously have a huge membership database of attractions. How have you been able to help them whilst this has been going on?
Charlie Read: A lot of what we do is not really… I guess you wouldn’t see. We speak to a lot of people on the phone on calls, and where they seek advice. We put people in touch with other people. We do a lot of that kind of stuff. But it’s more really in terms of the business, creating content, chasing up people for news, checking news, this kind of stuff. Just making sure that what we report is correct, which is always important. Yeah, and just making sure we give a good service to our readers.
I’m very aware that there’s an awful lot of people out there who are either furloughed or have lost their jobs. There’s whole attractions that are closing. I think from our point of view, at least if we can carry on giving as good a service as we’ve been doing, then that’s important to us.
Kelly Molson: Yeah. That’s good. I guess you want people to continue to use you, so you’ve been super supportive throughout all of this. I think any membership organization that I’ve spoken to, has been doing the same. They care about their members, they care about the people that as their audience and they’ve wanted to do as much as they possibly can to help them throughout all of this. I mean, that’s certainly the approach that we’ve been taking with our clients as well.
From a different perspective, we’ve seen people that we work with and talk to on a daily basis, just not there anymore. They’ve been furloughed. There’s nothing that they can do to help the organization that is closed. It’s been really tough. Lots of positives this week, though. As we speak, it’s coming up to mid-July. Attractions are open if they are able to open safely, which is wonderful to see. We are seeing a number of our clients opening next week, which is great. We do lots of work to support them.
I mean, how is the general mood in the industry at the moment? You’re probably be best placed to answer that question, because you speak to so many different people.
Charlie Read: It’s obviously a bizarre and unique time. I think that’s the first thing to say. And also, people don’t really know. It’s the uncertainty, I think is the worst thing. Obviously, a lot of attractions are facing pretty catastrophic times immediately right now. There’s the misery of people losing their jobs, people being furloughed who won’t get taken back on, there’s all that kind of stuff.
I think there’s a kind of cautious optimism from a lot of people I speak to about… We’re a resilient industry as a whole. We’ll adapt. Theme parks, attractions, museums, they’ll just have to change the way they operate. They’ll have to invest in new technologies. I think there’s a kind of cautious optimism. It is a resilient industry. People do want to go out and do things. People are bursting at the seams to go out and visit attractions. It may not be right now. It may take a few months until coronavirus sort of drifts away a little bit more.
But as I say, I’m generally quite an optimistic person. I think we’re also seeing a lot of companies pivoting in terms of what they do. People are adapting to their businesses. There are some kinds of businesses that will do well out of this. Perhaps tech companies, app companies, for example. Companies are doing things, really obvious things, like making masks or sanitizing equipment and that kind of stuff. I think it’s a time of innovation and change. I think although we can acknowledge it’s dreadful in many, many ways, I think the industry will survive as a whole but just come out differently.
Kelly Molson: It’s good that you mentioned that. Because one of the questions that I wanted to ask you is if there’s anything that attractions can learn from the COVID-19 situation, if there’s anything positive that can come out of this situation.
Charlie Read: One thing it’s going to do is accelerate… I think it’s going to accelerate change in terms of a move to digital, for example. That is happening. It was happening, and it’s going to happen much more quickly than it was. Things like face recognition for example, and touchless technology and this kind of stuff was happening, but that will be accelerated. That’s one thing.
I think a lot of attractions are going to perhaps rethink how they operate. In the States for example, right now, there’s a boom in agritourism. People are visiting farms near to where they live, because they are becoming places that you can go for an afternoon. You can go… I don’t know, working in the fields, for example. I think organizations like let’s say The National Trust, organizations, theme parks with lots of lands perhaps can start leveraging their outdoor spaces more than they are now. I think there are ways that we can innovate in terms of what we do with visitors when they get through the doors, and I think that kind of change will happen as well.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, that’s interesting. We were actually speaking to Alistair Barber from the National Parks, and that’s one of the things that I want to speak to him about. Obviously, at the moment, outdoor attractions are seemed and deemed to be a lot safer than indoor attractions.
There has been a huge increase in demand. I mean, we’ve seen ticket sales for Chester Zoo, Whipsnade Wildlife Park. The ticket sales have gone through the roof. And obviously, they’re capped to capacity at the moment, but the demand is absolutely there. And it will be really interesting to see how that translates into the demand for some of the indoor attractions as well. If there are things, if they have outdoor space, will they start to use them more? Will they start to see that as an advantage?
You talked a little bit about overseas there. I wanted to see if there’s anything that you think that the UK attractions can learn from overseas attractions. Is there anything that you’ve seen that they are doing differently that we can implement here?
Charlie Read: Well, I think that the most obvious thing is to look at in terms of operations, is to look at what attractions are doing in places where they’ve essentially conquered to a large degree, Coronavirus. If you look at China, Singapore, these kinds of places when they’re operating, but where attractions have been open for weeks, how are they doing it? Look at the day-to-day operations, like Shanghai Disney, for example. Look at how they treat visitors, look at how the streamlined process is, this kind of stuff. That’s what we can learn from in an obvious way.
Also, there’s been a big move from attractions to becoming I think, more engaging on social media. Reaching out to audiences even if the audiences aren’t there. That kind of reaching out will continue even when the visitors are coming back. That will again, will have accelerated that kind of move. There are tons of initiatives online in terms of gaming and game education and engagement with audiences that are really inspiring. I know the Animal Crossing worked with the Field Museum. Even something really obvious like the penguins from the Shedd Aquarium wandering around the Field Museum.
Kelly Molson: Oh.
Charlie Read: It’s a good example of two institutions collaborating and doing something really engaging and thinking outside of the box.
Kelly Molson: That was lovely, wasn’t it? I think that for me at the beginning of lockdown, there was a real resurgence of some really creative and innovative content being pushed out by a lot of organizations. It was just lovely. It’s like you say, it’s about being part of the conversation even if you can’t be open to your guests. It’s still sharing that experience with what your attraction is like. I mean, I don’t know if you saw the National Cowboy Museum.
Charlie Read: Oh, yeah.
Kelly Molson: Oh my gosh, Tim. It was just lovely.
Charlie Read: What a star.
Kelly Molson: What an absolute star. Cowboy Tim, for any of you that haven’t seen this, please go and check it out. Go and look at the National Cowboy Museum, because their Twitter content was just so fabulous at the start of lockdown. Cowboy Tim is their security guard, isn’t he? He’s the security manager.
Charlie Read: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: He was inside the museum, and he was just talking to you around some of the things that were there and showing you what he was doing on a daily basis. It was just heartwarming, wasn’t it? It’s not his role. He’s no social media manager. But it was so authentic, and I’m sure it’s gained them a huge amount of extra followers.
Charlie Read: Oh, yeah. It was fantastic for exactly the reason you say. It was real. It wasn’t someone who had been schooled in social media, very obviously. But he was just genuine. He was articulate and genuine, and he was just funny. It was everything that social media should be, really.
Kelly Molson: Yeah. Yeah, it’s really lovely to see. I do hope that that’s done wonders for them. It’s funny. I mean, I don’t know when I’ll get over there, but that’s definitely a place that I’m going to go and check out as soon as I can.
Charlie Read: Oh yeah, and see Tim.
Kelly Molson: Absolutely. Tell us a little bit about what’s next for Blooloop now, because we know that you run a conference every year that is I’m guessing, going to change quite a lot this year. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve got planned?
Charlie Read: Yeah, sure. We’ve been running Blooloop live in London for the last four or five years. We started thinking actually probably around a year ago about moving online, but long before COVID. COVID has been dreadful for a billion reasons, and the most trivial of them all is that it made me feel quite opportunistic when we announced we were doing a virtual conference when COVID started because we had been planning it for many, many months.
So yeah, we are doing our conference in October. It’s called the V-Expo, Virtual Expo. It’s essentially a version of our London conference, but bumped up. It’s relying on great content. We’ve got fantastic speakers from around the world. We’ve got speakers from across a whole variety of attractions, from major theme parks to top museums to new live experiences. We’ve got speakers announcing expansions to major institutions. We’ve got speakers launching new live experiences, revealing new plans for resorts. We’ve got a ton of people announcing new things at the conference. We’ve also got an exhibition also, vendor companies can have booths and they can showcase their products and services, they can interact with people who visit.
We see it as an opportunity of basically expanding our London conference and making it available to a global audience. And also, it’s online. We can get speakers from California or from India without them having to fly over here. It’s just much easier for attendees and for the speakers. We’ve also made it… it’s free to register.
We were absolutely aware that this year of all years, there’s tons and tons of people who either have been furloughed or lost their jobs or are uncertain about their future. We’ve made it free to attend, I think that’s an important point. We’re also working closely with our friends at Merlin. They’re supporting us in terms of promotion and in terms of providing the backdrops for the exhibition as well.
Yeah, that’ll take place in October. So we’re doing that. A few things will happen during that we’re working on now. We’re just about to launch in the next few days, our Blooloop 50, which is the Theme Park Influencers of the Year. And we’re also launching a Blooloop 50 Museum Influencers as well. The results of both of those will be announced during the virtual expo as well. We’re also going to do a virtual run during the expo. I know the UK will be doing at least five miles.
Kelly Molson: Wow, okay. I feel like-
Charlie Read: I’ll take that as when, and we’ll sign you up.
Kelly Molson: The gauntlet has just been thrown down there, hasn’t it?
Charlie Read: Exactly, yeah. We’re doing that. Yeah, I think there’s a whole lot of things we’ll do to make it really interesting and really engaging. It really won’t be just a series of Zoom calls. It will be very, very different to that. I’m looking forward to doing it.
Kelly Molson: That sounds so positive. I think it’s lovely that you’ve been able to make that free for people. I think what an incredible gesture at a time where things are still going to be very difficult. We have to be cautiously excited that attractions can open and are open now, but this is the start of quite a long phase of challenge for people. To be able to offer that for free is wonderful. And I think it’s such a positive that you can take something that was so London-centric and now it’s a global conference, and anyone from all over the world can come and access it so easily. We’ll be there, you know that for sure.
Charlie Read: Yeah, great stuff.
Kelly Molson: I love to end the podcast interviews by asking you about a book that you’d recommend that’s kind of helped shape your career or stood out to you in any way throughout it. Do you have one that you could suggest for us?
Charlie Read: Yeah. It’s an interesting question because I don’t read business and leadership books very much. I tend to read fiction. I’ve never been a fan of business books. But I’d say, first of all, two books that really influenced me were… when I was a kid, I read My Family and Other Animals, which got me interested in wildlife and I have been ever since. I’ve got tanks of praying mantids downstairs. I’ve been keeping praying mantids since I was about seven.
Kelly Molson: Wow.
Charlie Read: I’ve got mantids downstairs. I’m completely obsessed with trees, I grow trees. That book really shaped a lot of my outlook for my whole life, really. I also read Out of Africa when I was in my teens, which again, is about East Africa. Perhaps it’s about an East Africa that once was and doesn’t exist. It’s a very beautiful book. That’s a great book.
In terms of business, I prefer a story. The Enron story is fantastic. There’s a wonderful book called The Smartest Guys in the Room, about the guys behind Enron and how that story unfolded. That’s a remarkable book. I think in terms of writing, one author I love is the American crime writer, Elmore Leonard. He has a fantastic essay he did. I think it’s 10 Rules of Writing. Anyone who’s writing anything, it’s worth reading. It’s absolutely brilliant. I think the first one is, never start with the weather, which I think is a great-
Kelly Molson: Yes, that’s a good point.
Charlie Read: Exactly. It’s tons of just really great tips from a brilliant, brilliant writer. One of them again is, never used a euphemism for set. So you would never write Kelly observed or Kelly observed astutely, just Kelly said. Because it just sounds better, it’s quicker. I think bad writing is when you do that.
Kelly Molson: I love that you have recommended books that nobody else has spoken about. I really love that you’ve recommended books that are linked to your personal development, aside from your career development as well.
I have to say though, that you’ve completely blown my marketing budget yet again. I ask everyone to recommend a book. Most people have recommended at least two books. We give them away as prizes. So if you’re listening to this and you’d like to get a copy of all of Charlie’s books that he’s recommended, then if you head over to our Twitter account, Skip the Queue and retweet this episode announcement with the comment, “I want Charlie’s books.” Then you could be in with a chance of winning. I need to ask you about your praying mantis, did you say that you’ve got downstairs?
Charlie Read: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: Gosh.
Charlie Read: They’re incredible insects. There’s I think 2,500 species or more around the world. They’re all made to the same design, but each species is different. There’s mantids camouflaged as dry grass, mantids camouflaged as sticks. The ones I’ve got are camouflaged as dead leaves. There are even mantids camouflaged as orchids, that live on orchid leaves. I think they’re extraordinary animals, and they’re really easy to keep.
Kelly Molson: This is not tied to attractions at all. But I need to know this, Charlie.
Charlie Read: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: How did you first decide this is the pet for me, this is the animal for me?
Charlie Read: Well, when I was really young, I used to get a magazine called Look and Learn in the UK, which your elder listeners will know about. It had an article about mantids. I’ll always remember, it had a paragraph that said they’re really easy to keep, you can simply feed them on pieces of dried vegetables. So my mum said, “Fine. That’s fine. We’ll get one of those.” So we got one. And then as soon as we got one, we realized that that paragraph had been completely untrue and you have to feed them on live flies.
Kelly Molson: Oh, God. I bet your mum was delighted.
Charlie Read: Well exactly, yeah. Ever since then, I’ve just found them fascinating. Wherever you go in the world, if you’re in a reasonably warm country, there are different species of mantids. If I’m in Singapore and I’m visiting a trade show, I’ll always go off to the national parks and I’ll always go off taking photographs and looking for insects.
Kelly Molson: Oh, I love this. I’m not going to ask you to choose your favorite attraction, because that would be, I’m sure, too difficult. But does that mean that you are much more drawn to attractions that are like parks, botanical gardens, wildlife parks, that kind of thing?
Charlie Read: I love theme parks of course, and I go to theme parks whenever I can. But we’ve got people who work here who are obsessed with theme parks all the time. But I wouldn’t say I’m like that. But I am pretty much obsessed with botanical gardens, aquariums, and zoos. Yeah. I think the attraction I’ve been most to in my life is Kew Gardens.
Kelly Molson: Yeah. I mean, it’s just a beautiful place as well. I hope that they are going to do their Christmas show this year because the Christmas lights is just magical, isn’t it?
Charlie Read: Oh, the Christmas lights are fantastic.
Kelly Molson: Yeah.
Charlie Read: I’m supposed to be running a marathon there in September as well.
Kelly Molson: You’re a marathon runner who’s just challenged me to a five-mile. I feel like this could end quite badly for me.
Charlie Read: Oh, yeah. Make it 5K, 5K.
Kelly Molson: All right. Thanks, Charles. Charlie, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. It’s been absolutely delightful to talk to you. We will put all of the information in the show notes, especially all the information about the Blooloop Expo, which is coming up. I think it’s wonderful that you’re doing that just for registration. Thanks so much for everything that you’ve been doing for the sector throughout this, it’s really appreciated.
Charlie Read: It’s a pleasure, Kelly. Thanks for inviting me along.
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