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.

The New Zealand brand – summed up in one minute and 18 seconds

The Haka has always been something I have watched with fear and admiration, but today in the final of the Rugby World cup, I saw it for the first time as a brand marker for New Zealand. It shows their power, their determination and their ability to stand, miles from anywhere else in the world as a distinct nation, that is proud of its roots.

If you were going to write a few rules about a brand, they would be simple.

Do things well

Mean them, ie live your values

Build on your roots

Be differentiated.

They seem to have done all of these rather well here. And to be honest, it’s the first time I have ever seen anyone respond to it like the French. What a brilliant advertisement for the country and the sport of rugby.

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.

The new logo for Burnley seems to have caused a bit of a stir

Burnley have bought a new ‘logo’ that isn’t really a logo but a clever rotating computer graphic. And it seems to have caused a bit of a stir judging by 70+ comments within a day of being shown on the Under Consideration website.

The new Burnley 'logo' made from some old bits of Atari graphics
The new Burnley 'logo' made from some old bits of Atari graphics

I personally like it but do find it amazingly disturbing that Coun Gordon Birtwistle, leader of Burnley Council admitted that they had to beat off stiff competition to use the logo!. What? A bidding war for a logo that is being touted about?

He said ‘it signifies the town’s “intertwining” qualities’ Did he really? Or did the designer say this in a huge piece of post rationalisation?

Surely a graphic device has to represent it’s people. It has to be embedded and probably even designed within its community. Using clip art for logos isn’t new, it’s a massive retrograde step. All credit to the people who got interested parties to compete to use their icon.

Is it a nice piece? Yes, I think so.

Does it represent Burnley? Err no. It can’t it wasn’t designed for them, it was designed to sell, not to meet and exceed a brief.


The effective way for Margate and Derby to fight back

Empty shop in Margate - A chance for the independents
Empty shop in Margate – A chance for the independents

There was lots in the news on the BBC on Friday about the seaside town of Margate having the worst percentage of empty shops for any town in the UK with a 25% rate. This was closely followed by Derby, which for a major urban conurbation has an astonishing rate of 22%.

Now I know both of these places very well having grown up in Margate and have written about it both here and here, and I live within a few miles of Derby.

So I thought I was in a good place to comment on both places from a branding perspective and from a common sense perspective. The two are often quite separate and for me, this seems to have been the case in both of these examples.

So firstly Derby. It’s a compact city that has built it name on the back of engineering with Rolls Royce, and latterly Toyota and Bombardier. It used to have a lovely friendly small city vibe to it but was always slightly ‘chippy’ about its relationship with Nottingham, just a few miles along the A52. It seemed to spend more time looking at what Nottingham was doing and trying to compare itself favourably to it, rather than looking at organising its own offer. It has been branded as the city of the future, Derby yes and I don’t know how many other silly place branding attempts. All have failed to capture what is great about the city, which, for an outsider looking in, is that it is easy to get around, friendly, very good looking in places and quite nice to live or even shop in.

So when they announced the huge new Westfield development, it was almost like they had got off with the best looking girl at the school disco. Nottingham and Leicester looked on jealously as to what massive wealth this new shopping mecca would bring them. But unlike with the retailer, Wilko’s you can’t always polish a turd.

I’m not saying Derby is a turd per se, but I am saying that what they did was built a huge great homogenous monstrosity in the heart of a lovely city that had no connection with the city itself. They built an out of town soulless shopping experience in the heart of a city that was full of soul. It had no connections to the outside world. They drew their best retailers from the streets into the centre and in doing so, pulled out its heart. They forgot what made Derby both different and great and with 22% of their shops empty, are now reaping the rewards of their greed, stupidity and short sightedness.

The story with Margate is remarkably similar. A lovely little east Kent seaside town that had lost its sparkle, become the home to bail hostels and low end living and with its obvious lack of investment over the previous few years saw huge ££££ signs ringing in front of its eyes when they allowed Land Securities to build the monstrous Westwood Cross between its main towns of Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs.

Again, they dragged the heart out of the towns, Margate suffered most as it was already in decline anyway, but all saw their multiple retailers leaving in droves to create even more homogenised and soulless developments for us to travel to and endure.

But in recessionary times, we all seem to work out that you can only own so much stuff and then it has to stop. Well, we stopped.

I am convinced that brands have to fight back by being different, not by being homogenised. I don’t want to look like the next person in the street, I want to look like me.

The future of branding is unbranded.

So the towns and cities need to fight back. Not through another pointless rebrand that will just get the local people and the local papers baying for blood, but by deciding what they stand for and then offering real incentives to drive the right people to deliver that into place.

If you want independent retailers, then the councils have to be flexible. Why not offer them rent free periods or even licenses rather than onerous long leases that scare the start ups away. If you are thinking about starting a small business, would you feel comfortable about immediately signing a lease that commits you to five years of rent payments whether it works out or not? No me neither.

Business rates could help too. At present, any business pays 48.5p for every £1.00 of assumed rental value in its business rates. So if it’s arbitrarily decided that your space should be rented at £10,000 per year, you would have to pay £4850 in business rates over and above any rental or lease payments. But again, in recessionary times, this space is worth nowhere near what it has been in the past, so there needs to be a huge degree of flexibility exercised here. If landlords are having to take almost zero rent to get retailers back into spaces, surely the rates should be calculated on what they actually pay, rather than what they should be paying in some imaginary, ideal world economy?

Margate and Derby have a glut of retail space, so they need to make it incredibly attractive to independents to come along and give it a go, without the huge downside risk they would normally face, so that independently minded people will come back and begin to shop there. In my mind, only something as radical as this will get the spaces trading again. No amount of art in the windows will do this, but all credit to Margate for starting to make empty shops at least look more attractive.

Margate shop window art
Margate shop window art – an imaginative use of empty retail spaces

Empty spaces are self perpetuating. Fewer people will take the risks of setting up and as such, fewer people come to their to shop in the first place.

As with any recession, this is a chance for Derby and Margate to define their character. They have already sold their souls and found that it isn’t as great or profitable an experience as they once hoped. Lets hope they take this chance now to recover their fighting and independent spirit and maybe even save their souls.

Thanks to Melita Dennett for the Margate empty shop shot. More great work from her here. And to Maggie 224 for the Margate art shop  – More of her work here

Welcome to the Nottingham Riviera brand

Any of us who have lived or worked in Nottingham for any length of time couldn’t help but notice that it isn’t terribly close to the seaside – and for me, this is the only part of living here that I have ever missed, having grown up in sunny, sandy Margate.

But now we have a brilliant solution. The seaside has come to us with the launch of the Nottingham Riviera yesterday.

Nottingham Riviera
Nottingham Riviera

And it looks brilliant, despite some dark clouds threatening the perfect seaside break inland.

Nottingham has worked hard over the years to dispel the ridiculous myths about its problems. All of which are based more around a tiny political boundary that distorts the figures than any real issues that any other growing city doesn’t face.

Perhaps if Nottingham gets the march on Torbay, who are apparently rebranding to become the English Riviera, the City could own this creative space before Torbay moves into it.

Is this the end for Torbay and is Nottingham the new English Riviera
Is this the end for Torbay and is Nottingham the new English Riviera

But it seems that the Nottingham ‘Brand’s is becoming about innovation, which we have recommended for years as being the way for any brand or even any place to continue to be loved by its audience.

Yesterday also saw the arrival of Sven to the city to take over as Director of Football at Notts County – The oldest Football league club in the world. Again, great news (albeit a bit surreal) and another huge jaw dropping positive piece in the news about the city.

Today sees the first meeting of the Sheriff’s Commission – a panel put together specifically to show how Robin Hood can be more embedded into the fabric of the city. When we did the City brand some years ago, we were hammered for saying we did not have a strong enough offer for our green hero and choosing to focus on some of the other positives in the meantime. Thankfully this may now be coming to an end.

Melbourne have just undertaken their own rebrand through Landor and seem to be getting the usual bollocks about what it cost and how little effect it will have, but if this is what it takes for a city to start acting differently it’s money well spent.

The New Wonky 'M' Melbourne logo
The New Wonky 'M' Melbourne logo

Considering we’re meant to be in a recession, Nottingham genuinely feels like it is really fighting back. It’s become proud and innovative again and is building its brand by continuing to act differently and by actually being innovative.

Branding is about the sustained differentiation of a product, service or place. In this regard Nottingham is practicing some of the best branding you will see from any city anywhere.

Long may it continue.

Canadian call Centres – It’s the future

It’s the future for me! I was genuinely quite nervous about moving my car insurance for the first time in years and did the usual of going onto the price comparison website which I have to say was remarkably easy to use and offered me some prices that seemed much lower than when I had been insuring it previously (like nearly half price!)

The one that came out on top for both my car and my wife’s was Admiral Insurance ( who also seem to offer a multi car deal. This sounded a little complicated, so with some trepidation, I clicked the button to allow me to speak to a real person. I presume at this stage, Go Compare’s business model charges Admiral Insurance for me as a very hot lead. Many companies we have dealt with in the past, still seem to exercise massive sales prevention techniques – even at this stage.

But I spoke to Cathy Arnold in their sister company call centre in Nova Scotia and she was quite superb. Nothing was too much trouble, she was keen to do things right, apologised for some of the (required) bureaucracy and was overall a lovely person to deal with.

If this is the way of the Canadian Call centre operative generally, I can only see it being a very large growth industry for them in the future.

Admiral are trying very hard to build a brand in the UK and they are backing up lots of expensive advertising with brilliant service, excellent prices and smart people to deal with. I can’t believe I am saying it about an insurance company, and I may change my opinion if I ever have to make a claim, but we could all learn something from these people.