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Leisure Management - David Bradley


David Bradley

Longleat Safari and Adventure Park is being revolutionised, with multi-million pound investment, exciting new attractions and plans for theme park rides. Its chief executive tells Magali Robathan why this is just the start

Magali Robathan, CLAD mag
David Bradley
Longleat Safari and Adventure Park
A suspended walkway launched as part of the new African Village in 2012 allows visitors to feed the giraffes
Steve Backshall visited the safari park to record his Deadly Safari CD guide to Longleat
Steve Backshall visited the safari park to record his Deadly Safari CD guide to Longleat
Two gorilla brothers were reunited last year at Longleat Safari Park, after being separated for three years
Longleat offers visitors the chance to hand feed many of the park’s animals
Longleat Enterprises’ plans for Cheddar Gorge include a cable car across the gorge

I haven’t been to Longleat Safari and Adventure Park for several years, and when I arrive, it’s clear that a lot has changed.

The transformation starts at the front gate, where Longleat’s team of designers and model makers are putting the final touches to the entrance. Previously a unremarkable gate, it now features models of some of the animals at Longleat appearing to leap out towards the visitors.

Inside, new attractions added last year alone include Gorilla Colony, Cheetah Kingdom and the African Village, while 2013 will see the launch of Penguin Island and Stingray Bay, the opening of a 4D cinema and the launch of some new themed attractions based on the successful Deadly tv series with Steve Backshall.

While the park used to close between October and March, it has now started running hugely successful events for Halloween, Bonfire Night and Christmas. And the next few years could see even more dramatic transformations if plans to create a new area of theme park rides come to fruition.

The driving force behind all this change is David Bradley, who was brought in as chief executive of Longleat Enterprises – which includes the safari and adventure park, the Cheddar Gorge caves attraction and two hotels – in June 2010.

“The past three years have been frenetic, passionate and energetic,” says Bradley. “It’s been about constant innovation. Most businesses evolve over time; we are revolutionising this place. Everything has changed – the website is completely new, we’re putting in new products, we have repositioned and remarketed ourselves. Even the way we’re running the safari park is new – we’re trying to present it in a much more energetic way. We’re currently in a very exciting phase in the history of Longleat.”

I meet Bradley in his office, which overlooks the adventure park and grounds. “I get a great view,” he says. “I sit here and watch our customers walking past with smiles on their faces and hear their excited chatter. It makes it very tangible what we’re doing.”

Before joining Longleat, Bradley worked in consumer brands and marketing for a range of companies, including Unilever, Smith Kline Beecham, Silverstone, Wickes and the Granada Group. He spent two years with Travelodge, developing the Travelodge City brand during his time there. He is perhaps best known for his three year stint between 1998 and 2001 as MD and senior VP of Legoland, when he was one of the team who helped turn it into a hugely successful attraction.

In 2010, the flamboyant Lord Bath (son of the sixth Marquess of Bath, who launched the safari park in 1966) handed Longleat Enterprises to his son Ceawlin, Viscount Weymouth.

Ceawlin decided that the park needed to be modernised, and asked Bradley to come on board as CEO.

Bradley was immediately drawn to the role, he says. “What attracted me was the opportunity to work with a bit of a blank canvas.

“There were no intrinsic rules or guidelines to follow. And I thought this place was a bit of an uncut diamond. It’s got it all; it’s got fantastic heritage, beautiful Capability Brown-designed grounds, and the house is widely acknowledged as one of the best examples of Elizabethan high architecture in Britain. The challenge we embarked on was to modernise the product offer, while retaining the core values of the house.”

It was always going to be important to be sensitive about the changes, as Longleat Safari and Adventure Park is such a well-loved part of British heritage. The sixth Marquess of Bath, Henry Frederick Thynne, opened the doors to Longleat House in 1949 in order to raise money to maintain his estates, making it the first British stately home to be opened to the public.

The safari park – the first to open outside of Africa – launched in 1966, and was the brainchild of James Chipperfield, of the Chipperfield Circus family.

“One of my earliest memories is coming to see the lions at Longleat,” says Bradley. “The trouble was that not much had changed since back then.

“When I joined, Longleat was very tired, dated and stuck in the past.”

When he joined the group, Bradley immediately set out to make his mark. His first task was to plough investment back into the park. “Ceawlin and I convinced the trustees to reinvest every penny that this business generates for the first five years back into it,” he says. “It was important that not a penny should leave.” Over the past two to three years, more than £30m has been ploughed back into the park, mostly in the form of new attractions.

Bradley’s first full year, 2011, saw the launch of the Meerkat Walkthrough enclosure in Jungle Kingdom, Monkey Temple and the Hunters of the Sky aerial bird display. The park welcomed new animals including a group of male lions, a herd of wildebeest, two new white rhinoceros and Anne the elephant, who was rescued from a circus.

Another big first for 2011 was the opening of Longleat over the Christmas period. Christmas attractions included a 50ft musical Christmas tree, a Santa train ride and grotto, an ice rink and Christmas stories brought to life by actors in Longleat House.

“Opening at Christmas has been phenomenally successful for us,” says Bradley. “We had more than 30,000 people taking the Santa Train during the last Christmas opening, and the attractions in the house were particularly popular. It was quite an act of faith opening at Christmas for the first time though. The tree alone cost almost half a million pounds to build. You have to commit to spending the money, you open the gates and hope that the consumers come.”

The group also bought two former Von Essen hotels in 2011 – Homewood Park in Bath and Bishopstrow House in Warminster – allowing visitors to stay overnight and increasing the potential dwell time.

If 2011 was busy, 2012 was even more so. Around £7m was invested in the park last year, with the big openings being the African Village, Cheetah Kingdom and the Gorilla Colony.

The African Village – which Bradley describes as “the safari park on foot” – features a giraffe feeding area, a lemur walkthrough and a giant model of a baobab tree with aerial walkways and viewing towers. The Gorilla Colony is home to four western lowland gorillas, which joined the park last year. “The new gorilla area allows visitors to enjoy extraordinary encounters with these awesome primates in a near-wild environment free from bars and viewing windows,” says Bradley.

It should be clear by now that Bradley doesn’t believe in taking his time. “I’m not a particularly patient person, but this place doesn’t need a patient person right now,” he says. “The only low point of this job is that there aren’t enough hours in the day. There’s so much work to be done here – I can see what the place needs and we have to move quickly.”

Bradley says that he only sleeps for five hours a night – “I’ll happily get up at 4am and start work,” he says – and it’s a good job, as 2013 looks busier than ever for him and his team.

“This year is particularly exciting,” he says. “We have teamed up with BBC Worldwide to launch a series of Deadly-themed attractions across the park.”

The four year plan will see parts of the park transformed in the style of the popular Steve Backshall-presented Deadly programmes – which include Deadly Top 10 and Deadly 60.

From Easter onwards, visitors can go on a Deadly Safari, voiced by Steve Backshall, who talks about the animals at Longleat while relating them to his own adventures. A Deadly Challenge Zone is also due to open in May in the existing Adventure Castle area, which will feature around 30 interactive touch screens where visitors can undertake a series of challenges including trying to run as fast as a cheetah and climb as quick as a monkey.

Other new attractions include the £3m Penguin Island and Stingray Bay, due to open in May. Penguin Island is a 225,000 litre sea water display, which will house a colony of Humboldt penguins and will feature giant viewing windows allowing visitors to watch the animals from above and below the water. Stingray Bay is the new open-topped home for a selection of tropical stingray species.

A new 4D theatre is being built near Penguin Island, which is also due to open during the summer, and which will show a range of films themed to tie in with what’s happening elsewhere in the park – Christmas films will be shown over the festive period, for example.

Further ahead, Bradley and the team are working on the exciting sounding Project Inca – a plan to introduce a series of theme park rides to Longleat.

“I’ve been working on this project for around two years,” says Bradley. “I want to increase the dwell time to around eight hours at Longleat and this is part of that plan.”

Bradley unrolls the plans for the new area, showing a mix of possible rides including a flume ride, a boat ride, a rollercoaster, a carousel and a temple structure. “The idea is that we would build a miniature station for this new area, and the existing train would drop visitors off there,” he says.

“The area would feature a mix of rides and attractions. We’re on Grade 1 parkland here, so we have to work closely with the planners to get all the necessary permissions sorted.”

Longleat has also recently released detailed plans for a new elephant sanctuary, which will include a 994sq m heated accommodation area with natural sky light panels and automated feeding systems, and 24 acres of outdoor space featuring a grassy paddock, sand pits and pools. The area could home Anne, Longleat’s female elephant, and up to three other elephants. The plans have been submitted to the local council for approval.

Visitor numbers seem to suggest that most people are embracing the changes at Longleat – last year the attraction had 1.2 million visitors, up from 1 million in 2010.

Bradley’s tenure hasn’t been without controversy. Last year Longleat announced that it would be restricting public access around the formal grounds and gardens, and banning dogs from this area entirely.

The announcement was met with anger from some local residents, who had previously roamed freely around the park, but Bradley is unrepentant about the decision.

“We’re a private estate but there was a general feeling that we were open to the public at any time of day or night. You can’t operate that way,” he says. “The place was littered with dog walkers, and not all of them pick up their dog mess. We’re a family park and people like to sit on the grass and have picnics here.

“Also we are an extremely valuable estate. Inside the house, there are very valuable chattels. The value of what we do needs to be protected. I don’t apologise for putting tighter security in, I don’t apologise for protecting the house and its contents and I don’t apologise for improving the consumer experience for the people who pay to come here. Outside of the formal grounds and gardens, there are thousands of acres within the estate where people are free to roam.”

Bradley is also behind plans to build a cable car at Cheddar Gorge.

“Cheddar Gorge is one of the great wonders of England, geographically speaking, but it has been in severe volume decline since the 1970s,” he says. Plans to “freshen up” the area include a relaunch of the attractions and a redesign of the caves entrance. The most important part of the plans, however, is the idea of building a cable car across the Gorge with a viewing platform at one end.

“It would give breathtaking views across the Mendips, Glastonbury and the Gorge,” says Bradley. “What we’re doing here is building a legacy. If the cable car goes ahead, people over the next 20, 30, 40 years will be able to enjoy the spectacular views there.”

Not every shares his enthusiasm for the idea, however. The National Trust, which owns the land on one side of the gorge, has said it would object to the cable car plans on the grounds that they would have a negative impact on the beauty of the area.

“The National Trust objected before they’d even seen the final scheme – the planning application hasn’t gone in yet,” says Bradley. “I think it was an emotional objection. We have been working with other bodies, including Natural England, who have been very constructive throughout the process.”

For better or worse, Bradley is putting himself firmly behind the scheme. “I am unashamedly and unequivocally the champion of the cable car project,” he says. “I really believe in this.”

One thing is for sure, there’s plenty more change to come, and it’s clear that Bradley wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’ve always been attracted to businesses that need some sort of change,” he says. “I’m not interested in custodial businesses.”

So, how long does Bradley see himself staying with Longleat Enterprises?

“As long as I feel this passion and excitement,” he says.

“I’ve never had a day here where I’ve felt bored, and I can’t envisage one. Longleat genuinely excites me.”


What drives you?
I’ve always been a highly driven person. My mother tells me I had 10 paper rounds at the age of 11. I have an inner drive which means I have to live every day as fully as I can and try to do something different each day.

What inspires you?
I really believe that behind every project there is one person driving it. That person might build a team, but the nugget of the idea comes from the individual. What inspires me is being able to get the team to mine the mine.

What are you proudest of since joining Longleat?
I’m proud of the fact we’ve been able to cover so much ground so quickly. We have achieved a real cultural shift, and we have a very strong team here.

There are several hundred of us in the boat, rowing as fast as hell in the same direction. That makes me proud because you only need one or two people not in the boat, or rowing in the wrong direction, to upset it for everyone else. I’m proud that everyone is sharing the vision.

What’s been your biggest challenge at Longleat?
The sheer amount of work that we needed to do in a very condensed time scale. We’re doing about 30 years’ work in around three years.

What does your role as CEO of Longleat Enterprises involve?
I spend a lot of time travelling around the world, visiting different parks and looking for ideas.
I tend to look to the US for inspiration rather than the UK, as I feel it’s more customer-focused.

What do you do in your leisure time?
I love cars so I have a few of them. I golf, I run and I play tennis.

Originally published in Leisure Management 2013 issue 2
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