The best theme park in the world – Puy du Fou

Puy Du Fou

As I work with some great theme parks, I am a member of the Themed Entertainment Association.  One of the benefits of membership is their organisation of visits to some of the best the world has to offer, to see what they do and how they do it. And I have just come back from Puy du Fou, and can safely say that it is, without doubt, the best theme park in the world.

It’s a total one of a kind and without any of the conventional rides you associate with other theme parks. It draws in the local community, trains all its own staff through its academy,  creates everything internally (even the shoes and costumes) and delivers spectacular, emotive and beautiful shows that you have to see to believe.

It’s been created by Phillippe de Villiers, the father of Nicolas de Villiers who runs it today (and who showed us around). The control Nicolas still exercises is phenomenal. It’s not like any other brand.  If anything it’s a little like Google in the way they controlled their growth in the early years but this has lasted for 35 years already. He even interviews the shortlisted kids for the academy and watches every Cinescenie to be able to feed back to the managers where they could do the show even better. The level of detail they manage is unbelievable and even the back stage areas are immaculate.

We had a totally jam packed 48 hours and got to see behind the scenes of nearly every show. Here’s a summary of the best of them.

The Vikings

The first show I saw there and an amazing introduction to life at Puy du Fou. It’s filled with eagles, horned beasts, vikings and marauders, all backed up with huge explosions, gigantic flames and boats magically appearing from stage left and under the water, with the performers disappearing with it. Animals everywhere and a large cast. It’s an amazing start and an even bigger ending.

The Knights of the Round Table

It’s a story of Excalibur with Merlin, mermaids, sword fights in the water, horses walking out of the huge hidden caverns underwater and probably the simplest of the whole lot we saw. It’s great fun, has the best safety warning I have ever seen (hilarious) and I saw it twice.

The Secret of the Lance

This is a huge show that just keeps on growing. Spectacular horse riding, massive sword fights and jousting and flames everywhere. Then a disappearing castle, another HUGE castle that moves and rotates and amazing sounds and effects everywhere. There are things going on all over the place and we were lucky enough to get to see behind the scenes here. It was sooooo good, that a few times during the show I felt myself becoming a bit emotional.

Triumph’s Sign

This is a huge great roman spectacular played out in a purpose built amphitheatre that seats over 7,000 people. Again, it starts off quite small and then just grows and grows. The cast is huge and varied and whilst the story is their own version of history, it’s still truly amazing. Just look at the pictures.

Richelieu’s Musketeer

I saw this one twice too. It’s the only inside show and simply massive. Perhaps a little hard to follow in french, but I found it far more enjoyable to just watch the show and ignore the story. It’s breathtaking but you aren’t allowed to take photos, so this is a sneaky one of the set, just as the flamenco dancers start going crazy. It’s quite reminiscent of Riverdance with horses and water and swords and explosions and…..

Puy du Fou has a huge indoor show called Richelieu's Musketeer with a massive stage and even bigger cast.
Puy du Fou has a huge indoor show called Richelieu’s Musketeer with a massive stage and even bigger cast.

The Phantom Birds’ Dance

Now this was a real highlight. Again I saw it twice from two different seating positions. The first time from down in the pit gave a great view, but the second time, right at the back at the sides gave you far closer access to the birds. The show itself is incredible with beautiful, haunting music and a cast of over 170 birds. If you are going to sit at the very back, it’s probably best to shuffle forwards just a little so you don’t get pooped on by a vulture, like I did. There is simply noting like this anywhere in the world. It is totally breathtaking.

 The Organs of Fire

This was the first night show I saw and can only be described as breathtaking (I’ve used that a lot haven’t i!). It starts with a lone violinist emerging, her dress lighting up and her floating around the lake playing music until she meets the pianist, who does the same. The orchestras appear, huge fountains emerge and an even bigger organ suddenly appears to add to the music and the gigantic party. I thought it was the biggest show I’d ever seen, but I hadn’t seen Cinescenie at this point!

The Cinescenie

Now this show breaks record after record. It’s the largest permanent show in the world with a nightly cast of 1,500, all of whom are volunteers. None of them get paid. There are 3,400 of them trained to play their roles and it’s held 28 time per year in front of a crowd of 14,000. For the volunteers, it’s a huge social and cinematic event and they train all year. It’s so popular that there are over 1,000 on the waiting list to volunteer and you can’t buy tickets for the event for another year. I won’t say too much about it but it is simply massive, incredible and beautiful (and hard to photograph). I have again, never seen anything like this. It started at 10.45 pm and went on until well after 12.15, so it’s a good long show too. It’s worth it for the fireworks alone.

The TEA Team

Being with the TEA gave us an all access pass to the whole site and the team that created it. It was a huge privilege and worth the membership in its own right. For only three days away it was completely exhausting, but to be able to get to see this place was worth it and i’ll be back to do it again.

A few relaxing drinks after with the TEA party
A few relaxing drinks after with the TEA party
The Land Train that takes you around the park
The Land Train that takes you around the park

Are you watching Nottingham?

It does however make me sad when I see references to knights, castles and even Robin Hood himself that my home City of Nottingham, can’t even get an attraction out of the ground to recognise our most famous son. The French have delivered a genius show that would draw in millions of visitors if it was created here.  Nottingham still hasn’t delivered a single thing. So, Nottingham, please take note. Puy du Fou turns over €74m and is very profitable, filling every hotel for miles around with it’s 1.9 million visitors per year. A little of this would go a long way.

Where we stayed

The accommodation offer is quite new, but growing fast. They may look like simple tents, but they house a fabulously well equipped four poster bedroom with wet room, two bunks for kids and even decent wifi.

The tented village at Puy du Fou which is a beuatiful hotel room in disguise
The tented village at Puy du Fou which is a beautiful hotel room in disguise


If you have kids you have to come here. If you don’t come anyway. It’s amazing, awe inspiring and unique. It’s the best kept secret and the best theme park in the world. And it’s my new favourite.

What next for Alton Towers, Merlin and The Smiler?

What next for Alton Towers, Merlin and The Smiler
What next for Alton Towers, Merlin and The Smiler
What happened in the accident was nothing short of horrific and has wrecked young lives forever.  I can’t imagine how frightening that must have been and it must never happen again, anywhere in the world.

But for a moment, I would like to take a slightly dispassionate look at what I believe will happen to the brands of Alton Towers, Merlin and The Smiler.

Firstly I think the brand of Alton Towers will be fine, it will be damaged for a while, numbers will be down, but in reality, there is never a safer time to visit any attraction than just after an accident. Every early warning system will be on super high alert and the HSE will be crawling all over their every move. Alton Towers is a British superbrand and the way that Merlin CEO Nick Varney has handled himself in the press has been, in my opinion, nothing short of excellent, open and honest. He has allowed all of the bad news to come out, offered refunds to anyone who wants them and generally sounded very distressed by the incident. He has displayed good human values that people will relate to. He has four kids himself and I’m sure they use the park themselves, so of course he would want it to be world class safe – what parent wouldn’t?

Merlin are a world class brand. I saw a presentation from their Head of HR at Blooloop live a few weeks ago and they are delivering standards worldwide. I think this means you can rest assured that they will be running the most stringent safety checks on every one of their rides in every country they operate (which is a lot). Merlin will now get better because of this – everywhere.

But for Smiler, the future is less certain. There is an awful argument that this only adds a new element of danger to the ride for the real risk takers, but I hate this argument. For me, risk in an attraction MUST only ever be perceived. Real risk is just not appropriate in a fun environment.

So I think Smiler is on its way out. I would suggest that it will be removed as quietly as possible (press coverage allowing), maybe with the costs covered by the German manufacturers and it will turn up with totally new branding and maybe a new track layout in another market (The Far East or possibly Eastern Europe). The Smiler brand is busted and if I was in charge, I would bite the financial bullet and get rid of the bad name it could yet deliver.

In the meantime, I can only wish for a speedy recovery for those who have been injured both physically and mentally. And thanks to the London Evening Standard for their image. Here’s the link to their article.

The real health of the Tesco brand

Dave Lewis, Tesco chief executive


We saw recently that Tesco announced a quite staggering £6.4bn loss on trading. A huge headline figure, but in reality a total myth to allow the business the time and money to restructure.

The loss was caused by £7bn of one off write downs including a property write down of £4.7bn. Now, I’m no accountant, but if my maths are anywhere near right, this will meant they can reclaim at least £1.4bn in tax on their profits they paid last year and maybe claw some back from previous years too. So rather than lose £6.4bn, they have actually made £2bn in actual cash profit in the last 12 months. With me so far?

On the day that Tesco made the announcement, their share price fell by 5% to 223p. But in reality it had been at a low of only 150p during that same year and it is a huge growth in actual value over the same period. It’s at around 216p today. Hardly the sign of a business in crisis in the eyes of the market.

The disparity in their profit is far stranger when you consider how they got away with such a HUGE property write down when Helical Bar, the (mainly) London based Property Developer announced yesterday that their portfolio had increased in value by 27% in the previous 12 months?

Each of the other supermarkets seems to have followed suit with huge portfolio write downs, which only goes to confirm that it is another corrupt accounting practice each of them is employing to claw back tax.

Jack Welch, the former GE CEO said in a famous interview that with bad news, you have to get it all out fast, as it’s going to come out anyway. This feels to me what Tesco have done. They have painted a picture that is even worse than reality to shock the expectations lower.

This will give them the time, money and opportunity to take stock and rebuild the brand by putting in front line staff. They need to rebuild relationships with suppliers and build trust with customers. They need to listen, adapt and listen some more. And then they need to action their ideas fast, before the market moves again.

The Tesco brand is not dead, it’s just sleeping. It’ll be back and hopefully with a little more grace and a desire to please customers rather than only focus on the profit.

Real engagement for brands is more than just online engagement

I saw this video today by Gary Turk and shared it on Facebook on my personal account. Without any form of promotion, today it has been shared 40 times which is exceptional. If you watch the video it talks about real engagement.

Brand engagement is about more than just likes and shares on facebook Johnny Lyle
Brand engagement is about more than just likes and shares on Facebook

As a brand and social media specialist who shows real brands how to treat their customers and behave online, it is a very, very timely reminder that real engagement is about far more than likes, shares and a few extra follows. You have to be brilliant offline to allow people to get you online.

Real engagement is about getting inside people’s heads. It’s about becoming part of their lives, so they can’t live without you. It’s about building proper relationships where you give things as well as just take them.

Real engagement is real life and that’s what Gary’s film shows us.

The problem with Google Certified Shops Programme

google certified shop badge

When Google started in 1998, they had the aim of ‘organising the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’. This was backed up by the mantra or brand value ‘Don’t be Evil’. Over recent years however they seem to have concentrated more on the former and slightly less on the latter.

Their new ‘Certified Shops Programme‘, whilst not evil in concept, does seem to wrestle even more power under their control. So what is it?

On the surface it looks simple. It’s a programme that puts some standards into the sellers so that the buyer can buy with confidence from any online retailer that displays their symbol. It’s free to the seller and free to the buyer. They even offer you £1,000 of buyer protection, in case things go wrong. That’s brilliant. It’s a total win, win right?


Here’s my thinking – which is only conjecture and my opinion.

For the retailer

  • Signing up will become a necessity if you want to sell via the Google platform and with over 90% of the search market in the UK, you will not be able to trade without it.
  • Mediation of any issues is handled by Google, they decide what is right and wrong in the transaction and act as judge and jury.
  • You cannot deal with the irate or happy customer at all. You are allowing Google to negotiate any issues on your behalf.
  • If you disagree, you lose seller status and in the worst cases, they could put a manual penalty on your search position. This could kill your business overnight.
  • You have to hand over all of the transaction details of your customer to Google. As the customer has to sign in on a Google account to participate in the buyer protection, they are handing over ALL of their previous search behaviour too.
  • Google then have the right to speak to your buyer directly and ask them about their experiences with you and with others online, it’s in their terms and conditions.
  • Google can then build a perfect behavioural picture of ALL of your customers and who else they have shopped with, or ever considered shopping with.
  • With this profile of buyer behaviour they can feed this into their AdWords and PLA advertising algorithms, so all of your precious keywords and hard earned click/conversion behaviour are essentially made available to everyone else in the market if they are prepared to bid more for it than you are.
  • Google focus the seller power into fewer and fewer sellers as not all will have the sales figures to qualify for the Certified Shops Programme, and they control those sellers’ access to market. Maybe not evil, but certainly wielding an enormous amount of power over the market, maybe even monopolistic power.
  • You no longer own any element of your customer relationship, Google do. You signed it over without noticing. They can just cut you out of the deal next time and sell any access to your customers to the highest bidder.

But that’s okay as the buyer is protected right?

  • The £1,000 buyer protection is a lifetime figure. if you make a claim up to this limit, you lose out going forward, you can never be protected again.
  • You have 60 days to claim and they make it very clear that this is no form of warranty.
  • Buying on a credit card offers far greater protection, without any of the data sharing. The retailer pays the transaction fee.
  • By sharing all of the buyer and search behaviour you have ever done over to Google, you are allowing them to read every one of your emails and feed you tailored advertising and promotions.
  • Google now have the power to limit the searches you see. because they know you through studying all of your behaviour online, they can choose what they allow you to see. Maybe this is taking it too far, but they could genuinely only allow you to see sellers THEY approve rather than the ones who may be more up your own ethical or behavioural street.

So in summary, as yet it’s too early to say, where Google may take this, but it’s certainly a huge programme and one that could wreak total havoc on the seller environment and begin to affect all of our buyer behaviour online.

PS, if you ever want to trick the system try the difference between a logged in search in Google Chrome and then one that you do in private browsing mode in Safari or Firefox. You’ll find quite a difference in the results you see in search.

Effective branding, SEO, Marketing and brand experience


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