by Juliana Gilling
After a “Great British Summer,” which has seen millions of people enjoying the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympics, Juliana Delaney, CEO of the Continuum Group, is reflecting on her company’s ability to adapt to the changing market.
For 28 years Continuum has built a business as a culturally and commercially minded visitor attractions operator in the UK, with an annual turnover exceeding £7.5 million (US$12 million). Born out of Heritage Projects, the company has done “an amazing ballet dance around the industry,” says Delaney. Continuum has moved from creating, designing, and implementing projects to managing them, spinning into areas including consultancy, marketing, and operations along the way.
Since starting with the Jorvik Viking Centre in 1984, the company has developed more than 100 visitor attractions worldwide. It is now involved in a number of set-up and operations contracts in London, including providing front-of-house services for the Emirates Air Line cable car. The new “travel experience” has already carried more than a million passengers across the Thames since launching in June.
“Five years ago, our business was being pulled in two directions: designing and building for other people, and operating our own businesses. We had to make a decision, and we chose operations,” explains Delaney.
Today Continuum owns six attractions: The Real Mary King’s Close (Edinburgh), the Spinnaker Tower (Portsmouth), The Canterbury Tales (Canterbury), Kent Life (Maidstone), Oxford Castle—Unlocked, and, as of this spring, York’s Chocolate Story. Collectively, the venues—including the new front-of-house contract in London—
welcome in excess of 1.5 million visitors a year.
Continuum has had to call on all of its experience to contend with this year’s challenges: “It’s been a perfect storm. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the summer of sport and celebrations provided a free stream of entertainment that diluted the market for everybody else. We’ve had a prolonged spell of bad weather. Also, while our target markets still have money in their pockets, they are thinking very hard about how they get the best value for money out of every pound,” says Delaney.
The Real Mary King’s Close, situated in a city with a strong destination marketing campaign and a robust market, has performed well: “The business has been very resilient; in fact it’s up,” she says.
“We’re fortunate that Kent Life is probably in the best part of the UK geographically to have an outdoor business. If it were anywhere else, it would have been more affected by the weather. Actually, we’ve had a bounce back in August with more business than we anticipated, due to frustrated demand,” says Delaney. The biggest drop-off has happened in sites such as Oxford and Canterbury, which depend more on overseas groups visiting from London. “Either they have stayed in London, or they have avoided London altogether and gone elsewhere,” says Delaney.
Continuum has a tradition of bringing historic destinations to life by revealing their stories. Delaney sees “an increasing need for companies like Continuum across Europe, where public sector budgets to sustain museums and cultural sites are reducing. We’re seeing a polarization in the market. Less cultural venues are getting that money and, at the other end, theme parks are struggling to become more popularist. We sit in the middle, trying to demonstrate that complex subjects, presented in a popular way, can be commercially viable, with no need for ongoing revenue support from the public sector.
“Whether it’s the history of Oxford Castle or English literature through Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales,’ we present subjects not in a classical museum sense, but in a very modern way,” she says. “It’s always founded in reality—what we call ‘the magic of the real’—because you don’t have to lose the real to make it entertaining. We seek to charge people to access that content so that we can sustain the presentations in the longer term.”
York’s Chocolate Story in the north of England is Continuum’s latest endeavor. It’s the first time the group has invested in its own attraction since 1987 (with The Canterbury Tales and “the late great Oxford Story”). “It’s a definite step in the direction of developing an owned portfolio. The other projects that we operate as standalone, wholly owned businesses were all funded in a number of ways: by lottery funds, charitable bodies, and public authority money,” says Delaney.
She first came across the idea of a chocolate-themed attraction in York at the end of the 1980s, during consultancy work for Rowntree’s. “It was such an exciting idea. Confectionery was one of York’s biggest industries, and I could never understand why no one in the two decades since then had told that story,” she says.
Continuum secured a 6,000-square-foot site in the center of York, near the historic Shambles Street, and spent £2 million (US$3.2 million) transforming it into an attraction that opened in April. Visitors are guided through the three floors. Staff introduce guests to the origins of chocolate and the people who brought it to York, and teach them how to appreciate the delicacy properly. There are a virtual chocolate production line, hands-on demonstrations by chocolatiers, a Chocolate Bar, and plenty of opportunities to sample the real thing. Tickets cost £9.50 (US$15) for adults and £7.50 (US$12) for children 5-15. Visits normally last around an hour. “It’s an enjoyable light bite of an experience, much like chocolate itself,” says Delaney.
The attraction illustrates Continuum’s approach to the business. Storytelling is central to the offering: “It’s the fundamental human interaction: People want to hear stories, and they want to hear them told well,” she says.
When it comes to measuring the success of the project, she’s looking at more than just visitor numbers: “The way we drive the business is to find a mix of income streams. We have a prominent shop, which is doing really well, and we’ve developed our own chocolate, confectionery, and retail products. We have a café-bar that opens until early evening. We’re doing corporate and evening events. We’re always looking at add-ons and opportunities to get spend per head out of people. I don’t worry about footfall; genuinely, all I worry about is the bottom line. Continuum is a business that has fun, has staff at the heart of its service, and makes money.”
Contact Contributing Editor Juliana Gilling at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CONTINUUM’S Attractions Timeline
The Canterbury Tales launches. It re-creates the 14th century England depicted in Geoffrey Chaucer’s literary classic.
The Real Mary King’s Close, dating back to the 1500s, opens. Visitors are taken underground to the close (street), which lies beneath Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Costumed guides bring its residents’ tales to life.
Spinnaker Tower makes its debut, offering guests panoramic views over Portsmouth and the south coast.
Oxford Castle – Unlocked gives visitors a glimpse into the violence, escapes, executions, and romances that occurred at the former prison.
Kent Life farm park opens.
York’s Chocolate Story launches.
Continuum lands front-of-house contract for the Emirates Air Line, London’s only cable car, part of Transport for London’s public transport network— built and operated by Mace (Macro).