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

Summary

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.

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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.

Virgin are still living their brand

Virgin Trains Vs East Midlands Trains

I was in London for a very early meeting last week and chose to travel out of Grantham on the East Coast mainline that is now operated by Virgin trains. It was always a quick route, normally cheaper than East Midlands Trains and in my experience anyway, dead reliable.

I have always have had high expectations of Virgin and their brand. They promise a lot with their values, so they have a lot to live up to.

And they didn’t just live up to them, they completely exceeded them. Perfect service, genuinely chatty, friendly staff and a great choice of breakfast options delivered to your table at no extra cost. (my bacon sarnie was lovely thanks) and free wifi that was fast enough to be usable for work.

On the way home later, they added a choice of hot meals or a selection of (very tasty) sandwiches and wine or beer and teas and coffees, again all included in the price. It just feels like they are being generous in every respect, even though the actual cost must be tiny, the perceived value and the warmth this drives towards the brand is massive.

Today i’m back on the slightly more expensive and slower East Midlands Train to Nottingham. Full priced menu, wifi that doesn’t work properly (It’s so slow that I can’t even load Speedtest.net to test how bad it is). The staff are still very friendly and I did get a glass of wine on the way home, so overall, i’m not particularly inspired to travel on this route again. It’s Grantham and Virgin for me.

So this proves that you can drive your brand values right through to your service standards and you can keep delivering them over and over again and find new ways to win over and delight your customers.

Thanks Sir Richard.

Why I won’t be buying an Apple Watch

This is why you don't need an Apple Watch - The DeTomaso Matera Automatic watch

I am a big fan of Apple. I have been forever and at 49 years old, one of my claims to fame is that I have never owned a PC of any description. I had a few Nokia phones in the early days but that’s about it. I have been Apple through and through since around 1989.

But I won’t be joining the masses in buying the rather overpriced Apple Watch. I simply can’t see the point. It alerts you to what your phone is doing in your pocket and you’ll look like a dick if you talk to it (who really uses Siri other than to make it tell you jokes?). You’ll very quickly give up checking all of the notifications as they are so frequent anyway with five email and even more social media accounts on my phone. What’s compounds the misery is that being on Bluetooth all day will only make the battery life even more useless again. It’s bad enough having to charge my iPhone twice a day, but my watch too?

No, sorry Apple. This is a step too far for me. It’s not making my life easier. I’ll stick with my simple mechanical watch that tells the time. It doesn’t try and multi-task or be my personal assistant and it manages to wind itself just by being on my wrist. No batteries, reliable as you like and it glows in the dark so I can read it at night.

Thanks Apple, but no thanks.

There’s nothing wrong with Google Glass, but they defined their audience wrongly

Google Glass courtesy of Fast Company
Google Glass courtesy of Fast Company

One of the most important elements of creating a brand is deciding who your audience is. Most of us think we know intuitively. And yet for me, really putting the work in here is often overlooked. The more you understand the needs, thoughts, desires and motivations of your REAL audience, the more fully you can wrap the brand around them. You create something they need before they realise they need it, rather than reacting to others.

So, in the last few weeks, Google have just admitted with Google Glass that they got this audience definition completely wrong at launch. It was aimed at techies and geeks. All of us have probably laughed at someone at a trade show talking to their glasses whilst recording everything they see?

So whilst there has been some celebration in it being scrapped as it has been unpopular with consumers for reasons of privacy invasion, its real use was in a professional environment.

With the need for medical staff to both protect themselves from litigation and bring in external help when they need it, Glass is perfect. It allows a paramedic at a scene to call upon external expertise in an instant. Who would laugh at that? And it also allows a doctor to record every part of a procedure and log it with a patient’s records, in case anything goes wrong, or more positively if anything unexpectedly goes right and they can refer back as to why.

So, good on Google for admitting their mistake and repositioning. It’s not often a product that was given such a big launch and failed is given a second chance. In the longer term, I can see this, or its derivative, becoming standard headwear for anyone who has to deal with the general public.

 

Why ‘The Apprentice’ is bad for business

Lord Alan Sugar of The Apprentice
Lord Alan Sugar of The Apprentice

For years I’ve been avoiding avidly watching ‘The Apprentice’. Last time I watched it, I saw them attempt a dreadful rebrand of Margate. But this week, I was asked to give it another go and I found myself hating it even more.

The group had the task of creating a new dessert product to sell into the major supermarket groups and the team who did worse only managed to create and sell 15,000 units in their allotted few days, whereas the winners sold 23,500. So why do I think this is so wrong?

1. The competitors behaviour in the boardroom was horrific. Initially they worked as teams but were encouraged and delighted by the fact that they should back stab their other team members in front of “Lord’ Sugar. I’ve been in business for a long time and maybe I’m the naive one, but a situation where the other person has to lose for you to be able to win is not a situation I recognise or respect. I don’t believe it sustains good business.

2. ‘Lord Sugar’s’ feigned ignorance was appalling. He sneered at one of the competitors for referring to their target audience as ‘grazers’ If he genuinely didn’t understand this term, is he qualified to judge such a programme?

3. The situation itself was completely ridiculous. For young people to believe that it’s the norm to pop into a development kitchen and create a new dessert without even a nod towards costing it up properly (more Saffron anyone?) is bad enough, but for them to carry on the myth by pretending they had secured pitches in front of Tesco and Waitrose is even more ridiculous. For them to pretend that they then ordered units without any production ability or drawn out negotiation just perpetuates the stupidity.

4. And then it came to the judging. The esteemed ‘Lord’ Sugar decided who he wanted to belittle first. A young lady with an idea about a healthy eating restaurant chain emanating from Sunderland was literally laughed out of the boardroom. But what had changed? That was the business idea she had pitched to get onto the programme, so when did it suddenly become something worth ridicule? It was nasty and spiteful and all to do with bullying on TV. She had been set up for that fall since she agreed to join the programme.

For me, business is built on the old fashioned values of mutual respect, trust and hard work. Throw in some luck and grasping the good opportunities that present themselves, whilst knowing which ones to pass over, is the difference between success and failure.

The Apprentice is X Factor business. Nothing to do with ANY of these business values and everything to do with creating shocking TV and making money at any cost, despite how many people you harm on the way. If this is the impression we give young people about how business behaves, in my opinion, very few of them will choose to join us. Those that do will be horrendous colleagues trained in the very worst of business behaviour.

This isn’t an apprenticeship, It’s an ugly beauty parade that’s causing harm to the future of business.

Thanks to TV Choice magazine for the picture of the pin up boy for business, Lord Sugar.

The risks in Social Media – Direct Line style

It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security with social media.

We’ve lured a world famous actor to come and be our ‘face’ and recreate the look of Pulp Fiction’s Winston Wolfe.

We’ve produced a great series of TV ads with our new character ‘Mr Wolf’. They are genuinely different ads for the space in which Direct Line operate.

And then they throw it to the real wolves by using sponsored posts all over Facebook and their existing customers get hold of it.

Direct Line Harvey Keitel Mr Wolf. Social Media is more difficult to handle than you think

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are have been 224 comments in the first 14 hours and as far as I can see, every single one of them retells a story of how they have been badly treated by Direct Line or commenting on Harvey Keitel’s decision to work in the insurance market.

For me, this can be nothing but bad for the Direct Line brand. Assuming most people have 250 friends on Facebook, these negative comments have already been seen by at least 50,000 people with a negative endorsement. If you add the 223 shares, this problem could be much worse than it first looks.

Compare this to the number of views on YouTube (only 3,573 after eight days) and you can see that the negative power has been at least FIFTEEN times more effective at reaching people. It may have gone viral, but hardly the type of viral they were hoping for.

One week on and only 3,573 views for the Harvey Keitel ad on YouTube for Direct Line
One week on and only 3,573 views for the Harvey Keitel ad on YouTube for Direct Line

Social media is both friend and foe. If you open yourself up to comments and feedback on such a public platform you need to be 100% sure you can cope with the responses. The old adage of ‘never asking a question you don’t already know the answer to’ may have been a prudent way of thinking before they ran this campaign.

I suspect a few people in the team at Saatchi (who produced the campaign) will be getting an ear bashing for their decision to try and amplify the positive effect of their advertising spend by engaging with Facebook and REAL customers.

 

The new rule of SEO

Matt Cutts - The new rules of SEO I have spent lots of time working on SEO strategies over the last few months. For years it was getting more and more complicated, but now it looks like it’s getting simpler again with the latest article by Matt Cutts of Google which puts an end to pretty much all external link building. So, how do you continue to rank your sites when Google have so much power and how do you try and force your way up the SERPS (search engine results pages)? The simple answer is that you don’t. What you have to do now is build a brilliant product or service, gather great reviews and then encourage social traffic through all of the main channels (including Google+). It’s a slow process, but the old saying ‘grow slow, grow strong’ is now 100% correct for SEO too.

A bit of a problem for the Abercrombie and Fitch brand

When you set out to create a brand you can design in certain criteria. By pricing it high, you exclude certain buying groups, by not even making XL sizes for women, you naturally exclude the larger ladies. They also place ‘beautiful people’ in a state of undress outside their stores as greeters. These decisions form the basis of the whole brand and who you target and appeal to. I am far to old/fat to be in their target audience (but so is their own MD!) and I am now quite proud to say I have never owned any of their products.

Mike Jeffries Abercrombie and Fitch Managing Director
Mike Jeffries Abercrombie and Fitch Managing Director – looking a little like a bad advertisement for facial surgery – and certainly not in his own target audience

But Abercrombie and Fitch have taken this brand separation to a new level by destroying all damaged or returned goods rather than giving them to the homeless, as many other brands do. All very deliberate and all very elitist. the assumption being that seeing homeless people in A&F would embarrass their own beautiful customers.

But here comes the brand backlash. 7.5 million views in less than a month, and growing fast. Watch this space. It may be the next Gerald Ratner moment for the A&F brand.