Developing an augmented reality experience for The National Memorial Arboretum. With Mark Ellis

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode I speak with Mark Ellis, Head of Visitor Experience at The National Memorial Arboretum.

Mark Ellis is the Head of Visitor Experience at the National Memorial Arboretum, in Staffordshire, the UK’s year-round centre of remembrance. He is responsible for the overall visitor experience, including commercial operations and overseeing the 150-acre site’s diverse events programme; frequently over 250 Remembrance Events each year. In the five years since he joined the Arboretum team, he has helped deliver a wide range of new events, activities and commercial opportunities including an immersive World War 1 Trench installation, Summer Proms, an Illuminated Arboretum light trail, and a range of activities to help visitors learn more about the stories behind the memorials.

In 2018, the Arboretum opened Aspects, a state-of-the-art events and conference facility. Mark was the client lead from initial concept through to completion and was proud to be part of the team that delivered the project on time and to budget. Aspects complements the award-winning Remembrance Centre at the entrance to the site and has provided a fitting venue for high-profile remembrance events as well as creating a new income stream through corporate hire.

Mark has operated across the charity, public and private sectors in several senior roles, consistently demonstrating his ability to deliver great visitor experiences and commercial success in a way that supports the core objectives of an organisation.

Outside of work Mark is an experienced Scout leader and enjoys the opportunities that this provides to take part in a range of outdoor activities and adventures. He has worked on international scout camps in the UK and overseas and believes that no food is finer than that cooked on a stick over the embers of a real fire.

“The Memorial Woodland will be very poignant and very special, but we also want it to be a place of joy and hope as well. I’m very hopeful that in the future will be a woodland where, as well as the opportunity to reflect and remember, there’ll be the opportunity to enjoy and have fun, and play, and celebrate as well.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • Their brand new augmented reality experience
  • Tips for other attractions thinking about investing in new technology
  • The Memorial Woodland being created in partnership with The National Forest to commemorate all the lives lost during the pandemic

To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.

Skip the Queue Mark Ellis Blog large

The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson 

Our guest, Mark Ellis


Kelly Molson: Good morning, Mark. It is absolutely lovely to speak to you for the first time today. I feel like we’ve chatted a lot on Twitter, but this is our first…

Mark Ellis: I know, Kelly, it feels like your voice is very familiar, and likewise feels like we’ve chatted a lot. It’s a delight to be here, thanks for asking.

Kelly Molson: You are very welcome. Before we start, I would like to say a very public thank you to you, Mark, because I think that you are one of our most engaged listeners, and that really means a lot to us. I think every episode that we’ve put out you always go to a lot of effort to tweet about it and say what you liked about it. And, you tag people in on our Twitter account who you think that might be really interested in listening to it, and I’m really, really grateful to that. So, thank you.

Mark Ellis: Thanks, Kelly. Maybe I’m just a frustrated marketeer at heart. 

Kelly Molson:: Maybe. But, I’m going to take it that you’re a Skip the Queue podcast supporter.

Mark Ellis: I am. It’s a fabulous podcast. It’s helped and inspired us a lot because it’s over the last 12 months. I only retweet and tag because it’s so brilliant, so thank you.

Kelly Molson: That is lovely to hear, thank you. But, that doesn’t mean that you don’t get away with answering some of my quite mean icebreaker questions, unfortunately. Let’s go in. When you hit the dance floor, what is your signature move?

Mark Ellis: I’m the worlds best dad dancer. I move my hips left and right, left foot forward, right foot forward, a bit of funny stuff going on with your arms. And then, if you get some electro-funk going on, the arms are pumping up in the air as well. 

Kelly Molson: Electro-funk, I’m going to remember that.

Mark Ellis: Yeah, late night at a festival in a field with a few pints of cider, no one dances better.

Kelly Molson: I feel like we’re going to need a demo of this when we’re all allowed to meet properly in real life. We need to see this, Mark. 

Mark Ellis: We’ll do it. 

Kelly Molson: Okay, if you were in a zombie apocalypse, which… Considering what’s been thrown at us the last year and a half, that could happen, who would you want on your team?

Mark Ellis: I’d have The Doctor. Obviously. No problem too bad, no villain he can’t defeat with a bit of wit, and panache, and charm. He, or her, whichever incarnation of The Doctor it happens to be. I started with Tom Baker, love David Tennant, love Matt Smith, Jodie Whittaker’s taken it to new and brilliant places. So, I’d have The Doctor, every time.

Kelly Molson: It’s a really good choice. Good. What is the strangest gift that you have ever received?

Mark Ellis: Bootlaces. 

Kelly Molson: Someone bought you bootlaces?

Mark Ellis: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Was that a birthday present?

Mark Ellis: That was a Christmas present. That was the year when I bought my lovely, fantastic, gorgeous wife some diamond earrings, and she bought me some bootlaces. 

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Mark Ellis: This was probably 15 or 20 years ago. She did tell me that she was busy making me something, I have no idea what, and I’m still waiting. So, the bootlaces are a classic.

Kelly Molson: Okay. So, she bought you something to unwrap with the premise that there was something else coming.

Mark Ellis: To be very fair, just before Christmas I broke a pair of bootlaces and my boots were held on with a knotted bit of string. So, it was practical and thoughtful, and considerate, and practical so it was a very good gift.

Kelly Molson: This is what us women do, always thinking ahead, we knew that was going to happen. Mark, what is your unpopular opinion?

Mark Ellis: Before that, Kelly, I’ve got an icebreaker for you, because I like to turn the tables. Your podcast is brilliant, and you have that uncanny knack of making it feel like it’s just a chat between you, your guest, and a listener, and that pulls everybody in. So, if you could have coffee and a chat with one broadcaster, dead or alive, who would it be?

Kelly Molson: Oh my gosh, I was not expecting to be tested this morning. Nobody’s done this to me yet. 

Mark Ellis: I’m so sorry.

Kelly Molson: Who would be the broadcaster I would sit down and speak to? There’s quite a few that I can think of, but I’m going to go current, because I really love this person. I’m going to say Greg James, from the BBC Breakfast show. I know that I have stolen his unpopular opinion segment, which hopefully he won’t find out about at any point. Or, maybe he will and he’ll appreciate that I’m inspired by him. I just think he’s great. I just think he’s really fun. What he’s done with that Breakfast show, he’s completely transformed it. He’s also a local lad. He’s from Bishop’s Stortford originally. I’m from Waltham Abbey, which is not too far, but we live in Saffron Walden now, and the office is in Sawbridgeworth. I feel like we would be friends because we’re from the same kind of area, do you know what I mean?

Mark Ellis: Excellent.

Kelly Molson: We could sit down, have a pint, we should definitely be buddies, Greg, if you’re listening.

Mark Ellis: Brilliant, great choice. Well done, and sorry about that. I’ll behave myself as a guest now.

Kelly Molson: Too right as well, Mark. So you should. 

Mark Ellis: So, unpopular opinion. I thought long and hard about this, and didn’t know whether to go with the incredibly trite, or something a bit more meaningful. And actually, somebody said something to me over the weekend that just sparked me going with this one. Which is, when people go with the customer service advice of, “Treat other people like you like to be treated yourself.” Which, really winds me up. Because, do you know what? Why don’t we treat other people like they want to be treated?

So, if I treat everybody like I treat myself, then I’m going to disappoint an awful lot of people. My case in point would be, if I was running a restaurant, which I do as part of my job, I don’t eat fish, I don’t like fish, I’ve never liked fish. So, if I treat everyone like I want to treat myself, there’d be no fish on the menu, our incredibly popular Fish Friday would be a bit of a disappointment. So, don’t treat people like you want to be treated yourself. Find out how they want to be treated and go with that.

Kelly Molson: I love that. I’ve actually never thought of it that way, but you’re absolutely right. Let’s see what our listeners think. If you don’t think that’s an unpopular opinion, Tweet us.

Mark Ellis: We’ll have a Tweet war about it.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, let’s have a Tweet war about it. Thank you for sharing those, Mark, that’s great.

Mark Ellis: No problem. 

Kelly Molson: I’m going to ask a little bit about your background because it’s quite interesting. You’ve been at Twycross Zoo, and English Heritage, and now you’re at the National Memorial Arboretum. Can you tell us how you got to there, how you ended up there?

Mark Ellis: There are two versions of this story. One, it was a bunch of random factors that ended up with where I am. Or, I can post-justify and describe a thought out plan all the way through. The truth is, when I was a little boy I wanted to drive one of those cranes with a ball and chain on that demolishes buildings. Never got that chance. So, ended up on a retail career path in high street retail, which was great. Worked for a company called Rohan for many years doing travel and outdoor clothing, absolutely loved it, really high service standards, really quality product, that was great, and really learnt some great customer service skills on that journey. 

Moved on from that. Tales of redundancy and all the rest of it that many people’s careers involve. And, ended up moving to Twycross Zoo, as you say. Initially as Head of Retail, taking those [inaudible 00:08:07] high street retail experiences into the visitor attraction area. Twycross Zoo’s not far from where I grew up, I’ve known it for many, many years. It’s a place that’s special in my heart. So, really, really enjoyed joining the team there. And, pretty quickly, realized that maybe the Guest Services Team could do with the benefit of some additional thinking. So, ended up running the Visitor Service department as well. That’s really where I made the hop over from pure retail into visitor attractions. Had a great time there. Zoos are just fantastic places to work. You’ve got thousands of animals doing the hard job of keeping visitors happy, you’re just making sure there’s a great experience wrapped around that. 

Ended up moving on from there. Again, the financial crash of 2008, and restructuring, and all the rest of it. So, a bit of a hard hit on that one. And then, worked for PDSA, the pet vet charity, for a while. Which, really enabled me to put completer-finisher on my CV. Which, had been possibly missing up to that point. I’m sure some of my colleagues will smile at the thought that I needed to prove I was a completer-finisher, as I do tend to get slightly distracted by new and shiny things. 

Kelly Molson: Were you an ideas person?

Mark Ellis: Yeah, very much so. A broad overview is the way I like to think of it. Managed a couple of projects for PDSA, and EPOS roll-outs, and reporting things. So, it’s really detailed and good work with some brilliant people there.

Then, got the chance… English Heritage had been through a period of not recruiting, they’d restructured what they were doing. And, I was in the first tranche of people they went out and recruited a new group in. Some really brilliant people at English Heritage, made some lifelong friends while I was working there. Met some of your previous guests, Paul Griffiths, for instance. We shared about three months together at English Heritage. I started just as he was going. And, really did enjoy that. Looked after an area from Peveril Castle, Castleton up in the Peak District, all the way across Norfolk, Suffolk, the East Midlands. So, a huge area, with everything from 5000-year-old flint mines, Grime’s Graves in Thetford Forest, through to late-19th century windmills. So, really was the full breadth of English history. Thoroughly enjoyed that, and was settled to keep developing career there.

And then, the opportunity at National Memorial Arboretum came up, they were looking for a Head of Commercial Operations at the time. I have to say, it took me about half a second to decide whether it was a jump I wanted to make. Again, Arboretum, 20 years anniversary this year of our official opening, so a relatively young site. And so, going from needle flint mines to an arboretum that’s only 20 years old was quite a change. But, joined the team here, and working with, again, brilliant people, hopefully making a real impact on the way people remember and enjoy outdoor spaces, and think about the past.

Kelly Molson: Great journey. I love that. I find it quite fascinating, listening to how people get to where they are, because it’s always kind of a bit squiggly, and I quite like that. There’s always a little bit of a twist and turn, it’s never a straight line. 

Mark Ellis: I’m always slightly jealous, the people that say they thought about what they wanted to do when they were at school and they followed a progression and done it, in some ways, I think, “Well done you.” But, I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up, other than drive that crane with a ball and chain on it. We’ll see what the future brings.

Kelly Molson: I wanted to be a dancer. 

Mark Ellis: Well, there you go.

Kelly Molson: I wanted to be a dancer on the West End stage. When I was younger I was really into tap dancing, and modern, and acrobatics and stuff like that. And, I thought, “That’s what I’ll do. I’ll be on the West End stage and I’ll be a tap dancer.” But then, you start to get a bit older and you’re like, “I’m a bit of an average tap dancer, and I’m 5’2, it’s probably never going to happen.” 

Mark Ellis: When we get together to do this big group dance, you’re really going to show me up with my dad dancing, aren’t you?

Kelly Molson: Oh gosh. Do you know what? The last time I put on a pair of tap shoes I was about 21. I decided to go back and do it as a fitness thing and it was really fun. I could make a lot of noise with the Blakey’s on the bottoms of my shoes right now, but I don’t know if I could pull off any tap moves. Let’s see when it happens. If our listeners have never been to the NMA, tell us a little bit about what it is and what we can expect to find there?

Mark Ellis: Yeah, absolutely. It’s something that never comes over that well in the telling. It’s a site that people have to come and really experience to appreciate. So, that’s a very open invitation to all your listeners from around the globe to head over to Staffordshire and come and find us. Entry is free, so we’re here ready to welcome you. What you’d find is 150 acres of relatively young woodland. 150 acres, to put it into context, if you’re doing your Couch to 5K, then the 5K is about around the perimeter of the site. So, it’s a nice, large site. Young Arboretum, an arboretum being a scientific collection of trees. So, we’ve got around 25,000 trees on-site, every indigenous species in the UK is here. And, we’ve got examples of trees from around the world as well.

Dotted throughout the trees you’ll find, it’s now around 400 memorials to people that have served, and sacrificed, and have been lost on behalf of those of us that are still here. About 75% of the memorials are Armed Forces related, and around 25% are civilian organisations, that includes police, fire, ambulance. We’ve got things like the WI, Salvation Army, Scouting. So, we cover a very broad spectrum. The military ones cover specific campaigns, cover specific regiments and associations.

And, we’re also very proud to be the home of the Armed Forces Memorial, which is the national memorial to all of our Armed Forces who have served and sacrificed. And, that has carved onto the walls the names of the 16,000 members of Armed Forces that have lost their lives in active service or through acts of terrorism since the end of the Second World War. So, a very, very special place, and very poignant.

It’s easy for that to sound like it’s a slightly sombre place, and certainly, it is a place where people do come and reflect and remember because the final part of remembrance is generally happy memories. We think about those that we’ve lost, and always brings a smile to the face to remember the good times. And, that’s very much what the arboretum is. It’s a living memorial. It’s a growing memorial. It’s ever-developing. It’s ever-changing. And, when people leave the site, they often use words like uplifting, and life-affirming, and joyous. 

We have around 250 volunteers, and they really do bring the arboretum to life, all about storytelling. Without the stories, it’s just memorials in woodland, and it’s the stories behind those memorials that really do tug at the heart, and make people smile, and make people laugh, and make people cry, and other things that are so important. Our volunteers do a great job of telling those stories, and it’s always done with a smile and a twinkle in the eye, and remembering some great times in amongst some amazing stories of heroism, and service, and sacrifice. 

So, it’s a very special place. We try to operate in the best possible way. We’ve got a couple of award-winning buildings on-site, our Remembrance Center, our Visitor Center with a large restaurant, a shop, our dedicated classrooms is very special. We’ve got our Chapel of Peace and Reconciliation, which was the first building on-site where we’re the only place in the country that holds the Act of Remembrance on a daily basis. The building I’m talking to you from at the moment is our Events and Conference building, which opened in Autumn 2018. Which, is a state of the art, bespoke conference and events facility as well. Where we can host events for those that are carrying out remembrance activities, but also opens up corporate hire activities, and those important come streams as well.

Kelly Molson: I have to say, if we do a live Skip the Queue conference, that is where it will be held, Mark, isn’t it? We’ve already had that mini discussion.

Mark Ellis: Brilliant, absolutely, the offer’s there. And, the coffee’s great.

Kelly Molson: I have to say, it comes across what you were talking about in terms of it being a place of remembrance, but also a place of celebration, that comes across really well on your website. I haven’t actually had the opportunity to visit the centre yet. It is something that we’ve had this conversation about, about doing a little bit of a group visit, haven’t we? With some of the other Skip the Queue podcast guests, which I’m sure we’ll arrange for later on in the year. But, it really does come across. It’s a beautiful, beautiful venue. And, it does come across as somewhere really, really special.

And, I think that that’s important to get that message across, that it is very much about remembrance, but also very much about celebration as well. For me, it doesn’t have a sombre feel to it, the way that you present it and the way that you talk about it. And, I think that helps to draw more people to come to it, right?

Mark Ellis: Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right, Kelly, and thanks for the feedback from an expert on the website. In the words of our Founder, back in the mid-90s, we were always designed to be a place that commemorates lives lost and celebrates lives lived. It’s getting that balance right. And, of course, a lot of that is very personal and depends on each individual on where they are in their particular journey. The feedback we get suggests that we generally get that balance pretty much right, and we’re really pleased to be able to provide that for people.

Kelly Molson: Let’s go back to what you were talking about, about stories, because I think that ties in really well with something that I’d like to talk to you about today. You’ve recently launched a brand new app experience, and I love the name of this, very clever. It’s called The ARboretum. Hello? Good use of pun there. It’s an augmented reality experience, and it takes families on a journey to learn about everyday heroes. This sounds fabulous.

Going back to our first season of the podcast, we had Alex Book on, from Arcade, who is an augmented reality, virtual reality specialist organisation. And, they talked a lot about how your guests… No, you don’t call them guests, call them players, because you’re getting them to interact with the building and the environment that they come to. It’s such an interesting concept. I just love what you’ve done with this because it is a really fun interactive way of sharing those stories about the heroes that are part of that place that you’re at. How did this come about? Where did the idea for this start?

Mark Ellis: “Need is the mother of invention”, is the phrase I’m just trying to get my head around. We’ve always done Easter activities on-site, put some budget aside and do something to attract people in. Those are often built around a trail. A lot of our memorials have animals on them, so we’ll do an opportunity for children to go around, find the animals, put together an anagram, and come back and grab their little chocolate treat from the welcome desk, always very popular. What works really well with that, is getting families to interact with the memorials as part of the activity. And, that’s very much what drives a lot of what we do, is trying to make sure there’s authenticity in there, and it gives people an opportunity to learn more about the site.

So, at the start of this year, of course, in January we’d just gone into that extra lockdown, and it was a pretty bleak time, wasn’t it?

Kelly Molson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mark Ellis: And, we were talking about what we were going to do at Easter, when we had no idea what sort of numbers we’d be able to attract on-site. But, we still wanted something that would enable people to engage. And, our Head of Participation and Learning, a chap called Chris Ansell, who is a genius, came up with a brilliant idea of actually taking that budget, and instead of spending it on a physical manifestation on-site, which perhaps we wouldn’t be able to get people on-site to involve, said, “Let’s go digital.” And, went away and came up with the idea of augmented reality. I can’t remember who first came up with the ARboretum idea.

Kelly Molson: Very clever.

Mark Ellis: As you say, it was an inspired piece of naming. And, it does very much the same thing. There are three characters in the app, Blu, Kit, and Sam. They are 13 to 15 probably, so they’re pitched for slightly younger kids. It’s that aspirational age of the 9, 10, 11-year-olds really want to be the 13, 14, 15-year-olds. We’ve given them a little bit of a backstory. So, Blu is probably connected to somebody that served in the Armed Forces, doesn’t necessarily articulate that, but she’s really interested in memorialization and the site from that aspect.

We’ve got Kit, they are a very eco-centred person, they like to be out in the woods. They’re probably more interested in the bugs, and the birds, and all the rest of it. And, you have to work quite hard to get their loyalty and their friendship. But, once you’ve got that they’re going to be incredibly loyal and friendly towards you. And then, we’ve got Sam, and he’s the get in there and do it, action-first, think later. He happens to have a prosthetic leg, but that doesn’t stop him getting stuck in and doing things. Probably, if there’s something going a bit wrong and a bit right, it’s probably Sam that’s in the middle of that.

So, we created these characters. And then, we’ve created eight locations around the site where there’s a visual thing that you scan with your phone. And, one, or two, or three of the characters pop up and they get you to do an activity. Some of those are centred around the woodland. There’s one where there’s wellbeing, it encourages you to do some forest bathing and listening to the sounds around you. There’s some that’s very much based on reflections at memorials. So, in our poppy glade, you’re read out a poem about loss and memorialisation. And, you think about and talk to the rest of your group about what that means to you. And then, some are very physical.

On The Beat, which is an area dedicated to the police. You do a beep test, so you do shuttle runs, you’ve got a minute, in times, and you can see how many shuttles runs you can do. There’s hide and seek, there’s some puzzle solving. So, there’s a real mixture, something for everybody. And, of course, something that ties into the things that each of the three characters likes. You can take photos through the app, and then tag those and upload them onto social media as well. So, it really is a good way of getting people to move around the site, take them to some areas where perhaps people don’t normally find things and interact. You can come back and do them again.

And, the really good thing is, we launched this at Easter, so normally that budget that we spend on Easter Activities… We’ll do peak activity of the Easter Weekend, and then a little bit more of the two weeks in school holidays. And, we have the added complication, we’re right on the border of four counties here, and they all have different school holidays. So, the Easter holiday actually spans three weeks of time. I’m sure we’re not the only people with that complication.

With this, we took that money and we’ve run the app from Easter, and we’ll finish it at the end of June, just after Armed Forces Day, which is a big weekend for us. So, it’s covered a three month period. And, it’s in the bag, we can always bring it back out and run it again in the future. And also, we have the three characters who, you never know, might feature in activities and on-site interpretation in the future. My aspiration is we’ll have models of them that appear in the shop at some time.

Kelly Molson: I love that. I love that there’s that longevity to this thing that you’ve created. I had no idea about how difficult that would be to plan your activities around all those different Easter holidays as well. But also, it feels like it’s something that could just run, and run, and run. You’ve put a window on it that it’s going to end in… Did you say June it’s going to come to an end?

Mark Ellis: Yeah, end of June. 

Kelly Molson: But, that’s something that, potentially, people would engage with all year round, depending on when they come to the site. It’s lovely that you’ve been able to invest so well in something that you can bring back, and you can bring back year on year and maybe tweak and stuff.

Mark Ellis: Yeah, absolutely. One of the really nice things as well, I think the characters are very authentic. As I said, they’ve all got that backstory, they’ve got very different personalities, I think they’re all relatable in different ways. And, we actually got a young person to design them. We wrote a design brief, and a young person got hold of that and she produced some characters which we had a look at, and thought, “Do you know what? She’s pretty much nailed that.” So then, worked with the app developer and designers, and they came back to her on several occasions and used her designs going forward. That’s a bit of a Skip the Queue exclusive.

Kelly Molson: Ooh.

Mark Ellis: I’m really proud because I know that young person particularly well. It was my daughter that actually did those initial designs. It’s really great. And, something that really excites me, is each of the characters has some form of a particular characteristic within their story. And, it’s such a non-issue for… My daughter’s 13, 14 next week, and it’s such a non-issue. You want people of a different ethnic background, or you want somebody that’s got a disability, or you want someone that’s non-binary, “Yeah, fine, this is what they’re going to look like.” And, that’s the real hope for the future, isn’t it? It is that, hopefully, as we pass onto future generations… And, part of what we do here is passing on the baton of remembrance to future generations, so we’re very engaged with working with young people. Is hopefully, that acceptance of things that older generations have had to work hard to understand.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, absolutely. I think what’s really interesting is that you’ve actually engaged with someone of that age to say, “What would you want to see? How would you want these characters to be?” Because that’s something that I think potentially a lot of organisations don’t necessarily do. We’re all guilty of it. We design a website and we’re testing it, but we’re not potentially the user who should be testing it. So, you need to think broadly about who your audience is and how you engage with them from the start of a project like this.

Mark Ellis: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a proud dad, and it was purely chance. Working at home, I just said to her, “Look at this brief, what do you think?” But, it was the next stages that really were the eyeopener for me. When the initial designs came back we showed them to her, and it was just the little things. Particularly it was Blu, the girl character that was designed first, and Harriet, my daughter, was, “The eyes are just a little bit too big, and the lips are just a bit too full.” And effectively, it wasn’t childlike enough. It was a slightly more Disneyfied aspirational image that perhaps isn’t healthiest for us to be pursuing. It was subtle. It was a great design, we just signed it off and it would have been fine. But, getting a younger person just to shape that final design, I think really has given it that added layer of authenticity, and we’re very proud of what we’ve ended up with.

Kelly Molson: You should be. I think it’s fantastic. 

Mark Ellis: But, the real see was Chris’ idea to come up with it in the first place, and to make the app work so well, and tie it into the authenticity of the memorial. That’s what makes it a really special thing. 

Kelly Molson: Completely. I’ve got a list of questions here that I wanted to ask you, why an app? Why augmented reality? But, you’ve answered them so perfectly, in the sense that you had these challenges, and actually, this digital application that you’ve developed solved those challenges. It solved the issue of the various different Easter holidays that you’ve got. You’ve now got something that’s got longevity to it. You’ve got something that people are really engaging with. 

To ask you about what the objectives were to start with, my assumption is that it was about engaging people with the different aspects of what the arboretum means to people, those stories behind it. And, like you say, getting them to explore areas that they might not necessarily always go to. If they’re coming back time after time they might have their favourite places. What do you think that the impact or the results of that have been so far? Is it a bit too early to tell? Or can you see?

Mark Ellis: We’ve had some really positive feedback. We’ve had some really good download numbers, so it’s reached a large number of people. Not enough, because like everybody else, we’ve not got enough people on our sites at the moment, with static constraints in place. And it’s strange, is judging things not necessarily on the straight metrics that you use in the old world, of actually, “What does good look like now?” We’ve had some really good feedback.

We’ve seen people looking at some memorials in a bit more detail. We’ve had people. Dwell time is up on-site. People just saying, “It’s been great, the kids have loved it. It’s given us something to do.” We don’t charge for it, it’s a free app and a free to enter the site. It’s got that educational twist to it as well as being fun. I think it’s ticked a lot of boxes. But, actually just seeing kids run up and down seeing how many shuttles runs they can do in a minute is great to see.

Kelly Molson: I’m definitely going to test that out when I come. Because it might be a little bit later on in the year, can we just reactivate it for that day when we come because I want to do the shuttle runs?

Mark Ellis: Yeah, of course, we can, for you, Kelly, absolutely. There is a rather sad picture kicking around somewhere that Chris took of me doing the shuttle runs in the rain when we were testing it. Dedication to the cause.

Kelly Molson: I think we need to see that on Twitter. We need to see that on Twitter, Mark. 

Mark Ellis: I’ll see if I can drag it out.

Kelly Molson: If there’s no photos then it didn’t happen.

Mark Ellis: Fair point. 

Kelly Molson: What tips could you offer, if there is any organisations that are thinking about investing in this technology, for whatever challenges they have that they want to overcome? What would be a few tips that you could give them about how you would approach that process?

Mark Ellis: I think it’s knowing what you want to get out of it first. We started with an idea that we could do, augmented reality, but then the next thing was sitting down and saying, “Who’s it for? What are the characters? What are the backstories? What’s authenticity? Which memorials?” So actually, we knew what we wanted to do with it before we went and engaged with something to deliver it. And, that meant that it was a very specific project scope when we went out to tender with it, we knew exactly what we wanted to get out of it. Which, probably stopped mission creep and somebody saying, “You could do this that and the other.” And, it meant that when it came back the quality of the digital experience is really, really good, but we weren’t chasing Pixar quality output from it. We knew it was delivering what we wanted. 

Probably not as expensive as perhaps people think. So, with that tight scope, it didn’t cost much more than we’d normally spend on our Easter activities, with that added benefit of a bit of longevity in there. So yes, it does cost money, but it certainly wasn’t a bank breaker. And, having a limited budget, when you go out to tender, gives people the opportunity to scope what they’re going to give you against that. 

So, I think authentic, know what you want, and explore the financial possibilities. It might be more within reach than perhaps people think it is.

Kelly Molson: That’s really interesting. 

Mark Ellis: All this technology is becoming more accessible all the time, isn’t it? So, there are opportunities out there. 

Kelly Molson: Yeah, it absolutely is. I think you’re right, it’s about scoping what you want and giving people the opportunity to say, “We can do this much of it for that budget”, or, “We can do this much for that budget.” It’s kind of like a starting point, isn’t it?

Mark Ellis: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: It’s good that you said about don’t be scared by new technology, because I think that there is still an element of overwhelm about. People don’t understand how much digital costs, and there’s still a lot of education that we could do around that, definitely from a web perspective. AR isn’t anything that we do ourselves, but I think that it sounds quite frightening, doesn’t it? It sounds like it’s going to be a very big, expensive project. Where actually, what you’ve just described, seems quite manageable. 

Mark Ellis: This is where I shamelessly introduce other products into the conversation. It supports what we move onto, which we’ve just launched this week which will now run to the Autumn, which is our escape challenge. And again, this is Chris’ idea, he really is a genius. 

Kelly Molson: You want to hold onto this Chris, he sounds great.

Mark Ellis: Absolutely. He should come on and be a guest for you some time, Kelly. He’s much better than me. But, Escape challenge. And again, this was necessity being the mother of invention, I said it right that time. Last year we wanted something to bring people onto site, experiences, escape rooms, massive growth. So, actually taking the escape room concept and delivering it as an outdoor environment. So again, a series of memorials that you walk around with your puzzle book, there are clues at memorials, there are clues in your puzzle book.

This is a paid-for one, so we charge people to do this. Two levels, one pretty tricky, but a family will probably work their way through it. The other one, pretty challenging. It’s probably people that enjoy the odd cryptic crossword clue and those types of things. Takes two to three hours, eight clues. This year’s based around everyday heroes and people that have worked in the emergency service, so it’s based around the work the police do. We’re dedicating the new UK Police Memorial on-site this year, which is a spectacular memorial worth coming to see. So, it’s based around that. There’s a gang planning a bank heist, and you’re going to try and head them off at the pass, and solve the clues, and solve the crime. 

So, again, a real opportunity to learn more about memorials. You’re looking for some really fine details of the memorials there, and some of the symbolism, and some of the stories. Perhaps, again, you’ve walked past it a dozen times and never noticed that, so it just gets people to look. And, that covers the RNLI, the Police, Fire Service, the Ambulance Service. So, a lot of the civilian organisations come through on this year’s escape challenge. 

Kelly Molson: I love that.

Mark Ellis: Available live now. It will be here when you come up, Kelly. 

Kelly Molson: Oh good. I’ll do the easy one, obviously. I won’t be doing that difficult one. 

Mark Ellis: We put a package together for corporate groups that want to come and do team building events here. There’s a corporate package built around that escape challenge as well, which is a great way to get execs to come and scratch their heads as well.

Kelly Molson: That’s a really lovely idea as well actually, because you’ve mentioned quite a few times that the arboretum is free to visit, and actually a lot of these things that you’re offering, they’re free to do as well. So, the challenge for you is you need to drive revenue. You can’t be based solely on donations. Charitable donations, difficult at the best of times to get from people. So, I think it’s lovely that you’re now starting to look at this, what you can offer people, and bringing different groups of people in to build that revenue base. It’s really great.

Mark Ellis: Yeah. generally works very well. Summer Proms is a good one as well in August. Tickets go on sale this week, so look out for that.

Kelly Molson: He’s getting all the plugs in. There’s something else that I want to talk to you about as well. Thank you for sharing all of that.

Mark Ellis: You’re welcome.

Kelly Molson: I think that will be really useful for any organisation that is thinking about going through that process. You’ve just announced something which I think is super, super wonderful, and I’d love to hear a bit more about it. It’s just been announced that in partnership with The National Forest, you’re going to be creating a memorial woodland. Which, is a new woodland to commemorate all of the lives that have been lost during the pandemic. How amazing. 

Mark Ellis: It’s a privilege to be involved in a project like this. The last 12 months or so, of course, have been tough on absolutely everybody, and it’s a tragedy that’s still unfolding. It is difficult. And, there is a time when people want to come together and remember and reflect. The memorial woodland is very much designed for everyone that’s lost their lives as a result of COVID. That includes the people that have missed diagnosis, haven’t had treatment, have had their mental health irreparably damaged by it. So, it’s not just the people that tragically lost their lives because of Coronavirus. The number of civilians that lost their lives through Coronavirus is now twice the number of civilians that lost their lives in the UK in World War 2. It’s massive.

We’re very fortunate. We’re in The National Forest, which is across this part of the midlands, a project that’s been running for 30 or so years to reforest this area. In this area, we had a lot of clay pits, mining, those kinds of things. They’re all being turned into country parks now. It’s a lovely part of the midlands. We’ve got a long-lasting relationship with The National Forest Company. They’d been asked about what they might want to do for memorialisation. And, right back at the very start of Coronavirus, people were contacting us and saying, “What can you do? What will you do? What can be done?” 

Mark Ellis: Fortunately, at around the time, Tarmac, who are our neighbours, they’re quarrying the land around us. And, the land we’re on used to be their quarry and we had it off them in the mid-1990s on a 999-year lease on a peppercorn rent. There are 25 acres that sit right next to our site that they finished working with, it’s been inert for a decade or so, it’s scrubland, and silk washing lakes. So, they’ve now very kindly gifted that over to us as well, likewise, on a 980-year lease on a peppercorn rent, which has been fabulous of them. So, that’s given us 25 acres where we can create the memorial woodland. And, our aspiration is very much to make it a living memorial, something that becomes very special. 

There will be memorial woodlands all over the country, and absolutely there should be. And, what we want to do is to create something here that is memorable, is special, is living, is developing. There are so many stories that have come out of the last 12 months, the experience of all the key workers, the experience of the NHS people, the experience of those in care homes, the experience of children who’ve missed going round to friend’s houses and play and have missed the rites of passage of end of year school plays. So, so many different stories, and try and bring those together in a living memorial. Somewhere too, I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, commemorate lives lost and celebrate lives lived. And, create something that really works in a very special way. 

We want it to include reflection areas, multi-faith or people of no faith can come and reflect as well. And actually, Westminster Abbey are supporting us as well. We will be holding service there in the Autumn to dedicate trees that represent all the different faiths from around the commonwealth. So, there will be a service there that will dedicate those, and those will be some of the very first trees that will be planted in the new woodland. So, it’s a wonderful opportunity. We’re working very hard to make sure that it’s suitable and fitting for everybody.

Kelly Molson: I think that you could not have picked a more perfect location for it as well. It’s really interesting, the things that we’ve talked about today sum up exactly what the arboretum stands for. We’ve talked about these really fun engaging ways to look at the stories that you have there and celebrate the land and the people. And then, we have this wonderful memorial wood that’s going to be developed to really commemorate everything that’s happened in the past 15, 16 months. It’s fabulous.

Mark Ellis: Yeah, absolutely. That woodland will be very poignant and very special, but we also want it to be a place of joy and hope as well. And, hope, and looking forward, and rebirth, and regrowth. President Biden said in his inaugural speech about healing and remembrance going together, and that’s what we want to do. I’m very hopeful that in the future will be a woodland where, as well as the opportunity to reflect and remember, there’ll be the opportunity to enjoy and have fun, and play, and celebrate as well.

Kelly Molson: Sounds perfect. When does the work start? What’re the timeframes?

Mark Ellis: The work started a wee while ago. 

Kelly Molson: It’s in progress already, great.

Mark Ellis: Absolutely. We signed the lease on the land within the last couple of weeks, so we’re surveying the land at the moment, and seeing what’s there and what we need to do. We’re hoping to, with The National Forest Company, start a public engagement piece this Autumn to really get to understand what people want from it and what people’s hopes and aspirations would be for space. And then, probably start the work at the backend of 2022, with a view to having visitor’s feet on the ground sometime in 2023. So, in arboreal terms, quite a short timescale. Hopefully from this Autumn, we’ll be able to talk about people.

And, there is an area on our website dedicated to it, so if people want to know more or want the opportunity to get involved, pop to the National Memorial Arboretum website. There’s a Contact Us form, specifically for the memorial woodland on there as well. We’ll be absolutely delighted to have conversations with people. And, even just going out and public talking about it, that’s already opened up some really great conversations with lots of different groups that perhaps we normally wouldn’t get a chance to speak to. So, it’s already beginning to develop its own opportunities and create interesting conversations for us.

Kelly Molson: I love that. Mark, you’ve done my work for me, because what I was going to say is what we do is put all of the links to all of these things that we’ve talked about today into the show notes. So, we’ll have links to that specific page where you can get involved and find out a little bit more about what’s happening there.

Mark Ellis: Fabulous. 

Kelly Molson: And, we’ll put links to Mark himself, so you can find him on Twitter, and you find him on LinkedIn. And, everything, again, that we’ve talked about today, you’ll be able to find in the show notes. Mark, we always end the podcast by asking our guest to share a book. It can be a book that’s helped shape your career in some way, or a book that you just love. So, what have you got for us today?

Mark Ellis: I know, Kelly, it upsets you when people go with more than one book, doesn’t it? Because, it breaks your marketing budget. So, I’ve got 43 recommendations for you. The first 41 of which, are books that I love, it’s the Terry Pratchett Discworld series. 

Kelly Molson: Okay, that’s fine.

Mark Ellis: Don’t put those on your list, that really would break the bank. But, I love the Discworld books. I love the slanted way he looks at the world. There are not many management meetings where I probably don’t quote Granny Weatherwax, or Sam Vimes, or somebody at some point, so love those. The other 42 and 43, one is Tom Peters, The Brand You 50, which is a small book that Tom Peters has done. It’s been out for quite a while now, might have been the late 90s. But effectively, it’s saying think about yourself as a brand.

It’s got 50 tips in there for how you build your own personal brand. And, I found that very useful, having switched jobs a few times, of actually saying, “These are my core values. This is what I hold dear to me. That’s what you get from Mark Ellis.” It helps when you’re looking at new opportunities of saying, “Is the cultural fit going to be right? I know what I want out of a role.” And, making sure the interview is a two-way process, and it’s going to tick the boxes for me. So, that’s one.

The other one, which perhaps will be the one that you might want to put on your, “I want Mark’s book”. It’s a book called Why We Buy, by Paco Underhill. Paco Underhill is an American. He’s done a whole bunch of research on customer’s behaviour, particularly in retail. I first came across this book in my retail years, but it absolutely carries through into visitor attractions. He talks an awful lot about signage placement and product placement.

And, if a gondola in a shop is just six inches too far out, then when you bend over to pick things off the bottom people are going to brush past your backside as you’re shopping. So, actually observing that and moving it six inches might increase sales of that gondola massively. He talks about signage and being shown a sign for an airport somewhere in a boardroom and saying, “That’s no good”, and taking it out and standing in the middle of busy concourse, and leaning it up against a wall and saying, “Now can we see if that sign works?” So, it’s a great book for that. 

I have to say, the prose style irritates me greatly. So, Paco, if you’re listening, sorry about that. It’s done in a very narrative way, and it’s probably slightly condescending in places, and it’s a really quick read. I first read it probably 25 years ago, and I refer back to it on a pretty regular basis, in terms of those core messages. So, Why We Buy, by Paco Underhill would be my recommendation.

Kelly Molson: Let’s give that one away then, Mark, because that sounds really relevant. So, as ever, if you head over to our Twitter account and you retweet this episode announcement with the words, “I want Mark’s book”, then you’ll be in with a chance of winning it. Good choice with the Discworld as well, I have to say, good choice. My great-auntie Doris, who my extremely naughty Dachshund is named after, she was a huge Terry Pratchett fan. I grew up with those books and reading them with her, and they bring back some really lovely, lovely memories when you talk about them. So, thank you for putting that in my head today. 

Mark Ellis: No worries.

Kelly Molson: Also weirdly, my dad got… I don’t know why I’m sharing this with you today, but my dad was mistaken for Terry Pratchett one night. We took him and my mum out for drinks, and the barmaid came over and said, “You’re him, aren’t you? You’re Terry Pratchett.” And, dad was like, “I think he’s dead.” 

Mark Ellis: That’s awesomely cool though. 

Kelly Molson: “It’s not me.” He does look a little bit like him, I have to say. 

Mark Ellis: You see, that could be a plot from one of the stories, couldn’t it?

Kelly Molson: Could be, yeah. My dad reincarnated as Terry Pratchett, that’s quite odd. It’s because he’s a hat wearer and he’s got a beard. 

Mark Ellis: There you go, that’s all it takes.

Kelly Molson: Anyway, don’t know why that came out, but thank you for putting that in my head as well. Mark, it’s been so lovely to chat with you today, I’ve really enjoyed it. I think there are some wonderful things that are happening at your attraction, and I cannot wait to come and see it and meet you in real life. 

Mark Ellis: Thanks for having me, Kelly. As I’ve said before, you’re welcome up here any time at all, look forward to seeing you.


Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.


Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

Give your customers a better online experience with our newsletter

Receive free advice that will enable you to create better online experiences for your users and guests.