Toby Harris talks to Mel Flaherty about his growth plans for Social Entertainment Ventures’ activity-led venues
Fiona Eastwood discusses how she plans to continue working her magic at Merlin Entertainments with Mel Flaherty
“I have always chosen well and managed to get roles with people who really inspire me”
‘SeeSaw and chill’ doesn’t sound quite right, but if one of the projects Fiona Eastwood worked on in her 18 years at the BBC had come to fruition, we might not have even heard of Netflix, let alone all spent the past six months binge-watching it.
Eastwood, now Chief Operating Officer of the Midway Attractions Group at Merlin Entertainments, the global location-based family attractions firm, was part of a joint initiative between BBC Worldwide, Channel 4 and ITV to launch a commercial streaming platform, one of the potential consumer names for which was SeeSaw. The Competition Commission blocked the scheme and two years later Netflix launched in the UK, dominating the market ever since.
While she recalls this as a big disappointment at the time, as a challenge it pales into insignificance against the complexities the global pandemic has brought to her current role.
Merlin Entertainments normally attracts 67 million visitors a year and in 2019 reported a 5% increase in revenues to £1.74bn from its portfolio of 130-plus attractions (which include LEGOLAND, Alton Towers and Chessington World of Adventures theme parks) in 25 countries across four continents. As COO of the Midway division, Eastwood is responsible for the indoor attractions, featuring among others the SEA LIFE, LEGOLAND Discovery Centre and Madame Tussauds brands, which together pull in just over 40 million visitors a year and in 2019 generated revenue of £674m. 2020, of course, will be a very different story.
“On 20 January, I was in New York visiting our attractions there and I was forwarded an email from our [Madame Tussauds] site in Wuhan, talking about this mysterious illness affecting people. By the end of that week, we had closed every site in China and by 20 March, we had closed all of our sites around the world except the SEA LIFE in Busan, South Korea. It was so sad,” she says, still rather incredulous at the whirlwind turn of events.
Eastwood readily admits the lockdown and subsequent fallout have been tough both for her personally and for the company.
As someone whose job usually involves a lot of international travel, Eastwood says being grounded is hard, although it has made her thankful that she decided to add a cockapoo to her family a couple of years ago – having an extra reason to go for walks has helped. As for her employer, in an April update to lenders and bondholders, Merlin committed to reducing its annualised cost base by at least £400m. It has achieved this through a suite of measures designed to secure the future for the business and protect the guest-facing experience. Helping implement these changes has certainly kept her busy, even if the task in hand – particularly job cuts – has not always been the most pleasant.
Despite all that, Eastwood is feeling very hopeful for the future and even feels some good has come out of the universally bad situation. For one, the firm has now rolled out a standard model across its attractions with clearer layers of job responsibility and reporting structure, which she believes will see the business fitter than ever going forward. And while keeping teams motivated when the sites have been closed and now continue to face extremely difficult trading conditions is no easy task, Eastwood says many have risen admirably to the challenge of maintaining customer engagement -initiatives such as live streaming of penguin feeding and a new e-commerce site for the LEGOLAND Discovery Centres spring to her mind.
The teams have also been encouraged to continue lobbying governments for assistance to get the tourism industry back on its feet. Keeping the temporary 5% VAT rate for hospitality, accommodation and attractions, due to revert to 20% on 31 March, is one of the priorities, as is a domestic and international marketing drive for London.
“We have created a London SOS group with other companies and attractions as we have had nothing from the Mayor’s office.
“For ourselves and a lot of other attractions in London about 80% of business is international, but the capital is so quiet,” Eastwood explains.
Merlin also hosted a visit to its London Eye attraction by Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport when, Eastwood says with a glint in her eye, she and her colleagues made a point of discussing what measures governments in some of the other territories it operates in had taken to help safeguard their tourist industries.
By way of example, Eastwood says the Singaporean government is now giving $100 to every resident to spend on being a local tourist. She adds that she has been impressed with the German government’s response to the crisis, both from a health and economic point of view; for Merlin, in terms of business recovery, Germany is currently one of the strongest regions. China, however, is leading the way with the local government in Wuhan running a free ticket promotion to reward residents and help businesses, which has resulted in a 170% increase in visits compared to the same time last year.
Eastwood says openings planned for 2020 and all capex for this year have been pushed into 2021. Promotional activity for new features that did come in either just before or during lockdown, such as Europe’s first sea otters which are now at the Birmingham SEA LIFE Centre, will also be saved until next year.
For now, the focus is on trying to meet commercial goals and, if possible, driving some growth, particularly with Madame Tussauds. A key part of the wider Merlin Group’s future strategy, alongside investment in new and existing theme parks around the world, is to grow its IP-led experiences. The Midway Attractions encompass a lot of that activity, such as the Peppa Pig World of Play centres based on the popular cartoon character for young children, of which it currently has three – two in the US and one in Shanghai, China. The Peppa Pig brand is owned by Entertainment One, also responsible for the PJ Masks preschool superhero cartoon which will be featured in trails, merchandising and character appearances at the SEA LIFE attractions.
Eastwood says the firm is always looking at ways to expand upon its existing partnerships and find new ones: “It is an easier way to stand out if you can align yourself with a big brand but the challenge is around consolidating that – Disney, our biggest competitor, has been busy mopping up a lot of IP.”
She is well-versed in identifying and maximising opportunities from intellectual property. At the BBC, one of the achievements Eastwood is most proud of is her work with Dr
Who which led to a huge increase in internationally-generated revenue from the franchise – from 25% of total to 50%. This was reached through a co-ordinated approach including a US episode, PR and brand extension through live events and products including a video game.
Working for the BBC had been Eastwood’s ambition since the age of 15 and by the time she left she was Director of Brands, Global Markets for BBC Worldwide and on track to get onto the executive team.
So, what was it that tempted her to join the leisure industry, initially in a marketing role for Merlin’s Midway Attractions?
“I was starting to think I could be institutionalised at the BBC, although I was confident that hadn’t happened because I had had so many different jobs in my time there. But the more people I met at Merlin, the more excited I became about the company and about getting closer to the end user,” she explains.
“Media brands would kill to get that level of engagement with the customer – it always makes me feel good when, say, I witness a toddler squeal with delight as they go running to the ocean tunnel at one of our SEA LIFE centres.”
Now Eastwood is on the executive team at Merlin, having moved quickly in her, to date, five years there, from marketing to business management. In the longer-term future, a CEO position appeals and, sooner than that, she would love to take on a non-executive directorship.
Eastwood says joining Merlin saw her career come full circle. The job she views as her first real step on the ladder was working in business development and sponsorship at another visitor attraction, the Imperial War Museum (IWM) it wasn’t the BBC, as she had always dreamed of, but she loved being part of an inspiring team that tackled the predicament of trying to broaden the customer base of an attraction, the very name of which was a stumbling block in terms of public perception. Even then, in the mid-90s, they had the foresight to recognise that the lead female of the house tends to be the decision-maker when it comes to choosing a day out destination. The marketing team successfully targeted them via a raft of initiatives such as exhibitions including London at War and Forces Sweethearts.
Looking back, Eastwood is very happy about the turns her career path has taken.
“I have always chosen well and managed to get roles with people who really inspire me,” she ponders.
When she recalls how “gutted” she was some years back not to get the Head of Marketing job for BBC2 that she was interviewed for, Eastwood also remembers how it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. Soon after, the job came up at BBC Worldwide. So, while there has undoubtedly been an element of luck in leading her to where she is today, it is her judgement that ultimately got her there.