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.

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 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.

The launch of Notts TV

Notts TV Blue Duck

Today’s the day. Months of hard work, planning and prepping. Blue Ducks all over Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. Everyone clamouring to own one and be seen with the symbol of a whole new era in TV broadcasting. Millions of people reached and hours of TV produced and in the bag.

So, retune your TV’s to make sure you can see Freeview Channel Eight, sit back and enjoy the ride from 16.00 today.

It’s going to be astonishing and show what our city and the enormous bank of talent that choose to live and work here can achieve when we all work together.

RIP Andy Grogan – Great man, visionary for Nottingham and all round good bloke

I normally write about branding but I couldn’t let the passing of my good pal Andy Grogan go without saying a word or two about him. I met him through kids football, when his (very talented) son joined our team – the West Bridgford Sharks. He came on tour with us and laughed his way through a few seasons on the touchlines of Nottinghamshire and beyond.

But where I really got to know him was in his vision for our adopted City Of Nottingham. He had more enthusiasm and ideas than anyone else I know. He was desperate and determined to give Nottingham a Castle experience it deserved and perhaps even more excited by the prospect of revitalising Sneinton Market.

I don’t use the word visionary lightly, but he was. Perhaps he sometimes had more vision than follow through but he was an incredible talent and will be very sadly missed. I will always treasure a conversation we had one drunken evening on a footie tour in Scarborough where he put into context the work we were doing with the lads in our footie team in the year we won our league. He was one of the people who said thank you and meant it and if he disagreed with you he told you, but told you why. Thank you Andy. You were one of the good guys.

Andy Grogan RIP
Andy Grogan RIP – on tour in Scarborough back in 2009

What a beautiful brand video by Chipotle

I think I must be turning into a bit of an old softie as I saw this video today and just loved it. The music by Willie Nelson is a beautiful interpretation of the Coldplay song ‘The Scientist’ Which I have since bought and played a few times to check it is as good as I think It is. It is.

I knew nothing about Chipotle, but it turns out the are pretty big in the US with over 900 stores, none of which incidentally are franchises. If they are half as good as this video and the way they present themselves on the rest of the brilliant website, they will be a place that I want to hang out. There are four stores in the UK, all in London, but i’m hoping the development page here, may be picked up by some of my agency friends and some perfect Nottingham sites suggested to their development team.

But this simple video tells me everything about their values. They do the right thing, they are a simple business model and they are prepared to invest in quality. That doesn’t sound far off the perfect brand value set to me. Please come to Nottingham, you will be very welcome. Better still, come to West Bridgford, you’ll be alongside, the fabulous Escabeche, Fellicini’s and  the busiest Pizza Express in the UK (allegedly).

In the meantime, enjoy the video and go and buy some locally produced food.

Updated 28.03.13

I was in London yesterday meeting some friends and colleagues and managed to get chance to finally go and eat in a Chipotle restaurant and I wasn’t even a tiny bit disappointed. The food was lovely and the staff friendly and helpful. For what is effectively fast food, there is almost no saturated fat and you leave feeling full and healthy rather than ‘dirty’ as you would with other fast food joints.

Chipotle Burrito - One of the nicest things I have ever eaten
Chipotle Burrito – One of the nicest things I have ever eaten

I was lucky enough to travel across Costa Rica some years ago (on a bike!) and one of the highlights for me was the food. Chicken, rice, black beans and some chilli style sauce with Guacamole. Chipotle serve this plus some. Chipotle, please come to Nottingham. We need you.

Brewdog vs. Diageo = A win for the punks

Brewdog Nottingham
Brewdog Nottingham – Not terribly keen on Carling or Diageo

You may have seen this little story bubbling under over the last week or so but it says an awful lot to me about brands and their respective behaviours.

In brief, Brewdog were at the British Institute of Innkeeping awards and fully expected to win the title of Bar Operator of the Year. They were on the top table and their name was on the trophy. It was that nailed on.

But when the announcement came, it wasn’t Brewdog, but someone else. They were surprised to say the least and when they saw Brewdog’s name on the trophy, rightly refused to accept it.

The independent judges couldn’t believe it had happened, but what did happen.

Well, it appears that Diageo, wanted any winner but Brewdog, so told the local BII team that if they won, they would withdraw any sponsorship in any BII event for the future. Strong arm tactics to say the least, so they panicked and gave the award elsewhere.

But social media has real power these days and the story came out anyway, but so did all the backlash against Diageo.

So what does it say about these brands?

Diageo, is old school. Flawless, never makes mistakes and wants to control every single element of their brand and who it hangs out with. They rather forgot that you don’t decide how your brand is perceived, your customers do. It shows to me the fear they are facing with craft beers, low run, carefully produced products that are worth paying a premium for.

For Brewdog, it can be nothing but good news. Look what happened when Radio One banned the Sex Pistols. It launched them! So the Punk beer brand is banned by the establishment.

I was in Brewdog Nottingham on Saturday afternoon. It was busy, the beer was good. A victory for Punk.

Thanks to Brewdog shareholder Lisa Harlow for telling me about this story.

Why locally sourced is best – Better even than organic

This is a little piece I wrote for Angels by Day, our favourite day nursery, a few years ago. In the end it was heavily edited as it was perhaps a little scary for little people to cope with, but here it is in full. I think the logic behind it still makes lots and lots of sense.

Hello I’m an apple. A lovely Bramley Apple.

The nicest apple in the whole wide Veld.

I’m so tired. I just feel horrible and battered and bruised and awful. I haven’t always been like this, so let me tell you a little about my life.

I was born about three months ago in south Africa in a beautiful warm sunny place in a shady orchard with a lovely river running at the bottom of the garden. I was sure my life was going to be idyllic. I remember when I was just a blossom having big plans to be the tastiest apple the world had ever seen.

When I started to sprout, I was sprayed with this nasty chemical stuff. They told me it was to protect me and help me grow, but it just made me smell funny and feel all dirty. After this I went on a bit of a growth spurt and pretty soon was one of the big boys.

And just as I was starting to feel like a leggy teenager all spotty and gangly and a bit too big for my body, this massive machine came and pulled us off the tree and well fell into a huge washing machine. We tumbled about for ages and ages and I thought we were being washed, but when we rolled out, I had this horrid waxy stuff all over my skin. Eeeugh!

I fell onto another big conveyer belt and shot along bashing into my brothers, cousins and loads of apples I’d never even met before. It was very scary. I just wanted to go home to my simple life.

Suddenly we shot into a spinning machine and were all wrapped in a strange blue paper, a bit like toilet roll but harder on my young fresh skin and I was thrown into a box in a little solitary compartment that didn’t quite fit my shape properly that made me really uncomfortable and my bottom ache.

But then it got worse. They started to chill the box down until we were all shivering with cold.

I don’t remember much about the next few months other than it was dark and cold and we rolled about with the movement of the sea and the bumping of some different lorries and trucks. For the whole of this time we were freezing, dark and very lonely. I couldn’t believe my life could get any worse…

…but it did.

We were thrust into the light feeling travel sick and awful and thrown onto a shelf ready for the lovely humans to come and eat us.

But back to the present day, you’ve seen what I’ve been through and how hard a life I’ve had. My vitamins have gone, I’m waxy, tired and horrible. I’ll never live up to my potential taste. Eat me if you dare, but I bet you wouldn’t swap my life for yours.

The nicest apple in the world

Hello I’m a Bramley apple. I heard about my cousin from South Africa, the poor thing, he has been tortured for his whole life and I look at how I’ve been brought up and feel so sorry for him and the poor people who have to eat him.

I grew up in Southwell, just North of Nottingham. The farmer who looked after me was a lovely man. He let me grow up slowly and nurtured me with natural and healthy food so I grew big and strong and tasty – in my own good time.

I can’t wait for the day when he’ll pick me to be the one for your tea. Believe me I’m ready. Its what I’m trained to do. You see I’m fresh, naturally strong and the kids will just LOVE me.

Hawaii Five-O and product placement

My family are away in Spain without me at the moment, so I have been using my time wisely and watching all the back episodes of the remake of Hawaii Five-O.

A few things jump out for me.

1. It has the most unsubtle product placement I have ever seen, with the sponsors ‘Holiday Inn’ dragged into almost every story as some part of the plotline. So for example, when a witness needed to be moved, they sent her off to the Holiday Inn rather than an un-named hotel.

2. The cars throughout are Chevrolets. And I now want a Camaro. I guess it is a mid-life crisis, but I think it’s the sort of subtle car I need for cruising around Nottingham. It will sit well in our car park, next to Mich’s diesel Smart ForTwo. He would be sort of an offset for my huge fuel consumption if I drove this around town.

Chevrolet Camaro from Hawaii Five-O - I want one
Chevrolet Camaro from Hawaii Five-O - I want one

3. The series is so silly and glossy – almost like a a set designer has spent a few weeks watching Spooks over here and copied all their tech tricks.

4. There are some brilliant references to the old series though. My favourite so far was when McGarret was about to get Danno to do the line and he stopped him and said ‘Don’t even say it’ when he was about to say ‘book him Danno, Murder one’.

So does product placement work in this context?

For me, it has drilled the concept of going to Hawaii for my 50th into the front of my mind (in four years, before you ask), just so I can use the gag. And it’s made me want a Camaro, so yes, I guess it has.

Will I do either though?

I doubt it.

So Product placement works in a few ways. It changes perceptions for high value products and has a chance of conversion to a sale on low value, more immediate product.

If it’s done well and built into the story, it can work. Okay, more research.

Place Branding needs a dramatic sense of place

One of the things that has struck me since living in Nottingham is that there are very few world class landmarks for people to use in their iconic shots to sum up their visit. We all know it should be the castle, but i’m afraid that will never happen.

London’s images are ever changing, but the London Eye, the Swiss Re, the upcoming Shard and maybe Canary Wharf are amongst the most the most used. This shows that modern stuff can take over from the more traditional images of  Big Ben, Whitehall, Downing Street and Buckingham Palace.

I grew up in a suburb of Oxford called Headington (close to my beloved Oxford United’s old Manor Ground) and we had one amazing one, which was this massive pair of kicking legs coming out of the roof of the Moulin Rouge Cinema.

The Moulin Rouge Cinema in Oxford - Sadly no more, but the legs were amazing
The Moulin Rouge Cinema in Oxford - Sadly no more, but the legs were amazing. Photograph: © Graham Paul Smith

And then in 1986 the now famous Shark arrived and it’s now 25 years old.

The Shark in the roof in Headington, Oxford
The Shark in the roof in Headington, Oxford

So what has this got to do with branding?

Well, it’s partly a nostalgic look back for me, but it is also a reminder that creating a brand for a place is more than just using pictures of dreaming spires, or lush meadows by the Thames, it takes some brave design and an inspirational character (or two) to make it happen. And this is the same for any brand too.

To stand out in a crowded market, you have to stand out, just like my favourite shark.